Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nebula Winner: 1993 Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Completed 11/25/2013, reviewed 11/25/2013
4 stars

Imagine James Michener writing hard SF.  That’s “Red Mars.”  Robinson blends vivid descriptions of the Martian landscape and detailed science, sociology, and economics to bring to life an epic depiction of the colonization of Mars and the personal and cultural strife that ensues.  Like Michener, Robinson’s detail left me in awe, but when all was said and done, the book left me exhausted and questioning my decision to read all three books of the Martian trilogy in a row. 

The book begins with a short chapter which drops the reader amidst the chaos of the Martian colony, creating an immediate tension and a burning desire to understand how things collapsed so badly.  The second chapter then whisks you back to the beginning, describing the colonization, from the selection of the “first hundred,” to the journey to Mars, and to the workings of making Mars a scientific utopia.  Of course, it never is utopia, and as more colonists arrive, it quickly devolves into mayhem.

The story is told in third person, but from the perspective of several of the first hundred.  Each chapter (and sometimes two) is told from the point of view a few of the main characters.  Through them, we learn of the hardship of this mission.  I particularly liked the chapter where Maya was the focus.  She seemed the most fully realized.  The other characters were less emotional, in general.  I ascribed this to the fact that almost all the members of the first hundred are scientists, and thus have scientists’ demeanors, probably testing ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator.  The side effect is that as the story progresses through the others characters, Maya seems less like a fully realized character and more like an annoying bipolar victim.  I found this unfortunate, because I really liked Maya and found everyone else to be a little too much like the Martian landscape, primarily sterile. 

Nonetheless, the characterization in general is very detailed, giving you very different accounts of the progress of the colony.  I just would have liked to have had the characters show more feelings.

The details of the science, the politics, and all other aspects of a society are amazing.  There were times I could follow it, other times when my eyes just glazed over.  Its clear Robinson is very smart and did a lot of research, but I felt the detail, particularly to the landscape, was too long.  Halfway through the book, I found myself skimming over descriptions of the landscape.  Maybe that was intentional, reinforcing the sterile majesty of Mars.  But I kept feeling like a good editor could have made it tighter and less rambling.

This is a 4 star book.  It is excellent, despite my problems with the length and lack of emotionality.  The development of the society on Mars is amazing, and feels very realistic.  It is not candy-coated in the least.  Just because we leave the earth doesn’t mean we leave all our problems as well.  We’re human, and we bring our chaos and conflict with us wherever we go.  I look forward to the rest of the books in the trilogy.  The next book covers the terraforming of Mars.  I’m just hoping the emotional state of the characters warm up as much as the planet does. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 2013 Redshirts

John Scalzi
Completed 11/19/2013, reviewed 11/25/2013
4 stars

“Redshirts” is a lot of fun.  It’s an extrapolation on the observation that in the original “Star Trek” series, one of the ensigns on an away team, often wearing a red shirt, is usually killed on the mission.  A group of redshirts figure this out and try to outsmart their destiny. 

What’s most fun about the book is that it’s a kind of meta-meta.  The reason the red shirts are dying is because their fate is determined by fiction.  Somehow, their universe has overlapped the fictional universe of a “Star Trek” rip-off.  When an episode of this series is produced, the narrative dictates their circumstances and action, and they are compelled to follow it.  Their mission is to destroy this link between fiction and reality.

The book is a light romp, full of action and comedy.  If you know about the original “Star Trek” series, you’ll understand the premise.  The dialogue is fun and tight.  The characters are light, but well-developed.  I read this book in two short sittings.  It’s a quick read, with fast-paced scenes.  There were a few times, particularly in the beginning of the book, where I burst out laughing.    I usually don’t laugh out loud while reading a book.  I surprised myself when I did, particularly because I was reading the book in public in a coffee shop amidst the clicking of laptop keyboards, the buzz of multiple conversations, the hiss of the espresso machine, and the pacifying notes of the light R&B station playing in the background. 

When I finished this book, I thought it was a great read.  Worthy of a Hugo?  I wasn’t sure.  I liked the fact that the fans had picked a fun light book.  It was a deviation from the massive space opera, deadly serious cyberpunk, and gritty urban fantasy novels that have dominated the award for the past few decades.

What really convinced me that the book was award-worthy was the inclusion of the three codas at the end of the book.  They were short accounts of three people whose lives were affected by the efforts of Dahl and his red shirt pals.  Each one was poignant and profound.  It provided depth to the light-heartedness of the main story.  Maybe Scalzi was trying to add some weight to the story.  But it didn’t feel forced.  It demonstrated the simple premise that our actions affect others, sometimes in profound ways, without our realizing it.  I also thought that there was another point here.  That the people in all aspects of the medium of television need to be aware of how it affects people lives.  Because even the shortest-lived character on a trite space opera on basic cable can have an affect on someone somewhere. 

I gave this book 4 stars for its fun, inventiveness, and for the awesome three codas. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1981 The Snow Queen

Joan D. Vinge
Completed 6/29/2013, Reviewed 6/30/2013
4 stars

“The Snow Queen” is based on the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”  In a way, I wish I knew this before beginning the book.  I read the fairy tale after the novel, and understood why she made some of her plot choices.  However, for the general reader, it is not necessary to read the fairy tale before the novel.  Vinge’s book stands on its own.

After reading so many earlier Hugo winners, I’ve become accustomed to short SF novels. I find myself impatient with the later, longer novels, looking for plot movement rather than prose and extensive characterization.  I struggled with this book for this reason.  From the beginning, it seems that the plot is simple; we can predict how it’s going to end.  So just get on with it.  At some point, though, I stopped fighting it and realized how well the book is written.  Vinge’s prose is lovely.  It creates an amazing universe and gives us very well developed characters.

The other trouble I had with this book is that it is basically a sweeping romance.  I have never read books normally categorized as romance, but I have read romantic best sellers like “The Thorn Birds.”  This novel reminded me of that type of book.  A woman goes on an epic journey, battles evil, and discovers her true self as she searches for her one true love, all in an SF/fantasy setting. 
This book also fails the Bechdel test.  To pass this test, a work of fiction must satisfy the following requirements:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.(I didn’t add a footnote, but you can do a quick internet search to confirm.  And Alison Bechdel is an awesome graphic novelist.)
The main characters are all strong woman.  Vinge even notes that she wanted to write a book with strong female characters.  However, in the end, all their primary motivations are the finding or keeping of men.  And even though they talk to each other about major plot points, it all boils down to men. 

The realization of this made me want to dismiss the book as nothing but a glorified romance.  Again, I had to get over myself and my prejudices to realize that this is a really good book. 

So despite all the negativity I’ve unleashed, I give this book 4 stars.  I loved the subplot of the mers, the revelation of the nature of the sybils, and the extensive use of masks.  A whole paper could be written about masks.  The snow queen herself is deliciously evil, and yet not without a pinch of humanity. 

“The Snow Queen” is a marvelous book, and well worth the read.  I highly recommend it, particularly as a wonderful example of the transition point in the evolution of the science fiction novel.  It is epic in style and creates an incredible universe (and borrowing from a quote on the book jacket) not seen much in science fiction since “Dune,” and the works of Ursula LeGuin. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

WOGF Review: Witch World

Andre Norton
Completed 10/8/2013, Reviewed 10/8/2013
3 stars

My mother-in-law is a huge Andre Norton fan.  She’s living with us now, and because of our tight living quarters, a lot of her and our stuff is in storage.  So when I told her I thought I’d read “Witch World” for my WOGF challenge, we took a trip to our storage unit, opened about six boxes of books until she found it, as well as the next three books in the series. 

“Witch World” is iconic fantasy with some SF mystery thrown in.  It’s about a man, Simon Tregarth, from the post-WWII present who’s offered a chance to be transported from a dangerously difficult situation to a world that is more suited to who he really is.  Taking the offer, he is whisked away to the Witch World.  There he immediately rescues a damsel in distress, who turns out to be a witch, is welcomed into her culture, learns their language, and joins their forces to fight a growing menace in the west.  There are hawkers who can communicate with their raptors, shape-shifting, an evil zombie army, and a strange hi-tech invading force behind the evil.

Sounds kind of standard fantasy, no?  Well, yes and no.  This book was published in 1963.  In fact, the copy I have from my mother-in-law has no reprinting listed, the cover is tattered, and the pages are deep sepia.  The significance of this is that it comes from very early in genre literature.   While it seems like standard fantasy now, it wasn’t quite so standard fifty years ago.  And throwing a little SF into the mix is, I think, that much more surprising for this period.

When I began reading this book, I had a hard time following it.  I partly blame the tiny font size in this ancient paperback.  Besides the density of the text, writing style is quite dense.  I often found myself getting tired and losing focus.  After finishing, I decided I needed a second read before I could review it. 

Upon my second read, it fell into place.  The prose is gorgeous.  For some reason, while reading, I could imagine Norton pounding this out on her typewriter in a stereotypical black and white movie about a writer.  I have to remember that this book is from the era of pulp SF and initial publication in magazines.  I think if she were writing today, this initial story would have been quite a bit longer. 

I liked Simon.  I wish I could have gotten more into his head.  His integration into his new environs was a little too straight forward.  I wanted to experience his growth into his new life in this magical place.  I also really liked the setting, a fantasy in a middle ages-like place with a touch of modern technology and a sprinkling of SF.

As much as I liked many of the parts of this book, as a whole it left me a little “meh.”  It felt like something was missing, that the parts were greater than the whole.  My sense is that it’s because this comes from the Amazing Stories era, and was conceived with an episodic, long-term sensibility.  I also realize that Norton’s work is considered juvenile fiction.  I give this book three stars just because it feels like something is missing.  But I’m really intrigued by the rest of the series and would love to see how all the mysteries begun in this book eventually play out.  I would just like to spend more time in Simon’s head.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Daniel H. Wilson
Completed 11/11/2013, Reviewed 11/12/2013
1 star

The reason I read this book was because it was the November selection for the local SF book club, and the author, who is a local, would be joining the book club’s discussion.  I did a quick search for the author’s bio.  He’s a brilliant robotics scientist from Oklahoma.  Between reading the book and the bio, I put together my interpretation of the point of this book.  It’s a bully-revenge fantasy in the national context of Tea Party hate groups extrapolated to Nazi-like extremes.  This is the kind of story I would have written if I could have voiced my fears and fantasies when I was a twelve year old nerd who was picked on for being smart.

 “Amped” is a fast-paced action novel with an interesting premise.  It begins well, giving us the state of a country brimming with hatred toward its half million amps, i.e., citizens implanted with the Neural Autofocus, a device used to help people with mental and physical disabilities overcome their limitations.  We learn this as Owen Grey, a school teacher, tries to dissuade an amped student from jumping off a roof.  There is an organization, the Pure Human Citizens Council, let by an angry senator, whipping the country toward a Nazi-like frenzy, and quickly stripping the rights of the amped, fueled by the fear that they have an unfair advantage over regular people.  The student sees the horror of this future and leaps to her death.  Owen, who has an implant to control seizures, finds himself wanted for the suicide of this teen. 

The first two chapters gave me high hopes.  They set the scene well and immediately set had me empathizing with Owen, the school teacher.  Then it falls apart.  In the third chapter, Owen finds out from his brilliant neurosurgeon dad that his implant is not what it seems.  His implant isn’t just medical, it’s an amp.  Not just any amp, but a special amp.  He’s just never had full access to its powers.   His father tells him he needs to hide out with a kindly old man in Eden, Oklahoma to find out more about his special powers.  And he better do it fast because he’s about to be wanted as an amp terrorist.

In Eden, Owen meets a cocky cowboy named, Lyle.  He has one of these special implants and teaches Owen how to use it.  The rest of the book follows the conflict between Owen and Lyle, and the race to save the amps and the US from the evil grip of the PHCC.  Oh yeah, and Owen falls in love.  And, oh yeah, there’s an adorable, amped kid who’s a Rubik’s cube prodigy.

The whole “You have special powers. You must learn how to use them” thing really bothered me.  When I came to that chapter, it just sighed.  It felt so trite.  The dialogue quickly degraded as well.   After the super powers speech, most of the dialogue seemed forced and standard B-movie stuff.  Halfway through the book, I felt like I was reading a treatment for a made for TV movie for the SyFy channel.

All the characters are pulp fare.  Lyle is an annoying Matthew McConneghay tough guy character clone.  It was almost like Wilson wrote the part just for him.  Owen started out with some depth, but then quickly becomes a one-dimensional muddled mess as he learns how to use his powers.  The kid and the love interest are simple manipulative tools.  The Senator who leads the PHCC is the evil politician. The kindly old man barely even registers as a character. 

I think there should be a special mention of how much Wilson hates rednecks.  With Eden being located in the middle of Oklahoma, he blatantly alludes to the stereotypical red-state intolerance he must have grown up with.  Eden is an oasis surrounded by stupid bigots whose sole purpose in life is to abuse people who are different, just waiting for the chance to kill them.  Wilson treats them the same way they treat the amps, reducing them to unredeemable lemmings having no depth, and completely disposable.   

I gave this book one star for the initial premise, and because I was picked on for being a nerd, smart, fat, Polish, white, gay.  And I had revenge fantasies too.  Would I recommend this book to anyone?  No.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1977 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Kate Wilhelm
Read 1/2013, reviewed 4/26/13, revised 11/7/2013
5 stars

This book is a great post-apocalyptic/dystopian future novel.  It is a variation on the “Brave New World” themes of cloning, societal control, and personal rebellion.  In this book, the clones rule an enclave created by an extended family on the eve a nuclear war.  But there are flaws with the creation of the clones, including the requiring of infusion of original DNA every few generations, and a crippling emotional need to be close to one’s clone siblings.  One non-clone, Mark, is born and becomes an outcast and potential savior of the human race. 

The environment is another major theme in the book.  This is the first reference that I’ve come across in literature where the concept of nuclear winter is discussed.  Popularized by Carl Sagan and sensationalized by popular media, it dominated our cold war nightmares in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Many popular books and movies about nuclear war depicted the radioactive devastation in the aftermath of such a war.  Instead of the radioactive desert, Wilhelm explores the shortening of the summer and the advancement of the glaciers. 

Wilhelm uses the forest almost as character of its own.  She creates a contrast between the relationship between the clone society and the forest surrounding it versus Mark’s relationship with the forest.  One sees it as oppressive and terrifying, the other sees it as friend and refuge.  Despite the fact that this book was written during the early days of environmentalism, I think she accurately forecasted the backlash against it, which came later in the Reagan and Watt era of the destruction of the American forests.  Mark’s relationship with the forest made me think of the themes of the film “Silent Running” and the song “Boy from the Country” by Michael Martin Murphy. 

Wilhelm, who I had never heard of before my Hugo quest, is a master of setting mood.  This is one of those books that put me in a completely different head space.  Every time I picked up the book, I was immediately transported into its environment, the uneasy, false eden as seen through the desperate other, who is rebelling against the conformity of the society.  It speaks to everyone who feels different.

I was surprised and thoroughly satisfied by this book.  I would go so far as to say this is an unsung, forgotten classic of SF.  I give this book a 5 star rating, where 5 stars is only awarded when I find a book so powerful and moving, it stands far above other great books.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

WOGF Review: The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell
Completed 10/15/2013, Reviewed 11/5/2013
5 stars

Despite being an agnostic, I love SF and Fantasy that questions, critiques, or parodies religion.  Some of my favorite novels are “Canticle for Leibowitz,” Case ofConscience, and “Live from Golgotha” by Gore Vidal.  So when I looked for more books to read for the WOGF challenge, I searched in the WWEnd database using the tag “theological.”  Once again, I found a gem.

“The Sparrow” transposes the experience of the New World Jesuit missions to the genre of SF.  Fr. Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest leads the first mission to a planet which seems to harbor intelligent life.  Something goes terribly wrong and leaves the priest the only survivor, demoralized and in a crisis of faith. 

The premise of “The Sparrow” may seem absurd by today’s standards.  We don’t expect the Catholic Church to be the first to send a mission to an extraterrestrial world.  Placed in a historical context, it is not absurd at all.  This happened throughout the European exploration of the Americas, as well as the non-Christianized regions of the other continents.  This book takes that premise and places is in a contemporary context with our modern sense of cultural sensitivity.  The result provides the reader with a group of very likable, honorable, and by most definitions, good people put into a morally ambiguous and deadly situation. 

I loved the prose of the book.  It was beautifully written.  I found the narrative structure to be quite compelling.  The history of the mission is told parallel to the trials of the surviving Fr Sandoz.  It is another book where every word seems important and every paragraph necessary. 

I also loved the characterizations.  The people on the mission were drawn in such detail and with such love, that I could relate them to specific people I knew from my college days when I hung out with a group of left-wing radicals which spanned the spectrum from radical nuns to philosophical scientists.   During the ‘80s, all these people came together to form an intentional community of support for each other and care for their fellow human beings in a spirit of peace and justice.  I read several reviews of the book that insisted that these characters were too good to be true.  My experience is that these people exist, and find each other and God in the world in profound ways. 

What would it be like if there were more than one sentient species on a planet?  There must be some novels that have speculated on this concept, but this is my first encounter with it.  Uplift stories don’t even come close.  Russell takes the premise of multiple sentient species interacting on a planet and forces us into a moral quandary.   How will we interact with extraterrestrial life where evolution has created a morality so radically different than ours?  The answer may be difficult and even abhorrent, but it is a question we will probably have to face.

Despite my absolute love of this book, I had a few issues with it.  It saddened me that Russell’s Church of the future is still run by celibate males, and that there is no feminine influence at the highest levels.  I also found it disheartening that the one gay character only came out to one other character.  The way he came out reminded me of a quote by Montgomery McNeil in the movie “Fame,” “Never being happy isn’t the same as being unhappy.  Is it?” 

Russell uses a lot of archetypes and common Catholic iconography in the formation of her main characters.  Fr Sandoz is the saint of classic hagiography.  He is a sinner who has a conversion experience and goes out to live the gospel.  In the tradition of the mystic saints, and as the main plot of the book, he experiences an existential crisis in a dark night of the soul.  Fr Yarbrough can be likened to St Peter, the rock, the commander and pragmatist of the mission, carrying his rifle like Peter carrying his sword at the Garden of Gethsemane.  The two women on the mission, Anne and Sofia, fit snuggly into the archetypes of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, respectively.  Anne, while not being a virgin, is childless.  She admittedly becomes the mother to the members of the mission. 

Sofia has an awesome back story, going from privileged child to teen prostitute survivor to asocial genius software developer.  However, the use of the archetype of repentant prostitute drives me nuts.  Mary Magdalene is never described in the gospels as being a prostitute, nor is she the woman caught in adultery.  This popular representation of her is wrong, but is unfortunately ubiquitous.  This did not bother me as I read the book.  Reflecting on and analyzing the characters afterwards, I realized how Russell clearly used this archetype of Mary Magdalene to fashion Sofia.  Her character is great, but it still makes me moan.

The big reveal at the end feeds into the existential dilemma of Fr Sandoz: if God exists, then how can evil be God’s will?  If God doesn’t exist, then isn’t this deplorable situation the fruit of my own choices?  Both questions lead to despair and hopelessness.  It reminds me of the commonly thrown-about phrase, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”  How do we discern which good intentions do not lead to hell?  Even if we think we have a well-formed conscience and believe we are doing God’s will, we may still be making the wrong decisions.

I made the mistake of reading a lot of reader reviews of this book, and had to hold myself from speaking to a lot of the criticisms.  One or two slipped out anyway.  I think the amount of criticism signifies that the book accomplished its goal: to create a dialogue about the nature of moral ambiguity in a beautifully written piece of science fiction.

This is a five-star book.  This is also the longest review I’ve ever written.  “The Sparrow” evoked a lot of feelings and ideas.  Clearly, I had some issues with it, but ultimately, I loved it.  I think great literature asks profound questions and leaves us with ambiguity.  The pursuit of the answers is beautifully summarized in this quote, “If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them.  And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1990 Hyperion

Dan Simmons
Completed 11/5/2013, Reviewed 11/5/2013
4 stars

I had been holding off on reading “Hyperion” in my Hugo quest because I thought it was JASO, just another space opera.  After all, it came from the peak of the space opera era of the Hugo winners.  Instead, “Hyperion” turned out to be rich collection of horror tales with a common theme: an unknown terror evolving on a planet in the politically volatile outback of the galaxy.

The basic premise is that a group of seven people are invited on a pilgrimage to ancient relics of unknown origin on the planet Hyperion.  To deal with the boredom and uneasiness of the trip, they tell the stories of their experiences with the planet, its paradoxical relics, or the enigmatic and violent god known as the Shrike.

The stories are diverse and fun.  My favorite story was the one told by the priest on the pilgrimage.  As is evident through my reviews, I have a fondness for theological SF.  The priest’s story, as well as the references to the cult of the Shrike in the other stories, was right up my alley.  The other stories are great too.  Each one is told from a very different cultural perspective.  Besides the priest, there’s the soldier, the poet, the “Wandering Jew,” the PI, and the consul.  My followers will also know I don’t care for military SF and cyberpunk.  But here, they add to the discovery of the awesome universe that Simmons created.

I think this is the first Hugo winner I’ve read which could be considered a horror novel.  Despite being prone to bad dreams, I love a good horror novel.  The Shrike is a terrible creature, reminiscent of some of Clive Barker’s creations.  We don’t exactly know what it is, god, demon, or just some terrifying alien.  It seems so powerful, and leaves such fear and destruction in its wake, that a galaxy-wide cult of the Shrike has emerged throughout the galaxy and has significant influence on the Hegemony, the central power comprising the majority of the planets and the virtual network between them.  To complicate matters, Hyperion is becoming the focal point of a military confrontation between the Hegemony and a band of separatists called the Ousters.  This combination of terror and war is driving away most of the population of the planet and creates a profound atmosphere of suspense.

My only disappointment with the book was that it was not exactly a self-contained story.  “Hyperion” is the first in a series of four books in “The Hyperion Cantos.”  This book stops after the stories are told, but before the pilgrims meet the Shrike.  I assume the confrontation occurs in the next book.  However, unlike other book which were part of a series and just ended without resolution, like Cherryh’s “Cyteen,” I didn’t mind that the climax occurs in the next volume.  The collection of stories and their role in unveiling Simmon’s universe created an extremely satisfying read. 

I gave this book 4 stars.  It has great prose and great character development.  It is a horror story within a SF framework, told in a format that kept me turning the pages with anticipation.  It is one of the few Hugo winners that made me want to read the sequel.