Review: Ring of Swords

December 31, 2013 at 7:33 pm (science fiction)

Ring of Swords
Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is what I call a “thinky” book, where important concepts are front and center; it is sociological science fiction, where it’s not the aliens’ military technology that’s important but their culture, and especially how they wind up interacting with humans.

It’s also very well written, and completely unwilling to give either side all the moral high ground. The book, with the very intelligent and somewhat cold Anna Perez and the very worried Nicholas Sanders at its center, peels back multiple layers of assumptions about gender and power dynamics to expose some very interesting notions about human and alien societies. Not to mention about the myth of “it’s always been this way.”

I don’t think there’s really any way to describe it further without spoiling it and undermining it, too. Just keep going through the somewhat clunky “military intelligence isn’t” setup to get to the main part of the story. I think it compares favorably to certain high concept SF by the likes of C. J. Cherryh and Ursula K. LeGuin.

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Review: The Kassa Gambit

December 31, 2013 at 7:19 pm (science fiction)

The Kassa Gambit
The Kassa Gambit by M.C. Planck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read this book before – or versions of it: far-traveling small trader meets double agent meets interplanetary conspiracy; hijinks ensue. A pretty good read.

This one has the kind of creative variations and embellishments that make it worth reading the basic story again, at least in my estimation. These lie mainly in the cultural/historical/political realms. There is, for example, a basically fascist organization called the League that is working toward the takeover of a basically democratic society (that’s where the double agent comes in). The small trader is looking for her mother’s planet, which she doesn’t even know the name of (but she has a high-tech artifact from it, which turns out to be very handy at a key point in the plot).

Planck puts in some interesting thoughts about technological stagnation in a basically unthreatened interstellar society; the trader’s home planet underwent sociopolitical catastrophe that caused her to flee it, which is nicely different from the usual reasons for fleeing a planet. Plenty of interesting secondary characters too, and the main characters are quite well done. Taken as a whole, however, the plot was unfortunately predictable.

So, it doesn’t quite reach the level of brilliance, in my humble opinion. Except maybe in the climactic action sequence, which seems to take place in that altered state of consciousness that lies on the other side of terror and despair. That was impressive.

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Review: Hostile Takeover

November 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm (science fiction, space opera)

Hostile Takeover
Hostile Takeover by Susan Shwartz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book more, but the future world portrayed by Shwartz pissed me off so much that I had to set it aside repeatedly so I could cool off.

It’s actually a typical extrapolation-from-the-present near-future SF world, in which financial-services veteran Shwartz contemplates what would happen if the whole world were dominated by that industry. More than it is now, that is. So much so that people are divided into three classes: the poor, stuffed into crime-ridden crowded “insulae” with only the thinnest thread of hope of escape; the wealthy, insulated from (but not immune to) financial risk; and the middle class, who live in fear of losing a job, falling into debt, and being shipped off to the asteroidal colonies in cryogenic suspension and to indentured servitude (or even involuntary organ donation).

The protagonist, CC, escaped from poverty into the middle class and lives in that fear (waking up multiple a week in sweating, terrified nightmares). The inevitable result of these circumstances, in which even a brilliant and creative analyst like CC could easily wind up on the garbage heap, is that the middle class salarymen behave pretty much like ferrets tied up in a sack. Apparently they are not really paid all that well, making it very hard for them to stay out of debt (and unable to save up for large expenses?), their credit ratings are monitored constantly for imprudent discretionary spending, and their behavior is expected to fall within rigid but unwritten lines at all times. Otherwise they get “downchecked” and if their fiscal and social credit ratings get too low, they’ll suddenly become unemployable.

As I said, terrifying and infuriating. Shwartz makes CC’s terror and determination very real – as well as her intelligence and serious research addiction (which endeared her to me considerably, of course).

The plot revolves around CC’s audit of questionable activities at Vesta Colony, various attempted murders of CC, and eventual discoveries that were great to read but don’t add much to the spectrum of SF ideas. It’s the setting that does that.

Pay no attention to the cover, by the way. It should’ve been a representation of CC’s 3D data matrix, not a ridiculous intimation of physical combat that didn’t happen.

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Review: A Brother’s Price

November 23, 2013 at 12:27 am (fantasy, science fiction)

A Brother's Price
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A person’s favorite books can be – are – intensely personal. A favorite book may not have the most amazing writing or worldbuilding or plot or characters, and yet be just the right book for certain readers. For such a book and such a reader, a review is rather pointless. Which is why I haven’t gotten around to writing a review of this book until now, even though I usually re-read it a couple of times a year.

Consider, for example, the worldbuilding here: it’s muddy. Is this another planet? A post-apocalyptic former United States? An alternate history of some kind? There’s no way to know. I’m inclined toward the post-apocalyptic US, because of some of the names (“Renssellaer” just shouts familiarity with New York state to me, though it’s spelled a bit wrong) and because the uneven tech and science levels suggest that someone, somewhere, has access to a smattering of “ancient texts.” A date in the 1500s is mentioned at some point, suggesting that it’s been a very long time since a new calendar was started, based (I suspect) on the teachings of seven prophets of a pantheon headed by Hera. But there’s absolutely no way to be sure; it’s completely irrelevant to the narrative, and none of it’s actually explained. This is the kind of thing that’s guaranteed to drive a certain segment of the f&sf reading public absolutely nuts, so if you’re one of them, I wouldn’t suggest trying to read it.

On the social plane is, of course, the conceit emphasized in the book: that for some reason, at some point in the past (and continuing to the present), live births of males cratered. As a result, 95% or more of the population is female, and they have line marriages – one man marries a family of sisters, and also takes on what we would consider a female role. Males are also considered property, and the “brother’s price” of the title refers to the money a batch of sisters can get for their (usually one, if they’re lucky) brother, if they don’t swap for another family’s brother so they can have a husband. This, a topic of great relevance to all the characters, gets quite a bit of attention in the narrative.

The plot is actually a rather simple one of problematic romance between Jerin Whistler, a farmers’ son, and the princesses of the boringly named “Queensland,” with a side order of high-level intrigue, treason, and murder. (Plus steamboats, for those who are interested.)

What I like about the book is, I think, actually two things. First, most of the characters have thoughts and opinions about their own society, not all of them positive or happy; the inherent problems of such a society are out in the open and sometimes discussed, just like the inherent problems in our own society. Second, the themes of love for and responsibility toward one’s family that run through the book. Jerin doesn’t like the risk of being married into a family he won’t like, but he also knows that his sisters really need a husband and the money his marriage can bring.

And there’s a third thing: the way the Whistlers see some of the things that happen as what they call “a shining coin”: a chance for brilliant success or even just survival that they can have if they only reach out and catch it – and are lucky. I see it as the thing that ties the whole book together, and for intensely personal reasons, is probably the real reason why I love this book.

Your mileage will probably vary. But that’s okay. Wen Spencer obviously wrote this book specifically for me.

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Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster (1978)

June 7, 2012 at 7:57 am (science fiction, space opera)

Ah, nostalgia! I first read this book as a young teen, sitting on the floor of the library in the resort town we were vacationing in that summer.

Re-reading it now, I found that I remembered nothing whatsoever of the plot or even the setting – I retained only a general positive impression that I think was based partly on its exoticism and partly on the way with imagery that Foster sometimes has, and no doubt partly on the fact that Leia kicks butt.

And honestly, it doesn’t survive mature analysis very well. That clever and beautiful imagery gives it the only depth it has – it’s a straightforward adventure novel, rife with coincidence, driven by pursuit of a pseudo-scientific MacGuffin, and leading into a standard confrontation with the enemy in a collapsing ancient temple. It’s amazing that the plot works at all; that’s a testament to Foster’s basic ability as a writer (in all aspects except romance).

So I still liked it, but nowhere near as much as I did back in the day. Ah well.

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The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (2011)

March 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm (fantasy, Reviews, science fiction)

Wells has invented a fascinating fantasy world with an abundance of very different species and glimpses of complex economies and political structures, scattered across a vast world. It has magic, at any rate, so it must be fantasy, but the factors I just mentioned actually make it feel a bit more like science fiction. To me, this is a bonus! But your mileage may vary, as they say.

It’s also a very personal story, in which protagonist Moon finally meets up with the first member of his own species he’s seen since his mother and siblings were killed. That’s partly because of how big this world is, and partly because the Raksura live in small, rather tribal communities, and partly because large swaths of the world (especially where Moon has been) are inhabited by people who still live in remote and poorly-connected villages.

Part of his problem has been that in his winged form (he has two), he resembles another species called the Fell, which is vicious and predatory. He knows he’s not one of them, but other people are generally inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Anyway, Stone, the Raksura who finds him, brings him back home. There Moon struggles to adjust to a foreign culture where he doesn’t have to be afraid of discovery … and then the Fell appear not just on the horizon, but up close and dangerous.

So, remember the “sense of wonder” that science fiction is supposed to have? This has got that. Plus a sympathetic protagonist, various interesting other characters, some hard-won battles, creepy evil folks, and lots of neat stuff to explore. I hope to actually buy my own copy at some point.

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Out of the Dark by David Weber (2010)

February 15, 2012 at 10:17 am (military SF, science fiction, WTF?)

I don’t usually spoiler books in my reviews, but this was published way back in 2010, and it is pretty much impossible to express myself on the subject of this book without talking about the surprise ending.  You have been warned.

Near-future alien invasions have been done before, and this one even includes a reference to Independence Day‘s use of over-used SF tropes.  It does not, however, mention the common trope of the special-snowflake status of the USA being extended (with a prominent US role, of course) to the whole human race – that would be the narrative undermining itself.  These types of books pretty much all do that, though I think if I tried I could probably find examples that buck the trend.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.  It isn’t the lengthy, loving descriptions of arms and armament that I want to talk about either, although the book probably would’ve been 30 pages shorter if those have been trimmed.  Weber’s tendency to include long disquisitions about politics is also on display from time to time, as well.

But no, what I wanted to talk about is vampires.

See, in the last few chapters it turns out that a vampire is unalive and well and still living in the mountains of Romania.  Yes, that vampire.  And he’s not happy about aliens destroying most of the major cities on the planet (and a lot of the minor ones) through kinetic bombardment.  He’s even less happy when the aliens (they’re called Shongairi, by the way) unwittingly decide to pick the wrong villages to collect experimental subjects from – villages he’s taken up the burden of protecting.

Yeah, so.  Vampires save the human race from alien invasion.  I suppose you could say this undermines the typical special-human-snowflwake alien invasion story trope, but then you probably haven’t actually read the book.  I have, and it doesn’t.  The epilogue is titled “Year 1 of the Terran Empire.”

In an era of Jane Austen and zombies and Abraham Lincoln as a vampire-hunter, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  But I still think Weber wrote up the proposal on a bet, and then got stuck with writing it when it actually sold.  I mean, he’s got to make a living, even with the Honor Harrington series still doing so well.

But.  Still.  Umm.  I mean, really???

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July 2011 wrap-up

July 31, 2011 at 11:17 pm (military SF, mystery, Nonfiction - history, science fiction)

Not especially to my surprise, I’ve fallen behind on reviewing the books I’ve read this month.  So here’s a quick summary of the ones I haven’t managed to write a full review of:

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (2008).  I’m not an unreserved Scalzi fan overall, but I enjoy his work.  This one is interesting – a parallel version of events in The Last Colony, explaining a bunch of things that happened from the perspective of Zoë, teenage adopted daughter of the heroes of the other “Old Man’s War” series.  It holds together quite well as an independent novel, though.  A lot of it revolves around Zoë’s peculiar relationship with the alien Obin – those who’ve actually read all the Old Man’s War series (which I found I hadn’t, actually) will know what I mean, and those who haven’t should get to enjoy the reveal.  Zoë is a really engaging first-person narrator, the personal and political events are very well done, and I recommend the book.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1819).  This concludes my reading of Austen.  She takes a noticeably different approach here, trying to directly undermine the conventions of the novel (the first line is “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine”).   More interesting is the portrayal of two (or perhaps three) fundamentally dishonest people, and how difficult they can make the lives of the honest and straightforward.  There are also bits about the danger of letting one’s imagination run away with one.  And of course a happy ending.  Certainly worth reading.

Buttons and Bones by Monica Ferris (2010).  This is one of the cozy mystery series I’ve been following, courtesy of the public library – my goodness, this is the 14th “Needlecraft Mystery.”  Anyway, the conceit is that Betsy Devonshire owns a needlework shop in a small Minnesota town, and has a knack for solving mysteries.  Not all of the series hits the mark, in my opinion, but this one definitely passes it.  Maybe I’m biased because it has a significant historical element – the mystery is about something that happened during or after World War II – but I think it holds together very nicely, and the needlework element was, umm, woven in particularly well.  Though I did figure out what happened before the characters did, which I rarely manage to do.

Planet of Twilight by Barbara Hambly (1997).  My son picked up this Star War tie-in from the library, and I grabbed it one day when I was looking for a bit of light reading.  Boy, was that a mistake: this is serious stuff, even grim and depressing.  And very well written, not that I’d expect less out of Hambly; I’ve read at least one really bad Star Wars tie-in novel, and probably would’ve ignored this one if it hadn’t had Hambly’s name on it.  Anyway, it’s a fairly involved mystery-type plot revolving around exactly what Seti Ashgad is up to, and what is going on in a nearly lifeless world called Renat Chorios.  There is also plague, nasty alien life forms, intrigue, etc.  And like I said, kind of depressing, but a good book.

The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy by David Stuart (1988).  A bit of nonfiction I picked up at the flea market a while back and have been slowly going through.  I wouldn’t call it a valuable reference book by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a rather rambling narrative, with only a few shallow attempts at real historical analysis.  But it was interesting, if one is interested in historical gardening (which I am, to a certain extent). 

Extremis by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon (2011).  Another library book – military SF, this time.  I think I may have read one of the earlier books in this “Starfire” series; at least, the life circumstances of one of the human characters seem familiar.  At any rate, the novel revolves around the conflict between alien refugees (their star went nova) and the humans who already colonized the plant they’ve arrived at.  Communication between the two is hampered by the fact that the aliens have an empathic/telepathic form of communication rather than a verbal one, and interstellar war is the result.  There is some good character work going on here, particularly with the aliens; the parallels between the two sides’ political situation are perhaps a little too obvious, but didn’t break it for me.  And there were some really good space battles, triumph and heroism, that sort of thing.  Not bad work at all.

This month I also re-read three Mercedes Lackey novels – one of them because it’s set almost entirely in cold winter circumstances (there was a major heat wave).  So, that’s a total of 13 new-to-me books read this month, plus three re-reads.

Yes, I read a lot.  That’s what the point of this month of reviews was supposed to be!  It’s no wonder I can’t find the time to fully review them all.

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Eager by Helen Fox (2004)

July 17, 2011 at 9:14 am (juvenile, science fiction)

My son insisted that I read this Juvenile-level science fiction novel; he thought it was very interesting.  And I agree.  It’s not often you find a novel of any description that manages to weave in questions about free will, the definition of “life,” corporate morality, and humans’ relationships to non-human things.

Technically, the book is about robots.  At some undefined point in the future, petroleum stocks have been depleted to almost nothing and society has divided up into the technocrat class (scientists), professional class (people with actual work of some kind), and everybody else – unskilled work is done by robots, so apparently most people are unemployed and living on the dole.  (The setting appears to be England.)

As the story opens, LifeCorp has just released its new-model robot, the BDC4, and the Bell family can’t afford to buy one to replace their damaged old butler robot, known as Grumps. Nor are they sure that they want to replace him, as he has a lot of sentimental value.  But an acquaintance of Mr. Bell, who is an independent scientist, has just developed a new-model robot of his own, and Mr. Bell agrees to bring the EGR3 home, where he’s soon dubbed “Eager.”

Eager is unique, because his “programming” is all based on (virtual) experience, much like a human being’s.  He learns like a human and also has genuine feelings, too.  Part of the story is about his attempts to learn what he needs to know and his questions about what it means to be a robot with such human characteristics.  The other part is about the peculiarities of the BDC4s, which Gavin Bell and his teenaged sister Fleur notice fairly quickly, and try to investigate.

The two plots interweave, at least in part.  I’m not sure they really work together perfectly, but it’s an interesting set of concepts and the book fueled several conversations about government and philosophy (and SF tropes!) with my son.

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The I Inside by Alan Dean Foster (1984)

July 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm (science fiction)

I had to share the incredibly cheesy pulp-era-style cover of this book, which has been lurking on our shelves, unread, for some time:

That would probably be why I hadn’t read it, even though I generally like Foster’s work.  I’ll give the artist some credit: the female protagonist is indeed brown, not white.  Needless to say, however, nothing like this scene (or either costume!!) appears in the book.  Ugh.

So, Eric Abbott is a design engineer who’s led a quiet and unassuming life in Phoenix, AZ.  He has no idea why a momentary glimpse of a woman in a passing car sets him off on a journey to find her, except that he’s in love.  Lisa Tambor obsesses him; and when he finally meets her, amazingly, she falls in love with him, too, and they decide to escape to the interstellar colonies.

There are a lot of things not right with the situation, of course, not least of which is Abbott’s sudden tendency to display superhuman strength and reflexes.  The way no one (including the lady herself) will tell him why Tambor can’t leave her job and marry him is really annoying, though I suppose they were all correct that explanations wouldn’t change his attitude and would have been a terrible breach of security.  Abbott’s stalkerish behavior is unnerving, and might be particularly disturbing to some, but at least he remains polite about it almost all the time (and apparently truly can’t help it).

Of course there are explanations of most things, which eventually get a Dramatic Reveal, followed by other and even more interesting revelations.  The story also involves exposure of dystopic elements in the near-utopia that has developed on Earth thanks to the influence of the Colligatarch, a supercomputer that suggests solutions to problems of all kinds.  From that angle, it’s not just an SF adventure story, but also a mildly didactic one.

Overall, it’s an amusing light read.  To my mind, other than the dated future technology (no cell phones or meaningful Internet!), the book’s biggest flaw is that Foster is really not at his best when writing romantic dialogue.  I mean, really not at his best.  Which is too bad, since there’s a romance at the center of this novel!

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