SF Book Review: Part 30

Catching up on reviews for recently read SF (check here for some Halloween Season’s readings as well)…

  • The Passage by Justin Cronin – A secret government attempt to breed super-soldiers only succeeds in creating what are basically vampires. As all secret government projects are wont to do, this one fails spectacularly and unleashes a hoard of vampirism across the country (and probably the planet). Various enclaves have survived, like the Colony, a small refuge of humanity protected by massive banks of ultraviolet lights that keep the vampires at bay. But a century or so later, and the technology is starting to wear out. Enter Amy, a mysterious young girl who shares the vampire’s immortality, but lacks the bloodsucking monstrous parts. Does she represent hope? It’s a nice spin on the vampire mythologies that we all know and love, especially for those who don’t like the whole sexy sparkling brooding emo vampires that became common for a while there (one review mentions that you won’t be seeing any “Team Babcock” tshirts anytime soon, though I think they’d actually be pretty cool (Babcock is one of the original twelve vampires in The Passage)). I like the background and there are some later revelations about how they work and what their community is like that are really interesting. Unfortunately, those bits tend to be drowned out by endless, inchoate chapters of characterization. With a massive, sprawling cast of characters, this is sometimes fine, but ensemble pieces always suffer from unevenness, and this is no exception. Cronin’s longwinded style drags things out longer than is probably needed, and it doesn’t help that a lot of these character bits are about people going through something dysfunctional if not downright traumatic (and this is before we even get to the vampires). The first third or so of the novel works pretty well, but then things shift dramatically and unexpectedly (an interesting development). We’re shifted to an entirely new set of characters and this is where things bogged down for me. Eventually they got moving again, and I think the novel ends strong. Ultimately, I loved the vampire bits, but found it a bit overlong and bloated. There are two more books in the series, but I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll get to them…
  • Artificial Condition by Martha Wells – The second in Wells’ Hugo winning series of novellas concerning a Murderbot who only wants to sit around binging TV shows, but ends up getting sucked into human affairs and protecting foolish humans from themselves. In this one, our Murderbot protagonist makes another AI friend and meets up with some naive scientists who want to recover their data from murderous, bloodsucking corporate suits (but um, not Passage-esque vampires, I’m being more metaphorical here). It’s a lot of fun. I like the new AI companion, and Wells is decent enough at the whole corporate intrigue thing too. Along the way, we find more about Murderbot’s mysterious past, and Wells does a good job blending those elements into the novella without overwhelming the rest of the story. I’m pretty excited by this series, and will most certainly be checking out future installments (which have been coming at a pretty steady clip).
  • The Uplift War by David Brin – The conclusion to Brin’s Uplift Trilogy, but then, each book is pretty much a standalone, with only small direct connections (though, all taking place in the same universe, we see lots of indirect overlap). In this universe, most alien races were originally non-intelligent creatures that have been “uplifted” by one of the higher races in the galaxy. Once uplifted, a race must serve it’s patron for a long time before they are permitted to uplift other species on their own. However! Earthlings appear to have developed their intelligence all on their own, which upsets the galactic society to its core. Where the first book, Sundiver, concerned a mostly human story, the second mostly followed the human-uplifted dolphin race, while this third book mostly focuses on human-uplifted chimpanzees. Now, this is a tough book to judge, because the second book in the trilogy, Startide Rising, is phenomenal and thus represents a tough act to follow. In truth, this didn’t really reach Startide‘s heights, but it remains good on its own. The story, about one of the affronted alien races attempting to invade a human/chimp planet in order to blackmail humans into revealing more about their recent discovery of an ancient Progenitor ship (an event from the previous book), is mostly self contained, and while kicked off by the whole Progenitor angle, doesn’t really do much to progress that overarching story (I assume this is addressed in future books of the series). But the self-contained story is done well enough by itself, and most of the characters are likable and competent in their own right. Like previous books, this story seems enamored with what I like to call Earthican exceptionalism, but given the more downbeat titles of current SF, this actually represents something refreshing to a modern reading. That being said, the ending does make you feel a little bad for the invading Gubru, who are so thoroughly defeated and humiliated by the humans (and their trickster-like Tymbrimi allies) that you just can’t help it. On the other hand, the Gubru are presented as being humorless, entitled, and petulant (as, indeed, are a lot of alien races in this universe, making you wonder how they’ve all become so powerful in the first place), so take it with a grain of salt. The overarching narrative that spreads across all three books doesn’t move very much in any of them and is not resolve here, but I assume it is in the later books… Ultimately, while the whole Uplift Trilogy is pretty darned good, the real gem remains Startide Rising. I’ve enjoyed these all enough that I’ll probably get to the sequel trilogy at some point, and obviously Brin has written lots of other stuff as well.
  • Head On by John Scalzi – This sequel to Scalzi’s Lock In mostly represents an improvement on its predecessor, if only because the universe is established and thus Scalzi can focus on the mystery of the week bit of the story rather than the worldbuilding (which is a little clunky to start with, and which was poorly established in the first book). The mystery itself is, once again, a pretty decent take on a futuristic detective procedural (i.e. better than your typical CBS crime show, but not exactly even reaching for the top tier of literary mysteries). It’s nothing that’s going to win awards (at least, it won’t be making my Hugo nominating ballot), but it’s a fun and entertaining read. While this isn’t my favorite setting, I enjoy spending time there well enough and Scalzi is good at fast paced plotting and snappy dialogue, making the pages turn quickly. Well worth checking out.
  • The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell – Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is a legendary war hero presumed lost in the early days of a war between the Alliance and the Syndics. The war isn’t going particularly well for the Alliance when they miraculously discover Geary, who survived in hibernation. Geary is shocked to learn that he’s revered as a hero, but resolves to do his duty, whip his fleet into shape, and dodge the onslaught of Syndics coming his way. This is basically a military “long retreat” story adapted to work in space, and it’s a surprisingly good fit. Geary makes for a good protagonist and the situation he’s in generates plenty of fodder for internal conflict that must be overcome before the external conflict with the Syndics can be properly dealt with. Again, this is a pretty enjoyable spin through military SF tropes, even if it’s not exactly breaking new ground. Then again, “strategic retreat” isn’t a particularly revered military SF trope, so props to Campbell for going with this unsung but important angle. There are more books in the series, and I’ll mostly likely seek them out at some point (always a good sign for me, as I tend to be sequel averse…)

So there you have it. I’ve got a whole slew of SF novellas and a couple novels I want to get to in the next couple of months as well, so maybe the next one of these will come sooner rather than later…

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