Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Return of the Shadow

JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Completed 7/23/2017, reviewed 7/25/2017
4 stars

This is the sixth volume of the History of Middle Earth (HOME) series and the first of the History of the Lord of the Rings sub-series.  It covers the first several drafts of the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.  I really enjoyed this book.  It was a nice break from the first five volumes which look at the stories that make up The Silmarillion.  I’m sure I liked this book because I’m more familiar with the LOTR than I am with the Silmarillion stories and I’m enjoying the break from them.  Different is good, especially when you’re getting twelve volumes of drafts and notes and research. 

Perhaps the most fun of this book is finding out Tolkien’s original names for the characters.  Frodo was Bingo.  I think everyone is glad this eventually got changed.  Between the song, “And Bingo was his name-o”, and the game, I think the name would have been too distracting.  In actuality, Bingo is named after a family of stuffed bears Tolkien’s children had.  Frodo was one of the companion hobbits.  In addition, Aragorn was a hobbit named Trotter, and Pippin was Marmaduke.  So lots of changes took place between the original drafts and the final addition.

The thing to remember when reading this and keeping in mind all these name changes is that LOTR was a sequel to The Hobbit.  With these early drafts, it’s clear that the Tolkien’s intention was to come up with another adventure for hobbits, not the thousand-page saga of apocalyptic proportions that it turned into.  There’s a lot of hobbit banter, that is, rather silly conversations between the hobbits that amused Tolkien and his son, but would have been remembered today as goofy, less risqué Monty Python-esque absurdities.  Think of Pippin’s silliness multiplied by four.  The story didn’t become serious until the first Black Rider appeared, something that surprised Tolkien himself as he wrote it. 

It’s not until Trotter (the future Aragorn) tells the tale of Beren and Luthien that Tolkien starts to bring in the whole Middle Earth mythology.  Suddenly, LOTR becomes part of the universe of the Silmarillion.  The nature of the Ring grows from just being a simple magic trick to something much more dangerous.  Things come together and soon the drafts transform into the text we are all more familiar with. 

This book doesn’t cover the whole Fellowship of the Ring.  It stops at the Mines of Moria.  Aragorn is still Trotter, and Gimli and Legolas are still not formed either.  It’s only 1939-1940 and Tolkien is still getting stuck.  I think it’s funny that Tolkien sends updates to his publisher that chapters are being completed when he still doesn’t know where the story is really going. 


I’m looking forward to the next three volumes.  As usual, I followed along with Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor and his Mythgard Academy textual analysis of the book.  This makes it much more readable.  I have to admit, some of Christopher Tolkien’s background is very dry, but Olsen’s analysis breathes life into the history of the stories.  I give the book four stars out of five and as usual give the warning that this is pretty much a book for fans like me, a dedicated geek.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Gargoyle

Andrew Davidson
Completed 7/15/2017, reviewed 7/16/2017
5 stars

I found this book while searching the “theology” category on Worlds Without End, for my Theology in Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  I was excited because the library had it, although I was a little suspect:  I found the book in the literature section instead of Fantasy/SF.  What I got was a highly readable, exciting book with an unlikely romance and only a little theological fantasy element.  Nonetheless, I was completely satisfied.

The premise is that the narrator, an actor/director in the porn industry is in a horrific, fiery car crash, leaving him with burns over much of his body.  While undergoing extensive repair therapy in the hospital, he meets Marianne, an escapee from the mental ward who insists they were lovers in a past life.  She’s a sculptress, making grotesques, that is, gargoyles that do not spout water.  Once she leaves the ward, she visits him repeatedly, bringing him stories of their past life as well as other stories of love and devotion.  When it’s time for him to leave the hospital, he moves in with her.  He finds meaning and love amidst the chaos of her artistic, manic, and possibly schizophrenic life. 

The past life is the part of the book that helps categorize it as theological.  Marianne was a German nun in the early 1300s.  She worked in the scriptorium, copying and translating books.  She has a natural gift with languages and works on a translation of the Bible in German and secretly works on a translation of Dante’s Inferno into German as well.  Her work and life is interrupted when a mercenary soldier is brought to the abbey with burns from a fiery arrow.  She is assigned to care for him.  This is the first time Marianne and the narrator meet in the past.  What makes this genre fiction is its ambiguous nature.  Is the past life real or fiction? 

Another aspect of the story that is theological genre fiction is the narrator’s own descent into hell while he detoxes from morphine.  Like the past life, it is unclear whether the trip through his own version on Dante’s Inferno is real or not.  Some things happen that are too uncanny to be simply hallucinations. 

The book is really well researched.  Besides the details of the fourteenth century, there is an amazing amount of detail in the plight of the narrator as a burn victim.  The author covers actual burning experience, the extremely long healing process and the mental and emotional effects on the victim as well.  Some of the writing is so vivid, I felt like I was experiencing it as it happened.  It is intense and downright frightening at times.

For a book that straddles the line of genre fiction, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I questioned whether or not it was fantasy right up to the end.  But the plot and execution of the book was so well done that I didn’t mind.  If anything, it was nice to get away from genre fiction for a little bit.  The only thing I have to say against the book is that the details of the burn victim’s experience may be too intense for some people.  I give the book five out of five stars.  The premise is great, the detail is great, the writing is great.  There are a few plot holes which don’t get wrapped up nicely, but I had such an ecstatic reaction to the book I couldn’t knock points off for this.  I highly recommend this book as long as you think you can handle the intense burn victim details.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit

Becky Chambers
Completed 7/3/2017, reviewed 7/8/2017
5 stars

I’ve read five out of the six nominees for the Hugo award for this year, and this is the first book I loved.  The story is about Lovelace, an AI who gets transferred out of her ship after a complete shutdown and reboot and into her own synthetic body.  Now she must learn to navigate existence as an individual.  With her is Pepper, an engineer with a disturbing past.  As Lovelace’s journey unfolds, we also delve into Pepper’s past, learning about her harsh childhood and her previous experiences with spaceship AI. 

This book is a standalone sequel to Chamber’s previous book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  While Long Way took us on an adventure with the crew of a spaceship, this book follows the spaceship’s AI after being excised from the ship.  The only other character from the previous book is Pepper, who we only met briefly.  Rather than being the continuing adventures of the ship and its crew, this is a side story but in the same universe. 

From the moment I began this book, I loved it.  I found the struggle of Lovey trying to get adjusted to her new body fascinating and heartbreaking.  In the last book, Lovey was in love with one of the crew, but in her reboot, she lost all memory of her relationship.  Now she starts over with a clean slate.  In addition to learning to be an individual, she also has to keep a low profile.  There are a lot of laws about AIs, and moving one into its own body is illegal.  Lovey takes a new name Sidra and tries to assimilate into society as a person, not just an AI.  Fortunately, she has Pepper to help guide her through life.

Pepper is a very interesting and engaging character.  Interspersed between Sidra’s chapters, we follow Pepper’s story.  She started life as a clone, working in a factory-like setting reclaiming discarded electronics.  She escapes and is saved by a shuttle’s AI, Owl.  Through this relationship, we see how she learned about AIs and spaceships.  It gives us an outsider’s perspective on AIs to juxtapose with Sidra’s first person experience.  In addition, the two story lines give us two characters who must learn to find meaning to their existence and a sense of identity. 


What I like about this book is that it is character studies in space.  It’s about relationships without being soapy, yet still has an ending that might just make you shed a tear.  At the same time, it takes place in space without being a space opera.  This was just the book that I needed after reading a couple of dry space operas that I didn’t enjoy.  It’s sweet without being saccharine.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ninefox Gambit

Yoon Ha Lee
Completed 6/25/2017, reviewed 7/1/2017
2 stars

This is another Hugo nominee.  For some reason, I decided to read all the Hugo nominees this year before the award was given out.  Out of all the nominees I’ve read so far, this is my second least favorite, after Too Like the Lightning.  It’s military s.f. with a very complex universe based on mathematics.  Despite having been a math major (over 30 years ago) I missed the whole point of the mathematics.  The book was that complex.  I didn’t enjoy it, but I still recognize that the book was pretty well designed.

Kel Cheris is a captain who is given a chance to redeem herself after misconduct on the battlefield.  She’s assigned to capture a fortress that’s been commandeered by heretics.  To accomplish this she brings back the consciousness of a general Jedao who is one of the greatest generals in history, but also a madman who caused the death of over a million people including his own soldiers.  Can Cheris take back the fortress without becoming Jedao’s next victim?

The world building in this book is pretty phenomenal.  It is based on mathematics, as I mentioned above, and everything has its place and structure, right down to the calendar.  If a heresy arises and something like a day is added to the week, it threatens to warp reality, even to the point of causing weapons to malfunction.  The heretics who took over the fortress have a calendrical heresy that must be put down.  Cheris and Jedao are the ones to do it. 

As much as the world building is impressive, it was also very frustrating for me.  The book plops you down in the middle of the universe, using the concepts and jargon without being introduced to it.  You have to divine it yourself.  I never did.  I never really grasped the whole calendrical heresy concept, leaving me lost in this relatively short book.  I would have occasional moments of clarity, only to be lost a few paragraphs later.  It made the reading of the book a wholly unpleasant experience.

At the same time, I recognize that the book is well formulated.  I won’t say well written, because I believe that if it was, I would have understood it better.  But throughout the book, I was impressed by the author’s word choices.  He used a lot of strong nouns and verbs, making for striking, but inevitably difficult prose.  By the end, I was simply looking at words, not fully grasping what I was reading. 

I give the book two stars out of five.  I think this book is for people who like complex space opera, and who don’t mind waiting a whole book to figure out most of what’s going on.  There’s a part of me that wanted to give this book three stars, acknowledging that it’s an intelligent book, but my own personal experience with it was simply too miserable.   



Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fallen Angels

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn
Completed 6/11/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
3 stars

I hate writing reviews so long after reading a book.  Unless I’m actively thinking about a book during that time, I lose so many of my thoughts.  I finished this book a week ago, but I simply didn’t have the time to sit down and collect my thoughts.  Finally, I have the time.  I’ll try my best to convey why I think this book is a three star book.

The premise is pretty interesting.  In the future, environmentalists have gained power in the government and stopped global warming.  Unfortunately, that restarted the ice age that was being held back by the rising temperatures.  The environmentalists are also luddites, eschewing technology in most forms.  They’ve even outlawed science fiction because it condones the use of technology.  The inhabitants of a space station, Freedom, became an independent nation, refusing to return to a country that bans technology.  While they are more or less self-sufficient, they occasionally need nitrogen from the atmosphere to replenish their supply.  To get the essential gas, they send down a ship to scoop it up and return it to the station.

The story opens with one such mission to get nitrogen, but the spaceship is shot down and the two spacemen land on the North Dakota Glacier.  A rag-tag group of science fiction fans from a convention race to the rescue of these fallen angels.  But can they get them back to their space station before the government finds and arrests the angels?

The plot is pretty humorous and by admission of the authors, it is a satire on environmentalist extremism.  On that note, I think the book hasn’t held up well over time.  Environmentalists today are not the luddites that they may have been 30 years ago.  But the satire is still funny despite the aging. 

The best part of the book is the SF convention jokes.  They’re not even jokes, Niven et al. caught the nature of conventions.  From the description of the people to the chaos of the convention, it is a slice of what conventions are really like.  It should be noted that the convention is being done in secret, because of the government’s ban on SF. 

As I mentioned before, the book hasn’t aged well.  For example, fax machines are still in use and cell phones didn’t evolve.  However, it is surprisingly close to the current real world anti-science government that is creating the global warming backlash.  And I don’t think there is any science these days indicating that we are on the brink of a postponed ice age.


I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s fun, even though some of the parallels to our current government is a little depressing.  It’s dated and the science is dubious.  But most importantly, it’s about the fans of SF being the heroes of their own SF adventure.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Diabols

R.W. Mackelworth
Completed 6/17/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
1 star

This book was a gift.  The giver said here’s some bona fide pulp science fiction from the 60’s.  Enjoy.  Well.  No.  It’s pulp alright, but that’s the best thing that can be said about it.  Even though it was a short book, a novelette perhaps, it dragged on and on.  It was practically incomprehensible.  It was the worst book I’ve read in years.  And a warning, there's a spoiler in this review.

The only reason I can give a plot summary is because there was one on the book’s back cover.  Boraston is a teacher who gets transported into an eerie world where there are these creatures called Diabols.  They are made of light, like shimmering jewels, but their light kills.  Boraston seems to be immune to these death rays, having survived a fire unscathed in his own place and time.  He’s given a mission to transport a group of children across the barrens.  That evolves into destroying the Diabol nests.  In the meantime, he’s trying to save the children after they’ve been captured by the Corps. 

The writing is awful.  The author uses tons of adverbs.  His favorite was “blackly”, as in “The lines separated the sky blackly”.  Yeah, what does that even mean.  I realize adverbs were used more frequently in the past, but they are all over the place and make for very complicated sentences.  There’s almost no character development.  There were only a few characters, but I had a terrible time keeping them distinct.  And there are simply times where the transitions between sentences and paragraphs just don’t make sense.  It’s more like reading a dream.


Oops.  Spoiler.  Aw, what the hell.  The book is so rare, most people aren’t going to read it.  And I would steer anyone away from this book if you had any interest in reading it.  I give this book one star out of five.  Really, it’s half a star, but some of the sites I post to don’t allow for halves.  So if you see this book in a used book store, don’t buy it.  It’s not worth the effort.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer
Completed 6/4/2017 Reviewed 6/5/2017
1 star

Reading this book was one of the most unenjoyable experiences of my literary life.  It made me feel stupid.  It was so complex, I could really only follow one of the plotlines.  The other plotlines lost me by about the hundredth page.  I finished the book, hoping for some clarity.  Little came.  I think the only reason I understood the book as much as I did was because I read lots and lots of reviews for the book and I looked for the cues in the text to reinforce the understanding I got from those reviews.  For my review, I’ll do the best I can conveying the plot summaries.  

The setting is four hundred years in the future when there are no more nations.  People belong to one of seven global organizations which provide a sort of citizenship, but can live anywhere they want.  There are no gender references.  Everyone is referred to by they or them.  However the narrator refers to the characters as he or she depending on the behavioral characteristics of the person, not the physical gender.  For the most part, the gender references are easy to follow.

The main plot, I think, is that there is a thirteen year old “boy”, Bridger, who has the ability to imbue life in inanimate objects, for example a doll or plastic soldiers.  He is being kept and hidden by a powerful family unit, protecting him from the outside world where they fear people will use Bridger’s powers for evil before good.  The story of the boy is being told by Mycroft Canner, a criminal who has been sentenced to walk the earth doing good things for others.  He (I think Mycroft is a he) spends a lot of time with this family.  He  provides a lot of support and holds the trust of Bridger.

The narrator also conveys the other plot, which dominates the book, but I think is supposed to be secondary to Bridger’s story.  This plot is about the theft of a list of the most influential people on Earth.  This list bears great influence and the theft is a society-shattering event.  Considering this took up most of the book, this is what lost me.  This mystery is shrouded in political intrigue, which I found completely boring. 

The form of this book is that it is supposed to be written as a piece of eighteenth century literature, including the narrator speaking to the audience and the audience answering back.  This breaking of the fourth wall was sometimes interesting, but often annoying.  It made the following of the complicated intrigue that much more difficult.

I also didn’t like the prose.  Rather than helping the scene, I often found it distracting and occasionally pompous.  At times it reminded me of Michael Chabon, looking for new similes to use in his descriptions.  Once or twice, you stop and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to describe this” but then after a while, you just feel like Palmer is simply showing off.  For me, there’s a fine line between good and obnoxious prose.  It’s tough to describe where that line is, but this crossed it. 

There are a lot of characters in the book.  Palmer spends a lot of time explaining what they’re wearing.  It was tough to actually imagine the characters because you didn’t know if the character was male or female, so the type of clothing worn often seemed irrelevant.  In addition to the live characters, Palmer brings in several philosophers of the eighteenth century including Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade.  I actually enjoyed some of the philosophy talk.  But even that got to be too much.  I often lost the point of bringing up the philosopher to begin with. 


I give this book one stars out of five.  In my opinion, it is just too complicated a story for me.  Too many characters, too much politics, too many plot lines, and a challenging form.  And I don’t like being made to feel stupid.  I know a lot of people love it or hate it, but apparently enough people loved it to get it a Hugo nomination.  I wouldn’t vote for it.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley
Completed 5/27/2017, Reviewed 5/29/2017
5 stars

I first read “Brave New World” in high school.  I thought it was an amazing book.  The cloning, the drug use to cope with issues, and the free love all just blew my mind.  I read it for an English class with the assignment of critiquing a book of our choice.  It was freshman year, and I couldn’t get the book report format out of my head.  I think I got a B on the assignment, but I always remembered that I didn’t do the homework correctly.  Now, forty years later, I’m critiquing books once or twice a week.  And this time I’ve come around full circle to an old friend.


The book is about a future dystopia.  People are no longer born.  They are cloned and decanted.  There is a caste system that creates five different types of people depending on how much oxygen starvation and alcohol immersion the embryos received.  The caste system satisfies the need to have people of different levels performing all the different tasks of modern society, from the uber-privileged to near non-functional.  All people however are conditioned to love their class, to consume as much as possible, and to use a legal drug called soma to cope with unpleasant things.

The plot follows several people who are Alphas, the highest caste, and their misadventures in the dystopia.  Specifically, Bernard and Lenina take a trip to a Zuni reservation, a “savage” land outside their modern world, and find an upper caste woman who was left there 18 years ago, and her naturally born son.  They bring Linda and John back to society.  Everyone wants to meet John the Savage.  He becomes the toast of London. No one wants to meet his mother because she has become old, ugly, and because being a mother is a vile thing in this society.  Of course, a clash of cultures ensues.

This read through, I still find the book to be quite astonishing.  While we don’t clone people, yet, I believe we do a lot of social conditioning that keeps people in their places.  Sometimes I think we might as well have a caste system.  I’m not cricitizing people for what they do, but rather the society at large that treats people of different skill sets poorly, and even more apropos to today’s headlines, people of different ethnic backgrounds.

In other issues brought about in the book, one can liken the use of soma to the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana.  From a different and perhaps a more profound perspective, maybe today’s soma is anti-depressants, government-approved ways to cope with the miseries of life today. 

The one thing I think is different is the free love issue.  While there is promiscuity and always has been, I believe that unlike the book’s government approved attitude toward sex, our society has a veneer of puritan or Victorian mores.  That’s perhaps even worse because it creates a society of shame rather than a healthy attitude toward sex.  But of course, talking about sex is a mine field waiting to happen.  What I do believe about the book is that the laissez-faire attitude reduces the significance sex, which is already reduced by the use of cloning for reproduction.

I would like to have read Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s essay from the 50’s where he compares his predictions in the novel to where modern society had come.  That’s because, as you can see its effect on me, the book draws the reader into comparing it to their time.  I easily forgive the flaws of the book because I’m spending so much time comparing it to what I perceive is society now.

As a book, it holds up very well.  It is still very readable, for the most part.  I have to say I had a hard time with some of the exposition.  Most significantly, the first part of the book is a little dull.  It explains the use of cloning by sending a class of new doctors through the cloning center.  I found it hard to follow at times, not because of the science, but because of the way it was written.  I also found the big exposition at the end a little hard to read.  There it was the philosophy that was tough to get through.  Aside from these two areas, though, the book is an easy read. 

The character development is decent.  I dare say it was easy because so many of the characters are quite shallow and naïve.  Even Bernard, who is ridiculed for looking at life more deeply than everyone else, is still comparatively shallow.  Only John the Savage looks at life deeply, keeping him at odds with everyone else.  And John is naïve as well, but in a different way than that of the society around him.  That is what causes the conflict.

One thing that I find rather amusing at this point is the naming of the characters.  A lot of people are named after communists.  I think it is funny because I can see a society like this be the outcome of capitalism gone mad, the ultimate consumerism, a complete throw-away society, rather than communism.  In fact, it sort of reminds me of the Science Fiction film, “They Live”, where everything has subliminal messages in it to consume. 


I had a tough time deciding how many stars to give this book.  I settled on five because I still believe it is a classic of science fiction.  It forces the reader to reflect on what a utopia is and is not, and what direction society is moving.  As I mentioned earlier, the book makes me overlook its flaws to focus on its relevance.  I do think the book has a few flaws, but it is one of the best dystopian novels of our time.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Becky Chambers
Completed 5/21/2017, reviewed 5/21/2017
4 stars

I don’t think I can say I hate space opera anymore.  I’ve enjoyed too many in recent months.  Here’s another.  What sets this apart though is that it is more of a character study than a plot driven story.  The book tells the tale of the crew of the Wayfarer on its year long journey to a new planet in the galactic alliance, where it will punch a new wormhole into the fabric of space.  The episodic chapters are little vignettes, almost like short stories, which give us a little more insight into the characters of the crew.

I’ve read quite a few reviews of the book, many of which compare it to Firefly or Farscape.  What I think promotes this view is that the book is written, as I mentioned earlier, episodically which makes it feel like your reading the script for a season of a TV series.  There may be more similarities to these programs, but I don’t know those enough to compare.  What I do know is that I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the characters. 

What surprised me the most about the book is that most of the characters are nice.  They have become like a family in their closeness.  There’s one character who’s very ornery, but even he comes around through the episode where he’s featured.  It’s quite a change from your standard space opera where everyone is dark, where even the good guys have a dark edge to them.  I’m not saying they are Mary Sues’, but it made me feel good to get involved with the characters.  And, okay, one of the characters is rather perky.  Along the same vein, there is a surprisingly little amount of blood and guts. 

Perhaps most interestingly, there are some inter-species relationships.  I think they are handled very well.  The crew is a diverse collection of human and non-human members.  The aliens are particularly well drawn.  Sissix was my favorite of all the aliens.  Sissix has scales and claws and comes from a culture with complex family groupings.  This world building was very interesting and Sissix just stuck out for me as the best of the bunch. 


I give this book four stars out of five.  I read this book because its sequel was nominated for a Hugo, and I’m on a kick to read the Hugo nominees this year.  So of course I have to read the first book before the sequel, right?  I obviously haven’t read the second book yet, but I’m surprised this book was not nominated for a Hugo, though who’s to say what might have been if the rabid puppies hadn’t hijacked some of the nominations.  I think this book should have been a contender.   It’s a fun read with great charactes, aliens, and world-building.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K Dick
Completed 5/13/2017 Reviewed 5/15/2017
4 stars

Another wild book from Philip K Dick.  The world has become hot and crowded.  The UN drafts people to relocate to other planets and moons to alleviate the population and environmental crisis.  But life on the alien worlds is tough and degrading.  To avoid despair, people use a drug called Can-D which creates the illusion that you are on earth via a tableau of Barbie- and Ken-type dolls and accessories.  Palmer Eldritch returns from a ten year trip to Proxima Centauri with a potential rival product called Chew-Z which doesn’t require the tableaus.  The makers of Can-D are threatened by Chew-Z, but find a much more sinister relationship between the new drug, its users, and Eldritch. 

The book is short, only about 230 pages, but it is chock full of weirdness.  The above synopsis just gives you a taste of the plot.  There is so much going on, like the main character Barney Mayerson who is a procog, that is, he can see the future, who works for the Can-D company predicting what products will become good sellers for the Perky Pat tableaus.  He’s having an affair with another precog, but regrets leaving his wife.  His character is really well drawn.  While some of the other characters are a little bit like cardboard cutouts, like Barney’s boss Leo, a cigar-chompin’ stereotypical boss from the ‘50s, they are still interesting and infused with lots of detail. 

Once again, Dick tackles religion and God as he did in the last book I read, Deus Irae.  Here, it comes in various forms, including the religion that pops up around the Perky Pat and Can-D experiences.  But the big theological question surrounds the nature of Palmer Eldritch.  Is he really still Palmer Eldritch, or had he been taken over by an alien on his space trip?  And for that matter, is he now a god, or some type of supreme being?   And does Chew-Z create a spiritual experience or is it just a hallucination? 

The questions are tough and not so easily answered.  As the book progresses, the blur between reality and hallucination becomes more and more confusing.  The beginning is fairly straight-forward: you know when you are in reality and when you are in a hallucination.  Or maybe you don’t know.  I have to say that Dick is an expert at playing games with reality.  It made for a great read, though I must admit I felt a little lost towards the end.  However, I really enjoyed it the ride it took me on.  I give it four stars out of five.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Deus Irae

Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny
Completed 5/7/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

I picked this book to read for a theology in SF/F reading challenge, and boy did I pick a doozey.  At 180 pages, this has to be one of the most complicated little books I’ve read in a long time.  I really enjoyed it, but it is heavy on the theology and has a crazy plot.  My understanding is that Dick started the book, but put it down and offered it to another writer because he didn’t know enough about Christianity to finish it.  Zelazny saw it at the other writer’s house and offered to finish it for Dick.  So part of the fun of this book is trying to guess who wrote what parts.  This only being the second book by Dick I’ve read, but the fifth by Zelazny, I still had fun playing guess the author.  But the real fun comes in the crazy plot these guys dreamed up.

After WWIII, a new religion has formed.  Its god is the God of Wrath (hence the title) and in human form is Carleton Lufteufel who made the decision to drop the bomb that destroys most of mankind.  By the way, Lufteufel means “air devil” in German.  Tibor McMasters is an “inc”, an incomplete person because he was born without arms or legs and has bionic limbs instead.  He’s also possibly the world’s greatest living painter.  He is asked by the Servants of Wrath (SOWs) to paint Lufteufel’s image in a murch, a mural in their church.  Not content to use a pre-war photo which makes Lufteufel look human, he goes on a pilgrimage to find the real Lufteufel to capture his godliness.  Tibor is followed by Pete Sands, a devout Christian who seeks God through the use of psychedelics, and who wants to sabotage the pilgrimage.  On the way, they meet the mutants created by the bomb:  talking lizard people, sentient bugs, worms, birds, and some dying AIs. 

See, the plot is pretty wild.  However, it’s fairly eash to follow.  Part of it is because the characters are developed pretty well, especially for just 180 pages.  So you get the characters quickly and jump right into the craziness that is their missions.  I really like Tibor and Pete even though they are both rather flawed.  Tibor gets sick when it’s time paint.  And he really wants out of painting Lufteufel.  He even considers converting to Christianity just to get out of it.  Pete has taken his parish priest’s advice a little too much to heart and is willing to do anything to stop Tibor. 

There’s a lot of humor as well, particularly with the mutants and AIs.  I particularly liked Pete’s encounter with the autofac, the underground automatic factory, that tortures Pete by “repairing” his bicycle.  And the book is kind of a sausage fest.  There are only three women, but two of them add humor as well.  One is the long-suffering wife of a SOW priest, the other is the long-suffering pipe smoking girlfriend of Pete.  As I write this, I realize that despite his nefarious mission, Pete does seem to be at the center of much of the comedy. 

The theological part comes into play in several ways that are pretty integral to plot.  To say too much gives away a lot.  However, I will say that the theme is that over time, we lose the authentic records of faith and come to rely on that which was artificially created.  It’s sort of like the game of telephone.  Go through enough people and the original message is replaced by the wrong message.  That which is authentic is lost forever.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s a lot of fun, particularly if you know a lot about Christianity.  It also helps if you know a little German (which I don’t).  Dick uses some German phrases and poetry, not all of which is translated.  And it might require some forays into Wikipedia like when he talks about some heresies.  Okay, some caveats to getting it, but I got it and enjoyed it.  I think the average person will too.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Obelisk Gate

N.K. Jemisin
Completed 5/6/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

There’s something about Jemisin’s writing that is absolutely amazing.  Even though this book suffers from second book in a series sag, the writing is still brilliant and some subplots that seem, well, plotless, are still wonderful to read.  The book is a continuation of The Fifth Season, with the adventures of Essun, an orogene.  As I noted last time, think of her as an earth bender, for those who may be familiar with the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series.  The book also follows what happened to her daughter, Nassun, who from the first book, we know was kidnapped by Essun’s husband after he killed their son.  Essun is still searching for Nassun.  By the way, since this is a second book, there are some spoilers from the first book, but I’ll try to keep it minimal.

The most masterful part of this book is once again the person of the narrator in each section of the book.  There are short first person segments.  The story of Essun is told in second person.  The story of Nassun is told in third person.  While still a difficult way to read a story, the second person parts are very natural.  While I think it is only the third book I’ve read employing second person (though I’ve read a couple of short stories employing it as well) I have to say it is the most amazing writing I’ve ever experienced.  Only occasionally did it bog me down, sometimes losing my stamina for maintaining the story.

Like the first book, there is a mystery to who the narrator is.  This time the narrator is a different person from the first book.  I think it’s revealed about halfway through the book, but I believe I missed it and didn’t figure it out until the end.  But figuring out who the narrator is helps explain a plot hole, that being the use of the word “magic”.  In Essun’s story, we find out that “magic” is a secret word from the past that is no longer used today.  Yet it appears in Nassun’s narrative.   But once you find out who the narrator is, you get that Nassun can think about things in terms of magic because the narrator is a little omniscient. 

Essun and Nassun are both wonderful characters.  Surprisingly, they are both anti-heroes.  As much as you want to like them, you can’t completely because they do harm with their powers.  Nassun really stole the show for me in this book.  Essun’s story line of settling in an underground community was a little slow.  Nassun’s story line of going on the lam with her murderous father is much more riveting.  It was very interesting following her process of loving her dad to realizing that he is anathema, trying to get her cured of her orogene powers rather than supporting her growing into them.  Of course, the father is only reacting as badly as most of the population does toward the orogenes.  It is why he killed his son.  But she is daddy’s little girl and he’s going to get her fixed. 

As with the first book, this one is very diverse, with all sorts of persons of color and different orientations.  There’s even a different race, the stone eaters, who we don’t even know for sure that they’re human, but are perhaps more human than either “stills” or the “roggas”.  The stone eaters come more into play in this book as well with Hoa playing a larger role.


Even though I note that there is a sag to this book, namely in the slowness of the buildup of Essun’s plotline, I give this book four out of five stars.  It is the second of perhaps the most imaginative series I’ve ever read.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tinker

Wen Spencer
Completed 4/27/2017 Reviewed 5/4/2017
2 stars

I’m just dying to say “Tinker” is a stinker, but it’s a tad more complicated.  I went in thinking the book was going to be fluff, but it turned out to be partly fluff, partly really heavy.  Unfortunately, the heavy parts were taken lightly which I found very disturbing.  There’s going to be some spoilers in this review, so don’t continue if you think you’re going to read it. 

Tinker is a young woman, just turned eighteen, who lives in Pittsburgh.  However, it’s a Pittsburgh that mainly exists in another dimension.  You see, the Chinese built an interdimensional gateway and they don’t know exactly how it works.  A side effect is that the city of Pittsburgh spends most of each month in a dimension of elves and magic and monsters.  Once a month, for a day, it exists back in our dimension in its normal location.  Tinker has lived in this travelling Pittsburgh her whole life, running a junkyard, building contraptions, and just being brilliant and pretty.  Of course, she doesn’t know just how brilliant or pretty she is, because, well, she’s a Mary Sue.

For those that don’t know, a Mary Sue is a character that is usually young, pretty, and smart, sort of an idealized and perfect fictioinal character.  Flaws are usually minimal.  Think Wesley Crusher from Star Trek Next Gen.  When this is the main character, the book can become a bore because the character lacks in realism. 

One day, while being chased by wargs, an elf comes to her rescue, but is badly injured.  In the process of getting him healed he falls in love with her, though.  She’s oblivious to this though does find him exceedingly attractive.  In fact, she’s naïve about most things.  Thus begins a journey which forces her to confront who she is and where she’s going. 

The plots are the subplots, and vice versa.  The story is really about who does Tinker love.  The action and everything else are really the subplots to Tinker’s love life.  It’s sort of the opposite of how most science fiction and fantasy books work.  But even more problematic is the nature of her love life.  It’s full of non-consensual acts.  Okay, two.  I think it’s okay to have story lines like these in a book, but they need to be dealt with in realistic ways.  In this book, they don’t have the drama that comes after the act.  It all kind of “goes away”.  In fact, one of the perpetrators actually disappears from the story.  I have to assume he comes back in a later volume.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to have mature devices, there has to be a level of maturity to the story.  “Tinker” doesn’t have that. 

There’s another scene which is pretty horrific that involves one of the bad characters.  Again, it seems that it just isn’t done well.  I think a good example of how it could be handled well, while still being deplorable, is in Richard K. Morgan’s The Cold Commands, a dark fantasy where the lines between good and evil are blurry, and it solidifies the main character as an anti-hero. 

As far as everything else in the book, there are some interesting characters.  I particularly liked Oil-Can, her cousin.  Yeah, the names get to you after a while.  The world building is pretty good, mixing science and magic.  But again, I’ve seen better mixes of science and magic, for instance, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season


Maybe I’m just over sensitive, or maybe it’s because I was expecting something different, but I didn’t like this book.  The last quarter became a chore to read.  I’d like to see how other people respond to this book.  This was a book club selection, so I’m interested in seeing where the lines are drawn between the likes and the dislikes.  Two out of five stars.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Dark Forest

Cixin Liu
Completed 4/22/2017, Reviewed 4/23/2017
4 stars

I picked this book up at the library when I realized that all the Hugo nominees except the one I was holding in my hand were checked out.  I got this crazy notion up my butt to read all the Hugo nominees this year.  As I looked through the list, I realized some were the second books of series of which I hadn’t read the first book, and one of the nominees was the third book of a trilogy of which I only read the first book.  That first book was The Three-Body Problem which I read for book club and gave four stars.  So since the library had the second book, I decided to pick it up and give it a try.  It was better than I expected for the second book of a trilogy.  Usually, I find the second book to be a coasting, a long setup for the denouement of the third book. This book, though a tough read, was nearly self-contained and had a very interesting plot. 

The story continues with earth reeling from figuring out that it will be invaded by the Trisolarans in 400 years.  Any attempts to come up with a resistance or solution is undermined by the existence of sophons, particles with the dual role of spying on humanity and suppressing technological development.  Because of the eleven-dimensional sophons, the Trisolarans know instantaneously what kind of resistance Earth may be devising.  So it comes up with a plan to choose four individuals to devise counter plans that only they know the full extent of.  Called Wallfacers, the plans are safely locked in the minds of these people, unshared with anyone.  Three of the four are well-known leaders.  The fourth person is Luo Ji, an astronomer and sociologist who doesn’t want to be a Wallfacer.  The book mostly follows Luo in his attempt to come up with some kind of plan to repel the invaders.

I found the plots of the Wallfacers to be very interesting and entertaining, in a very dark way.  Each Wallfacer is given all the resources and power they want to setup their plans.  Their only resistance is the Wallbreakers, people chosen by the ETO, the Trisolaran sympathizers, to figure out and reveal the secret plans.  Each Wallfacer has a Wallbreaker, except for Luo.  He is his own self-destructive Wallbreaker.  In addition, for some reason, it appears that out of the four Wallfacers, the Trisolarans want Luo dead.  Is it true, or is it just the paranoia of the narcissist that Luo is?  With everything stacked up against the Wallfacers, is there any hope for Earth at all?

What I didn’t like about the book is my same criticism from the first book, characterization.  I felt that I didn’t get to know most of the characters, and what little I knew about them told me what they were doing, but not really who they were.  The only characters I really felt I knew were Luo Ji and his sidekick, Shi Qiang, aka Da Shi, a cop who takes a liking to Luo.  Despite being a narcissist and misogynist, I liked Luo as he became a reluctant messiah, multiple times, grew to love a woman for who she is, and learned to have some compassion for the people of Earth.  And there was something warm about Da Shi, who reminded me somewhat of Jiminy Cricket, a sort of moral guide to help ground Luo. 

There was another character who I didn’t get, Zhang Beihai.  He was a naval officer that became an officer in the resistance space military effort.  His storyline was a hard, military SF plot that had me lost through most of the book.  Whenever I got to a Zhang section, my mind fuzzed over and I lost interest.  Finally at the end of the book, his plot came together, but the reading of his plotline before the end was just painful for me.

The biggest criticism I have of the book is that there are no major female characters.  There are only a few women in the books and they have secondary or nearly non-existent roles.  They don’t interact with each other, breaking the second part of the Bechdel test.  This was disappointing considering one of the major characters in the first book was a woman. 

Lastly, there were quite a few times in the book where there was info dump.  Some of those were tough reading.   Even the part that explains the significance of the title was a long, tedious passage.  


Still, I give the book four stars out of five.  I was surprised at how engrossed I was in the book despite the problems.  It was a heavy, tough read, and the third book is longer by another hundred pages, which is daunting.  But I look forward to reading it and seeing if it is really Hugo worthy or not. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky

Charlie Jane Anders
Completed 4/15/2017, reviewed 4/16/2017
3 stars

I really wanted to like this book, and I began really liking it. But about halfway through, it dissolved into an uneven plot that got less and less believable and interesting.  It’s been nominated for several awards as of this writing and I’m not sure it’s deserving.  There are a lot of great reviews for this book and a fair number of haters.  I’m just mixed.

The story begins with the young Patricia and Laurence.  Patricia is a witch, Laurence is a brilliant techie.  Both have families that don’t understand them.  Both are outcasts at school.  They meet up and become friends, until Laurence realizes that Patricia really does have powers, abandoning her.  They meet again in San Francisco as adults, both trying to do something for the world that is collapsing around them, each using their own talents. 

I really liked the two main characters, particularly as children.  It is easy to like outcasts, feeling sorry for them, identifying with them.  Right from the start, you cheer for them even though you know that everything they do will be interpreted wrong.  And as the plot becomes more convoluted, you still cheer for them, hoping that they will find each other and fall in love.

It’s roughly the second half of the book that is its downfall.  Patricia has grown up to be a gifted healer.  Laurence is working on a wormhole generator.  The world is being devastated by superstorms and earthquakes. The plot gets convoluted with story lines like destroying the generator, giant robots, the “unraveling”.  It actually got hard to follow, even though the book is really an easy read.  Maybe I wasn’t willingly suspending enough disbelief, but it just seemed like subplots were thrown in to create as much difficulty as possible for Patricia and Laurence to get together and be in love, rather than for what should be the plot of the book, saving the earth and the falling in love being a natural outcome. 

I also didn’t like the grammar.  There were a lot of sentence fragments.  That might have been an editorial choice, or maybe not.  I found it really distracting.  I find sentence fragments to be useful when you want to slow the reader down to make a point.  I found as the book went on, I noticed them more and more and felt like they were stylistically pretentious rather than organic to the overall writing style.


There are a lot of good things about the book, mostly in the first half.  And the very end pulls everything together nicely.  It’s just everything else that I found difficult.  I’m giving the book three stars out of five on the strength of the first half.  It just could have been so much better.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

John Scalzi
Completed 3/24/2017, reviewed 3/26/2017
3 stars

“Miniatures” is a fun little book.  As described in its title, it’s all very short fiction, about ten pages max.  Most of the stories are goofy fun.  I don’t really have a more mature way of putting it.  Almost every story is fun in some way, and they all have the goofy humor that I’ve come to appreciate from John Scalzi.

I’ve only read one other book by Scalzi, “Redshirts”, which won the Hugo some years back.  It too was goofy fun, although I didn’t call it that in my review of it.  Where I really got to know Scalzi was at Westercon last year where he was the Guest of Honor.  I went to most of the panels he was on and he was a hoot.  He has a great sense of humor. 

That sense of humor is on display in “Miniatures”.  It opens with a story that made me chuckle out loud, “Alien Animal Encounters”.  It’s about people describing their most interesting encounter with an alien animal species.  Another good one was “Pluto Tells All”.  That has Pluto describing what it was like being demoted to dwarf planet.  A third fun story was “The AI are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest”.  That was about machines becoming intelligent and doing an interview to explain that, well, as the title describes, they are not here to end humanity. 


Almost all the stories are tongue in cheek, sharply humorous.  He mentions a few times in the intros for the stories, that these are the sort of pieces he would use on book tours to warm up the audience.  And they do, they give you a chuckle and lighten your mood.  I give this book three stars out of five because it’s basically fluff, a quick, easy read, meant to make you laugh rather than pause and reflect.  A few of the stories didn’t work for me, but that is often the case in a collection like this.  Usually, not every story is going to grab me.  But it’s a great book to read after a heavier tome. I highly recommend it.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gossamer Axe

Gael Baudino
Completed 3/19/2017 Reviewed 3/20/2017
5 stars

How do I describe a book that’s both corny and wondrous at the same time?  It’s kind of corny because it’s about an ancient woman living in late 1980s Denver who uses heavy metal music to fight for the release of her lover from a dark, magical place.  It’s wondrous for the exact same reason.  Christa is a harpist from pre-Christian Ireland.  The music she creates is her source of magic.  She lost her lover in a land of immortals in the 1700s, controlled by a bard who is a greater harpist than Christa.  Now she has discovered that heavy metal just might be the magical weapon she can use against the bard to rescue her lover Judith.  So yes, it sounds corny, but I was completely pulled into the plot and characters.

The majority of the book is about Christa discovering heavy metal and her forming her own all-woman heavy metal band.  She’s in Denver because she’s been following the portal between our world and the immortal world where her lover is being held captive.  She teaches the harp and one of her students invites her to a metal concert.  At the concert Christa begins to realize that metal has the same characteristics as her magical harp playing, and she just might be able to use it to save Judith.  Having played the harp for over a thousand years, she understands music so well that she picks up electric guitar in a matter of days.  First she joins a metal band, but soon realizes that she’ll have to form her own band to make the magic work. 

The best part of the book is the forming of the band.  Christa pulls together women musicians who have crossed her path, all damaged souls who play terrifically.  The characters are well-defined and have interesting back stories.  Part of the greatness comes from describing what it’s like to be a woman in a music genre dominated by men.  Even once the band has formed and shown how awesome they are, they still have to battle the issues of being a girl band rather than a band made of talented women.  In addition, they all must battle their own personal demons that could derail the band, professionally as well as from its purpose of saving Christa’s lover. 


This book won the Lambda Literary Award in 1990, and I can see why.  It’s a terrific telling of a story that could have just been corny and even soapy.  But I found it executed marvelously.  I was completely drawn in and even though the ending was pretty predictable, I still found it exciting.  I give this book five stars because of this, and because I got emotionally involved with the characters and the outcome.  I’ve only given one other five star rating recently.  Reading as much as I do now, I find it harder to give five stars, but this book really moved me.  And it wasn’t because I paid a premium for this out of print book at a used book store.   If anything, it should have added pressure that I normally would have rebelled against, feeling that the book wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps it’s because I was in several bands, so I understand some of the experience.  Mostly though, I think it’s just a well told story that’s different and exceedingly satisfying. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Affinity

Sarah Waters
Completed 3/13/2017 Reviewed 3/14/2017
3 stars

This was a peculiar book.  I found it relatively boring and uninspired through most of it.  The story is about a Victorian lady who visits a women’s prison on a regular basis.  She eventually forms a bond with a spiritualist who is imprisoned for fraud and assault.  Then in the last 50 pages or so, it starts to get interesting, ending with a great twist.  But is it enough to make the book a worthwhile read?  Well, not really.

The book is not badly written.  The prose is decent.  I simply found the basic story very boring.  Miss Prior, the Victorian lady, is a spinster who has been suffering from depression.  I never found it clear why she decided to become a Lady Visitor at the women’s prison.  Was it supposed to lift her from her depression?  Going to a prison, even as a charitable deed does not seem like the sort of thing that one would do to feel better.   Miss Prior goes to the prison, but because of her growing relationship with the spiritualist, becomes more morose and rebellious at home.  Of course, rebellious for a Victorian lady is relatively mild by today’s standards.  But it causes conflict with Prior’s mother.  It should be noted too that Prior is basically already a spinster at age 29.  Her brother is married, and her younger sister is getting married.

The book is written as two diaries, told through alternating chapters.  One diary being Miss Prior’s, the other being Dawes, the spiritualist.  I think the diary form is part of why it’s boring.  Prior is not a great story teller.  Dawes entries are short and informational.  We don’t really get much character development out of them.  We get all the character development from Prior’s entries, and it’s just, well, I’d say “Nice”.

Eventually, we are told that Prior was in love with her sister-in-law before she married Prior’s brother.  This adds a little spice to the story, but not too much.  Later, it becomes clear that she also falls in love with Dawes, who seems to truly have the gift to contact the dead.  Through this relationship, Dawes schemes to escape and run away with Prior.  It’s here that the story starts to finally pick up.  But it is so close to the end, you wonder what the purpose of the previous three hundred pages were.  Maybe I missed some unspoken sexual tension, but the relationship building went at a snail’s pace. 


All I could think through most of this book was, what’s the point.  The prose is nice, but I felt like nothing happened for about 300 pages.  The book is 351 pages.  All the intrigue happens at the end, and it was way too long to wait for me.  However, I’ll give this book the benefit of the doubt with a three star rating out of five, because of the prose and the end.  If you read this book, I think it will help you that you know that you’ll be coasting for a long time.  So try to enjoy the prose, and if you get bored, rest in the knowledge that the payoff at the end is pretty good.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Smoke and Shadows

Tanya Huff
Completed 2/11/2017 Reviewed 2/21/2017
4 stars

“Smoke and Shadows” begins a series by Tanya Huff that follows a supporting character from the Blood novels.  Tony, an ex-junkie and hustler, has gotten clean and sober with the help of vampire Henry and is now working as a production assistant on a Canadian TV series about a vampire detective.  Despite all the inaccuracies, considering he was in a relationship with a vampire, he likes his job.  But strange things begin to happen around the studio.  First he notices that the shadows seem to have a mind of their own.  Then there is a death on set.  And suddenly, Tony is in the middle of his own paranormal investigation.  With Henry and a wizard from another dimension at his side, Tony tries to subvert a takeover from the Shadowlord. 

This is another fluff novel from Tanya Huff.  But I have to say it was very entertaining.  First off, I really liked the meta-scenario of a guy who knows about vampires working on a TV series about a vampire.  The show, “Dark Night”, reminded me of the Canadian syndicated series “Forever Knight” from the 90s.  It wasn’t a great show, but it was fun fluff.  Like this novel. 

One of the best things about the book is that it is self-contained even though it’s part of a series.  It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are part of a series and are not self-contained.  I don’t mind it as much anymore, and don’t begrudge authors writing trilogies.  After all, my favorite book is LOTR, a trilogy.  But for the most part, these days, I want to read a book that ends.  This one did.  I was so happy at the end of it.  I think that’s part of why I gave it a high rating.

As far as characterization goes, Tony is great.  He’s gay and has a crush on a one of the stars of the series who is apparently straight, but gives off mixed signals.  He also goes on a comical date with the show’s music director, who has a crush on him.  All this, though, creates some conflict because Henry is still in the picture.  Tony is no longer in a relationship with the vampire, but he still helps Tony out throughout the story.  There’s a few interesting instances where we understand why Tony wanted out of the relationship when we learn of Henry’s possessiveness.  It’s not just normal possessiveness, but the kind that a vampire has for his prey, and it’s intense.

I found Arra, the wizard from the dimension of the Shadowlord to be a bit annoying at times.  She has a great setup.  She’s the special effects director for the show.  Of course she uses her powers to create great effects on the show’s low budget.  Unfortunately, she does not want to help our hero subdue the Shadowlord.  It’s understandable that she’s reluctant considering she barely escaped destruction in her own dimension.  However, I would have liked to have seen her have more backbone throughout the story rather than just near the end.


I gave this book four stars because I had a lot of fun with it.  It’s not a great book, but I really enjoyed it.  At some point in the future, I would consider reading the other books in the series, just not now.  Tony’s a great character and I’d like to see him have success in life, amidst all the supernatural urban fantasy that he gets into.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ethan of Athos

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 1/29/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
4 stars

I’ve been hit or miss with Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan Saga.  The book was a hit.  The plot is a little off the main line of the Saga, more like an offshoot.  It revolves around Ethan of the planet Athos, a world of men.  It turns the meme of a female utopia on its head.  Children are born from uterine replicators, which is not unheard of in this universe.  With a planet of only men, the replicators wear out and new organs are needed.  Ethan, a doctor who works with the replicators, is chosen to go in search of a new supplier after the previous package of ovarian cultures is sabotaged.  It forces him to go out into space and deal with the rest of society for the first time ever, including women.  It leads to some comical moments.  Of course, this being part of one of the more famous space opera series, Ethan ends up in the middle of espionage with the evil Cetagandans.

What’s surprising about this book is that it was written in 1986 but is a mainstream novel that deals with gay issues.  Many of the men on Athos are in M/M relationships, though not all, mostly those who raise children.  Being a planet of only men, all the children are sons.  Now it should be noted that the gay issues are quite tempered.  But there’s a bashing scene that was really traumatic to me.  And just the fact that it exists in this book from such a long time ago is quite stunning to me.

The culture clash between Ethan and the rest of the universe is embodied in Elli Quinn, a female mercenary who is after the same Cetagandans that are after Ethan.  She keeps on popping up on Ethan, causing a lot of cognitive dissonance.  The scenes are humorous even though the circumstances become direr.  It’s fun to watch him slowly back away whenever she approaches him.  You see, the planet of Athos is actually rather misogynistic.  It is incorporated into its religion and morality.  Women are seen as the embodiment of sin.  So whenever Ethan interacts with Elli, he’s concerned that her immorality will rub off on him.  At first the misogyny is disconcerting, but Ethan comes to understand and appreciate Elli, and of course the lessons are learned.  The best part is watching all that develop and unfold for Ethan.


I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a surprisingly fun, fast-paced space opera romp.  It’s a quick read yet has enough depth to contain messages about tolerance and acceptance.  The book is self-contained in this epic multi-book saga so it can be read without having read any of the other books, which I always find a plus.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Devil You Know

KJ Parker
Completed 1/26/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
5 stars

It’s been a long time since I awarded a book five stars.  This one did it for me.  It’s about Saloninus from “Blue and Gold”, the philosopher/alchemist who lies a lot, and I mean, a lot.  He’s now in his 70s.  He decides to sell his soul to the devil, in grand Faustian tradition, for another 20 years to finish his life’s work.  But the question is can the king of lies outwit the father of lies?

It just so happens that the demon sent to Saloninus with the contract and to watch over him for those 20 years is a fan of his philosophy.  Saloninus’ arguments prove the lack of existence of God and prove that morality is relative.  But does he really believe his own writings.  The demon comes to realize this as he comes to realize that his brilliant ward probably has a loophole to get out of the contract at the end of the 20 years.   

The book is short; it is just a novella.  The narration switches a lot between the demon and Solaninus, which at first is a little disorienting.  It quickly got the two voices down and had no problem with the switches between scenes versus the switching between narrators, making it and easy read.   As I noted at the top, I gave this book five stars because I was completely caught up in the question of what Solaninus had up his sleeve, and the demon’s attempts to figure it out.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Titan

John Varley
Completed 1/22/2017 Reviewed 1/24/2017
4 stars

The captain of a spaceship and her crew are on an exploratory mission to Saturn.  They discover a new moon and quickly realize that it appears to be a generations ship.  When they approach the moon-ship, it seizes them, destroying the ship and burying them.  Sometime later, the crew emerges from the ground in what is reminiscent of birthing.  They are not near each other when they emerge, and they are naked and hairless.  Eventually they find one another as they explore this strange world, meet its inhabitants, and search for its creators.

I was pretty surprised by how much I enjoyed the book.  Written in 1979, the book has a vintage feel to it, where the emphasis is more on discovery and exploration.  If this were a film, there would be a lot of scenes requiring the actors to have a look of awe on their faces.  But as a book, it worked really well.   It reminded me of some of Arthur C. Clarke’s work, where the emphasis is on the wonder, and a little less on the plot. 

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book is its progressive approach to issues of gender, race, and sexuality.  The captain is a woman, Cirocco “Rocky” Jones.  For 1979, I thought this was quite surprising.  There are also lesbian relationships in the book.  To be fair, there are a lot of relationships in the book.  It takes the premise that on a long distance, long term mission, there’s going to be some coming together of people on the ship.  In fact, the whole beginning seems to be about the different permutations the crew had gone through.  At first, it seemed a little off-putting, but it certainly added to the back story of the crew and set the reader up for the later interpersonal conflicts. 

The author looks at race relations through the intelligent beings that inhabit this place.  Specifically, there are two creatures, centaurs and angels, who for some unknown reason, engage in battle whenever they come across each other.  It’s almost as if it’s in their DNA.  To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told through Rocky’s perspective, so of course her character is the most fleshed out.  Still, most of the characters get good scenes and are more than cardboard cutouts.  What’s really cool is that each of the characters gets something akin to a special power having gone through their rebirthing.  Several of them can communicate with one of the several intelligent species.  One actually turns into one of the species.  For the most part, these powers are benevolent, but it does cause for some problems among the crew. 


I give this book four out of five stars.  It is also the first of a trilogy, though the book stands on its own.  I liked that.  I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy any time soon.  But this book was a cool, mostly fun romp through Varley’s imagination.