SF Book Review: Part 31

Vintage SF Month has ended, but it appears that I’m still way behind on doing even cursory reviews of recent reads. Let’s get to it:

  • The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken – Meet Belisarius, a genetically engineered human that was part of a failed experiment to help humans better understand quantum physics. In theory, Belisarius should be able to enter a trance-like state to channel all his brainpower into understanding various quantum phenomena, amongst other things. In practice, these trances are quite dangerous to Belisarius, and as a result, he’s redirected all his talents into various cons and nefarious schemes (least his overactive brain would drive him crazy, or somesuch). This book tells the story of one such con, an attempt to smuggle a fleet of warships through a wormhole. To accomplish the task, Belisarius assembles a crew of friends and former business associates, then sets about executing an ambitious plan. There’s a layer of straightforward heist story here that is quite nice, not quite the fizzy Ocean’s 11 style, but close enough. It’s got all the requisite tropes: assembling a crew, devising a plan, improvising escapes when the opponent successfully anticipates a move, etc… Künsken attempts to add some depth with his explorations of genetic engineering. Belisarius is the primary target of this, and we get a repetitive deep dive into his motivations and the ways in which he copes with his intense instinct to do things that his body simply can’t handle. The Puppets, a whole race of genetically engineered slaves that have evolved into something even weirder, are also well covered. Unfortunately, the fizzy heist set amidst dystopian elements, while an interesting mix, didn’t quite hit home for me. The heist elements work, but often feel interrupted by the more serious themes, which ultimately doesn’t serve either element well. The SFnal elements, while well done, are also somewhat derivative (take, for instance, the trance-like state that Belisarius enters, a clear nod to the Emergent’s “Focus” from Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky). Perhaps I’m being too hard on this book; I enjoyed it well enough for what it was, but I don’t think I’ll be nominating for a Hugo.
  • The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts – The Eriophora is a relativistic ship built inside an asteroid and controlled by an AI known as The Chimp. Sunday is part of a crew that is only awakened for very short intervals in order to help the ship build wormhole gates. The crew has been at it for 65 million years (though obviously they’ve been asleep for the grand majority of that time), and they’re starting to get a little antsy… to the point where mutiny is on the table. But how do you execute a mutiny when you’re only awake for a few days every thousand years or so? So Watts generally doesn’t craft the most friendly of settings, but makes up for that with great ideas and good storytelling. This story is obviously reminiscent of other runaway relativistic stories like Tau Zero, but Watts puts enough spins on it that it still reads fresh. The ending isn’t exactly a happy one, but it is oddly satisfying. Definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve read from 2018, and will probably be on my Hugo novella ballot.
  • Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells – Ah, the continuing adventures of Murderbot, the security android who just wants to binge-watch TV shows, but always gets entangled with humans who have no security sense whatsoever. The first novella, All Systems Red, won the Hugo last year, and I judge a fair chance that Exit Strategy will this year (I’ll be nominating it). The four novellas released so far are episodic in nature, but there is a throughline that gets resolved in Exit Strategy. Along the way, we’re treated to well plotted action and adventure in a pretty standard space opera setting. It’s all very entertaining, and I was happy to see Murderbot reunited with Dr. Mensah and crew. Apparently Wells is working on a Murderbot novel, and if these four novellas are any indication, I’m sure it will be great.
  • Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn – Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the more enduring creations in the Star Wars expanded universe (even if it has been deprecated), but he wasn’t always a Grand Admiral. This newish novel tells the story of how Thrawn came to the Imperial Navy and quickly rose through the ranks. Along the way, we’re treated to some Imperial Academy sequences, early battles, and a final showdown with an insurgent uprising. At the outset, Thrawn befriends an obscure Ensign, Eli Vanto, and becomes his mentor, teaching him everything from combat tactics and leadership to his trademark usage of art to see what animates the enemy. As a normal, competent but uninspired officer, Vanto provides us with perspective on Thrawn, and it’s entertaining to see Thrawn win Vanto over. Eventually Vanto starts to demonstrate abilities of his own. It’s all great fun, and Thrawn’s tactical prowess and observational abilities are well portrayed here (the use of Vanto’s vantage helps – writing a genius character has to be somewhat difficult, but writing about him from a more mundane perspective makes it easier). It’s a bit episodic and while the ending does have an element of closure to it, it doesn’t really feel like a major climax. Still, it was a very entertaining book. Zahn has always been a Kaedrin favorite, and this one is well worth checking out if you’re a Star Wars fan (assuming you’ve already read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy).
  • Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn – Alas, this sequel to Thrawn isn’t as great. Both a prequel and a sequel, it tells the story of Thrawn’s initial meeting with Anakin Skywalker in the past (implied but not detailed in the previous book), cross cut with Thrawn’s collaboration with Darth Vader in the present/future/whatever. Weird as it may be to say, Skywalker/Vader’s presence here just doesn’t work for me at all. The Clone Wars era never particularly interested me and Anakin’s whiny nature is a turnoff. Vader isn’t quite as imposing in this story either, though I can’t quite pinpoint why. He’s more petty and shortsighted than I’d normally peg him as. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just not quite at the level of the first book. Also, I miss Eli Vanto here. He was a good window into the events of the story, but that sort of thing is sorely missing here. Still curious to see where else Zahn takes this Thrawn series, even if this one was a bit of a misfire for me…

And that’s all for now!

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