SF Book Review, Part 15

I’ve fallen a bit behind in reviewing recent SF reading, though a few individual reviews have made their way to the site recently. So before I start my 2013 movie recap (a month late, I know), I figured I’d catch up:

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – This book follows a teenager named Wade, though everyone knows him as Parzival, a low level warrior in OASIS. OASIS is kinda like Snow Crash‘s Metaverse mixed with World of Warcraft. The real world is dystopic and lame, so everyone increasingly escapes into the OASIS. Just about everything is in the OASIS at this point: school, jobs, just about every piece of culture ever created. Its part game, part alternate reality. When the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a contest to determine the heir to his fortune and ownership of OASIS (think Publius Enigma, except that this actually works). To win this contest, Wade/Parzival will have to find a series of Easter Eggs (hidden messages in video games) and complete a series of challenges, all of which will require an intimate knowledge of Halliday’s passions – 80s culture and old school video games. I don’t normally like dystopias, but this was recommended to me and it turns out that the real focus here is on Wade/Parzival. It’s a coming of age tale, of sorts. When we meet him, he’s a poor, out-of-shape, loser, though his reputation online is slightly higher. As the story progresses, we see him make friends, gain confidence, take hold of his real life (even outside the OASIS) and battle a corporation intent on winning the prize for themselves. It’s written in first person, and so it’s easy to become wrapped up in the story. As a child of the 80s, the referential nature of the story (constant references to 80s television, movies, music, and video games) hit me right in the sweet spot, though I have to wonder how transferable all of this would be to someone outside of that age group. It certainly doesn’t bode well for long-term relevance, but it’s a fun enough story (and Cline is always careful to explain the reference) that I’m sure it’ll hang around for a while.
  • Warhorse by Timothy Zahn – I always find myself coming back to Zahn whenever I want to read something fun, and Warhorse did the trick. It’s not Zahn’s best, but it’s a well crafted story. A future human society is expanding into interstellar space, and they’ve run across the Tamplissta, a race of humanoid pacifists with a big environmentalist streak. Their technology isn’t anywhere near the human level, except in one key area: space horses. They are huge space-dwelling creatures who eat asteroids and can teleport across interstellar distances. The Tampies and humans are wary of each other, and space horses don’t seem to interact well with humans (they do, however, respond to the Tampies soft, eco-friendly touch). As tensions mount between Tampies and humans, a mixed-crew exploration ship is launched to prove that the two races can cooperate. Hijinks ensue. There’s plenty of interesting ideas that help drive the story along, and the Tampies are an interesting species, depending on how you interpret their presence (are they a comment on real world environmentalists?). The characters are pretty straightforward (if you’ve read Zahn before, you know what you’re in for) and so is the prose. Still, it’s a decent novel and Zahn continues to be a workhorse in my SF reading.
  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl – Investigative journalist Scott McGrath has fallen on hard times ever since he accused acclaimed and reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova (think Kubrick, but with a lot more secrecy and evil) of heinous crimes on television. Years later, when Cordova’s daughter Ashley turns up dead in mysterious circumstances, McGrath picks up the trail again. With the help of a few oddball assistants, he sets about unraveling the mystery of Ashley and her father. This is a book that takes its time getting to the meat of the story, but once it gets there, it gets really good. It’s never really boring or anything, and it doesn’t succumb to indulgent style exercises or anything pretentious like that, it just takes its time letting the story unfurl. I don’t know that it quite needed to be this long, but it works nonetheless, and I really enjoyed it.
  • Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales – The third in Sales’ Apollo Quartet, where each story is some sort of alternate history stemming from the Apollo-era space race. The first two have brilliant premises (though the second’s premise is only revealed at the end), while this one is a little more tame. It does shed light on an unheralded episode in actual space program history. The Mercury 13 were 13 American women who went through a lot of the same training and physiological tests as NASA astronauts that would eventually man the Mercury program. Sales’ novella postulates that the Korean war was still raging, so NASA couldn’t pull the best and brightest from the Air Force. Instead, they relied on the Mercury 13, who are also moving on to the Apollo program. It’s an interesting work, and Sales’ prose continues to shine, but I was expecting a little more in the way of ideas (like the first two Apollo Quartet novellas). Regardless, I am greatly looking forward to the fourth and final novella, due sometime this year.
  • Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold – This is the second book in Bujold’s Chalion series of fantasy novels, and it takes an interesting approach. It follows a minor character from the first book, and gives her the Hero’s Journey (Heroine’s Journey?) treatment. It’s kinda like a coming-of-age tale too, though it’s unlike most others of that type in that the protagonist here is Ista, a middle-aged retired queen who suffered under a maddening curse for most of her life. In the first book of the series, the curse is broken and Ista (well, the whole royal family) is freed. She’s still royalty, though, and no one wants to let her go out into the world a live the life she’s always wanted to find. The first book had a large scope and ranged across the whole kingdom. This book is a bit tighter, and more focused on Ista. Along the way, there are kidnappings, sorcery, invasions, and sieges, but it’s all pretty well contained, and it works remarkably well. This is a rather exposition heavy novel, but Bujold excels at these sorts of things, and it never drags or feels boring, even if some mysteries seem more obvious to the reader than to the characters in the story (but then, we know more than them, eh?) The other unusual thing about this book (and the series so far) is how much of it is focused around religion. Not any sort of religion that we’re familiar with, and it seems that in Chalion, these gods are real. I’m particularly interested in how well balanced the magic in these Chalion books is, as I find that magic can often be a crutch for a writer. Not so here, though this book has much more magic than the first book. As usual, Bujold excels at creating characters and feinting relationships, etc… I’m actually pretty excited to check out the last book in the series at this point. Unfortunately, that means I’m quickly running out of Bujold books, so I may need to start rereading some Vorkosigan novels…

So there you have it, a pretty good run. Stay tuned next week for the Kaedrin Movie Award nominations!