- The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu – Wesley Chu is nominated for the The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, which is technically not a Hugo award, but they are administered, voted upon, and awarded as part of the same process (I believe I’ll be eligible to vote, though I’m not sure if I’ll get through all the nominees either). That being said, I picked this up before those nominations were announced, as it was garnering a fair amount of buzz amongst nerd circles as a fun, Scalzi-like SF adventure story (incidentally, Scalzi is a Campbell winner). And it is!
The story follows Tao, an ancient member of an alien race called Quasings. They crash landed on Earth when life was in its infancy. I’m a little unclear on Quasing physiology, but they cannot survive on earth without inhabiting a host. Their goal is to find a way to leave the planet, so they have guided evolution along, attempting to build an infrastructure that would allow them to return home. As humans became intelligent and Quasings guided them further, disagreements arose around how best to leverage the humans, and a civil war has arisen amongst the Quasings, who have split into two factions: the peaceful Prophus who want to cooperate with the humans, and the more ruthless Gengix who will destroy the planet if it means they can get home. Tao is a Prophus, and as the story opens, he finds himself unexpectedly in need of a new host. Enter overweight, underachieving Roen Tan, a meek IT worker stuck in a dead end job. As Tao whips him into shape, the war rages on, and Roen finds that the life of a secret agent is not all its cracked up to be.
This is a neat premise, and it allows Chu to play with history without altering what we already know. There’s a whole alternate timeline here that happens to match up perfectly with our notion of history, but, for instance, Tao once inhabited Genghis Khan, putting an interesting spin on what we know about him. This implies that humans are a rather malleable, unambitious bunch, but perhaps future installments will change that… and yes, this is the first in a series. It comports itself well enough, and there’s a solid character arc for Roen here, so it’s not one of those first-in-a-series books that is unsatisfying. So we’ve got some interesting ideas, a well paced plot, secret agents, intrigue… if this were a movie, there would be some fantastic training montages. I’d say that the Scalzi comparisons are fair, though Chu clearly has his own style. Roen is an unlikely action hero, and a fair amount of the story plays with his expectations of glamor and adventure… it’s certainly fun for me to read the story, but it wouldn’t be quite so fun to live it. This is a series that I will actually revisit. The next book is actually already out, but at this point, I’ve got my hands full with other stuff! Still, I look forward to returning to Roen and Tao.
- Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey – This book has an odd reputation. It was nominated for a Hugo Best Novel, but it has some very loud detractors as well (it did not win, nor have any of its sequels garnered further nods). The story is set in a highly developed version of our solar system, with the three main powers being Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt (“belters”). It follows two main viewpoint characters in alternating chapters: Holden, a down-on-his-luck captain of an ice mining vessel who runs afoul of a nefarious plot, and Miller, a down-on-his-luck police detective in search of a missing rich kid. They eventually meet up, the nefarious plot becomes more clear, and hijinks ensue.
I’m a big fan of old-school space opera, but this just wasn’t cutting it for me. There are some fantastic ideas here, and the high-level premise (involving an ancient alien virus/organism/somethinglikethat) is very interesting, but it’s the journey that’s the problem, not the destination. I had a difficult time relating to Holden and Miller, and most of the folks who surround them, and the story wallows in their misery a bit too much for me to really get into it. Holden has some very high-minded ideals, and he sticks to them, which would be admirable if he wasn’t otherwise pretty incompetent. At first, I thought Miller’s hard-boiled detective story would work, but he spends more time wallowing in self-pity than tracking down criminals… of which, there are many. The Asteroid Belt is portrayed as a cesspool of prostitution, crime, underage prostitution, rape, riots, and prostitution. I’m not entirely sure why humans have settled on these rocks, but apparently 90% of their activities are criminal enterprises. It’s a long book, and we spend way too much time with this mostly irrelevant world-building. We get it, the solar system is a grim, gritty place.
It takes entirely too long (like, half the book) to get to the meat of the plot, the aforementioned alien virus conspiracy, at which point, things get mildly more interesting. The details of the conspiracy (including a rather cartoonish plot to maliciously expose millions of people to the alien virus, complete with mustache twirling villain) strain credibility, but if you’re able to take them at their face, it works reasonably well. The physics are probably the least problematic aspect of the story, and the author manages to wring plenty of suspense out of that, which is good. Still, I found it was not worth wading through all the crap to get to the good stuff. There are some aspects of the ending that work reasonably well, even when the dedication to rigorous physics fades away, but the ultimate resolution (at Miller’s hands) borders on the ludicrous. James S.A. Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham (a mildly successful Fantasy author) and Ty Franck, and they’ve written three books in the series, with a fourth on the way. Alas, I’m not particularly interested in revisiting this series.
- Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks – Since Leviathan Wakes didn’t really scratch that space opera itch, and since I’ve really been meaning to check out some Banks, I decided to start reading the Culture series (in this case, the series appears to consist of self-contained stories sharing a setting, rather than one long story). Being a completist, I started with Banks’ first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. Unfortunately, I’m getting the impression that this isn’t a particularly great way to enter the series.
What we have here is a episodic series of stories centered around Bora Horza Gorbuchul, a quasi-human shape shifter and agent for the Idirans, an alien race of religious-minded warriors who have picked a fight with the Culture (comprised mostly of humans). We don’t see much of the Culture in this book, but the implication is that they are a decadent, hedonistic people that are technologically advanced enough to create Artificial Intelligences that are so advanced that they are able to create a sorta utopia (whether this is possible is another debate, probably best saved for another time). The opening of the book winds up being very disorienting, as we find our hero, Horza, being continually captured and thrown from one place to another, managing to escape and survive only through guile. After a couple hundred pages, I was beginning to think the book would be nothing but disjointed tales of Horza’s escape from one band of crazies to the next. But then things settle down a bit, Horza resumes the mission he was given at the beginning of the book, and a more steady plot emerges. Of course, it’s still a rather small plot (Horza must retrieve a Culture Mind that has crash landed on his difficult-to-reach home planet), and again, what we’re left with is disjointed and episodic. Which is all well and good, but not very cohesive.
We get our fair share of grim and gritty here, too, but unlike Leviathan Wakes, it doesn’t feel quite as all-encompassing or oppressive. While we are following Horza and his Idirian allies, it gradually becomes clear that the Culture will emerge victorious. For his part, Banks never paints this conflict in blacks-and-whites, allowing for more nuanced views of each side. The Culture is not Skynet, and the Idirians are not Klingons (though individual Idirians, especially towards the end, prove to be quite capable of wreaking havoc). While the episodic nature of the story ultimately harms it, each episode is imaginative and features some rather fantastic scene-setting, from the thousand-mile-long ships of Vavatch Orbital to treacherous Temples of Light. There’s plenty of action, raids, heists, even a rather strange high-stakes card game. Some of these vignettes, like the weird cannibalistic cult that Horza runs across, are perhaps not as successful and only really serve as filler. Ultimately, what we end up with is a bit too sloppy for my liking, but this is interesting and at least somewhat ambitious stuff, even if it leaves something to be desired. I am certainly curious to further explore Banks’ Culture books, even if this one was not really pushing my buttons (and my understanding is that the next two books in the series, Player of Games and Use of Weapons, have more cohesive stories, which will help!)
So there you have it. Up next on the SF review front will be one of the Best Hugo nominees, though I’m not sure which I’ll finish first (probably Neptune’s Brood). I’ve also read some non-SF stuff that I should probably go over as well, but I may save that for later.