Readlist – The Durdane Duology and more

– The Durdane Trilogy (The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men, The Asutra) – Jack Vance. This is a trilogy that really, really should have ended with the second book. Or at least, had a hard-handed editor crack down on Vance, who allowed his cynicism and (apparent) dislike of the main character invalidate that hero’s entire arc, work, and struggles.

Books 1 and 2 set up a subtle parallel between the main hero, Gastel Etzwane, and the two most prominent supporting leads: the mysterious and neutral Ifness, and the fraught Jerd Finnerack. When Etzwane is a young boy, fleeing from mortal danger, he encounters Ifness–who (bound by a strict policy of neutrality!) refuses to help. Later, when Etzwane encounters Ifness again as an adult, Ifness–ostensibly for reasons of sheer pragmatism but, potentially, also as a subconscious or semi-conscious atonement–makes Etzwane his accomplice and sets the reins of power in his hands, before exiting stage left in the fashion of mysterious mentors.

Meanwhile, when Etzwane was also a boy, he did a great harm to Jerd Finnerack, who was attempting to help him; and when he is able to, recruits Finnerack as his assistant…and sets the reins of power in his hands.

Etzwane is not particularly bitter against the man who harmed him, or at least can control the desire to act on his dislike; Finnerack is, and might–or might not. The conflict between the two grows throughout book 2 as they both increase their abilities–Finnerack more so than Etzwane, and Finnerack with decreasing stability. It is one of the driving sources of tension in Book 2, as our heroes  clash even while they are attempting to unify the planet and destroy the barbarian hordes of invaders. –with heroic, protagonistic success, but not without incident–

And then, Ifness comes back and takes over (the neutrality policy has changed! Now his actions are, it is revealed, motivated by a desire to embarass and displace his superiors), and Gastel Etzwane’s time, efforts, sacrifice, struggles, worries, plans, and battles are completely forgotten or negated; Jerd Finnerack is destroyed as a character with an almost cruel abruptness. Several fairly important plot threads are completely abandoned in order to make this work. Worse still, this is all done together with a bait-and-switch moment that was aggravating just on the surface of it.

Still, Book 2 provides an overall satisfactory conclusion to the problems of the world Durdane and its leadership, and the journey of the boy Mur, aka Gastel Etzwane, the musician who became its leader.

The way Book 3 ends makes me assume Vance was forced to write another chapter just for the sake of it, disliked the obligation, and decided to deliberately make the readers suffer. Here’s how: he takes a bunch of standard SF tropes and our hero…and then (with malicious intent!) applies “Except Now Reality Happens” to what should be very simple tropes. Planetary barbarians capture spaceship to rescue their womenfolk!….ship is recaptured after a brief siege because the barbarians can’t make it go anywhere, up down or around, and all survivors (did we mention they started killing each other after a week or so, including the named characters that were specifically pointed out as knowing the odds and the risks of a rescue mission and went for it anyway because they loved their daughters) are enslaved along with the girls. Again, it’s not in the content–it’s in the execution; and it’s in the denouement, which is infuriating all on its own without adding the additional insult that it does have.

Will you look at that, turns out I did have something to say about this book. I think it sucked.

As far as the good stuff goes: Books 1 and 2 for the most part are standard and I did like them: they have characters, character arcs, development, motives, and a plot that allows the characters to be proactive and effective. Book 1 Etzwane is largely motivated by trying to redeem his mother’s slave-indenture, making his mother one of the more prominent female characters in the pulp scifi galaxy. And she’s a rather good character as well. Might have to make a “mothers in SF” post one of these days. And I will say that that’s an OK cover to book 3. If only it had a good book to cover. Damnit.

– The Blue World – Jack Vance – See, Vance did know how to write pulp-action scifi. He just had to layer it in elaborate worldbuilding and add sly layers of humorous backstory. I read this one as a palate cleanser. (Literally: I stayed awake another two hours to read it, just to get The Asutra out of my head.)

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – This one has definitely entered the rotation as one of my go-to relax reads, and I’m glad to say it’s held up on each repeat.

– The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett – “Vimes in Uberwald will be more amusing than an amorous armadillo in a bowling alley.”

Poetry Corner – Shai Dorsai

Stone are my walls, and my roof is of timber,
 But the hands of my builder are stronger by far.
 The roof may be burned and my stones may be scattered,
 But never her light be defeated in war.

 	 I am the heart and the core of the Morgans.
 Many the battle, around me, was fought.
 Many the year has gone by since my building.
 Each of my stones, by a life, has been bought.

 	 Long was the work and hard was the building
 From under the hill and the forest so wide.
 My stone, that is piled in the place of her choosing,
 Is mortared with bone of the men who have died.

	 Blood paid the price of this hill that I rest on
 And blood pays the price of these lands that I see.
 The price; it is fair for the rights that it purchased.
 Within my gray walls, ye shall ever stand free.

 	 I am the heart and the core of the Morgans.
 Amanda; she built me and I shall remain
 A home for the heart of the men that may leave me;
 A beacon for bearing their way home again.

 	 Stone are my walls and my roof is of timber,
 But the hands of my builder are stronger by far.
 The roof may be burned and my stones may be scattered,
 But never her light be defeated in war.


- Gordon R. Dickson, The Spirit of Dorsai

12 Rules for Life: Science-Fiction Solutions to Chaos (repost)

So inspired by (a 12 Rules list which was made by someone who hadn’t very read much science fiction) and the fact that I occasionally remember this is supposed to be an SF book blog, here’s my brilliant, science-fiction infused Antidote To Chaos.

Rule One: Never act incautiously when facing a small wrinkly bald smiling old man!
b88b64994c83bc8f1b9ea3a8fd4d6952-memes

Hokey religions and ancient prophecies are no match for a good blaster at your side. 

When in doubt, take off and nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. 

– Learn the attitude of the knife–of chopping off what’s incomplete and saying ‘Now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.’ 

Good engineers build triple redundancy. 

Do not call up that which you cannot put down. 

Beware of spaceships bearing gifts. 

When you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.” Also alternatively stated: Make ye no truce with Adam-zad! 

If someone asks you for a cracker for their oontatherium…give it to them. 

Evil is treating people like things–including yourself. 

Fuck subtle. 

All things strive. 

Runners up:
“You can’t trust anybody any further than you can throw them and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”

– Make ye no truce with Kings!

Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF – Parts 2 and 3

As mentioned, Part I is the stuff I actually read (and most of it, liked enormously.) Part II is stories I didn’t bother reading before.

Davy Jones’ Ambassador – Ramond Z. Gallun – This is one of the very few stories you will ever read where “They’ll put you in a box and study you!” is met with a calm, “Yes. I intend to study them, as well. It will be interesting.” So in this case there are two steely-eyed resourceful engineer heroes….and one of them is a Deep Thing.

The Weather Man – It’s actually a three-fer, as it has a smug politician, a mad (female) scientist, an elderly retired scientist (I was waiting for him to be consulted about the developments, but this did not transpire) and an invincible space engineer.

The Singing Diamond – Eh. This is what I have against most space babes: they’re kind of wimpy and will, at the drop of an ultradense gravity bomb, give up on space exploration and hover around Earth to listen to microscopic alien motes buzz. Sing. Whatever.

Exposures – Greg Bear – This one is quite good once you get to the meat of it, but it’s slow and dense and it took some effort to get into.

Down and Out on Ellfive Prime – Dean Ing – This one’s quite good in theory (and has two Competent Space Heroes), but it’s sloppily executed.

Prima Belladona – Uh. Okay.

The Land Ironclads – H. G. Wells invents tank warfare. He doesn’t quite get it all right, but he got the snivelling journalists bang-on.

Procreation – Gene Wolfe: Okay. This one misses out on being straight lit fic mostly because it involves parallel universes and the ingress and egress of the protagonists from them. Nevertheless….

Atomic Power – John W. Campbell: For someone who repeatedly insisted Tom Godwin not rescue the girl in The Cold Equations, Campbell is pretty cavalier about hitting the reset button after life on Earth as we know it is irreparably altered and untold billions of people have died horribly.

GiANTS – Edward Bryant – guess what this one’s about. No, go on. Guess. No, you were actually wrong, because it’s a philosophical romance shot through with elements of science and morbidity. Also, the square-cube law is weaponized.

Day Million – Frederik Pohl – Dude, freaking chill. Seriously.

Weyr Search – Anne McCaffrey – Why are the Pern books regarded as either scifi or good? This story sucked, the characters were repulsive, and the writing was bland.

The Hungry Guinea Pig – Miles J. Breuer, M. D. – I read this story and I regretted it. You have two guesses as to why, and here are three hints to help. One is the title, and the second is the fact that the mad scientist also won a medal in WW2 in the artillery. The last hint is that the square-cube law is gleefully violated and no one seems to really care.

Kyrie – Poul Anderson – Ugh. See, I can handle alien star systems being supernova’d. I can handle the Earth getting blown up. I can handle the girl getting spaced, because that’s a quick death. I can even handle the Earth being torn apart atom from atom and life as we know it being slowly and painfully extinguished. But being crushed to death in a black hole while your dilated sense of time registers it for eternity and you are telepathically linked to someone on the outside who is going be to hearing your screams for eternity–that’s a no from me, dawg.

Dolphin’s Way – Gordon R. Dickson – I read this, or I must have, because it’s Gordon R. Dickson. But I can’t really remember it and I don’t particularly want to try.

The Life and Times of Multivac – Isaac Asimov – I think I read this one. It was aight.

Drode’s Equations – This is goddamn lit fic, what the hell. Get outa here.

Making Light – James P Hogan – Hehhhhhh.

The Last Question – Isaac Asimov – Also heh.

And then there’s Part III – These sound boring, and their first few paragraphs don’t help, and I didn’t read them ever and probably never will.

The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats – James Tiptree, Jr. – Oh, no. I read the guinea pig story. You are NOT getting me on this one.
Cage of Sand – J. G. Ballard. Considering this is where not one but two bookmarks have ended up, it gets to stay on this list. Also the title sounds like Rope of Sand, a vaguely homoerotic film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Henreid (not a bad film, BTW.)
No, No, Not Rogov! – Cordwainer Smith – I vaguely remember skim-reading this one–the title is the last line–but everything Cordwainer Smith has always left a bad taste in my mouth.
Mammy Morgan Played the Organ, Her Daddy Beat the Drum – Michael F Flynn – Is there, possibly, anywhere, somehow, a title less likely to attract a scifi reader’s attention? I mean, I’m not demanding “Blood Swords of the Gods of Death Against the Dying Suns,” but if you’re writing in the genre at least try. At least Carnacki the Ghost-Finder knew to be properly evocative. “The Thing Invisible,” “The Gateway of the Monster.” “The House Among the Laurels.” Refer to the monster, not to what the monster does…especially if the monster/ghost is doing something as mundane as playing piano. Organ. Whatever.
The Pi Man – Alfred Bester – Bester is a complete meh at the best of times.
– A bunch more that I’m not bothering to list out because….they sound boring.

Review – The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF – Pt I

The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF is an anthology with a hard-SF theme compiled and edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. The copy I have is still stamped with COUNTY REGIONAL LIBRARY and we picked it up off the hardbacks-for-one-dollar table, quite a few moons ago. Not nearly so long ago as that, I found myself frantically trawling through online bibliographies in search of *cough* evocative titles that, more importantly, meant something to me. This was one of them, and I recently re-read (most of) the book to figure out why.

Why? It’s hard or hard-ish SF, but also: deeply psychological. There are a lot of steely-eyed missile man space heroes. Also, this book is very female-centric. There are a lot of cool dames–and a smattering of mad scientists–in this, and they come in more flavors than the space heroes do.

The book is broken down into Parts I, II, and III. I don’t know why because I never have bothered to read the editors’ notes or forwards and I refuse to do so now. It doesn’t seem to be a chronological order, because Part III contains stories by Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne as well as the likes of Vernor Vinge and Cordwainer Smith.

Not coincidentally, though, this review is also broken down into three parts: stories I’ve voluntarily read before, stories I made myself read this time through, and stories that I’m probably not going to read no matter what. Oddly enough, they kind of trace over the parts I, II, and III as well. Is that significant? I dunno.

So, Part I – stories I’ve read before and most of them I liked.

Nine Lives – Usula K. Leguin – kind of exemplifies the theme of this collection. Hard SF, with the grit of hard, dangerous labor in space and on alien worlds, with a deeply psychological thrust. Two miners on a far-off world have lived with each other long enough to develop a rapport, which is disrupted by the entrance of another personality….lots of another personality. Standard stuff. But then, for the gripping hand: how do you expect someone to react to losing themselves in a mining accident….nine times over? In other words, it’s long on the psychology and short on the blasting action, but it’s also written by a Grande Dame of SF and quite readable regardless.

The Star – Arthur C. Clarke – Heh.

Rappaccini’s Daughter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – How this is supposed to be Hard SF eludes me, but remember the 18th-century Gothic poetic flavor, it’ll be back later.

Mimsy were the Borogoves – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore – Parenthood also seems to be one of the themes of this anthology. Is this significant? I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. Perhaps reviewing SF shouldn’t be done while I have a fever. I should stick to chick-flicks.

Beep – James Blish – I only just realized on this read-through how female-centric this collection actually is, which is probably one of the reasons I tend to like it so much. The central (not POV) character in this story is a woman, and it turns out that (spoiler), she’s got all the answers. And will provide them to the very much not-hapless but in this situation basically helpless, heroes, for the appropriate price. Really, the only way this story shows its age is through the assumption that a professional journalist is going to have anything resembling ethics or patriotism. The actual S in the F here isn’t all that plausible, but said heroes are first-rate mid-century Honest and Competent Bureaucrats….so quaint. So cute.

Transit of Earth – Arthur C. Clarke – The actual reason I was never that impressed by The Martian.

To Bring in the Steel – Donald M. Kingsbury – My actual favorite. This entire 1000+ page book is worth hauling around for this one novella. What’s it about? Well, there’s this girl. And there’s this guy. And there’s an asteroid with ten billion tons of steel, being slowly guided on its way towards Earth. Guy (Kell) is an engineer on the asteroid colony. He’s an old-school space hero of the steely-eyed missile man with a heart of gold and an exterior of plastic and tungsten: AKA, a cynical, arrogant jerk that no one likes but everyone depends on because he really is that good. He wants custody of his seven year old daughter and, when it’s denied him by the other residents of the colony–who quite rightfully doubt that he’s fit to care for a child–comes up with an ironic revenge: hire Lisa Maria Sorenti, the most (in)famous, expensive, and sought-after courtesan in San Fransisco, as her nanny and thereby unleash hell in the erstwhile close-nit community of the mine colony. Kell is valuable enough to the company that the CEOs comply with his idea….except that Lisa Maria’s contract has an extra clause in it: she’s only allowed to focus on Kell.
So, yes, I know, so far it sounds like a maybe-above-average arranged marriage-type romance novel or a very, very sub-par setup for a scifi book, even when you factor in the portrayal of Kell an asocial, physically unattractive loner with a high IQ-, obsessive personality. (It’s really quite impressive writing, at least to my maladjusted nerd brain). It’s a portrait of The Ideal SF Hero…and what he’d really be like to be around–and what kind of woman it would take to put up with him. (In Lisa Maria’s case, seven million dollars.)
Where it comes into its own is turning Lisa Maria Sorenti from a helpless damsel incapable of functioning without her manager (aka: abusive pimp) into a heroine capable of saving the day with space suit, rocket ship, and laser gun….a heroine who is not only capable of handling the roughneck hero, but of learning how to match him jet for jet as well.

Waterclap – Isaac Asimov – This is a very feminist story. It says so. It’s character say so. And my oh my are the author’s unspoken assumptions adorably dated.

Gomez – C. M. Kornbluth – Eh. Too much math, too little blowing stuff up, and Gomez rejects his destiny as a science hero. Can’t really blame him much, though, given the circumstances…

The Cold Equations – Tom Godwin – Apparently, John Campbell rejected this story three times because Godwin kept coming up with ingenius ways to save the girl. Which, given that this story is good physics and bad engineering, including y’know, social engineering, would have been somewhat impressive in and of its own. Nevertheless, it’s a classic of the genre for a reason: she dies, and there is nothing that could be done about it.

The Hole Man – Larry Niven – This is an entry in the Astronauts Are Maladjusted Psychos genre much beloved by Hollywood scripts. However, it manages to stick to its literary roots by making them competent and intelligent maladjusted psychos who can do the math properly, rather than the total screwups that we usually see in space movies.

The Xi Effect – Earth goes poof and a snide professor told you so.

The Beautiful and the Sublime – Bruce Sterling – Remember what I said about the 18th-century Gothic lit? This is the counterpoint to it.

Heat of Fusion – John M. Ford – I keep forgetting what this story actually is about. I recognize the title. I remember I kind of liked it. I look up the first page in the book and go “oh yeah, that one.” And then by the time I get back to this part of the review I’ve forgotten again. So it’s pretty okay, I guess?

All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe – So….what? This is my problem with Gene Wolfe’s stuff and other such deeply subtextual and meaningful and double-meaningful things written by geniuses for geniuses: it doesn’t actually offer anything to me, a non-genius reading at the surface level. So why should I bother with it? And so I don’t. That being said, I read this one again, hoping it was going to be clearer this time. Nope.
Well, actually, that being said, this one does have a pretty understandable surface-level storyline. It’s just densely buried under the in medias res style that doesn’t provide any context whatsoever, heaps of subtext and globs upon globs of narrative filligree. Oh well, whatever. The turtle moves and so does the fetus.

Occam’s Scalpel – Theodore Sturgeon – This one I also like, because it’s also a portrait of An Ideal SF Hero….and why he’s really, realllllly scary to people who are paying attention. (And it’s what I always flash back to whenever I hear news of Elon Musk getting up to new business.) But it transcends the Beware the Superman theme by allowing both the ubermensch and the regular-man POV character to have and showcase the very best intentions and motivations. The final twist, of course, was put there to punch up the end of an almost-pure character study with overtones of horror and turn it into a scifi thriller…but I would seriously be down for the sequel starring any combination of these characters or ideas.

Time Fuze – Randall Garrett – I regularly get into arguments with the Father of Skaith over whether or not characters should be killed off. He says no: they need to stick around, because when you sign on to a book or a series with a main character, that is who you want to read about. Your main characters should be awesome enough that people like them, and they should be smart enough to keep themselves alive and victorious (in-story). Hero fights, hero wins, hero lives happily ever after. I say that, awesome or not, sometimes you need to kill off characters if that’s the natural result of their course of action, or if the plot / character development of others (AKA: dead wife syndrome) requires it. As long as a hero gets to live happily ever after, that still counts.
Nevertheless, we are agreed on one thing: it’s Bad Form to blow up the Earth.
BAD FORM, RANDALL!

Desertion – Clifford Simak – I’m going to spoil it right here, because: “They would turn me back into a man.” “And me, into a dog.” –is awesome.

The Person from Porlock – Raymond F. Jones – Another story about a socially maladjusted engineer is ruined by having the (literal) people from Porlock be space lizards.
Space lizards–with exposition.

The Planners – Kate Wilhelm – I read this story before, and I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it this time. If you want to write dreamlike, hallucinogenic prose, kindly don’t. I was going to write an entire ‘nother clause to that sentence, but y’know…

Light of Other Days – Bob Shaw – It aight.

Chromatic Aberration – I liked it, possibly because it’s one of the few stories in Part III of this book to feature, even vaguely described, action.

In a Petri Dish Upstairs – George Turner – This one is kind of the antithesis to proper SF, and not because the theme is bleak and the characters are repulsive. It’s because (however realistic this may be), the authorities’ solution to a tribe of orbiting barbarians is to make it somebody else’s problem….in the future. We don’t get to the future by having this attitude, and I don’t like reading about it.

Johnny Mnemonic – Vernor Vinge – Eh, it’s OK.

“Add title”

Some have broken the bounds of the narrow land

Laid open the book of dreams

Drawn doorways in the sand 

walked through Shadow to the many worlds

With fellowship and dread companions

From the last castle to the Gaean Reach

strangers and pilgrims in a strange land, 

progressing, our destination universe.

The farthest star but a mote in God's eye.


When the world turned upside down,

through a splinter in the mind's eye, recall

who goes there, out of the dark?

A star rider on a steel horse, 

a rite of passage through abyss of wonder,

shelters of stone to the starpilot's grave. // clan of cave bear to the lioness rampant

I saw the doors of his mouth open

and the lamps of his eyes shine.

A final rose bloom for Ecclesiastes,

and no night, ever, without stars.


What's it like out there -- Skagganauk, or the space beyond,

the birthplace of creation, or the crossroads of time?

There is time enough for love. 

Soul music in a minor key, sung by no woman born

In a many-colored land: red, blue, and green.

East of Eden, children of the mind await their childhood's end.

The player of games is gonna roll the bones.

Computers don't argue, the right to arm bears is in the bone

Equal rites are observed,

And no man sayeth call him lord.


There are Skylarks three in an alien sky;

from homely house to lonely mountain 

the long patrol guards moss and flower;

a stainless steel rat runs for president (to hell and back).

Sheep are electric. The horse and his boy

dream of dancing mountains.

All cats are gray, walking between the walls

To say nothing of the dog

that bays with five mouths

the fool moon.


Creatures there are of light and darkness:

When true night falls on the borders of infinity

two suns setting cast slithering shadows

across the long tomorrow. 

Ancient, my enemy, the old gods waken. 

Alas, Babylon! The city and the stars!

Wolves across the border

A feral darkness, the darkness that comes before,

Beyond the black river. 


I will fear no evil, 

not the hills of the dead nor the black god's kiss,

the wings in the night, or the red nails' gleam;

Daemon, sidhe-devil, or devil in iron

or the nine billion names of God,

for the stars are also fire

and the stars

burn.


Soldier, ask not 

of unfinished tales or a dry, quiet war.

Take iron counsel of the cold equations.

Till we have faces, lest the long night fall,

Raise the sword of Rhiannon

Set a fire upon the deep.

More than honor, we few,

Wee free men, the high crusade,

Seek Armageddon inheritance

In the service of the sword. 


Sleeper, awaken! from this alien shore

To your scattered bodies go

A citizen of the galaxy

and not this pale blue dot

Bid farewell again to the cool, green hills of earth

I have space suit and I will travel

The stars are my destination 

These stars are already ours.

Her Brother’s Keeper – Mike Kupari (repost review)

51f83jc4-flHer Brother’s Keeper by Mike Kupari of Correia-and-Kupari mil-thrillers is a 2016 Baen SF novel, and that’s about the aptest way to describe it that I know.

Where it’s good, it’s…well, it’s Baen. There’s a tough, Honor Harrington / Heris Serrano-esque ship captain, a weaselly but ultimately honorable aristocrat, an extremely intelligent and extremely socially inept xenoarchaeologist who might be about to stumble over the discovery of the millennia–if it doesn’t get sold on the black market first–there’s a spooky ghost ship interlude that hits every AARGH GUYS GET OUT OF THERE button there is, there’s ground and space action, some perfunctory romance, a couple of heartwarming reunions, and a happy part-1 ending.

On the other hand, where it’s bad, it’s eyerollingly bad. Look, we get it, you love the great state of Texas, good for you. Now shut up. And take that hat off, you look STOOPID with it over your space helmet.

What really knocks any chance this book might have of moving past its flaws is the fact that a) its tone isn’t SF, and b) its overall writing style isn’t SF. What do I mean by this? That this book could have had the word “-space” excised from all scenes and been set on present-day Earth with no change in tone or format. There’s no sense of vaster scope. There’s no iota of widened imagination.

There’s no sense of wonder.

So, starting at the beginning:

Captain Catherine Blackwood returns to her ancestral home at her estranged father’s request. Her feckless younger brother, the heir and the child actually valued by their family, is being held for ransom on the furthest human world, Zanzibar. Her father will spare no expense–even though it would be more cost-effective just to have another son (lol)–to get him back. Captain Blackwood’s light patrol ship is highly trained and professional, but understaffed for what might turn out to be a military operation instead of just a straight prisoner exchange, so a stopover at the Lone Star System AKA Planet Texas (sheesh) collects some hired muscle: hero named Marcus, who also is blandly muscular enough to be played by Mark Wahlberg; sidekick with a sexbot, sniper girl, some other people, and Marcus Wahlberg’s teenage daughter, who needs to get off planet after punching a drugged-up rodeo queen who poisoned her barrel-racing horse Sparkles. I’m not making that up.

OK, well, whatever.

So they set off. Meanwhile, in captivity, feckless brother Cecil and his two sidekicks are being forced to excavate space-archaeological sites for the ruthless but not very interesting warlord Aristotle Lang. Aristotle Lang plans to Take Over The World with the money he will earn selling them on the black market. We are told that this is a bad thing, but he’s such a nonentity in this book it’s open to interpretation. I mean, really, who cares if a place like Zanzibar gets taken over by a warlord? Can he at least make the space shuttles run on time?

Despite the lack of a solid antagonist, this book is actually at its strongest when dealing with the Zanzibar-archaeology plot. There’s some kind of mysterioust secret about the planet Zanzibar which our heroes are on the cusp of discovering. Who were the humanoids who inhabited it millions of years before? How were they able to produce sophisticated technology despite their Bronze Age cultural level? Why did the obligatory-bug alien war go to such lengths to keep the planet intact when they happily used mass drivers on all other human settlements?

Why was was Zanzibar once sterilized down to the molecules of the planetary crust–and how?

Replace “aliens” with “unknown civilization, possibly Atlantis,” and “sterilized” with “volcano,” etc, etc–and you get a perfectly decent current thriller that would entertain on an airplane flight and probably be useful afterwards, if you’re traveling somewhere with no free toilet paper.

Unfortunately, Mike Kupari chose to make this book Science Fiction with a capital SF, but he doesn’t have the imagination or the writing ability to answer the questions he raises, make his heroes interesting, make his antagonists threatening, make his worlds alien, or his spaceships memorable.

Even more unfortunately, this particular plot made me compare this book to another with a very similar plot: Edmund Hamilton’s The Closed Worlds (Starwolf #2). Feckless younger sibling + treasure hunt on an unwelcoming and deadly alien planet + mercenaries…except that Hamilton added: Way Cool Stuff, Big Ideas, Big Scenes, Big Reveals, Scary Villains, Memorable Characters. Morgan Chane would kick the snot out of Marky Mark, laugh while doing so, and have pointed words about Planet Texas vis-a-vis Varna.

In Hamilton’s book, the unwelcoming nature of the alien planet is shown by clear, forceful action on the part of characters with a motivation to act in the way they do: Helmer, who dies as he lives–trying to protect his people from something that destroys the strong and makes the weak vile. Its dangers are even more vividly drawn out with the flitting, white-bodied, laughing, mouthless nanes (brrrrr).

In Kupari’s…Zanzibar is just kinda there. There’s no way of distinguishing the planet from any other by any kind of scene or scenery. Aristotle Lang is just kind of there, devoid of any personality save a vague, theatrical, villainous menace. He doesn’t actually twirl a moustache while threatening the helpless academics. That would be absurd. But it would probably have helped.

In Hamilton’s book, there’s a reveal of the great mystery of the Closed Worlds–and it’s a reveal that’s worth the wait.

In Kupari’s….it’s Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, but, eh, it’s okay, they’re gone now.

I could go on in this vein for a while, but I think that that’s sufficient.

Rated: I think I’m going to go read Starwolf over again.

Crouching Puppies, Hidden Dragon

Baen Books, one of the few traditional publishing companies that actually publishes decent old-school scifi, is under attack. The ostensible reason is that the forum (Baen’s Bar) might be a dangerous hub of insurrectionist incitement. Because nerds, knowing how to use protractors and speak Klingon are going to be that much more dangerous than ordinary people. 

David Weber comments: 

Baen Books is frequently characterized as a “right wing publisher.” That’s as stupid as the notion that the Barflies are plotting a violent coup. Baen Books doesn’t care what the political orientation of its writers — or their fiction — may be as long as the stories are good, as long as they engage and entertain the reader, and as long as there is a market for them. If Baen has a deep bench of conservative readers, that’s because so many other publishers are avoiding the kinds of stories they want to read and Baen is filling that void. Well, that of the fact that Baen Books tries really hard to publish GOOD stories that reasonably attract readers on their merits, as well. But Baen publishes conservatives, libertarians, socialists, and everything in between.

Why? Why pick on the nerds? Why try to take one source of joy or a simple place of relaxation away from people? 

Because they hate you. They hate themselves. They are in constant pain, constant fear, and they want power, not to escape it, not to free themselves, but to freely inflict this same fear and pain and hatred on others. I can know this, but I even so I don’t really understand it.

They’re coming for us. They really, truly are.

[Edited to add: the second link is to monsterhunternation’s discussion of the situation. Stay out of the comment section, because Puppy-style drama shows up very, very fast.]

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars – Christopher Paolini – Review

tosleepcover-reducedFirst things first: I liked this book, I didn’t like Eragon that much, Paolini the teenage, homeschooled, best-selling author was nevertheless a childhood hero of mine, and I have a slight fever that might be influencing my judgment.

I liked this book–but every point in its favor also has a counterpoint in its disfavor. Well, except this one: it’s science fiction. And the cover is blue. I like blue.

It’s got spaceship battles. But hardly any radio chatter. I mean, come on, that’s sixty percent of the fun of reading about space battles! Admittedly, this one is pure personal preference. I’m not great at visualizing most authors’ descriptions of space battles, especially fleet-level ones, so having narrator/s talk through what’s going on, with appropriate reactions, helps me. On the whole, the fight scenes were solid, although my personal favorite was the ground fight on planet Bughunt.

It’s a long book: my hardback copy checks in at 825 pages, not counting about sixty-odd more of appendices and made-up vocabulary. And, you know, it’s been a long, long time anybody has had the stones to write and publish a long-ass, stand-alone story in a single volume. Some even go so far as to think that fans wouldn’t stand for such a thing. If for no other reason, it’s immensely satisfying to get to an exciting action scene or a dramatic reveal and then realize that you still have two-thirds of the book, a good several hours’ more reading, to go. And, mercifully and intelligently, this book escaped the editors who would have doubtless preferred to break it into multiple pieces. This book doesn’t have enough story for a series or even, God forbid, a trilogy.

So in almost direct contradiction to my previous statements, I’m going to say: either that this book has enough story for two books, and should have been split roughly in half, right after the twisty reveal on Bughunt; or that about a hundred pages should have been trimmed off of what we got instead. Not even with huge changes to the pacing or with the destruction of individual scenes–I just think that a general tightening up would be an improvement.

It’s got a diverse cast of characters, which term I use in a literal and non-derogatory sense of the word: a large chunk of the cast is female, our POV is female, planetary cultures, skin tones, and religions are present), and a certain amount of time is devoted to fleshing them out and our heroine making personal connections with them. (In the case of at least one religion, it’s via a headbutt, but…) It also has a solidly-written, single-viewpoint protagonist. It also allows its characters to die or be killed.

Problem is, it takes several cycles and reiterations on the theme for the cast to actually settle out, and then once it has established that people can die for the sake of the plot, carefully neuters the threat by not letting it happen again, at least to any of the main characters. While there are at least two main characters who do get badly wounded, their survival is at no point actually uncertain–even when this requires the sudden existence of otherwise-unknown abilities. Deaths or otherwise-debilitating injuries are restricted to military minor characters or civilians. And, large as this cast is, upping the ante on action scenes and increasing tension/pressure on the characters in-universe by letting someone actually die (not to mention the opportunity of trimming some of the dialogue), would not have hurt.

It’s got alien species who are passably alien. Actually, I don’t have much of a counterpoint to add to this one, except that this is where some of the time trimmed by killing off, say, Sparrow or Nielson, could have been added back in. It’s also one of the points in which having a single narrator POV hinders the effort to show-not-tell. Yes, we do see that the Wraunaui / Jellies / graspers have a distinct viewpoint that diverges from Kira’s. No, we do not get to see anybody other than Kira’s take–that there has to be an overarching unifying force in place or else humans and Wranaui Will Not Get Along–on this subject, and Kira isn’t exactly the most politically astute person in the solar system.

It’s got a competently written, sympathetic and understandable, proactive and heroic POV lead. Kira, our heroine, loses, struggles, strives, suffers, and, ultimately, wins. It’s hard to ask for more. Kira is an active, uh, actor in the plot, decides what she will and will not do, and then goes out and does it. More than even this, Kira’s a good person. She has been taken and torture-interrogated by the military; presently, the ship blows up, leaving her in a working shuttle. Kira immediately begins to search for survivors. She accidentally stabs somone….and feels immediate remorse, guilt, a sense of personal responsibility and failure, and later takes the opportunity to ask as to his wellbeing.

On the other hand, there is also a certain amount of Protagonist Syndrome: the heroine is the only person with the plan, only the heroine’s plan will work, only the heroine’s presence guarantees relevance, and nobody else has got a clue. This type of hero works best in a shorter novel with less plot, but to their immense credit, Paolini (and Kira) almost manage to pull it off. I’d hesitate to say that an improvement could be made by splitting the narrative POV between several characters, because that’s a tool that in fast-moving action, or stories with major twists, that very quickly becomes tiresome, and also because I may be alone in thinking that the trope of “the protagonist, only, ever, does the important things” is overused and annoying.

Closely related to this: human antagonists who aren’t completely incompetent dumbasses. They’re only mostly incompetent dumbasses. Mind you, allowing people other than the protagonist to be proactive would have helped….

Oh: and (SPOILER) I will give it this as well. Unlike some authors who write their protagonists ascending to a higher plane of being / physically and mentally tranformed into a new state while losing their old bodies (such as John C Wright or Jack Chalker), Paolini allows the protagonist–you know, the person whom we have followed, sympathized and identified with for the length of the novel–to retain their own personality, identity, and human traits (all things that we liked) afterwards. The ascended Kira, although enormously powerful and distinctly different, still is recognizably herself; there is no sense of horror or loss of humanity, or (in my case), annoyance that the protagonist I’ve followed through the length of this book is now effectively dead. Indeed, the overall impression is that now she’s going to be ready for even more awesome feats in even more dangerous, further-flung adventures. And that takes discipline as well as skill. Chalker would have dove head-first into the loss-of-personality angle and you know that weird sex stuff would have been involved, somehow; while Wright would cheerfully destroy the audience’s rapport with a character if it meant being able to create another disembodied parahuman intelligence of pure logic and rationality (that is also Catholic). My hat’s off to Paolini: he upgraded his character but retained what made her likable and left the door open for a sequel.

So what’s the plot about, anyhow? Start with Alien/Aliens, throw the Venom suit in there from Spider-man, swing over to Prometheus, add Firefly, and I guess Star Trek. Very small trace elements of Starship Troopers kind of exist, but they’re folded into the Aliens melange to begin with. There are a couple of switch-ups which keep things interesting, a few battles, some character reveals and some plot threads that aren’t immediately followed up but which provide background texture. Some tropes even get played with in unexpected ways, such as: the Hive (or the Swarm, in this case) will be completely defeated if only the Queen (or the supreme leader) is killed. Bog-standard bug-hunt procedures, except that the people who suggest it are the swarm-members themselves, who would quite like a revolution but are genetically programmed to be unable to defy their overlord directly.

So, yeah. I liked it, there is room for improvement, and if, in the course of the next few years Paolini publishes another novel, I will check that one out, too.

(The prevailing sentiment in the Amazon 1-star reviews is that this book isn’t suitable for homeschoolers. Speak for yourselves, snowflakes.)

Rated: man still dreams of the stars!