Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.
Keith Laumer is most famous for his series about the beleaguered diplomat Retief, which I think are a lot of fun, but he has a few other series that are well regarded too. Worlds of the Imperium is the first in a series of stories about parallel worlds explored by the Imperium, a government on one such alternate earth.
This first installment begins with the kidnapping of one Brion Bayard, an American diplomat visiting Stockholm. Laumer has a thing for diplomat protagonists, having served in the US Foreign Service himself. They say write what you know, so like Sturgeon and bulldozers, Laumer wrote about diplomats. Anyway, Bayard is whisked away in a strange vehicle and subjected to questioning about rudimentary history. As it turns out, he’s been kidnapped by the Imperium, a government from an alternate timeline that has developed a method of travel to alternate universes.
Thus far, they’ve only found two that were inhabitable (in others, earth had destroyed itself or never developed civilization in the first place). One is Bayard’s home (which appears to be our timeline), and the other features an earth ruled by a vicious dictator who has declared war on the Imperium. That dictator’s name happens to be… Brion Bayard. Can the Imperium convince Bayard to travel to the third timeline, impersonate the dictator, and halt the war? Spoiler alert: they can. But can Bayard succeed? That’s the rub.
The setup is all typical exposition-heavy SF info-dumping, but once the story proper gets going, it turns into more of a twisty espionage thriller. It helps that the info-dumping and alternate reality concept are pretty well done (if perhaps a bit elementary by today’s standards, I’m guessing it was more remarkable in its time). It’s very short and snappy, not wasting much time moving from one bit to the next, so even the info-dumps aren’t a real strain.
This might leave you wanting more in terms of characterization though, as the only person we really get to know at all is Bayard himself. He’s got a sharp and cynical edge to him that is well suited to his mission, but other aspects are left unexplored. There’s a perfunctory romantic angle that is simply tacked on and it feels like Bayard gets over his kidnapping and the implied permanent exile from his home a little too easily (did he have no attachments at home? No family? Friends?) Wait, I just realized that the government of the Imperium is based in Stockholm and Bayard is bonding with his kidnappers… this is surely not a coincidence. Anyways, in general, a lack of characterization doesn’t bother me much, so long as you make up for it with something else, which Laumer certainly manages.
It’s a fun, pulpy espionage thriller with a few interesting twists and turns. It might not get you thinking grand thoughts about the nature of the universe (though I suppose the SFnal concepts are interesting enough and well thought out, especially for its time), but it will keep you thoroughly entertained for the few hours it takes to read. If you’re looking to introduce yourself to Laumer, though, I’d recommend picking up the Retief! collection (there’s that exclamation point in the title again, something we don’t see much these days – maybe modern SF would be more fun if people wrote more stories that warranted a title with an exclamation point) before this. They’re entertaining stories too, and they also more prominently feature Laumer’s over-the-top sense of humor. Still, I wouldn’t mind visiting the Imperium again at some point, which is usually a good sign.
Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.
Say it with me: Killdozer! Don’t forget the exclamation point. It’s an evocative name for a story. Just filled with schlocky potential. Depending on your point of view, it may be a tad misleading though. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it really is a story about an ancient energy being that possesses a bulldozer and goes on a rampage. It’s like a mashup of SF and slasher film, with the killer being a giant damn bulldozer.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the slasher comparison because, well, the SF part is more interesting. But I do have an inexplicable love of slashers, so really quickly: there’s a sense of a historical tragedy of the past being revisited upon the present (the energy being was part of an ancient war, got buried in some ancient island temple that gets opened up by a construction crew, at which point the war is rekindled). The killer is wearing a mask of sorts (shaped like a bulldozer – a stretch, but work with me here). The killer stalks its unsuspecting prey, picking them off one by one, sometimes using creative methods of murder. The only things that’re really missing are a holiday (not strictly necessary) and a final girl (we have to settle for a final boy, er, final middle-aged-dude, which is a bit of a bummer.)
Well maybe I should stay on this track a bit. In preparation for last year’s Vintage SF Month, I wrote a post on the intersection of Horror and Science Fiction. I’ll let that post speak for itself, but the key distinction is thus:
While both genres often portray spine-tingling confrontations with a terrifying unknown, the chief difference between them is not the events depicted, but how the response to those events is characterized. The horror or gothic response is generally one of acceptance and surrender, while science fiction’s reaction is one of rational curiosity. To drastically simplify the sitation: horror thrives in a lack of understanding while science fiction sees such threats as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved. These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly exceptions and cross-genre exercises that straddle the line.
“Killdozer!” is a good example of such things. So far, I’ve leaned into the horror and action genre to describe the story, but the actual exercise of reading the story is tempered by a very Science Fictional approach. Author Theodore Sturgeon spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the minutiae of bulldozer technology and operations. And when I say “minutiae”, I mean it. Some examples:
The hoist and swing frictions and the brake linings had heated and dried themselves of the night’s condensation moisture, and she answered the controls in a way that delighted the operator in him. … Tom snapped the hoist lever back hard, and the bucket rose, letting the tractor run underneath. Tom punched the bucket trip, and the great steel jaw opened, cascading marl down on the broken hood. …
… Tom pushed the swing gear control down and pulled up on the travel. The clutches involved were jaw clutches, not frictions, so that he had to throttle down on an idle before he could make the castellations mesh.
Pages 156-157, The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!
There’s much more of that talk throughout the story. Sturgeon had a 4-F classification during WWII due to health issues, but he still contributed to the war effort, mainly by working on construction of airfields in the tropics. He became quite adept and knowledgeable of bulldozers during this period. In terms of his writing, this was an unproductive period for him, with “Killdozer!” being written right smack in the middle of several years of writers’ block (other things on his mind at the time, I guess). Sturgeon’s expertise certainly shows throughout the story, possibly to its detriment. I say “possibly” because it’s the sort of thing that really does give the story an interesting and distinct tone, especially when you consider the sensationalism involved in the premise.
I can see this sort of attention to detail turning off casual readers, and it certainly impacts pacing. However, it really does speak to the Science Fiction mindset. This is not a story where our heroes cower in fear of the seemingly haunted bulldozer. They brainstorm, they speculate, they devise clever strategies for avoiding, combatting, and eventually defeating the dozer and its mysterious driving force. This quote is the sort of thing you don’t see in much horror fiction (at least, not from people who survive!):
He was not the type of man who, when faced with something beyond his understanding, would begin to doubt his own sanity. His was a dogged insistence that what he saw and sensed was what had actually happened. In him was none of the fainting fear of madness that another, more sensitive, man might feel.
Page 131, The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!
For its part, the energy being that possesses the dozer also demonstrates intelligence, devising its own ingenious solutions to the attacks our protagonists throw its way. It’s a rational opponent, but one that can be defeated, so long as you don’t lose your own head.
Speaking of which, the group of humans has its own interesting dynamics at work. This is not a long story, but Sturgeon does make an effort to get to know each member of the team. Characters include a young Puerto Rican who doesn’t have much formal training, but does have experience as a dozer operator. Another character is older and perhaps too straightforward for his own good, but has wisdom born of experience. The most notable, though, is a rabble-rouser who has a penchant for needless back-stabbing office politics and racism (since this has been a week in which such real-world political strife has spilled over to embarrassing proportions, it’s interesting to see a character like this portrayed as a sorta secondary villain.)
It’s a fascinating story, if not one that is perhaps suited to beginners. It’s certainly not Sturgeon’s best work, but I do enjoy the contrasts it presents. There was also a TV movie made in the 70s that is apparently worth seeking out (though I feel certain that the SFnal elements would be toned down in such an adaptation). Originally published in Astounding magazine (John Campbell was a big booster of young Sturgeon), this story has appeared in all sorts of collections over the years (and even won a Retro Hugo last year), but I read it as part of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!
The collection includes some pre-war and post-war Sturgeon stories, and it’s actually still somewhat early in his career. You can see a marked difference between the older and newer stories, with Sturgeon’s emphasis on psychological motivations and therapy emerging in the latter stories. Many of the tales portray a similar Science Fictional take on a Horror or Fantasy premise, with clever heroes that solve problems using rational problem solving.
“Killdozer!” is the standout story, but other prominent entries include “Mewhu’s Jet”, which is often seen as a precursor to Spielberg’s E.T. (though I’m not sure if that has been strictly confirmed, it makes sense), and “Memorial”, an early recognition of the danger of atomic power/bombs (Sturgeon and SF writers in general seemed to be ahead of the curve on this sort of thing). I also enjoyed stories like “Blabbermouth”, “The Chromium Helmet”, and honestly, most of the stories were worthwhile, even if Sturgeon would get better as time went on. I might recommend some of Sturgeon’s other works before this, but it’s a decent collection of stories and it showcases how a writer’s early career can evolve over time.
We’ve finally reached the end of 2020 and, much as we might not want to, it’s always a bit natural to take step back and examine where we are and what we’ve done. In this case, I’m focusing on one of the brighter spots of 2020, which was my year in books. I was very fortunate to have a job that easily transitioned to work-from-home, but even then, it’s obvious that the pandemic had a large impact on my reading habits.
I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of fancy statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade.
I read 69 books in 2020. Nice.
You can see the full list on Goodreads. This basically blows all previous years away and is an obvious consequence of spending more time at home due to pandemic lockdowns &c. While there was the usual sprinkling of shorter-than-novel fiction throughout the year, I will note that it was actually less than usual since I finally gave up on Hugo short stories this year. The list also includes a pretty good proportion of audio books, probably more than normal since I was taking more walks (trying to get some movement into my life since sitting at my computer all day is not great), though also driving less, so maybe it was a wash? Anyway, in the past, large increases of quantity generally coincided with less pages read… but not really this year.
Average pages read was 343, just a hair off from last year’s 345 and not that far off the record set in 2013 (which was 356, but that’s over only 31 books). And in absolute terms, overall pages in 2020 still far exceeded all other years in recorded history.
Interesting note here: three of these four extremes are non-fiction (and it makes sense that the “shortest book” wouldn’t be non-fiction because I don’t really track short non-fiction that I read, which does exist in terms of long-form journalism). I’ll also note that The Hollywood Economist, while not perfect, is fascinating reading for anyone who wants to know how movies are financed. Er, were financed. I suspect almost all of it is now in tremendous flux due to pandemic woes, but still. The book is worth reading just to see how things work. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details here that rarely come up in online film discussion.
At this point, I’d normally show the graph of books by publication date… but I made the mistake of reading Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare this year. It was published in 1601, which has net effect of ruining the default Goodreads graph. I’ll try to make some ad-hoc observations below.
19 Non-Fiction books in 2020, a significant improvement over the last few years, though not exactly a huge improvement in proportional terms (still, a 500 basis point increase, not bad at all).
Only 10 books written by women this year, which is abysmal. A decrease in absolute terms from last year, and a major decrease in proportionality. Of course, this wasn’t intentionally planned this way or anything, it just shook out like this.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare was the oldest book I read in 2020. Or in all of my Goodreads history, for that matter. To Marry Medusa, by Theodore Sturgeon was the second oldest, having been published in 1958.
Approximately 30 books were Science Fiction, which is proportionally down a bit from previous years, but still relatively consistent.
I didn’t really crunch the numbers, but my gut feeling is that I read more stuff from the 80s and 90s this year than in previous years, though there’s still an obvious recency bias, with lots of new books. Even with declining participation in the Hugos, I still seem to have that recency bias.
So there you have it, a pretty fabulous year in books. That said, I’ll appreciate when things start to return to normal. I love books and am a massive introvert, but even I’m starting to get a bit antsy. Also, while I love stats and tracking my habits, it might be worth taking a step back from Books (and Movies) this year? Or maybe not, but worth considering.
Between Halloween Season’s Readings and a bunch of non-fiction, I’ve been slacking a little on my SF reading. I’ve definitely not kept up writing about it, but that’s what we’re here for now. Let’s get to it…
Network Effect by Martha Wells – The Muderbot Diaries series of novellas are great, and author Martha Wells has now made the leap to novel-sized tales. Murderbot is just minding her own business, catching up on her favorite television shows, when her human associates are attacked and some captured. It turns out that a sorta friend from her past is also in trouble, so Murderbot has to abandon her TV shows and save everyone.
This is par for the Murderbot course, which is to say, it’s very good. The transition to novel-length has not dulled the characters or the story much, and I still quite enjoy seeing the interactions between the characters and moody AIs. For fans of the series, ART (named so by Muderbot, an acronym for Asshole Research Transport – they’re kinda friends) shows up and requires Murderbot’s assistance, and while Wells is always able to generate conflict between the characters, it always feels more like a good natured thing. Everyone likes each other, but they can get on each other’s nerves at times.
Lots of well plotted and executed action sequences keep the pace moving briskly. Murderbot is also quite clever at times, even (especially?) when she’s got limited resources. The ultimate villains aren’t particularly notable, just the standard Corporate hacks, though some particularly deadly technology is deployed at times. All well and good for the first novel, but I’m hoping for more substantial villainy in future installments. If I get around to nominating for the Hugos next year, this will definitely be on my list. It’s probably a shoe-in for at least a nomination as well. (If you’re at all interested in the SF fandom’s culture wars, this series in general is something that could appeal to all, I think.) While this is the first novel and you could probably read it as a standalone, I’d still start with the preceding novellas, which add background and depth (and they’re really good too!)
Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer – An alien spacecraft lands near a museum and a spider-like, 8 limbed alien pops out, enters the building and politely requests, speaking in perfect English, that the security guard take him to a paleontologist. After some discussion, it turns out that the aliens have discovered that three different races on three different planets have all experienced the same five cataclysmic events at about the same time. This includes things like the meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, making it unlikely to be a coincidence. When a threatening supernova is observed, aliens and humans alike wonder if another cataclysm is on its way…
Sawyer is trying to flip the debate on creationism here by positing scientific evidence of an “intelligent designer.” The visiting aliens all believe in God, while the human paleontologist represents atheists in the debate. Now, when I say that the aliens believe in God, let’s be clear that it’s not the Christian God or really anything represented by organized religion. To underline that fact, Sawyer introduces a couple of bumbling fundamentalist Christian terrorists, one of whom is literally named Cooter. Anyway, it’s all interesting as a thought experiment, though I don’t think that Sawyer’s aliens demonstrate the proof they say they have for God’s existence. Still, there are some speculations that do tip things towards an intelligent creator guiding creation (and the ending leans even further).
The book primarily consists of conversations. Sure, they’re between a spider-like alien and a human, and they are discussing genuinely interesting concepts, but as storytelling… it’s the sort of thing only a Science Fiction fan would love. Fortunately… I’m a science fiction fan. Sawyer’s bald style is unlikely to win converts from the literary crowd, but science fiction fans would enjoy the interplay of ideas here. I enjoyed it, but I totally get why some would be turned off by it
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book I: Chaos Rising) by Timothy Zahn – Alright, let’s get this straight. Timothy Zahn kicked off the modern Star Wars era in the early 1990s with Heir to the Empire (first in a trilogy of novels taking place after Jedi). It was a great continuation of the series (better than all of the subsequent films, that’s for sure) and Zahn introduced a great villain: Grand Admiral Thrawn. A military genius, he collected the shattered pieces of the Empire and organized them into an effective threat. A clever idea, and Thrawn represented a different but still memorable and interesting villain.
Since then, Zahn has periodically returned to the character of Thrawn. Especially recently. There was a trilogy covering Thrawn’s joining the empire and rise through the ranks… and now, we go further down the prequel path to cover Thrawn’s rise through the Chiss Ascendancy. As per usual, Zahn is a workhorse who puts out reliably entertaining stories, and the story here is as effective as any of the recent books… But I can’t help but think that we’re really just treading water here.
Thrawn is a great character, but his genius makes it difficult to tell the story without surrounding him with other characters who have to react to him. Zahn is good at this and manages to tell fun stories, but Thrawn is less and less of a villain in these stories, and thus it feels like we’re losing something. I still hold out hope that we’ll see Thrawn in cinematic form some day (and yes, I’m aware, that’s almost certainly happening soon, but I’ll avoid spoilers here). Anyway, this book is fine, but it’s sorta disposable entertainment rather than vital.
Axiomatic by Greg Egan – A collection of short stories ranging from Egan’s trademark diamond-hard-SF mode to more humane explorations of technology to some fantastical premises that seem uncharacteristic. As with most collections, there are some stories that work better than others, but as a whole, it explores a lot of fascinating, sometimes scary ideas. Take “A Kidnapping”, which I’ll try not to spoil here… and thus, can’t really talk about. But once it becomes clear what’s happening, it’s devastating. A lot of the concepts here show up in Egan’s other work, like the idea of “neural mods”, which crops up in a couple of stories.
Uploaded human minds play a big role in Egan’s work and there are a few stories here that explore that territory well. The notion of a neural implant called a “Jewel” is an interesting take on this idea. It’s a small computer inserted in the brain at birth. It monitors and simulates brain activity such that, by the time someone reaches adulthood, it has learned to mimic brain behavior perfectly. At this point, the brain can be switched out in favor of the Jewel, which will operate in basically the same fashion (and which, effectively, confers a form of immortality and even a kind of continuity of consciousness).
Lots of good stuff here, weighty and sometimes scary, it nevertheless entertains. I still think Quarantine is Egan’s best, though stuff like Permutation City and Diaspora are more ambitious and challenging. I need to keep exploring Egan’s work, is what I’m saying.
Yendi by Steven Brust – The second novel in the Vlad Taltos series, this one concerns a sorta gang war. Take traditional high fantasy tropes and layer Goodfellas style gangster wars on top of it, and you’ve got Yendi. It’s very entertaining, and Brust has done a good amount of worldbuilding, so the fantasy folks will enjoy that side of things well enough. I found myself more intrigued by the nuts-and-bolts of the warring criminal enterprises here though, and Brust does a great job fleshing out some of the more procedural aspects of that. Again, pretty good mixture of that procedural stuff and magic and dragons and stuff. It’s been a while since I read this, and I took quite a break between the first and second books in the series, but I suspect it’s a series I’ll dip into again sometime.
It’s been a while since I put together a list of things to read from the book queue, so it doesn’t really matter if I do so now, but I’m going to do it anyway. You’re welcome. We’ve got some interesting non-fiction on the list, a holiday offering, some candidates for Vintage SF Month, and the usual smattering of nerdy literature.
A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi – This one should be a lighter, more fun read for the holidays. I’m guessing this contains a bunch of things that Scalzi has already posted on his blog (and thus I may have already read), but it should be fun.
Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold – It’s another Penric & Desdemona novella and they’re always good…
Master of the Revels by Nicole Galland – This is the sequel to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.. Galland collaborated with Neal Stephenson on that first book, but is apparently on her own here. Of course, the cover emphasizes Stephenson more than anything else, which is funny. I’m never clear on how author collaborations actually work, but as I understand it, Galland did the bulk of writing on the first book, so hopefully she’ll be able to keep it up on this one. I’m actually quite looking forward to this, since the first book ended sorta weird.
The Lincoln Hunters by Wilson Tucker (1958) – Time travel about a historian sent back to record a Lincoln speech, but he finds out that he’s been sent back before. Or later. Something paradoxy like that. This was on my list for Vintage SF Month last year, but I never got to it. I think it’ll make the cut this year. Or, er, next year.
Alrighty then, that should keep be busy for a couple months…
The Six Weeks of Halloween isn’t just for movies, it also includes some season’s readings. In accordance with this year’s record-setting pace of movies watched, I’ve also set some sort of record for number of books read. This is due to basically the same reason, which is that there’s a raging pandemic on and thus I’ve got more time for reading/watching. I love books and movies, so it’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’d rather not do the same next year! I’m going to try to get through all of them in this one post, so they probably won’t be as in-depth as normal (not that these recap posts are usually that in-depth, but still).
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Season’s Readings
Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin – Struggling riverboat captain Abner Marsh receives a too-good-to-be-true offer to supervise the construction of and co-captain the grandest steamboat the Mississippi has ever seen. While wary of the mysterious benefactor making the offer, one Joshua York, a pale aristocrat who keeps strange hours, Marsh ultimately can’t resist. As the boat makes its way down the Mississippi, Marsh starts to notice even more suspicious behavior from York and his strange friends.
This was definitely the best thing I read all season and maybe even this year. While not quite as ambitious or intricate as his Song of Ice and Fire, it holds plenty of similarities. Lots of historical detail, this time placed on the 19th century riverboat trade. Strong, likable characters facing malevolent villains you love to hate. And of course, plenty of lovingly described feasts for our main character. Look, some of the digressions might rub folks the wrong way, but Martin is a consummate storyteller and it shows here. He also manages a spooky atmosphere that was perfect for Halloween season. Take this line, thrown off early in the book:
Once a raft came by, a fire burning on its deck, and they heard the raftsmen calling out to them, vague faint cries that echoed over the river before the gray swallowed raft and sound both.
So spooky. As usual, Martin has his historical ducks in a row, and he references all sorts of riverboat lore that is no doubt fascinating all on its own (i.e. the phantom steamer of Raccourci is briefly mentioned, and it turns out that it’s a real thing), then adds his own twisted tale of chills to the misty river. Plus, unlike the Song of Ice and Fire, this one is self contained and has a satisfying ending. Recommended!
Night Shift by Stephen King – Speaking of consummate storytellers, this collection of short stories was a pretty solid read during the season. Here’s the thing with Stephen King: Even when I don’t like the story, or the characters are awful, or something silly is happening… King finds a way to pull me in and turn the page. Only a few of these stories really standout in my mind as great, but all of them are supremely well written.
This is one of the reasons that so many King adaptations fail to translate on the screen. A lot of times, the story itself is rather silly (i.e. “Trucks”, “Battleground”, “The Lawnmower Man”, etc…), but King is such a virtuoso writer that he can make them work… That makes it difficult to adapt, for sure. Still, some of these stories are great. I really loved “The Boogeyman”, “The Ledge”, and “One For the Road”, but really almost all of them were interesting in one way or another. I go back and forth on Stephen King and short story collections are often uneven, but this book has convinced me to check out more of King’s short story collections.
14 by Peter Clines – Nate’s a down-on-his-luck schmoe who lucks into a cheap apartment. The only problem is that his apartment has some odd features. Weird mutant cockroaches, a light fixture that only emits blacklight. And hmmm, it looks like his neighbor’s apartment also has a mystery or two. And so does his other neighbor. Soon, Nate and his new friends are full-on investigating the mysterious building. What shall they find!?
It’s a fun little read. Take J.J. Abrams Mystery Box concept, apply to an apartment building, and sprinkle a little Lovecraftian cosmic horror on top, and you’ve got a fun little dish to eat for Halloween season. It’s not going to blow you away and the characters, while not exactly deep, are a likable enough bunch. The conclusion gets a bit kooky, but hell, it’s far better than the ending for Lost! It’s sorta perfect audio-book fodder.
The Fold by Peter Clines – In the same universe as 14, this is a mostly independent story (there are a couple of brief mentions of some of the events in 14 and some characters show up, but otherwise completely separate story). Mike Erikson is whip smart and he’s got an eidetic memory. That’s why he’s hired to audit a team of DARPA scientists who have invented a device they call the Albuquerque Door. It’s basically a teleportation device. It appears to work perfectly, but the team is not very forthcoming with any details and they refuse to release to the public until they complete some additional tests. Mike’s job is to figure out if they’re blowing smoke or really onto something. Naturally, the device doesn’t quite work perfectly, and soon, more mysterious and troubling things come to light.
Like 14, this is a fun read. It veers a little more into science fiction territory this time, which might not satisfy the hardcore SF reader, but should hit the general audience just fine. For my part, the moment someone mentioned that the Albuquerque Door relied on some sort of Quantum Mechanics, I know almost down to the last detail what was wrong with the project. That being said, Clines is a decent enough storyteller to keep things moving along and entertaining, even to a dork like me who thinks he knows everything. There are apparently additional books in this series that are out (or coming soon), and I’d actually be curious to check them out, which is usually a good sign. Again, not going to blow you away, but it’s entertaining and fun and again, good audio-book fodder.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay – When fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display aberrant behavior, her family tries everything to help, eventually turning to the Catholic Church for an exorcism and hiring a reality television crew to document the strange happenings. Fifteen year’s later, Marjorie’s younger sister recounts the whole experience to an interviewer.
I can certainly see why this book turned some heads (it infamously garnered high praise from Stephen King), and there’s a lot to like about it. I can’t say as though it hit on all levels for me, but I’ll give it points for ambition and putting a new spin on a hoary old tale. Tremblay manages this both with plot devices but also an unconventional narrative structure, which includes straight recapping of the possession, interview segments, and blog post excerpts reviewing the television episodes. It’s an effective mashup of stylistic elements and story, with an ending that I did not see coming. Ultimately, I’m not sure it worked perfectly for me, but I’m glad I read it.
Weaveworld by Clive Barker – Barker has long been a staple of my Halloween season’s reading, but I’ve long since exhausted his excellent Books of Blood short story collections, so now I’m working back to novels that I haven’t caught up with yet. This one features a lot of Barker’s appeal… but it also feels a bit like an inferior take on several of his other stories. In particular, I remember Imajica being a much better version of a similar sort of tale… But then, I haven’t read Imajica for decades, so the details escape me.
Still, this book about a hidden world and various attempts to capture or protect it, has some interesting things going for it. A meditation on memory and the past’s pull on the present, it hits those themes hard. However, it does perhaps drag on a bit too long and while Barker is always stylistically impressive, it’s not quite enough to save the flabby plot. Clocking in at over 700 pages, it somehow feels even longer than that, without really justifying the length. It became repetitive at times, and I dunno, maybe I was just turned off by the more fantastical elements, which aren’t particularly well defined here.
I didn’t hate this or anything, and maybe if I had read less Barker in the past, it would have hit me better… Still, I’ll probably continue to explore Barker’s oeuvre and dammit, wait for the third Book of the Art (which he’s been talking about for going on three decades)…
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron – Another short story collection, this one a bit less successful than the King, but then, that’s a high bar. Still, this is my first experience with Laird Barron, and I’m not entirely sure I’m on his wavelength. The collection starts out strong, with the story “Old Virginia,” a creepy tale of a CIA project in the 1960s that touches on the Roanoke Island disappearance and eventually gets into cosmic horror. Next is “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” which is short but all style over substance, again with the Lovecraftian cosmic horror element that’s actually pretty effective.
From there, things start a downhill slide. Some of these should work, but almost all of them go on for far too long (even for short stories, they feel more like novellas sometimes) and aren’t quite as satisfying. The only exception would be the titular Imago Sequence, which is a strong way to end the book.
So I didn’t love all the stories, but there’s plenty to like, even in some of the lesser stories. Lots of creepy imagery and Barron’s overly descriptive style sometimes helps accentuate the scares. There are some commonalities to the stories as well. Tough guys who are normally competent getting thrown for a loop when presented with cosmic horror. Curiosity killed the cat, and apparently also leads humans to investigate things beyond their ken. There’s a cyclical feel to a lot of these stories. Stuff that’s happened before and will happen again. Unfortunately, that last aspect, while sometimes neat, isn’t always particularly satisfying, especially when you don’t like the characters involved. Ultimately, I’m a bit mixed on this book, and despite the stories that I liked, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read more Laird Barron (though it’s not completely out of the question, I guess).
Draculas by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson – Man is this book just totally trashy stuff. A rich guy on his deathbed purchases a creepy old skull found in the Romanian countryside. It’s a strange archeological find and the rich guy basically just grabs it and rips his own throat out with it. His nurse and research assistant act quick and take him to the hospital, where he turns into a vampire and starts turning the staff/patients.
From there on out, it’s pure trashy action. Lots of blood and gore and there’s a clown vampire and people who take down vampires with chainsaws and so on. It’s not really good, but it’s trashy and fun. It might be more fun if I liked some of the characters more, but whatever, this book really isn’t that concerned with being realistic or anything like that. Not the worst thing in the world, but probably not something I’d recommend.
Hunted by Darcy Coates – A woman disappears while on a hike. Her camera is discovered with a series of strange pictures that vaguely suggest she was being stalked by… something. As her family and friends head into the woods to find her, a detective starts to piece together other parts of the puzzle. Not a bad setup and I will admit that it gets better as it goes, but wow did this thing start off on the wrong foot.
In particular, there’s this character named Todd that is just… why on earth would we ever want to have anything to do with this guy? He’s basically a stalker who is in love with the woman who disappeared, but is so creepy that I think she’d be better off not being found. Honestly, all of the characters are just awful stereotypes and caricatures and I don’t especially like any of them, except maybe Carla, the detective. She’s got all sorts of baggage that the author thinks will help us like her, I think, but it’s so cliched that I didn’t really connect with her until she started actually doing her job. Which she’s actually good at once she starts doing it, and thus the book does end much stronger than it begins. The twists at the end are welcome, I just wish that I cared about the characters at least a little bit.
Still, the whole exercise really isn’t worth it, and you’d be much better off watching The Wolf of Snow Hollow which had a similar vibe and is much, much better. In the end, it’s a pretty silly book, and unlike Stephen King, Darcy Coates can’t quite sell the silliness.
Phew, that’s a lot of spooky books. We shall return to our more SF inflected reading soon enough…
I’ve been reading a lot of MilSF (that’s “Military Science Fiction” for you normals) lately. I’m far from an expert in the sub-genre, but I enjoy dipping into it from time to time. It just so happens that I’ve been dunked further than normal in the past few months, so here goes:
On Basilisk Station by David Weber – The first in the long running series featuring Honor Harrington, an officer of the Royal Manticorian Navy and ice queen extraordinaire. Having pissed off a superior officer, she gets posted to a backwoods star system. Low on resources but high on tactical awareness, Harrington must deal with drug-addled alien aboriginals, smugglers, corruption and oh yeah, this out-of-the-way locale is about to become a flashpoint for interstellar war.
There’s nothing especially surprising about the story, but it’s competent and entertaining. Weber isn’t exactly a prose stylist, but he knows his physics and military tactics. While there are occasional info-dumps (par for the SF course), he’s able to employ all this well enough. You’ve seen the setup before, but it’s always fun to see someone beat the odds and succeed when they’re being (unfairly) set up to fail. Truth be told, I’m more likely to go back and read more Horatio Hornblower (to which the Honorverse and seemingly a dozen other SF franchises are deeply indebted) than I am to explore more of this series, but I’m not, like opposed to it either.
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley – In this Hugo finalist, Dietz joins the war against Mars as a member of the infantry. Since traveling to another planet to wage war is time-consuming and costly, scientists have figured out a way to convert soldiers to electromagnetic energy so they can be transmitted to the battlefield at the speed of light. But something goes wrong with Dietz, and she’s experiencing her combat drops out of order. Can she retain her sanity and figure out what’s really going on with the war?
With this novel, Hurley is clearly attempting to enter the conversation that started with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and continued in Haldeman’s The Forever War (amongst other classics of MilSF over the intervening decades), but I don’t find it entirely successful on that front. Granted, I’ve never been a big fan of Starship Troopers, but for all its faults, it did pretty much single-handedly invent the sub-genre. Unfortunately, what Hurley seems to have glommed onto are the lectures (from a structure standpoint; clearly not a content standpoint). This is pretty much everyone’s least favorite part of Starship Troopers. Basically, Hurley takes Starship Troopers, scribbles “Capitalism Bad!” over the lecture sequences, and then biffs the military stuff, because who cares about that?
Look, I’ve never served in the military and am far from an expert, but I found myself nitpicking almost everything having to do with the military in this book. There are so many things that are just outright wrong here (basic stuff like what marksmanship is or how ranks work) that it’s hard to believe that Hurley cares one whit about the subject, except insofar as she can use it to denounce capitalism. Blatantly, in long, lecturing speeches.
It’s implied that the Martians have become so technologically advanced because they’re communists, but we never really see them. If you’re going to insist that communism will finally be made workable in the future world you’ve built, you should probably give some indication of how that happened, seeing as though it doesn’t have a particularly great track record here in the present and recent past. For example, Ian M. Banks’ Marxist paradise, The Culture, at least has some justification in the form of hyper-advanced AI Minds (I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but hey, at least he’s trying!)
Look, I’m not saying the complaints about capitalism are necessarily wrong, and the book does capture timely political ideas in a compelling way. The notion of putting conditions on citizenship (a clear lift from Heinlein, but still quite relevant) or the corporatization of government or the way media and propaganda can be leveraged by the malicious are all subjects worth exploring, especially in this day and age. It’s good that the book tackles these subjects! But it would be nice if there was some sort of path out of the hell Hurley creates other than just whining about it all. I’m not asking for much here. Even some form of handwavey magic would do the trick, but this book can’t even be bothered to go that far. At best, this makes the book’s ideas a “preaching to the choir” situation.
Alright, I’m being hard on this novel and I think it’s clear that I didn’t love it, but I do actually think it does some things well. As bad as a lot of the military mistakes are, Hurley does nail the interpersonal interactions of military service. Again, not an expert, but the relationships between the characters feel realistic and authentic. Likewise, while the transportation method of “light” is basically nonsense, the non-linear narrative that emerges is actually quite well done (a good example of handwavey magic getting the job done). I’m a sucker for time travel stories and this puts a nice spin on well worn ideas. It’s not quite the mindfuck that some seem to believe and the “twists” that happen aren’t very surprising, but it lends some weight to the proceedings. I don’t know, if you’re part of the choir that Hurley is preaching to, this probably works like gangbusters. Alas, I’m not singing in that choir.
The Lost Fleet Series, by Jack Campbell – I actually read the first book of this series, Dauntless, around two years ago. In that short review, I mentioned that I would probably pick up the second book at some point, and I finally got around to it. Then I got hooked, and read the remaining four books. To recap:
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.
The first five books or so of the series basically consist of a “Long Retreat” through Syndic space, with the last book being a sorta return offensive (being a little vague here, so as to not spoil anything). At the macro level, this can get a bit repetitive, but if you go in for this sort of thing, it’s well executed and entertaining. Each novel basically consists of a few large engagements with the enemy coupled with some interpersonal relationships and fleet politics.
The military engagements lean more towards the thrilling and entertaining side than, say, the aforementioned On Basilisk Station, but author Jack Campbell does a good job establishing the parameters of how the military operates in space, and then abiding by them. Campbell is basically taking naval warfare and adapting it to space with minimal concessions to physics. He does take full advantage of the three dimensional space and acknowledges the difficulties of fighting whilst moving at relativistic speeds, but I’m sure there are plenty of nits to be picked with the way Campbell portrays combat in these novels.
That being said, Campbell manages to make each battle interesting by switching up tactics or devising new wrinkles within the system he’s set up. Sometimes combat is shaped by devious Syndic tactics, other times it’s driven by the need to feed the fleet’s auxiliary ships (which refine fuel and manufacture parts and munitions), and then some battles are avoided entirely. At one point, there’s even a ground action with orbital support. Your mileage may vary, but the need for each fight is well established, the goals are often different from one engagement to another, and the progress of each battle is well portrayed and entertaining. At the macro level, this might seem repetitive, but there’s a lot of variety in the specifics of each engagement.
I’m not entirely sure how this war could possibly last for over a century, especially given the way people and equipment are so frequently destroyed, but the series is action packed and well executed enough that this becomes a minor complaint. Campbell gets enough stuff right that I didn’t find myself nitpicking or dwelling on things I didn’t love.
The interpersonal relationships are perhaps a little less successful. Here, the repetition does become a bit stilted. In particular, a sorta love triangle develops between three main characters that works well enough to start, but eventually just keeps spinning its wheels. It’s not strictly bad, it’s just not as well varied as the military side of things.
Similarly, the fleet politics bits are quite pronounced at first, and represent a true and interesting threat to Geary’s command. Geary’s whole strategy revolves around a return to more traditional tactics and practices, which a lot of officers in the fleet disagree with, at least initially. Even as he gradually wins over most of the fleet, there are those that are scheming behind his back, and just when this fleet politics stuff starts to get a little too redundant, Campbell turns the tables in an interesting way in the later books.
Along the way, we’re treated to some other SF staples. Naturally, there’s an alien presence that’s been manipulating the war for a century or so, but they can only really be inferred from the evidence on hand. As the series progresses, that inference becomes a little more solid.
There are a few interesting bits about how Geary’s style is so different that it actually impacts the way the military software works. Rudimentary AI has been trained over a century on tactics that Geary is now trying to upend. This has unintentional consequences that are well played by Campbell.
One of the funny things about reading this series in proximity to The Light Brigade is that Campbell actually touches on many of the same themes. The Syndics are a hyper-capitalist society. They don’t have presidents or admirals or generals, they have CEOs. And they are clearly the villains. But Campbell doesn’t lecture, he just shows the logical, rational end point of some more extreme business-like behavior. I won’t claim that these are “important” novels, but I found it ironic that this series made me think about the same ideas while also being entertaining and well constructed.
I don’t think that Campbell is breaking any new ground here, but it’s very well executed and competent stuff. Well worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some MilSF.
The Results of the 2020 Hugo Awards were announced a couple of days ago, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I read most of the novelnominees this year, but I didn’t finish. I never dipped my toes into the shorter fiction categories either, so I ultimately ended up not participating. This tracks with my generally waning enthusiasm for the awards over the past several years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe I’ll find next year more worthy of engagement. In the meantime, congratulations are due to all the winners, even the ones I don’t like. For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting and nomination stats are also available (.pdf).
The Best Novel Award went to A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed that novel. Indeed, this is the first time in several years that I actually liked the winner of this category. It has its flaws, but so did all the other nominees I’ve read (5 out of 6), and all things considered, I think it’s great that the award went to the debut author. Apparently the race for first place was very tight, with Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame coming in a close second place. They were clearly my favorite two nominees, so it’s nice to see. The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in last place, and that also fits with my ranking…
The only short fiction I had actually read that got nominated were a couple of stories from Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. They were good, as per usual from Chiang, but I never got around to reading the others. In scanning the winners, the one I would be most interested in is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. After years of being soundly disappointed by the Short Story category, I finally gave up this year.
The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) wins Best Series. I read the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, a while back and came away unimpressed. However, I’ve also received recommendations from folks I trust, so maybe I’ll check it out again at some point. Perhaps it gets better as it goes.
That said, this award continues to baffle. Only one book from this series (the first) has actually garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Novel, so it’s better than the last few winners in that respect. But it’s still a logistically difficult category to judge. The Hugo Awards are always a popularity contest, but I suspect that’s so even more here than with the other categories. Plus, I have serious doubts that voters have actually read enough of each series to make a truly informed decision. Maybe I’m wrong about that! But the sheer quantity of work contained in just one ballot seems infeasible.
In addition, books from series keep getting nominated for Best Novel, so the Best Series category hasn’t curtailed that much either. Series are tricksy beasts. Clearly they sell, hence their proliferation. But when it comes to awards, they present a problem, because you’re often not judging a single work. I’ve never really participated in this award, mostly because of the aforementioned logistical problems.
Best Dramatic Presentations
The Good Place wins Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form for the third year in a row with: “The Answer”. A fine episode, to be sure, and I did quite enjoy the series, but it did sorta peter out. Personally, I would have much rather seen the award go to a new show/episode, like The Mandalorian: “Redemption” or Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, but the voting wasn’t even close.
Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form went to another TV show, Good Omens. I never watched it because I read the book and had mixed thoughts. On the other hand, of the nominees, it’s certainly a defensible choice. This category has always been a weirdly mainstream, blockbuster dominated affair. I probably would have voted for Us, but I’m in the clear minority there. It did not do well in the voting. Weirdly, I’ve been finding a bunch of smaller, low-budget 2019 movies that would have been deserving of recognition. But I’ll save those for a later post. In the meantime, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and more interesting than the offerings from Marvel or Star Wars.)
There’s apparently quite a row brewing about the Retro Hugo Awards, presumably because the Cthulhu Mythos won Best Series. No matter how much you may dislike Lovecraft, it’s difficult to point to a more influential nominee. Indeed, the award is for the Mythos and explicitly includes other authors, which in theory include books like The Ballad of Black Tom. All of which is to say that I’m doubting that the (relatively few) people voting in the Retro Hugos are motivated by rewarding Lovecraft’s bigotry, but rather the enduring qualities of his work (which, to me at least, are not the racism). I don’t know, maybe I’m being naively optimistic here. I certainly can’t fault anyone for being turned off by Lovecraft’s racism. It’s telling, though, that all of the complaints about the Retro Hugos never refer to alternatives and also seek to minimize the other winners.
Take the perennially dismissed Leigh Brackett. She’s experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, but even then, her contributions to the genre are consistently downplayed or erased. The last few Retro Hugos have provided some spotlight on this underrated author, and I’m happy about that. I don’t understand why so many are so willing to dismiss or ignore her work.
I saw one comment that said the Retro Hugos were rewarding people that we’re trying to relegate to the dustbin of history. Well, the Retro Hugos are quite literally “the dustbin of history”. There were only 120 nominating ballots for the 1945 Retro Hugos, which is an order of magnitude lower than the 2020 Hugo Awards (approximately 1500 nominating ballots). What’s more, I find it hard to believe that the grand majority (if not all) of those 120 people weren’t also participating in the 2020 nomination process. My guess is that these people aren’t obsessed with the past to the exclusion of the present and future. Ultimately, I find value in exploring the history of Science Fiction, warts and all. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t read or like new science fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to track down a copy of Killdozer!
I started this post a few weeks ago, but I had wanted to at least acknowledge what was happening in the world in the intro and that ended up becoming its own post. All of which is to say, stay Safe and Constructive out there everyone! A surprising amount of progress has been made in a short time, but now we’re in for more opportunism and potential backlash, not to mention wave two of the pandemic. Wallowing in social media probably won’t be very productive for a while and maybe losing yourself in a novel is a good way to reset. Here’s a few that I’ve read recently…
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, an enterprising collector of mysterious trinkets and curious treasures. Set in the beginning of the 20th century, the story follows January and her talent for finding portals to other worlds. She has discovered a book amongst Mr. Locke’s belongings, a book of adventure and doors that features elements eerily familiar to January’s experiences. It’s an interesting enough premise, and it hits on two popular tropes that could make for an interesting combination: the portal story and the book-within-a-book. The former is merely a tease. There are portals to other worlds in this novel, but if you think this is going to be a story about actually traveling to new and interesting places and having adventures there, well, you’d be wrong. There are tantalizing mentions of these other worlds, some of which sound like they could be really exciting, but that’s all we get. We’re mostly just stuck in turn of the 20th century world, which is fine I guess, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a portal story. As a result, the world building feels a bit incomplete. The whole book-within-a-book conceit doesn’t really do much for me either, other than wreak havoc with the pacing of the novel. As previously mentioned, it’s not exactly a rollercoaster to start with, so this addition was not especially appreciated. Furthermore, both of these narrative threads (i.e. January’s and the book’s) are told in first person as a retrospective, which also has an impact on the stakes of the story. The characters came off as a bit flat to me. The heroine is fine, if not especially special (which is weird, because we’re often informed about how unique she is, even as she resembles a million other similar characters). The villains are obvious mustache-twirly types whose motivations don’t make much sense. Frankly my favorite character was Bad, the good doggo that January takes on early in the story. The prose doesn’t help things along either, as it’s overly flowery and at times, preachy (yes, this novel shares the politics of every other Hugo nominee from the past few years and it sometimes comes off as a leaden lecture). Ultimately, with the pacing issues and overbaked prose, it feels like not a lot happens in the book, which is one of those things that just bothers me. I’m obviously in the distinct minority on this one, so I’ll leave it at that. I clearly didn’t enjoy this and as of now it’s at the bottom of my Hugo Awards ballot. If you’re going to open a bunch of doors, you should probably go through them at some point.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Gideon is a swordswoman attempting to escape a life of servitude for the Ninth House. Harrow is the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer. When the Emperor summons the heirs to each house to find a leader so that he can defeat some threat on the horizon, Harrow enlists Gideon as her Cavalier. As the heirs to each house gather for their trials, dead bodies start to pile up, and mysterious bone creatures rear their ugly heads. I really ought to like this more than I do. It’s got a lot of winning elements. A Gothic whodunnit with bone witches and swordfights? What’s not to like? It’s got all the elements, and it comes together in the end fairly well, but there’s just a bunch of nagging complaints I can’t quite get over. A lot of people complain about the dense fog of jargon that is just sorta dropped on your head at the start, but that sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me. Some of the worldbuilding is unclear though, and that does lead to some confusion. The characters are a bit too snarky for my tastes. Gideon, in particular, seems awfully insubordinate for someone who’s supposed to be an indentured servant, and her relationship with Harrow is kinda weird. The whole odd-couple, enemies-to-friends thing is a time honored trope, but it only barely works here because the relationship is just so fraught with mistrust and pain that when things shift later in the story, it comes off as abrupt and perhaps unearned. The rest of the characters are a bit less defined and harder to care that much about, perhaps because there are so many of them (and they drop like flies as the story progresses). The story does seem to lapse into a repetitive state in the middle, but the conclusion is rousing enough. And along the way there are plenty of swordfights and necromantic creatures to keep things interesting. Ultimately, well, this isn’t really my preferred genre, but it comported itself just fine. It’s perhaps a bit too long and while it’s got all the right elements, there’s some tweaking needed to make it really sing. As with A Memory Called Empire and perhaps even The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I feel like this would be better served as a nomination under the Asounding Award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer (all three of these novels are debuts, and thus it’s perhaps not so surprising that I have similar complaints). As a Hugo finalist, this can’t quite compete with the more developed storytelling that you get from Middlegame (which is still at the top of my ballot, even as I didn’t love that novel either…)
The Last Emperox by John Scalzi – The conclusion to Scalzi’s Interdependency novels (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) is, well, more of the same. Which, considering that I enjoyed the first two novels, is a good thing. I won’t call this Scalzi’s best work or anything, but it’s solid stuff and very entertaining. I don’t need to go into the plot much here because it’s kinda right there in the titles. The empire’s transportation network is collapsing and the Emporox must find a way to restore independence to each system before the become isolated while also fending off various assassination/coup attempts. Look, it’s getting a bit repetitive by this point and maybe it’s something that didn’t require a trilogy of novels to cover, but in general, I enjoyed spending time with these characters and while the scheming and intrigue are repetitive, Scalzi is actually pretty good at this sort of thing. Indeed, reading this not long after other Hugo nominees (particularly A Memory Called Empire, which has similar Empire-in-crisis vibes), put Scalzi’s talent for clever machinations and storytelling in stark relief. There were several surprises throughout, and even though some of them were fakeouts that some might find cheap, I rather enjoyed them. I won’t claim this should be nominated for a Hugo Award, but I do really enjoy Scalzi’s style. This isn’t his best work, but it’s highly enjoyable, and in these dark times, that’s laudible.
Randomize by Andy Weir – This is actually a short story, but I thought I’d give it a crack because I like Weir and while this has some interesting elements, it doesn’t fully gel for me. It basically tells the story of how quantum computing could wreak havoc on our world, though he focuses the story on a particular Casino. It’s a good idea and the Casino world is a good microcosm, but some of the machinations, particularly towards the end of the story, are strained and not quite believable. Still, I’m always curious to see where Weir goes. Nothing he’s written recently has been as great as The Martian, but I like his approach.
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge – Towards the beginning of lockdown, I read two books that… start with plots about disease. This was not planned at all and felt a bit weird, but in this one, the disease was really just a delivery vector for something else. Once the story proper starts, the disease bit becomes background. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Robert Gu receives a series of medical treatments that basically cures him of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a world-renowned poet before the disease, but now he awakens to find a world that has dramatically changed. Also, he was apparently a prick before the disease, so he’s got a lot of baggage to wade through with his family and friends. Then he gets caught up in some sort of conspiracy involving that disease vector thing. Once again, reading this in comparison to recent Hugo nominees puts things in stark relief. The sheer idea content of this book is so much higher than anything nominated in the past few years that I’m wondering where this type of science fiction went (incidentally, this won the Hugo back in the aughts). The storytelling is a bit less successful. It’s overlong and some of the characters aren’t entirely likable at first, but it still functions well enough. It sorta meanders a bit at times though, which doesn’t help with the pacing, and while the conclusion pulls all the threads together well enough, it just wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. That said, the aforementioned idea content is high and so even when it’s going off on tangents, it’s interesting. I really enjoyed this book, even if it isn’t Vinge’s best work.
Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – Ah, and this is the other disease novel that I inadvertently started reading during a global pandemic. I mean, I guess I should have read the description more, but I like Bear and this has long been on my book queue to catch up with, so I just took a chance and started reading it. Fortunately, it’s a pretty darned good book! Molecular biologist Kaye Lang believes that ancient diseases encoded in human DNA could awaken and start infecting people. Christopher Dicken is a “virus hunter” for the CDC who is hot on the trail of an elusive flu-like disease that only infects expectant mothers and their offspring. Mitch Rafelson is a disgraced paleontologist who stumbles upon the preserved bodies of a prehistoric family in the Alps. Of course, all three plotlines are completely independent with no overlap whatsoever. Oh, wait, no, the opposite of that. To be perfectly honest, much of the details of Bear’s exploration of DNA and disease are way over my head. That said, it all sounds impressive and isn’t obviously wrong, so he’s got that going for him. The broad strokes of the story seem plausible enough and are easy to discern, and it’s an entertaining yarn. It’s the longest book covered in this post, but it earned its length I think. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for Bear’s dense style though, so maybe take that with a grain of salt. The ending perhaps leaves too much room for a sequel (which is out there) and thus isn’t as satisfying as it could have been, but it works well enough.
That’s all for now. I’ve actually got quite a backlog of books to cover, so we’ll probably have another of these posts sooner rather than later.
Middlegame is the fifth novel by Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) to be nominated for a best novel Hugo Award. She’s been nominated in and won the award in several other categories, but the best novel win has eluded her. Will this one do the trick?
Roger and Dodger are twins bred for a specific (but secret) purpose by rogue alchemist James Reed (himself an alchemical creation, reminiscent of Frankenstein, that’s been scheming for over a century on said secret purpose). Rodger is skilled in all things words and language. Dodger is a math whiz. Separated at birth and placed in foster homes, they somehow managed to connect via some sort of handwavey quantum entanglement; they can speak to one another and even see through each other’s eyes. Their parents and teachers generally attribute this to imaginary friends, but Reed knows it’s the pair’s latent powers beginning to manifest and he doesn’t want them to do so too early. He and his merry band of alchemical minions stop at nothing to keep the two separated until their powers can be fruitfully harnessed for whatever dreadful purpose they have in mind. Will Roger and Dodger manage to discover and subsequently foil Reed’s nefarious plans? Spoiler alert: yes.
While this novel is a bit too long and overly cryptic for its own good, McGuire is a good yarn-spinner and has developed two core protagonists that are likable enough such that the pages turn quickly, which certainly mitigates the issues I have with the novel. Roger and Dodger have a great chemistry together and McGuire is able to generate a lot of empathy for their various plights. The story requires them to be separated, sometimes forcibly, and McGuire is able to harness this conflict to induce a certain longing and desire to seem them connect.
The story suffers a bit when Roger and Dodger aren’t around, but those are thankfully brief little episodes and only make the connections they make more sweet. The overarching secret purpose at the core of the story does fall a bit flat in the end, but since we’re so invested in Roger and Dodger, it still works. Along the way, we get some nice surface explorations of mathematics and language and the interplay between both. It’s still firmly rooted in the fantasy genre, but it does incorporate some SF window dressing well enough. Dodger uses mathematics in some interesting ways and there’s even a bit of time travel (or, at least, an ability to reset a timeline); none of this is explored in a particularly SFnal way, but it works well enough in a fantasy story like this. Some of the story choices and various sub-plots might not entirely fit together, but the page turning nature of the novel and the likable protagonists mitigate that.
McGuire is a good storyteller and her craft is evident here, especially viewed in contrast to the other Hugo nominees I’ve read (both of the other two novels I’ve read are by debut authors, and while they pull off their stories in fine style, it’s clear that McGuire’s experience gives her an advantage). I enjoyed the novel and expect it to fall near the top of my ballot, though who knows, maybe one of the remaining three novels will really knock my socks off. All that said, I’m still not entirely sure this novel is award worthy. I haven’t read a ton of Seanan McGuire, but I get the impression that she’s capable of more, and while her talent is undeniable, I’m not sure it’s the best Fantasy novel of the year. But what do I know? It’s not like I’ve read a ton of this year’s fantasy offerings…
A few words, if I may, on the audiobook, which is at best functional and at worst awful. It’s read by Amber Benson of Buffy fame and while she’s got plenty of geek cred (and she’s an author in her own right), some of the choices she made in her reading of this book are just baffling. In particular, the exaggerated, emphatic verbal tics she employs for the alchemist Reed and his murderous minion Leigh are weirdly out of step with the tone those scenes should be generating. Just completely over the top. Like, sure, they’re kinda mustache twirling villains, but they aren’t straight up cartoons. Likewise, I’m not sure what she’s doing with Roger’s voice, but it ain’t a New England accent. The one character she is able to nail, though, is Dodger, so credit where credit is due. She’s suffused with nervous energy and Benson carries that off well. I got a very Jordan from Real Genius vibe from her reading of Dodger (this is also due to McGuire’s overall conception of the character, but Benson does add something of her own here.) It’s a testament to McGuire’s skill as an author that I came away with an overall good opinion of the work.