QuikReview: The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton

This book is Space Opera–as written by one of the Old Masters, first of the breed, foremost among those that led the way and titan to those that followed–at its finest. I mean, his nickname was “World Wrecker,” you can’t get better than that. There’s a different adventure every 1.5 chapters, a space princess, a scantily-clad space-concubine, grizzled space-captains, battleships, cruisers, phantoms, cunning or treacherous advisors, quarrelsome barons, and grim and gallant fighting men. There’s the lurking menace of the Clouded Worlds’ rebel fanatics and the legendary, unknowable, unutterably fearsome threat of The Disruptor that keeps even their cynical leader in line. There’s also, to make sense of it all, a present-day (1949) protagonist who has had his consciousness transferred into the body of a star-Prince–and thence suddenly into the teeth of the action itself. But what can a man of Earth–our Earth–do when the stars themselves are at stake?

Aaaaand that’s basically it. If you feel you need to somehow know more about this book, then you ought to read it.

It’s a book that reads incredibly quickly and hits every single pulp fiction trope that it possibly can without changing genres (and that even includes the crashed ship being attacked by hostile natives….if there had been space for even a single chapter more there would have been some sort of sword-against-sword action going on.) –but yet there’s a consummate level of skill involved that carries it all off.

Partly, it’s the prose, which sells the sensawunda that can only be achieved by an active imagination, a yearning for stars yet-unreached, deep knowledge of the past that informs the actual doings and behaviors of mankind; and a nimble pen that doesn’t flinch from a little bit of mauve from time to time (see: scantily-clad space concubine.) The other part is that Hamilton actually did know his business, and, preposterous though the plot is, makes it proceed logically from the actions of intelligent and motivated actors, one of which is often–but not always–our hero.

A third and crucial part is that our hero is a hero. Starting out from an ex-soldier with a yearning for more than his old accounting job will offer him, and thrust abruptly into the whirl of galactic politics and treachery, he accounts himself well, never forgetting that he owes a debt to the true Zarth Arn, whose face he wears and whose place he has taken. Also, another tribute to Hamilton’s prowess, although John Gordon is an outsider with only a cursory knowledge of the situation, never once does anyone to sit down and explain things to him (us) in simple language. While he’s no moron, he’s always scrambling to achieve an in-scene, in-person goal–to keep his cover, to bluff the enemy, to not break his morganatic wife’s heart–and he’s doing it with limited resources and high stakes.

The other characters suffer from the fact that this is a pulp novel at heart. They’re colorful, they’re placed to provide maximum interest, and they all give the impression that, given more time to navel-gaze, they could be turned into interesting persons indeed, rather than what is simply given them by their descriptors–space-princess, stalwart captain, sneaky advisor, cynical tyrant.

The one character who does do particularly well in this is, oddly enough, the cynical space-tyrant who leads the fanatics of the (?) Clouded Worlds. Shorr Kan is an odd duck of an antagonist, professing a fanatical hatred against the Empire that he in no ways feels; his own desire is for naked power alone. He’s cunning enough to seed the elitest ranks of the Empire with his own men, assassinate the Emperor and frame his own son for it, cold-blooded enough to use a brain scan device that, on uncovering neural connections, breaks them irreparably….and yet human enough to immediately switch the device off when it reveals that he’s got the wrong man. Mind you, he’s also dumb enough to let his suddenly-ultracooperative prisoner take his girlfriend along on a harebrained scheme that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so…perhaps his defeat was more inevitable than it seemed. Apparently he gets brought back for the sequel, so.

Rated: man once dreamed of the stars!

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!

The man inside The Mandalorian’s suit

….is generally Brendan Wayne, grandson of the John Wayne. The impression I get from this Vulture interview is that a lot of the character’s physicality is much more him and less Pedro Pascal–which is an impression I also got from the way Pascal’s voicework is kind of disconnected from much of his onscreen body language. Give it a click, he’s got some interesting things to say about how he helped design the character and why he plays it the way he does.

How I view The Mandalorian: It’s a Star Wars story told by someone who really likes Star Wars…but that person is a dumb person who doesn’t understand any of the deeper context to the story he’s trying to tell. So while he’s telling a story that looks almost right, and feels just about right, it’s a dumb story, because it doesn’t understand how the tropes it’s using actually work, or why.

A New Hope was, famously, based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, but it cribs from absolutely everyone and everything–from Dune to The Searchers. It has as an underpinning to its character’s actions, the martial philosophy of the samurai (or at least, a Hollywoodized version of it), the self-sufficient, independent, individualism of old-west cowboys on a frontier where the government comes rarely and, depending on your race (species?) is untrustworthy to actively malicious.–or maybe you just want it to stay out of your Planets’ Rights. It has an old-fashioned notion that a hero would respect even go out of his way to help the innocent, women and children, even if he is a wandering lonesome man–not because he’s thirsty or a pushover, but because innocent iterant farmers have a complex and highly important role in Westerns: they are symbolic of a civilization and a hope for the future that might be different from the life that hero has, but one which he can understand and one that he can admire.

The series is at its strongest when it draws on its Western roots. The much-maligned Chapter 4, for instance, is a “Training The Peaceful Villagers” episode. In context as a semi-episodic western TV series, it makes perfect sense that The Mando would both first accept a contract to do good for some folks who needed help and still be bound to mosey on out of town (off planet) afterwards. Chapter 5, with its Arrogant Young Gun, likewise is perfectly unobjectionable in theory.

The problem comes when the showrunners aren’t capable of blending “we are now following Old West Logic” together with “space logic.” The genre shift is too abrupt and they can’t reconcile things like: Mando wistfully hoping to leave The Child in a peaceful village to grow up with other children (and mosey on alone), with the fact that there is a tracking fob on The Child that will draw other bounty hunters to it. Could this issue be solved by adding a couple lines of justification? Sure.

The first episode encapsulates this. Mando has to learn to ride the walking toothy-tadpole things because the screenwriters really wanted their Corinthian-helmed space cowboy samurai to ride through the desert, because that’s what a space cowboy does. In-universe, is there a good reason? No, because the only reason given is the native guide says, “I have spoken.” So the scene is amusing…but unfulfilling, because the audience knows they are only getting to watch a space cowboy samurai ride a walking tadpole for fanservice, and that takes all the intelligent enjoyment out of it. Could it have been fixed?

Yes, it could have, very simply.

“We don’t have a speeder. You will learn to ride blurrg. I have spoken.”

Anyhow, The Mandalorian isn’t half bad, Brendan Wayne has some interesting and insighful things to say, and hopefully they won’t screw up the second season.

The Last Planet – Andre Norton

lastplanetIn a few words: swift, deft, lean, and adroit. My copy of this is 192 pages long and there’s not an extraneous scene in it. And in under two hundred pages we get collapsing empires, Galactic Patrols, inter-service rivalries, xenophobia, mysterious planets, castaways, insanity, ancient cities, psychic dictators, street fighting, mind control, lost memories, alien aristocrats, barbarian tribesmen, impersonating deities, space dogfights, battle, and survival. And democratic government.

(And that’s basically the plot.)

Most books these days would pick one or two of these and then just stick with it….and they’d still be about three times as long and nowhere as well-done. For ex: they’d go with the xenophobia angle, double and triple and quadruple-down on it–where here, it’s treated seriously but always within the context of the driving plot. Regular Patrolmen have a disdain for Rangers–that is exacerbated into distrust and fear of the Bemmy Rangers (who happen to be three out of the surviving four.) This means that after the ship crashes, the survivors are that much less likely to listen to their SERE experts. It means that physical attacks get launched and racial slurs get spat while tensions are high and professionalism becomes a thin veneer over pure fear and uncertainty. It means that after the Patrol group encounters another party of civilian refugees, they’re that much easier to split apart–and control.

(It also means that our hero, Kartr–a human–must be in the thick of all of this, because almost no one else will talk to the Bemmys, which is actually a very clever way of involving your POV character and showing your audience what’s going on.) It doesn’t mean: there are racial slurs in every conversation; there are constant denigrations or complaints; there is constant angst and dislike. Because everyone is trying to survive here; emotional validation is unnecessary, and every one of the Patrolmen does know, in his heart, what professionalism is, and who is on his side, and who isn’t. It also means that when push comes to shove, the Patrol sticks to its own.

It doesn’t mean: we get deluged with the nitty details of survival on an alien planet, complete with latrines. It does mean: that the author has thought about what happens to primitive peoples when they get exposed to exotic diseases they have no immunity to….and what they do to people who claim to be gods and yet bring evil spirits into the camp.

It doesn’t mean we get radio chatter (which is a shame, because I love me some good radio chatter. IRL it’s usually “Who was that for?” and the ex-Marine lecturing you for not using “Copy” correctly. Oh, and finding out that you were actually open-miked all along, that one’s always fun.)–but we do get to watch a thrilling space battle–from a distance–and the stakes are great and the suspense is high.

Rated: Terra–Terra of Sol.

Captain Marvel Movie – rewrite

So! I’m not a Marvel comics fan. I’m not really a comic book person in general, one or two exceptions aside. But the culture war drama over the Captain Marvel movie [it genuinely wasn’t very good] plus the fact I rediscovered all this yesterday, means that now you get to appreciate it, too.

This is how I suggest in-depth how the Captain Marvel movie could have Been Done Better.

– Callsign “Marvel”

Captain Meep Meep is the flight officer of an experimental spaceship on a historic mission to orbit Venus. Their ship (the Mythological Name) is attacked en route and while out of contact with Earth, by an unknown and hostile alien species—the Blah. Although unarmed and taken by surprise, the humans put up a valiant fight, badly damaging their attackers’ ship and creating enough disturbance that the military patrol of the sector comes to investigate and finish off the Blah ship. Meep Meep is the last human survivor, and is taken on board the Not-Blah patrolship. She is nearly dead, and requires extensive treatment and modification, including transplanted organs grown with Not-Blah DNA, to survive. [I stole this plot point from a much better book and author (Code of Conduct, Kristine Smith), but who cares? Not Hollywood.]

The process takes a long time; but the patrolship has got plenty of that. Its Captain Alien Abs and his crew are a mix of veterans and screwed-up misfits, packed together alike into a backwater sector, due to a nameless disgrace. [You know, like Aral Vorkosigan in Shards of Honor] They have, strictly speaking, broken no law by rescuing Blackburn—but as Earth is a quarantined world, she can never return home again—including to bring warning back of the marauding Blah.

Accordingly, and with no other options, Meep Meep joins the Not-Blah military, serving for many years and gaining a rank equal to the one Alien Abs (once a Sector Commander) now holds. This allows them to form a relationship which Abs has been principled enough to refrain from before. Meep Meep forms friendships and loyalties among the Not-Blah, develops her powers, and stays out of politics.

Alien Abs, it transpires, was too much of a warmonger; he wanted the Blah-NotBlah war to end in a surrender, and not a truce. He distrusted the Blah’s promise to disarm, and caused a good deal of trouble for the diplomats when his covert spy missions on the Blah homeworld were exposed during the peace talks. (The Blah were not disarming—but the peace talks continued anyway. Because PEACENIK SURRENDERMONKEYS.) More importantly, the Blah were not making the promised population control measures that would be required for them to remain in their single system. It is only a matter of time until they are forced to burst out again, for new resources and more space. (Because Malthus!)
And Earth is the only planet which would be a suitable target for the Blah: unallied, uncontacted, primitive.

Meep Meep, officially an officer of the Not-Blah military and a citizen of the Confederacy, is barred from returning to her homeworld. And yet, the Earth must be warned if it is to have even a fighting chance. (And humans know well how to fight). And yet, the law is clear. (Meep Meep has never seen actual combat until she actually joined the Not-Blah; and even that is merely police work.)

For one thing, the Blah are already on the move. Although the patrolship has been reinforced to a small squadron, they have nowhere near enough firepower to stop the invasion. Fighting tooth and claw, Alien Abs and his badass-ly named warship (gotta have a badass name for a warship) sacrifice themselves to let Meep Meep and a small attack craft through to Earth.

The deaths of the man and the people whom she has grown to love and respect, to consider her own, to save a world they have no loyalty for; on behalf of a government which has scorned and abused them….don’t make Meep Meep very happy with the situation. So she makes it to Earth, riddled with anger, self-doubt, and grief.

It has been so long since she left Earth that it strange to her; she actively resists re-forming friendships, even feeling emotions of any kind. The resultant flat affect and cold manner—together with her freakish, mutated appearance and frightening powers—isolate her still further from other humans.

With the competence of various heroes, agencies, secret organizations, militaries, and etc, Earth gets ready to fight and the war begins.

Meep Meep is the most effective combatant out of all of the powered and nonpowered champions and heroes which rise up and work together to save the Earth….

…and when it is over, they have worked together and she is standing alone. The comrades who have fought alongside her try to convince her to stay and rebuild her life on Earth, but she shakes her head and turns away–back to stars.

So: not all of this needs to be actually spelled-out on screen (we are talking about a summer Hollywood blockbuster here, right? Surely…!) The focus can go to either the space opera part–The Adventures of Captain Meep–or to the saving Earth part: Callsign Meep. Flashbacks and dialogue can be used. Show, don’t tell! Do awesome things! Have big fights! Ship to ship action. Blow up moons and mine asteroid fields! Utilize powered armor and mecha in intelligent and tactically-correct ways! Have a physically powerful, mentally strong but complex and layered female character, who loves, grieves, fights–and protects. Give her motivations for taking the actions she does. Give her plot-relevance. Give her an actual personality with likes and dislikes, habits and quirks.

And give her a love interest with some really fine abs, come on.

Read/watchlist microreviews

Edmund Hamilton – The Star Hunters
Secret agents–disguises–star kings–femme fatales–prison escapes–outlaws–the dread discovery of things man might have learned to know but cannot be trusted with–dogfights in the choked wreckage of the Devil’s Canyon of space…
Rated: old-school space opera sensawunda and action. It doesn’t get better than this.

The Sun Smasher
Starmen, star-kings, and star-queens–godlike fallen masters of Space–empires Old and New–forgotten and forbidden weapons–forgotten memories and long-lost heirs–spiderlings–old retainers–undying loyalty and unrequited love–
Even if it was somewhat predictable….it don’t get better than this.

The Three Planeteers
This one was less space opera and more pulp….ehh.



– Pillars of the Sky – Oddly enough, keeping the focus on the white men is a plus; it makes the drama more bearable, and also the dialogue less stilted. A movie that focuses on the Injun Dilemma tends to be heavyhanded and maudlin when done poorly, and overwhelmingly depressing and heavyhanded when done well. A movie which has enough space to examine the Injuns’ problems from a more dispassionate distance is a movie that has the ability to show nuance, intelligence, moderation, and compassion.
And while this movie doesn’t ever rise to greatness, there are one or two scenes that are quite good–one of the army-aligned chiefs takes the bow from one of the antagonists, and, with only a little effort, breaks it in half. “My father’s bow would have ripped the arm from my shoulder before it broke. We have forgotten the ways of our people!”

Secondhand Lions – courtesy of my fellow interns and our new movie night tradition. This is a genuinely top-tier movie, despite the fact that the actor playing the young Robert Duvall looks nothing like him. (“It’s fine. He is younger and he is not the one with glasses, and he has a moustache.” “But he doesn’t LOOK like him at all!” “He has a moustache!” “….”) We also couldn’t decide which ending was better, so we settled on saying that they are BOTH better.

Ford v. Ferrari – It’s, uh, really boring except for the vroom vroom parts.
But I did love “7000+ GO LIKE HELL.”


Several important and slightly belated fandom announcements incoming:

1) The release date for the next Dresden Files novel, Peace Talks, has been announced. It’s stinking July of 2020. Damnit, Jim!

2) The Mandalorian is actually pretty decent. Not great–there’s a lot of what I call “tv-ness” about it, but I guess most of it was unavoidable.–but decent. And there’s at least a very solid, hard-core attempt to make it feel and especially to look like Star Wars.

So there’s that.

3) Also, yes, indeed, they were not lying. Baby Yoda is cute.

I have spoken.

Repost: Talking Down

It always surprised people that she could actually use her gun, as if anyone would voluntarily carry nearly thirty-eight mass-units of metal around on their backs for show. She was fast, too–that always seemed to startle them even more. The government man went very still for a moment, staring, the green-lit gleam of the protective energy shroud reflected in his eyes.

“Don’t threaten me!” Piya rapped out, “You don’t scare me, and I’m the only one who knows where it is. You be careful!”

The government man unfroze. Unlike most people at this point, he looked at her, and smiled again. A cold feeling went down Piya’s spine. The smile was still friendly, still handsome and kind. It wasn’t in the slightest bit intimidated. Something very calm and considering had woken up behind those frank, friendly eyes, and was now thinking about her.

“I’m always careful,” he said. “You’re the one who–might be about to make a mess. That’s a TR-91. Crew-served, but sometimes modified for individual use. Usually by the biggest, strongest, meanest guy on the squad. Buddy of mine carries one. Do you know what happens if you fire that thing in here?”

Piya bared her teeth. “—there’s a hole in you. And a hole in the wall. And a hole in the people behind the wall….And the wall behind them…”

He spread his hands.

There was a long, motionless, silent pause.

Piya, reluctant down to the soles of her feet, safetied and slung the rifle. She left a hand next to her knife, just in case, but didn’t draw. The way things were going, that probably would just make it worse again. “Don’t threaten me. Trade. Like civilized people. You have to make an offer,” she prompted.

“I can offer you a certain amount of money–”

The call of the outermost depths–the darkness between the stars, where there are no shores, only islands.–floated across her mind again. Stupid Ticos. First he put ideas in her head, and then when they needed to do the really serious haggling, he wasn’t there.

But she wasn’t exactly an amateur, either.

“I want a ship,” Piya said firmly.

“Look, kid…why do I have the feeling you’re going to end up getting one?”

Star Born – Andre Norton

Star Born is actually the second book (thank you, gigantic library rummage sale) in what Wiki assures me is called the Pax-Astra duology, beginning with the wonderfully-named The Stars Are Ours. (Classic SF titles are just so damn awesome, aren’t they? Orion Shall Rise. The Stars Are Ours. No Night Without Stars. The Long Tomorrow. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Dune. Lord of Light. This Moment of the Storm. Soldier, Ask Not. The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph. Servants of the Wankh*. The Demon Princes. The Four Lords of the Diamond. They just do not write books like that any more. And even when they try–and the stalwart little PulpRevvers are trying, bless their little paws and tails–it’s a case of Soda Pop Soldier versus Starship Troopers. There’s no gravitas, there’s no grandeur. Anyhow. Take note: an imagination-catching title is worth a bird or two in the hand.) * Uh….well, okay, your mileage may vary a little.

So: Star Born starts off on the right foot. And it keeps going from there. Disclaimer: I quite liked this book and may express personal opinions in the course of this review. I never used to be an Andre Norton fan–partly because the elder members of the family used to monopolize her books, but also partly because aspects of her writing style turned me off–hard. Norton is capable, at times, of writing vaguely nightmarish, fever-dreamy prose which a younger Riders found intensely disturbing to read. Nowadays, of course, I merely skip those chapters; but before that was a possibility, I gave the Grande Dame of Science Fiction a wide berth. The more fool me. Andre Norton writes really good books, whether you want to settle down with a relaxing boy’s own adventure, with heroics, princes, Werewolves, propaganda, aeroplanes, and cavalry charges–or rev up with tales of the Age of Men that never was, when the fire of our jets and the rattle of our protractors and the blaze of our blasters made the stars ours.

Or something like that.

Plot: Dalgard is one of our two main protagonists, a fourth or fifth-generation colonist on the planet Astra, now embarked on his manhood journey, travelling into unknown territory to bring back data for the Elders. A youth on this journey goes alone, or with only his knife brother–such as Sssuri, Dalgar’s merman best friend and, frankly, the brains of the operation. They have decided to explore semi-forbidden territory: a destroyed city built by Those Others (a hateful hiss is appropriate), the alien once-masters of the Astra, and the once-slavemasters of the mermen. The merfolk are free now, and have driven Those Others off the entire continent, but still, the dangerous remnants of their (hissssss) places and technology remains. This city was once the center of Those Others‘ indescribably advanced and also indescribably alien–but very describably evil–knowledge. It’s supposed to also be long-abandoned, destroyed by the cataclysmic fire of some unknown weaponry.

Dalgard and Sssuri find, however, that it isn’t. Some of them have visited it and are attempting to recover and remove technology and/or materials from the demolished city.
Meanwhile, a shipload of Terran astronauts has arrived, delicately poised as only Terrans can be, to put their grav-boots right in it.

Rated: Yeah, so, anyhoo, good book, you should read it.

Repost: Starmen of Llyrdis

4411400255_d68d1bd758Star Men of Llyrdis is one of Leigh Brackett’s less famous but still characteristic novels, and it’s got all the best ideas: ancient demigods who once were men; strong men who follow in their footsteps; passionate, dangerous women; the endless, vast, perilous, glamor of space.

American Michael Trahearne is in Gascony, trying to trace his family roots. He succeeds beyond his wildest dreams–for Trahearne’s blood traces back to the famed and hated star traders: the Vardda of Llyrdis. Famed–because due to mutation–they are the only species physiologically capable of traveling at paralight velocities between stars. Hated–because they are the only species with that mutation, a monopoly on star-trade, and they have no intention of sharing either.

The one scientist who studied the mutation, Orthis, fled Llyrdis a thousand years ago when the High Council decreed that the information would not be shared to any other world. His laboratory-ship was never found, only drifting lifeboat. The search for his ship has kept the outlaw Orthist faction alive over the centuries, battling against the Vardda law that states only Vardda may or ever will fly the Stars.

Enter an Earthman, only part-Vardda, who survives the interstellar journey. A legal battle and a societal fracture will surely occur!

Actually, though, Brackett delays the payoff one by smoothing Trahearne’s entrance to Vardda society via falsified documents (prove he’s not full-Vardda! Hah, thought you couldn’t, and anyway, he’s leaving planet right now.) and basic human decency (are we really going to just kill an innocent man?)

The real revolution starts later, with a more resonant and emotional buildup.

The characters are…actually, I think that they’re kind of weak in this book. Joris, the Port Coordinator, Torin–the non-Vardda who smuggles himself aboard the spaceship and forms the catalyst for Trahearne’s own personal revolution; and Orthis–who has been dead for a thousand years–are more memorable than Shairn (femme fatale/love interest), Kerrel (villain tending to smugness), or Edri (hero’s friend/mentor). All the same, they’re sketched with vivid color, in Brackett’s amazingly visual writing.

Action is brief but suited. There is a nigh-hallucinatory, nightmarish sequence on a fungus-gathering mission when Trahearne subconsciously anticipates the attack before it happens; and a higher-pitched hunt and chase when he confronts his enemy.

There are a number of really good scenes. I have to mention (Grrl powr!) Shairn’s response to being tied up with her own scarf and stuffed in a closet: showing up twenty minutes later with a gun and a cop at her shoulder. “You should have tied it tighter. This silk is awfully flimsy.”

The standout scene for me was [spoiler] when Trahearne and his band are arrested by Kerrel and the Council agents. Kerrel–who has passed from impassivity, to smugness, to anger, to outright hatred over the course of the book–prepares to murder them in cold blood in the name of the law. He is immediately stopped–by force–by his own comrades, men of principles as strong as the Orthists’, who follow the law as well as enforce it, without taking that same law into their own hands.

Additional analysis will have to hurry:
– Worldbuilding is vivid and visual.
– Prose is excellent.
– Rated: ten starships out of ten.