Yes, I'm still reading old sci-fi. Here are the latest!
After thoroughly enjoying Four Day Planet, I decided I needed another dose of H. Beam Piper. Omnilingual is more a novella or even long-ish short story. But it's simply great. The idea is that some archeologists are exploring the cities of the long-dead Martians, trying to decipher the culture. However, how do you ever figure out how to read Martian without even the possibility of some sort of Rosetta Stone? That question powers the storyline and the conclusion is satisfying. This one is a great read.
I should note that Piper is notable (heh) for having strong female characters for the time, such as the lead in this story.
Then I decided to switch tracks and try another author. I kinda wish I hadn't.
Well, okay, Space Platform isn't horrible. But it's not all that great, either. The first thing to keep in mind is that this isn't a tale set upon some space platform. It's about building a space platform. All the action takes place right here on Earth.
The plot is simply that the protagonists (basically the United States) want to build a space platform to orbit the Earth while the antagonists (other countries) want to stop that effort.
And for what are they going to use this space platform? As a place for experimentation and as a stepping stone to the stars, to be sure. But they also plan to load it up with nuclear weapons, pointed down at Earth, to make everyone else toe the line. Because this is how you achieve world peace.
No, seriously, the book makes this claim over and over. And over.
But, if you can get past the jingoism, the adventure itself horrible. It's not all that great, either. It was just good enough that I kept reading, but I was glad to finish. So, y'know, meh.
So, I ran back to the safe arms of H. Beam Piper! The Cosmic Computer is basically a story about economic development. It features the same sorts of hardy capable men as Four Day Planet did. It also includes a hardy capable woman. It's set in the same fictional galaxy, as well.
The adventure isn't quite as rollicking as in Four Day Planet. But nor is the tale quite as simple, either.
The reveals are decent. (One draws a bit from Asimov's Foundation.) The conclusion is okay, short-term, but isn't really a conclusion. But, hey, no one ever promised one, did they?
All in all, a fine read, just not as fun or satisfying as the other Piper works I've read.
Well, okay, it's not a four-day read. It's not that long a book. I just needed a title for this post.
And, sometimes, the result was a really nice enjoyable read. Case in point, Four-Day Planet.
The eponymous planet, Fenris, has a slow rotation rate, causing days and nights lasting 1000 hours each. This forces the populace to live underground except around sunrise and sunset. And, while this odd planet provides the back-drop to the story, it isn't the story itself.
The story itself revolves around the conflict between corrupt local politicians and the equivalent of earthly whale hunters. And, damn, but it's a lot of fun.
The novel is an example of old-skool sci-fi with competent manly men doing things and not fretting overly much about their damn feelings. It's bracing and refreshing after some of the stuff I've read recently.
There's a great running joke about how, with humanity expanding and interbreeding on a global scale, names no long match ethnicity. (Although, having
Nip Spazoni's nickname being a commentary on his race is, well, awfully awkward today.)
It has that wonderful feel of sci-fi from an era which doesn't know what's actually coming. Everyone's packing heat and the guns all shoot bullets, not lasers of some sort. Folks get lost in a way that GPS wouldn't allow today. The newspaper still physically pastes layout. Holy crap, they even pull out a goddamn slide rule at one point. It's awesome!
Granted, the big reveal isn't all that astonishing. So what? It detracts not at all from my enjoyment of the book.
And the best news? There are a bunch of other works of his on Gutenberg!
So, I've been working my way through some older sci-fi. Here are a couple reviews:
I'm pretty sure I grabbed this because I saw it on some list of mind-blowing sci-fi. The idea is that a ship heads to a star to potentially set up a colony. Although it'll take 'em a while to get there, time dilation as they build speed will shorten it for them.
The story starts out fairly tame. It bounces between character-focused sections and (rather dry) hard sci-fi sections. The book is a pioneer of sorts in the hard sci-fi genre.
About a third of the way through, things go a bit haywire. The structure of the book remains the same, alternating character studies with dry technical descriptions. But the context in which all this occurs gets more and more extreme.
The conclusion is based on knowledge current at the time the book was written, so just go with it.
It's an odd book in that the ideas are pretty far out there while still being hard sci-fi. The biggest problem is that the technical stuff is dry. The character sections are livelier. Overall, it's pretty damn good, although not great. Give it a read.
D-99 - H. B. Fyfe
I grabbed this one off of Gutenberg, but I can no longer find it there. Anyway, you won't be missing much.
It's about a special department, Department 99, which is tasked with rescuing humans who have gotten themselves into trouble on other planets.
Half the book takes place in the D-99 offices as a city-wide blackout traps them there for hours! Oh noes! Trapped after work! With a generator for power and ample food! They do throw in a complication meant to add some suspense to being stuck at the office after hours. Still, who cares?
The other half takes place at various locations where humans need help escaping.
Oddly, the book initiates a situation on a planet but never resolves it. But it does resolve several situations already in place at the start. It's almost as if it's part of a serial, although it isn't.
The writing is sturdy. The characters are okay if you can ignore the rampant sexism. Sure, it's written in 1962. Still, Tau Zero is really only seven years later and has a much more enlightened view of sexual relationships and roles.
Should you read it? Nah.
So, one day, I had run out of science fiction to read. So I headed over to Project Gutenberg and browsed around for some old skool sci-fi. Basically, I grabbed copies of anything I thought had an interesting title.
Could I have been more wrong? Nope! This book is a fucking crazy trip, man! It's wild-ass speculative fiction like you've never seen. Ummm, read.
Now, let me note that I'm not saying the book is good. I don't think it is. It's not well written. The characters are not compelling. The dialogue is more stilted than you can imagine. And the plot is basically that this guy goes to a planet orbiting Arcturus, where he walks around, meeting other people who expound on their various philosophies. I honestly can't tell if the author loves these various takes on the nature of reality or whether he's satirizing them.
Personally, I found the philosophy boring. There's way too much
it's naturally so to cover up bald assertions. There's also a bunch of assertions about the natural roles and attributes of the various sexes. Yeah, I know, it's written in 1920. Still, so much of it is just groan-worthy. At one point, gravity is described thusly:
The great body of the earth is continually giving out female particles, and the male parts of rocks and living bodies are equally continually trying to reach them. That's gravitation.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it's all presented via the most stilted language one can imagine.
You can get a good overview of the plot at Wikipedia's entry for it but don't go read the entry if you're planning on reading the book.
Wait... what? Why would you read it if I'm telling you how awful it is?
Because, as I also said, it's a fucking crazy trip, man! The best description of it is one I saw in a GoodReads review:
If a 14 year old who was really into Gnosticism were asked to invent the science fiction genre, this would be the result.
There are all these really weird parts, with bizarre descriptions of the planet, the denizens, the twin suns of Arcturus, and the nature of reality. It's like being on acid while simultaneously listening to baroque prog-rock and conversing with stoned Philosophy undergrads.
So, y'know, it's free to download if you want to spend a few hours going
What the Fuck?
So, what did you do for fun when you were nine? If you're Miss Daisy Ashford, you write this captivating story, put it away, and rediscover it as an adult.
The story is a love triangle. And, yes, there's an actual story here. The language is a treat. My poor wife was trying to read her own book while I continually interrupted to read yet another hilariously charming passage aloud.
It's not a long book, so there's no need for a long review. Just go get a copy. It is freakin' adorable!
Here are a couple of science-oriented non-fiction works to make you more knowledgeable about the world:
This one is a little weird in that the title makes it sound as if you're going to get actual stories about how different technologies came to be. And that's not really what this is. True, it looks at eight different technologies but mainly describes, in impressive detail, how each one works. And it does an excellent job at that task. We all kind of know how a battery works. After reading this, you'll really know how one works, how one is charged, and why it's really bad to drain some batteries too low. How does an atomic clock work? By the end of the book, you'll really know and understand how they work.
The explanations are very detailed yet understandable for someone with a moderate amount of science know-how. If that's you, then you'll want to give this a read.
Don't, however, go into it assuming there are stories.
Want stories? That's okay...
This one is an amazing and captivating spin through the Periodic Table. It talks about the Table itself and its development. But it's also a tour of the Table, hitting, basically, every area on it. And each and every section is packed with truly interesting tales. There's a good flow through the book, making the tour seem natural. It gets, maybe, a little shaky at the end. I started to feel as if the author was struggling just a wee bit and linking things together.
Or that may just be me needing to fine something about which to complain.
In the end, a very nice read.
Just finished reading Grant Morrison's
finished, I mean gave up two-thirds of the way through.
It's just awful. First off, it's misleading. The subtitle is
What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. And it does indeed start as an examination of comics and society. It's not a great examination. Most of it you've heard before. The rest just sounds like Morrison thinks tossing loads of adjectives together will impress. Honestly, he uses
lysergic three or four times. Probably more.
But at least it's interesting reading. Then in starts creeping his own personal story.
Now, let me be clear, there's a great genre of books where an author blends his biography with some topic near to his heart. A good example of this genre is Cardboard Gods. One that works in spite of the personal stuff is Candyfreak.
Alas, Morrison's story just isn't very interesting at the start. He draw comics for himself, for fun. Then he gets a drawing job for the local paper. Then he gets a job on a small book. Then larger ones. It's not what one would call compelling. Oh, and he didn't fit in as a teen. Good lord!
But the personal story doesn't detract too much until the mid-point, when it becomes clear that Morrison wants to talk about himself more than he wants to talk about comic books or superheroes. And, oh, does he like to talk about himself.
Look, if you like wordy descriptions of someones self-congratulatory faux occult travels whilst on drugs, then you might really like the second half. Me, I started quickly flipping through the pages, looking for a spot where he might actually talk about the book's subject again. Not finding one in a reasonable time, I gave up.
It doesn't help that he's just a poor writer of prose. It's as if he's being paid by the adjective while being penalized for each full stop. Several times I had to re-read a paragraph just to figure out what the hell he was trying to say.
Maybe it would have helped if I were a fan of his comic work. It's not that I dislike his work. It's just that, while I read plenty of comics, I just haven't read many of his.
That said, even if Gaiman had written this, I'd still think it was crap.
Please excuse the lack of a clever title. Anyway, here are some books I've read sort of recently, along with half-assed reviews, listed in reverse chronological order of reading! I haven't written any reviews for a while, so there's lots of them. At least that's forcing me to keep each one short!
Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds' latest. Good, but not great. I didn't really like any of the characters, although I suppose there's no reason I need to do so. It's one of those books where folks follow obtuse clues to some grand revelation. The clues themselves were so bizarrely obtuse that I didn't really care about them. The grand revelations weren't really all that grand. But, in between, the writing is solid, although lacking the level of deliciously descriptive detail that marks Reynolds' best works.
His best work? The Prefect.
Redshirts - John Scalzi
Scalzi writes a fun and clever take on those expendable redshirts from Star Trek. This is a fast-reading lightweight book. That's a compliment. That's what he means for it to be and it is completely successful on that level. It doesn't mess about trying to be anything different. The main story is followed by three related short stories. The second one tries out a rarely seen gimmick. I think it should have been limited to just the video part of it, with the set-up moved to the main story. The gimmick would have worked better that way.
Solaris - Stanistaw Lem
After reading Roadside Picnic, see below, I decided to watch the glacially slow movie based on it, Stalker. And that got me to thinking about watching the just as glacially-paced Solaris. (Made by the same guy.) But, before I did that, I decided to read the book first.
Interesting, overall, with one of those open-ended musing endings which I find annoying. Still, was certainly worth reading. Just don't expect it to scratch any sort of hard sci-fi itch.
Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Old school Soviet sci-fi. It's not, however, loaded with propaganda. The current release is notable for being free of governmental edits, despite the lack of any sort or real political content. It's a really good read. The protagonist feels real and there's enough sci-fi stuff to keep me interested. As mentioned above, it was adapted into a movie, Stalker, in which very little happens, but where the non-action is strikingly filmed.
A Universe From Nothing - Lawrence M. Krauss
This may be my favorite book about hard science. One problem with science-oriented non-fiction is that it tends to be pitched at a low level. If you have a decent background in various sciences, then you're usually left wishing for much more and deeper detail. (I don't mean having advanced degrees. I just mean having something like a year of college-level physics under your belt.)
But this book isn't
dumbed-down at all. Well, of course, it is dumbed-down some. But it's still detailed enough, and difficult enough, to make it a satisfying read.
And, best of all, it gives a concise answer to why there is something rather than nothing, because nothingness is unstable.
Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Get an inside eye on the 2008 elections. This book purports to be factually accurate. Assuming that's so, this is a fascinating look indeed. Obama comes out looking the best. Hillary gains loads of sympathy, striving within a campaign hampered by a lack of organization and a famous husband who still loves attention (and women). McCain only looks good in comparison to the walking disaster that is Palin.
And Edwards is a clueless asshole. How did he fool so many of us for so long?
Kingdom Come - J.G. Ballard
new book from J.G. Ballard. (Meaning that it's newly published in the United States.) As usual, it's the same damn book he always writes. I've found, much to my surprise, that I'm entirely Ballarded-out, making this a tedious read.
A Fuller Explanation - Amy Edmondson
If you've ever tried to actually read Buckminster Fuller's Synergetics, you know it's pretty wild and obtuse. I have a copy and I've always had to be content with just looking at the weird diagrams. I just ain't that smart!
Edmondson tries to put it all into normal English, in the hopes that mostly normal people can understand it. And she does a damn fine job. She's lightyears more readable that Bucky. Which is not to say that this is a light read. It's not. But at least you feel like you have a shot at understanding.
One warning, though. You'll forever cringe when someone speaks of
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash - Jean Shepherd
This is the book on which most of the Xmas classic
A Christmas Story is based. It's not as enchanting as the movie nor is it as fun. It's still funny but the best bits are in the movie. Just go watch the movie.
The Cleanest Race - B.R. Myers
So, what the hell is the deal with North Korea? Why does so much of the population utterly buy into utter loony worship of an utterly loony ruler? Myers attempts to answer that question by drawing on internal North Korean documents never meant for outside consumption. I won't go into the details and I'm not at all sure I buy his thesis. But, damn, it's interesting watching him lay it out.
Make Room! Make Room! - Harry Harrison
Classic novel on which the movie Soylent Green is based. Plot-wise there just isn't all that much. The book is more about the society formed than the particular plot lines. That's not to say it's plotless. There's certainly a plot. It's just that the plot doesn't really seem to matter much. Interesting and classic, but not something I'd read a second time.
Containment - Christian Cantrell
I suspect that this is self-published. Regardless, I enjoyed it a lot. Some reviews have complained about an abrupt ending, but I found that it worked perfectly well. (Although the ending is fairly easily guessed.) In all, some solid fairly hard sci-fi.
Oddly, I can no longer find it at Barnes & Noble as an eBook, which is the format in which I bought it.
Machine Man - Max Barry
This one starts out great as a technological/psychological profile but steadily falters into a robot action novel by the end. Well, not the very end. The very end redeems itself a little. Still worthy of reading, I just wish the early promise had held up throughout the whole book.
Rat Girl - Kristin Hersh
A biography by an artist I don't know writing about her years in a band I didn't listen to. Regardless, I still found it interesting. It's as much about bipolar disorder as it is about music and it's certainly better written than either of these Husker Du / Bob Mould related tomes. And she's much less of an asshole than Bob Mould, too.
Accelerando - Charles Stross
I didn't realize that this was a collection of related short stories while I was reading it. Thus it felt really disjointed. It has some really great concepts, some a little mind-blowing. But it also relies on characters who act in extreme gestures seemingly simply because the story, such that is it, depends on it. In that way, it reminded me of Reynolds' Pushing Ice.
You might note that I have an obvious preference for hard sci-fi that contains great ideas, meticulously described, with interesting characters. Scalzi can hit this sweet spot. So can Reynolds. But it's tricky to do. That's why so many of my reviews are of the good-but-not-great variety.
The Children of the Sky
Back in the 90s, Vernor Vinge was a sci-fi god. 1992 brought A Fire Upon the Deep and 1999 offered A Deepness in the Sky. Both are wonderful novels and if you haven't read them, you should. Right now. I'll wait.
But he hasn't produced a whole lot in the new millenium. Rainbows End, in 2006, was good. At least I remember liking it at the time.
Then, just last year, he produced a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, called The Children of the Sky. Reasonably excited, I tossed it in the reading queue and just finished it over the weekend.
My verdict? Meh.
It's not that it's bad. It's just that it's not very good. The good is that it's set on Tines World and the Tines are fascinating. The bad? Well, where should I start?
I'll start with the long real-world time gap between A Fire Upon the Deep and the sequel. It's nearly two decades. Vinge seems to have assumed that everyone not only read A Fire Upon the Deep, but read it recently. There's very little in the way of recap. Even the Harry Potter books gave you more recap.
Problem two is that this isn't really a sequel. Based on the storyline, it's apparently book two of a trilogy. I have no problem with book twos of trilogies, but to toss this out nearly two decades later? Without any indication that it's part of a trilogy? And when can we expect book three?
Without a book three in the near future, the story is just, again, meh. Major plot points just sit there, unresolved. You can feel Vinge bringing up new questions and you read on, waiting for answers, but you never get them. Finishing the book is deeply unsatisfying. I suppose it's meant to whet your appetite for the next book. It didn't.
Forewarned of all this, the book improves. The story itself is okay. There's lots of meandering that really has no point other than filling pages with narrative. But, hey, you're on Tines World and that in itself is an interesting time.
One other thing really bugged me about the book. Actually physical descriptions of the human characters are sparse. Near the end, there's a description that's clearly supposed to throw you. You can almost hear Vinge chortling
Ah ha! You were assuming that X was Y but X is really Z! Yes, I was assuming X was Y because you've been using Y-ish language descriptions and Y-ish surname structures. Dropping that in at the end of the book didn't make me question my internal racial views. It just convinced me you're a smug dick.
Marooned in Realtime
Oh, I promised plural reviews. Okay, I also recently read his Marooned in Realtime, from the mid-80s. It's awful. I didn't finish it. Do you like Ayn Rand-ish rants about the evils of all governments, complete with liberal application of Godwin's Law, mixed up with a couple of mysteries? Then you'll like it.
(Am I the only person who sees a Libertarian archetype in the straight white male, successful in a niche market, who somehow thinks that scales?)
Did you completely fail at NaNoWriMo last year? Me, too! I didn't even get a novella out of it!
So, as with last year, I've modified the Winner graphic to be appropriate for my situation. Feel free to use it yourself!