Recent Reading - 2009
The Draco Tavern
This is a series of short stories with a unifying theme, the Draco Tavern and its owner Rick Schumann where aliens start their interaction with the planet and citizens of Earth. Each story is really a quick consideration of a "big idea" in science fiction. Niven doesn't try to completely explore the details, but still lays the situation he wants to think about in prose. The series of stories do not tell a cohesive story as a result. Nonetheless, by sharing the Draco Tavern, there is a structure which develops that helps hold the stories together. The stories were written from 1997 to 2006. I am a fan of Niven's work. I was happy to add this to my list of his hits.
The most interesting facet of this book is that it has three intertwined story lines in which the character in focus is a character who is also essentially a pawn. Hollis is looking for a story about "locative art" which combines GPS coordinates and Wireless broadcasts of artificial reality that can only be seen through video immersion goggles. She is following direction from a distant magazine editor, and the magazine may not actually exist. Tito is a member of a minor organized crime family and is delivering ipods to an old man. Tito's cousins tell him where to go and when. Milgrim is a drug addict who has skill in translating the coded interceptions of cell phone conversations. Mr. Brown is essentially holding Milgrim like a prisoner.
None of these three know what their "handlers" are trying to accomplish. In spite of their consistent uncertainty and confusion, they are forced to carry on and gradually they get closer to understanding what they are doing, and at the same time, the events of each story line begin to overlap until, finally, the story becomes clear to us, the readers. Unusual.
Lois McMaster Bujold
The Sharing Knife: Horizon
Bujold concludes her four book series about Dag and Fawn, Lakewalker and Farmer. The two travel north, pausing at a Lakewalker camp where Dag gets some much needed training in "making" from Arkady, a master of the craft. While mostly a travel story, there is a significant encounter with a Blight, one with significant differences from any the Lakewalkers have ever seen.
It may be the end of the series, but there is room for more if Bujold decides to visit this fascinating world later, possibly exploring the revitalized culture of Lakewalker/Farmer a generation or two later than the time of Horizon's end. I still want to know about the unexplained and long-decayed former cities and the origin of the Lakewalkers' abilities.
Speaking in Tongues
Deaver pits a brilliant psychiatrist against a brilliant lawyer when the psychiatrist kidnaps the lawyer's daughter and begins killing others in the lawyer's life.
Robert J. Sawyer
Lloyd Simcoe, a Canadian physicist working at CERN's high energy particle collider is planning an experiment to find the elusive particle, the Higgs boson, by using particle collisions not seen since fractions of a second after the big bang that created our universe. He and his team, and everyone else in the world suffer a blackout that has most people seeing a vision of themselves 21 years in the future. The book explores the impact of such a massive event on science, social, religious interactions between people. The question finally becomes, "Should they do the experiment again?"
Robert B. Parker
Chasing the Bear
Though this is billed as a novel for young people, it isn't written down to its audience. Combining conversation with Susan Silverman, psychologist and significant other and straight forward telling of flashback, this short novel reveals why Spenser is the man he is. Reading other Spenser novels isn't needed to enjoy this book, but it is especially fun for those of us who have read them.
In an isolated north Wisconsin town, just after the snowbirds go home and the lakes are still open, a helecopter crash calls out the sheriff and the volunteer firemen. Though the pilots are dead, their bodies don't look normal, and something comes rushing out of the forest. The plot keeps moving ahead from there with lots of death and there is a high-tech military connection, too.
The Devil's Punchbowl
The Devil's Punchbowl didn't open with a punch. It did inexorably build an ever-increasing pace which reached a very satisfying climax. Greg Iles has given us another good book, here.
The main character is Penn Cage, recently elected mayor of Natchez, Mississippi where he wants to rebuild the golden days of his youth. New industry needs to replace the abandoned factories, and casino gambling on simulated river boats is, so far, his only success story. More needs to be done to keep the children from growing up with limited home town prospects and moving away to better lives. The town is a significant "character", too. Deep history, fading glory, and rapid change in a southern town mix "good folks" with the wonderfully delivered antagonists. When Cage's boyhood best friend is killed, it is just the beginning of troubles.
My sense has always been that fantasy usually distinguishes itself from science fiction by having a less solid connection to the physical limitations of the universe. Science fiction may modify the physical universe by revealing an unexpected twist to the laws of physics, but the twist then remains consistent in the novel.
Fantasy retreats from the physical world a bit. Magic or some other paranormal state prevails to explain the "violations" of the mundane aspects of life. Well written fantasy honors a consistent framework, though, and avoids just solving a problem by fiat.
Space opera is noted for its ride along the edge of these two perspectives. Science is honored through the mechanisms of materialism in its stories, but the real laws of physics aren't always given their due. Noisy explosions in the vacuum of space is the most notable example when space opera is presented in movie form. Frequently, relatively untutored kids and bystanders are able to fly a shuttle successfully when the pilot and all other ships' officers have been incapacitated or killed. The joysticks or yokes of control can presumably compensate for their shortcomings. [As an aside, this foolishness is nicely handled in the cartoon, "Wall-E" with the robots dealing with everything the humans cannot.]
I recently picked up this book that looked like it was going to be solid science fiction, but on page 79 turned away from even space opera into muddy fantasy. After a thousand year journey "the Lovelock began to disintegrate while cruising at just under the speed of light." That speed of light is in the neighborhood of 186,000 miles a SECOND for those who have forgotten, and somehow the starship then mostly survives a crash landing onto a planet, causing no noticeable damage to the planet. It is safe to assume the ship has greater mass than most meteors which strike a planet, and the history of Earth suggests planet-wide catastrophe might be more typical (meteors are said to typically travel at just under 50 miles per second).
I felt more violated than the laws of physics which had been so brutally shredded. Up to that point, the most difficult part was accepting that a replacement pick-up crew for the technical operation of the starship could be pulled together from former tech people...given about a week's training. So it's not going to be rock solid science fiction. I can live with that. Space opera, right?
Again and again, Eric Brown, an award winning science fiction author from the UK, drops fantasy grade switcheroos throughout Helix. It was stubborn persistence that made me put the book down again and again to fume and bother my long-suffering wife with my complaints before I again picked up the book to find out how the good characters got through the mangled universe in which they lived and further explore the constructed helix of worlds where they had "landed".
I have a second book by Brown, but it will not be the next book I read. I am too nervous that I will again suffer "book rage" as I do occasionally suffer "road rage" when fools run a red light so they can block the intersection I am about to enter from the crossroad.
The biggest disappointment of all in this book is the failure of the laws of physics to apply even when they might be logically employed to solve the largest damage done to the book's main human character, Joe Hendry.
Though the majority of the starship survives with support systems intact, one ship segment with the cryogenically frozen bodies of colonists does break open. It is not wholly destroyed, just broken so it stops its support for the frozen bodies in their cryogenic storage chambers. Joe' is grief-stricken when he finds the cryogenic chamber in which his daughter has crossed the galaxy and opens the chamber to find that she is now frozen. The book does not say she has thawed and re-frozen in the sub-sub-zero temperatures of the planet on which they have crashed. Hendry is devastated because his frozen daughter is frozen in a chamber that, for me, could, maybe, perhaps, possibly be moved across the ice to a part of the ship (even if only at the book's end) where the cryogenic support systems are still intact (thousands of colonists are awakened from their frozen "slumber" in the final chapter). Nope, even though the helix Builders can work physics magic on a truly massive scale, the book doesn't allow the main character to get his frozen daughter back because, heaven forbid, she is frozen.
Swimming to Antarctica
Lynne Cox is an open water, long distance swimmer who has broken world records time and again, including the crossing of the English Channel. One of the goals included swimming between the islands of the Bering Sea which lie on each side of the international date line and divide the U.S. and Soviet Union. If I weren't a swimmer, I think this book would still have worked for me. Lynne Cox shows how athletes of any type need to approach the limits of their abilities and persevere to exceed them. The writing is okay, but the story is better than the writing.
Robert B. Parker
Jesse Stone, chief of the Paradise, Massachusetts police department must find out who killed a prominent national talk show host and his girlfriend. Former wives, people who worked for the celebrity are all possible, and of course the governor feels he needs to be involved in the case. Jesse navigates the politics effectively while juggling his own former wife who feels she is being stalked and his current love, Sunny Randall.
The bond between man and dog is often described, but this book does the job better than most. Ted lives in a small town in Wyoming, and that helps to determine that when he and his dog found each other, Ted was able to provide an open environment for Merle. Merle gets to come and go from thier house, wander through town at will, and come home on his own.
Of course it isn't that simple, but their more equal than not relationship is well beyond just "interesting". I really liked the connections Kerasote makes to the writings of many others who have researched and written about relationships between dogs and man. Thanks to my sister-in-law, Ev, for letting me read her copy.
Touching the Void
Climbing new peaks or reaching them from new faces now requires a trek into remote mountain ranges. Far from support and further from rescue services, Joe Simpson and fellow climber Simon Yates attempt the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The effort is described in very matter-of-fact prose, clearly laying out the climb while both acknowledging the "first person" nature of the story and somehow avoiding the "look at what I did" exposition.
The tale is harrowing, fascinating to read, and ultimately uplifting.
Highly Recommended (non-fiction)
The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet
Mary Bennet is one of the "other" sisters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. She serves as an unpaid companion for her mother so the woman won't interfere with the lofty aspirations of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of sister Elizabeth. When Mamma Bennet finally dies, Mary is freed to pursue her very independent adjenda. Troubles ensue. I enjoyed this book very much.
Odd Girl Out
Enjoyable space opera written something like a murder mystery, part of the ongoing story of Frank Compton, Bayta and the Spiders which control the galactic Quadrail transport system all battling against the telepathic Modhri group mind.
Thomas A. Day
A Grey Moon Over China
Complex, gap filled and frustrating, but I felt I had to finish it. Edwardo Torres steals a battery design, leads a fleet of starships to another solar system, watches as war tears his group apart and never reaches his final goal. Depressing.
What if a Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game started to invade and take over the real world. There is no doubt that dedicated online game players get immersed in their effort, spending seemingly endless hours accumulating credit/skills/weapons/spells to move on to the next level. Often they get so immersed that the game seems to assume a reality for them.
Game creator Matthew Sobol dies of cancer, and members of his programming staff are killed just after his funeral. Detective Sargeant Peter Sebeck attempts to solve the case, only to be contacted by The Daemon, a distributed worldwide computer program that says it is doing the killings and there are many, many more to come.
Robert J. Sawyer
Establishing your self image is a central theme of this very well written book. Sawyer has engaging characters, including the main one, a 15 year old blind girl, Caitlin Decter and a chimpanzee, whom we follow in several sub-stories. I wanted to read more of each as he switched from one to the other and also did not feel uncomfortably wrenched away. It is my understanding that this is the first of a trilogy. I am eager to see the next "chapter".
Society on Earth has suffered a massive collapse because of global warming. Most nation states are gone, replaced by groups which seem to operate mostly like massive NGOs. Getting the planet back in shape is their goal. Somehow, in spite of the lack of nation states, there has been massive advance of technology, and the NGOs are trying all sorts of projects to resurrect and rebuild the planet. Into this structure, Sterling injects a group of cloned women, sisters as it were, the Caryatids whose stories are the content of this book. I enjoyed the story of Sonja most. Otherwise, the array of technology was massively portrayed without much explanation, and characters seemed more to float along on the tech background rather than being the focus.
Robert B. Parker
Night and Day
I like Jesse Stone, the main character of this book. He is the police chief of a small, north shore, coastal Massachusetts town called Paradise. Though both the town and Chief Stone are fictional, I would like to live there and know him. Robert B. Parker writes with crisp style, full of quick dialog. I also had to think about the issues that the book raised, and I enjoyed that, too. The book is full of sexual tension, peeping Toms, and marital issues. Small town crime isn't necessarily small time crime.
Okay, there was one odd word usage that made me pause. Stone and one of the other detectives on the force are in the department's conference room. There is some leftover stuff including some paper cups "lying" there. Maybe Parker and the editors were attempting to avoid cups "laying" there which would have driven me mad, thanks. However, it seems to me that the cups probably weren't tipped over. They probably were upright. For me, that would have them "sitting" there. Again, maybe Parker and his editors were trying to avoid cups "setting" there which also would have driven me mad, thanks. Then again, maybe the table was really a mess and the cups were mostly tipped over and were, indeed, lying there. I don't suppose either Robert B. or his editors will read this note, so it is probable that I will never know. I can live with that.
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Liebowitz
A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. has a copyright date of 1959, and I read it back in the day. I just read it again. It is a classic of science fiction, moored securely in its times. The '50s were full of nuclear disaster fears. We learned to "duck and cover" in my elementary school, hiding under our wooden topped desks...did anyone really think that would matter if a nuclear explosion hit the area?
Miller describes the survivors' mining of metals and concrete for their own building projects in the centuries after nuclear destruction. He doesn't mention plastics. When I was a boy, soda/pop came to the grocery store in reusable glass bottles which we returned for the nickel deposit, and the "recyclable" plastic bottles didn't come until later. Environmental concerns suggest that plastics will be dug from modern middens (dumps) millennia from now. In Miller's eventually rebuilt civilization, VHF frequencies carry the news. It probably was more notable to read that in light of the digital television conversion happening in less than a month. Communications gear has dials and knobs, elements of analog electronics that have been displaced by wiimotes and touch screens. Miller would certainly have written them into his story if it had been done today. The technology of his story isn't really as important as the bigger ideas of his book.
Science fiction has often been dismissed because, especially when poorly done, explosions make noise in the vacuum of space, space ships routinely outrace the shockwave of massive explosions and other spectacular effects are easily accomplished when space opera is translated into movies. Books like Canticle prove that science fiction deserves more serious consideration.
Once more, Neil Stephenson writes a book that challenges me to expand my relationship with language. Even more, he makes me think as I work to follow the tight logic of his story. This isn't a lightweight space opera. Anathem is the kind of science fiction I look for because it pulls me deeply into the universe of the story. I enjoy building a sense of the book's reality by gradually understanding the language the characters use. Fortunately, the early situations involve dialogs between students and mentors, aiding my growing understanding. There is plenty of action and adventure to go with the thought provoking ideas.
Jane Whitefield, guide to those who seek to escape abusers and disappear, is back. It isn't by choice. A pregnant girl arrives at the hospital where Jane is in charge of a fundraising party for a new hospital wing. The people chasing the girl disrupt the event and again set Jane on a path she had left in order to be a happily married woman.
Dani and Eytan Kollin
The Unincorporated Man
This is the Kollin brothers' first novel. It is a good start.
Justin Cord awakes after cenuries of cryonic suspension. He finds himself in a society in which everyone, except for him, is personally incorporated. Everybody strives to gain a majority of their own stock. Rejuvenation is commonplace, nanotechnology everywhere. His presence, an unincorporated man, creates ripples, and they become waves that threaten to totally disrupt the apparent calm of a "perfect" world. Apparently this is the first of a trilogy. I am looking forward to number two.
This book is a fantasy, of sorts, though my son recommended it to me and he isn't notably a SF/fantasy fan.
Morrow tells the story of a merchant marine captain whose last command was ended when his supertanker ran aground while he was off the bridge, spilling massive amounts of crude oil killing innumerable birds and sea life.
An angel appears to him one day and offers him the chance for self-redemption. Take his former vessel, sail to the middle of the Atlantic ocean, find the corpse of God, Jehovah Himself and tow the body to a final resting place in the Arctic ocean.
The book's characters are a mix of representative catholic priests and nuns, sons striving for their father's approval, militant feminists, military reenactment buffs, scientst/cosmologists, atheists, agnostics, reform Jews, and just some ordinary folks (as members of the tanker's crew). I'm sure I've missed some. These characters face and argue the issues that would arise in the inescapable evidence of God (Jehovah's body is two miles long), and His death. Their anxieties run the gamut, behaviors explore the fringes of morality, and decisions move the story along very effectively.
This isn't any run-of-the mill fantasy. You don't have to believe in an all-powerful deity to get deeply into the story. It isn't light reading, but it isn't too much to take, either. Sarcasm and satire are throughout, but the writing isn't parody. I did not feel that Morrow was simply making fun of his representative characters, even when he let them be their most extreme.
In the Garden of Iden
A little Spanish girl escapes from the Inquisition. She is taken to "safety" by agents of a powerful cabal from the future, a corporate entity called Dr. Zeus. They recruit her to become an agent herself, and in the process, immortal. Immortality does not confer immunity from her innate "humanity." Her first assignment for Dr. Zeus (AKA The Company) embroils her in the England of Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry, an England of anti-reformation.
History comes alive in this story. As the heroine faces the world of her first assignment, she must cope with falling in love, for the first time, but with a normal human being, someone who cannot know of her immortality any more than he can grow old with her.
[The date gap from early March to late April represents abortive reading. One book due back to the library before I finished and on hold by another patron. I look forward to getting it back to finish. There were another two books started but not finished. They weren't my cup of tea, so I won't just dump on them here.]
Mark L. Van Name
The second of the Jon and Lobo stories. Easy reading. If you liked the first as I did, you will enjoy this one, too.
Mark L. Van Name
One Jump Ahead
It doesn't need to be heavy science to be enjoyable science fiction.
There's a new science fiction hero to follow. He is an ex-soldier, loner, troubleshooter. Jon Moore is the hero of One Jump Ahead, the first book of what looks like a series of science fiction books about Jon and his AI controlled ATV/spaceship, called "Lobo", and whose personality is as abrasive as the AI is efficient in support of Jon Moore.
The author, Mark L. Van Name writes a fast-moving story, one full of action and all the frustrations about failure that a good hero needs to be interesting. In this book, we get to know Jon as he is asked to rescue the daughter of a corporate boss while he is on vacation.
The job twists in the middle and turns out to be too difficult to accomplish alone, and Jon turns to the mercenary group "SAW" for which he used to work. We learn a good bit about his personal history as a result while the help Jon gets moves the story along to an exciting, satisfying conclusion.
I recommend One Jump Ahead and am looking forward to more of this satisfying work. I have reserved the second book, Slanted Jack, at the library, and I understand that the third can be pre-ordered from Amazon.
I wonder if Van Name is acknowledging the Bolo books of Keith Laumer in his use of the anagram Lobo for the AI/spaceship. If so, good for him. The Bolo series is also good reading.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Escape from Hell
This pair of books tell the story of a science fiction writer who dies and "wakes up" in what appears to be the hell described by the Italian author Dante. Alan Carpentier goes through the circles of hell with a robust guide named Benito. Naturally, Carpentier tries to reconcile what he sees in more modern terms than did Dante.
The second book expands on the first. Benito is gone, and Alan is trying to get others out. Why is there hell with endless punishment if it isn't there to teach us something. Nobody deserves ETERNAL punishment, do they?
World Without End
Centered on the English Cathedral Town of Kingsbridge, this second book by Follett about the town occurs in the 1300s and tells the continuing story of the cathedral, its clerics, the town merchants and the area's serfs and the nobility. Sounds dull? Don't be fooled. It is engrossing, exciting, thought provoking and ultimately as fulfilling as Pillars of the Earth which occured some 400 years earlier when the cathedral was originally built. You could call World Without End a sequel, but only in the sense that the town is the same location and some of the characters are the distant decendents of the main characters of the first book. You really don't have to read the first before the second.
Highly recommended (both books)
Robert Charles Wilson
Despite the very interesting situation posed in this science fiction novel, I don't recommend it. The format goes from "current" to flashback in a way that was very distracting for me.
Dr. Sharon Moalem
Survival of the Sickest
Sickness, genetics, evolution and survival of the human species is the topic of this well-written book. Moalem explores recent research which seems to indicate that sicknesses which are chronic in large numbers of some populations may actually provide some evolutionary benefit. Read the book to get the picture. I am not qualified to give a rewrite. (By the way, Sharon is a he.)