Arts & Letters

SF Book Review – Part 41: The Road to Roswell and moar!

I have been woefully neglectful of keeping up with reviews for recent reading, science fiction or not, but there’s only one way to rectify that situation, so here are some reviews of recent reads, including The Road to Roswell, A Half-Built Garden, and Summer’s End.

The Road to Roswell, by Connie Willis – Francie arrives in Roswell, New Mexico as the maid of honor in her college roommate’s UFO themed wedding (the groom is the true-believer, and Francie thinks there’s a fair chance the ceremony will implode). Frustrated by the crowds of gullible conspiracy nuts chasing potential alien sightings, Francie is surprised to find herself abducted by an alien. It looks like a tumbleweed, but it’s got quick and almost infinitely elastic tentacles, and it needs her to drive a car. Where? That’s what Francie needs to figure out. Along the way, they accumulate a rag-tag group of additional inadvertent abductees, and they all try to figure out how to communicate with the alien, which they’ve nicknamed Indy (after Indiana Jones and his whip).

The Road to Rosewell

This is old fashioned stuff, almost to a fault (and probably would be to a lot of the modern SF crowd), but I found it almost refreshing in that way. It’s got a nice blend of genres ranging from alien first contact/abduction/conspiracy, to romance, to a road-trip adventure, to comedy, and more. The UFO nut crowd is in for a healthy dose of merciless mockery, but given the light-hearted tone, it all works reasonably well. Willis relies perhaps a bit too heavily on dialogue, much of it centered on trying to figure out how to communicate with Indy, find out where he’s going, and why. This might bog things down for some folks, but the story’s got a lot of heart, and the logistics of how they learn to work with Indy are clever and well-thought out. He’s an interesting creation, and not something we’ve seen before, which is always a nice touch in a first contact story. It’s not super-deep or earth-shattering, but it’s a fun little caper with some clever SF embedded and worth a look for fans of Willis working in a more light-hearted mode.

A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys – Judy is awakened to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. Assuming it’s a false alarm, she investigates only to find the first alien visitors to Earth. They’ve crossed the galaxy to save humanity from itself. As a technological society, they say we can’t help but destroy our planetary ecosystem, so it’s better for us to live among the stars, where we can control all the variables and establish a more sustainable community. But earth has found a hard-fought balance with nature, thanks to a revolution that sidelined corporations and set about healing the planet. Will the aliens recognize these actions for what they are, or will they save us… by force!? More importantly, why didn’t the aliens use the pronoun badges that Judy’s wife thoughtfully laid out upon their first meeting?

A Half-Built Garden

Alright that last bit is a dig on this story’s ham-fisted attempts to incorporate gender fluidity into a first contact story, but it’s well deserved. I honestly don’t know what this book is really going for though. The first contact dilemma (leave the planet or stay and potentially be forced to leave by the aliens) is bizarrely established as an all-or-nothing choice and the obvious solution, which every reader will develop within like 5 seconds of hearing the dilemma on page 20 (or whatever), is treated like a revelation at the end of the novel. It’s incredibly frustrating that everyone seemingly accepts the framing as an all-or-nothing decision (maybe I’m being too harsh, as there is some debate about whether or not to take the aliens up on their offer – the corporations are totally into it, for instance – but the aliens don’t seem to be very flexible on the matter, which seems weird).

There’s some notion of how the climate revolution has changed the relationship between corporations, nation states, and watershed communities (the new ecologically sound communities that are healing the earth), but it’s all very hand-wavey – there was something called the Dandelion revolution which apparently set us on the right ecological track for reversing the damage of global warming, but there is nothing about how that is actually accomplished other than bland platitudes.

Decision-making is also a big deal in this world and they describe some revolutionary networked technology that is supposed to facilitate these decisions, but this generally feels like every decision becomes a reddit thread that only experts are allowed to contribute to or something. This is a little silly, but it’s at least in good company – this sort of thing has been peppered into tons of science fiction for several decades (even going back to Ender’s Game and A Fire Upon the Deep, where the solution looked more like usenet than Reddit, but still.) It would be nice if the novel published in 2022 progressed things a little more than this does, but it’s not a deep fault or anything.

The real purpose of the novel, and the bulk of its prose, seems to be an exploration of gender ideology and sexual fluidity. There are several different systems at play, and a lot of time is spent… well, not exactly exploring these differences. Everyone is super defensive about their gender and sexual identities, to the point where they often refuse to explain in more detail, even to aliens who are clearly confused by what they’re seeing. Tons of lecturing and scolding about how this or that question is rude and offensive and so on and so forth. It’s so weird that this is the approach.

Speaking of the aliens, they’re actually multiple species, some plant-based, others more, er, spidery, and so on. But they speak perfect English from day one, and while their society seems to prioritize mothers more than ours, they are basically small variations on humans, with no real “alien” characteristics other than their bodies. Maybe if Judy’s wife put out xenogender pronoun badges, things would have gone better.

The book blurb calls Ruthanna Emrys a literary descendent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and boy does that comparison not do her any favors. There’s plenty of room for explorations of gender and identity in SF, and Le Guin was pretty great at it (there’s a reason The Left Hand of Darkness is often cited in this conversation) and lots of other SF authors have found ways to do it that are simultaneously less preachy and yet more informative (even when it comes to pronouns). Clearly this wasn’t a book for me, and it seems to be a bit divisive in that respect, but even if I were really into gender ideology, I don’t think I’d like this very much.

Summer’s End, by John Van Stry – A freshly minted spaceship engineer is forced to take the first berth off of Earth he can find because his stepfather is a politician who wants to have him killed. He ends up on a small freighter plying trade routes throughout the solar system, dodging assassins, pirates, and criminals along the way.

This starts off promisingly enough, if a bit derivative, but it quickly bogs down into some rather severe problems. One is that everything that happens is seemingly coincidental, and our hero just happens to be perfectly suited towards the situations he’s faced with. Alright, fine, that’s not always a major problem, and some degree of that is expected if you’re trying to tell an exciting story worth telling. But when it keeps happening, over and over again, it gets cloying. Another major issue is the way Van Stry treats his female characters. Most of the characters in the novel are underdeveloped, but the women are especially so – and often just objects of sexual fantasy (in particular, after the pirate attack, our protagonist shacks up with a character that is almost comically fantastical). The relationships our protagonist develops are just excruciating. It’s not so much that the overarching theme is wrong, it’s just so bluntly presented and awkward that I cringed whenever the subject came up (which was frustratingly often).

Finally, Van Stry isn’t exactly a stylist, and the prose is functional at best. I’m often quite forgiving of this sort of thing in science fiction because functional prose actually works when you’re exploring interesting ideas and trying to evoke the fabled sense of wonder that powers the best science fiction. But there are…no real interesting ideas here. All the science fictional aspects of the story are mere window dressing, and the politics are incredibly ham-fisted. This was actually nominated for the Prometheus Award last year, and you can see why, but like the aforementioned A Half-Built Garden, the political lectures are not very effective. The ending picks up a bit, but by that point, I was totally out of it. There’s nothing new here and no matter what you think of its politics, it’s not a very good representation of them.

I ended up writing more than expected here, so I’ll just finish off by saying that The Road to Roswell is the only book in this post that I’d actually recommend. I have a few more books I still need to catch up with, not to mention some of those Salty Sea-Dog reviews, but I’ll leave it at this for now…


The first book I read as part of my salty-sea dog era was Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, by Joseph Conrad. Published in 1904, it did not receive much in the way of critical or commercial success, and to this day, it is far from Conrad’s most read or famous work (which I guess would be Heart of Darkness). In the fullness of time, its reputation has only grown and its themes surrounding imperialism, revolution, and the corruption of greed remain relevant to this day.

Nostromo book cover (Penguin Classics)

Set in a fictional South American country, this novel tells the story of a silver mine that gets thrust into disarray during one of the periodic revolutions that plague the country. The infamous difficulty of the novel is not so much due to the plot, but the setting and background. The majority of the novel is comprised of flashbacks and detailed histories of the fictional country, it’s geography, the various periods of rule ranging from colonial exploitation to post-colonial misrule and various rebellions and revolutions. The backstory and motivations of the numerous characters are also related through lengthy flashbacks.

As a result of this extreme reliance on flashback, the pacing of the novel, especially in the early goings, is choppy and sometimes jarring. That being said, this was a conscious choice, and there are stylistic benefits of the approach as well. The insistence and influence of the past upon the present is well established by this approach, and the ambitious, multi-faceted view of an entire society in the grip of revolution would not be possible without the diverse origins of each component of the conflict. The plot actually resembles a simplistic adventure story, but this is given weight by the thematic depth of its tragedy.

“… We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it – and neither can we, I guess.”

Nostromo, Page 63

At this point, I must admit that there are elements of pessimism, fatalism, and near-nihilism in this novel that would, in most cases, cause me to roll my eyes. However, there are some mitigating factors that propel this book beyond my usual complaints. One is Conrad’s humanism, which is on ample display in Nostromo. This is the sort of novel that seems to provoke criticism from all ideological corners. It does not paint a pretty picture of imperialism, colonialism, religion, capitalism, or Marxism (nor probably several other ideologies or dogmatic enterprises that I’m missing), but it does affirm the power of love, the sanctity of family, the importance of the individual, and the need for empathy, sympathy, and understanding. He puts individual relationships above politics, which has the potential to annoy those of all political stripes. And since everyone has some inherent political stripe… you get the picture. Of course, I am not above the fray on this (witness my aforementioned eye-rolling!), but I can appreciate the level of detail and thought that have gone into this and which deserves a corresponding amount of consideration in response.

The other major mitigating factor, and the thing that endears me the most to this novel, is that I couldn’t help myself from thing about how similar this novel is to… The Lord of the Rings. Early on in reading one of the flashbacks in Nostromo, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I thought of similar digressions in Tolkien’s infamous high-fantasy. I realize that, in some ways, this is a deeply silly comparison, but that’s precisely why I find it so endearing. Sure, Nostromo is an intensely political novel with keen insights into the nature of mankind, but setting it in a fictional country means that Conrad spends a huge amount of time fleshing it out with history and culture, especially as seen through a handful of characters (each with their own similarly detailed backstory)*.

Sometimes it felt like reading a realistic, non-fantasy version of The Simarillion. Plus, you get numerous characters who have several different names (take the titular Nostromo, who also goes by Giovanni Battista Fidanza, Capataz de Cargadores, etc…), just like the LotR characters (i.e. Strider, Aragorn, Elessar, etc…) And the treasure from the silver mine? Everyone greedily seeks it out, and it corrupts even those described as incorruptible. Sound familiar? No? I’m just a huge nerd? Yeah, that checks out.

Tolkien was famously dismissive of “allegory” and denied any topical meaning or “messages” in his work. This has not stopped people from speculating, which is the point, but there’s a similar humanism in Tolkien’s work that can thwart many political interpretations. Conrad is obviously more bluntly addressing politics in his book (in a way that I’m not sure Tolkien would particularly approve of), but I do think there’s a similar perspective underlying both authors’ work.

If the name “Nostromo” sounds familiar to you at all, it’s probably because it was the name of the mining ship from Ridley Scott’s Alien (similarly, the name of the Colonial Marines’ ship in Aliens is Sulaco, which is the name of the town in Nostromo.) There’s also some thematic similarities, though obviously Alien is more fanciful in its presentation (not to mention that it implies its background setting, rather than explicitly establishing a comprehensive setting the way Nostromo does).

I will leave you now with a selection of quotes from the novel that I found interesting. They will give you the flavor of Conrad’s prose, which is not exactly free from hooptedoodle, but which is stylistic and expressive.

Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity.

Nostromo, Page 49

Gould is the owner of the silver mine, and this is a reference to his relationship with his wife, which is a humanizing one that, like a lot of individual characters, offsets some of the cynicism inherent in the novel. It’s also the sort of thing that would give people of a certain political persuasion the hives.

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our actions can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

Nostromo, Page 54

A nice turn of phrase that might help explain some of our political issues of the day.

In all these households she could hear stories of political outrage; friends, relatives, ruined, imprisoned, killed in the battles of senseless civil wars, barbarously executed in ferocious proscriptions, as though the government of the country had been a struggle of lust between bands of absurd devils let loose upon the land with sabres and uniforms and grandiloquent phrases. And on all the lips she found a weary desire for peace, the dread of officialdom with its nightmarish parody of administration without law, without security, and without justice.

Nostromo, Page 71

Conrad again emphasizing the way individuals are caught up in official events, ground up and spit out of political machinery, and so on… Once again, something that is easy to relate to and apply to our current circumstances.

“I think he can be drawn into it, like all idealists, when he once sees a sentimental basis for his action. But I wouldn’t talk to him. Mere clear facts won’t appeal to his sentiment. It is much better for him to convince himself in his own way. “

Nostromo, page 171

Its easy to think that facts and reason will prevail (and to be fair, they probably should), but that often does not matter to idealists or ideologues, something that will be good to keep in mind during an election year.

It was part of what Decoud would have called his sane materialism that he did not believe in the possibility of friendship existing between a man and a woman.

Nostromo, Page 176

Imagine the takes, the hot takes on this in 1904! One of the many beneficial things about reading older books is that you can see that many topics that concern us today are not new, and indeed, have been hot button issues for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.

There was between them an intimacy of antagonism as close in its way as the intimacy of accord and affection.

Nostromo, Page 200

Maybe not quite directly relevant to LotR, but the notion of conflict being the basis for a relationship that can be strong is one that crops up often (in fiction and in life).

The mere presence of a coward, however passive, brings an element of treachery into a dangerous situation.

Nostromo, Page 216

Not much to say about this one other than that it’s a nice turn of phrase, so I Googled “Lord of the Rings coward” and the results are just a never-ending succession of “Is [x character] a coward?” followed by “No, [x character] is clearly not a coward because of y and z.” Except for Denethor. The way he eats those tomatoes, man.

A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.

Nostromo, Page 298

A concise description of something that seems to happen a lot, especially in our current social media environment.

“There is no peace and rest in the development of material interests. They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Nostromo, Page 403-404

Way to finish on an optimistic note, amiright?

* – I should note that parts of this post, particularly the comparison with LotR, are adapted from and originated in a Tasting Notes post from last year.

The Book Queue: Salty Sea-Dog Edition

Since I’ve basically depleted the last Book Queue, it’s time to embark upon my Salty Sea-Dog Era of reading. You might notice a certain bias towards science fiction (and certain realms of non-fiction covering subjects like film or technology) in previous book queues, so I figure it’s worth exploring some other areas. For various reasons, a few different books kept cropping up as “Hmm, I should go out and read that.” and they all happened to take place at sea. I’m going to include one that I’ve already read, but this’ll perhaps motivate me to pick it up again and do a full review here. So here goes:

  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – This is the one I’ve already read and am planning to review in full soon. It’s long been on the larger book queue and I did finally pull the trigger last year. Lots of complicated thoughts about this highly respected literary novel, but that’ll have to wait for the review. True, much of the story takes place in a mining town, but it’s a coastal town, the titular Nostromo is basically the head longshoreman, and enough of the novel takes place on the sea that its subtitle is literally “A Tale of the Seaboard.” More to come.
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – I suppose no introduction needed here, one of the most famous Great American Novels ever written. At one point a few years ago, I read the first chapter or so on a whim and found it surprisingly engaging, but never got around to reading the full thing. I plan to rectify that this summer.
Moby Dick illustration from the 1902 edition
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – When I was growing up, my parents had a bookshelf filled with some sort of series of hardback books of classic novels. One was Moby-Dick, daunting due to it’s size, but another was Treasure Island, an evocative title that always thrilled me. I was perhaps too young when I first picked it up, but never circled back to it, even once I got the reading bug. (Funny to note, the title of the first chapter literally has “sea-dog” in it, though it doesn’t say “salty”, even if I’m sure said sea-dog is actually quite salty.)
  • Beat to Quarters (aka The Happy Return) by C. S. Forester – The first novel (going by publication) in Forester’s popular Horatio Hornblower series. I’ve read enough novels influenced by this series, particularly ones billed as “Horatio Hornblower in Spaaaace”, that I figure I should probably take a gander and see what all the fuss is about.
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian – The first novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series, one that most would be familiar with because of the underseen film adaptation. I remember quite enjoying the film, though I have not seen it in quite some time. Might be good to revisit in book form.

So there you have it, lots of salty sea-dog fun. Obviously not a ton of novels on this list, but there are two starts to famously long-running series that could provide ample further reading.

Hugo Awards Season 2024

The 2024 Hugo Awards finalists were announced a few weeks ago, so I figured it was time to catch up with the Hugos to see what’s been going on. For the uninitiated, it’s been a rocky year for the awards. Let’s take a look at last year’s winners and briefly examine the requisite controversy around the awards (there’s always something, but last year’s faults were somewhat more glaring). Then we’ll take a quick spin through the 2024 finalists to see if it’s worth participating again (spoiler alert: I most likely won’t be participating this year.)

Hugo Awards 2023: Results

I didn’t participate last year, mostly because I didn’t have anything to nominate (it helps to have something worth championing) but also because the last few years have demonstrated that I’m almost completely out of step with the current voting body. This is not to mention that the Worldcon was being held in China, which complicated matters with fears that turned out to be well founded. The controversy primarily surrounded censorship and exclusion of works for political reasons, and the whole thing is a mess. There are tons of overviews of the controversy, so I won’t cover it in detail, but it’s a bit of a mess. You could sorta tell something was off last year just due to the lack of visibility in the process and the numerous delays.

As for the winners, it seemed like a pretty straightforward year (despite the censorship) that’s right in line with previous years (and pretty much what I expected in my Initial Thoughts).

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher ne Usula Vernon won for best novel. I didn’t read the book, but I’ve read some of Vernon’s work before, and I’ve always enjoyed it well enough (not so much that I would seek out more, but her stories were usually some of the better ones in the short fiction categories). The short fiction categories have some familiar names (another win for Seanan McGuire), but a few new ones too, including a Chinese winner for Best Novelette (not entirely unexpected given the host country – and to be clear, no real controversy here, it’s natural to see participation rise in the host country).

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Best Series went to the Children of Time Series, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which… is actually a great choice. Tchaikovsky is an author who has never had a novel nominated (I have not checked the short fiction categories, but I don’t remember seeing his name there either) and writes lots of series, which is exactly the sort of thing this awards should go for. Previous awards have often gone to folks who already have a Hugo for a Novel in the series in question (some get nominated in both Novel and Series in the same year). As usual, I still find the logistical overhead for this award a bit daunting (if you haven’t read a given series, how are you supposed to read all of it within the allotted voting period?), but I’ve read enough Tchaikovsky to know that he’s quite good and it’s nice to see him get some recognition.

Everything Everywhere All at Once takes home the rocket for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, as expected. It’s a solid win for a usually baffling category. The 2023 ballot was actually pretty solid, but as usual, pour one out for the likes of Three Thousand Years of LongingApollo 10½: A Space Age ChildhoodCrimes of the FutureThe NorthmanMad God and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Despite not being billion dollar Disney productions, they’re all worth your time.

Hugo Awards 2024: Initial Thoughts

It appears that this year’s awards have returned to the traditional timeline for the nominations, with the finalists being announced on Easter weekend. Let’s take a quick spin through the Novel finalists:

  • The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty (ne S.A. Chakraborty) – Looks to be a fantasy on the high seas sorta adventure and sounds pretty fun. Chakraborty has garnered lots of plaudits and nominations in other awards, but not the Hugos, and it’s always nice to see new names. I’m currently planning my “salty sea dog era” of reading, so maybe I’ll pick this up at some point.
  • The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera – One thing I have to give the Hugo voters credit for is seeking out fantasy novels that aren’t just warmed-over European history, but with wizards and shit. If I was a big fantasy reader, this one might be interesting. It’s a debut novel, so we’ve got yet another new name too.
  • Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh – Looks to be a pretty straightforward Space Opera with queer themes, a pretty standard Hugo choice.
  • Starter Villain by John Scalzi – The one nominee that I’ve actually already read… and I really enjoyed it! It’s significantly better than last year’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, though it still seems rather slight to be the best SF/F of the year. Certainly worth a look if you like Scalzi or spy-adjacent comedies.
  • Translation State by Ann Leckie – Leckie returns to the Hugos with another book from the Imperial Radch series, though I believe it looks like a standalone novel set in the Radch universe. Still, I’ve read enough of these that I know I don’t want to read more…
  • Witch King by Martha Wells – As a big fan of Wells’ Murderbot stories (which have been nominated several times and won multiple awards in Novella and Novel categories), I might actually be tempted to check out one of her fantasy stories, and this seems like a decent enough place to start…

So we’ve got 3 familiar names and former Best Novel winners and 3 new names (and one debut). Genre-wise, there’s 4 fantasy and 2 science fiction, which is not my preferred mix, but it could be worse.

Short fiction categories have some familiar names, but it appears that there’s more Chinese nominees here than even last year, which makes a certain sort of sense (membership in one year allows you to nominate in the following year, so it’s not a big surprise to see this).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form has… zero billion-dollar Disney productions! Of course, there is a Spider-Man movie (er, half of a Spider-Man movie, womp-womp), but it’s still a pretty decent ballot, with oddball fare like Poor Things mixed in with underseen stuff like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and Nimona. The only real surprise is The Wandering Earth II, another result of increased Chinese participation. All that said, I still kinda expect Barbie to win (though it’s not as much of a lock as EEAAO was last year).


As per usual, I can’t let the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category go without suggesting more underseen alternatives. The most glaring absence: Godzilla Minus One (seems like it would be right up the Hugo voters’ alley). Other worthy movies include The Artifice Girl, Lola, No One Will Save You, Command Z, Knock at the Cabin, and Infinity Pool. There are some eligibility questions for some of those (a bunch of premieres at film fests in 2022 with release in 2023, etc…), but they’re all worth your time. (Some of those are horror adjacent, which generally don’t do well at the Hugos, but I’m not including several other more straightforward horror flicks that are worthy of recognition, like Sick, Brooklyn 45, Talk to Me, and more…)

So yeah, I’m likely not participating again this year, but I might pick up a book or two from the list and will follow along. Definitely curious to see how some of the categories turn out…


A little over ten years ago, Neal Stephenson teased a new series of historical fiction in an interview with the BBC:

Stephenson says he has returned to the past to tap a “similar vein” to that covered in his globe-spanning Baroque Cycle.

“They’re historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history,” he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period.

“It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

“One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps – something like that.”

Not long after, listings for something called Polostan and BombLight started showing up in various places that dorks scour to find new books, but the descriptions associated with those listings seemed to indicate that they were just working titles for Seveneves, which would be released in 2015 (the BombLight listing on Goodreads still has that old Seveneves plot description…)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. would come out in 2017 and featured some time travelly historical fiction and appeared to be first in a series (his co-author did continue the series, and I’d definitely be up for a third, but I digress…) I thought maybe the historical novels he mentioned were either sidelined permanently, or perhaps they had morphed into the D.O.D.O. books.

Polostan book cover

However! A couple months ago, some of those placeholder Polostan pages started to be updated with actual details, and now there’s even an official Harper Collins page, complete with a new plot description:

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Termination Shock and Cryptonomicon, the first installment in a monumental new trilogy—an expansive historical epic of intrigue and international espionage, presaging the dawn of the Atomic Age.

The first installment in Neal Stephenson’s Bomb Light cycle, Polostan follows the early life of the enigmatic Dawn Rae Bjornberg. Born in the American West to a clan of cowboy anarchists, Dawn is raised in Leningrad after the Russian Revolution by her Russian father, a party line Leninist who re-christens her Aurora. She spends her early years in Russia but then grows up as a teenager in Montana, before being drawn into gunrunning and revolution in the streets of Washington, D.C., during the depths of the Great Depression. When a surprising revelation about her past puts her in the crosshairs of U.S. authorities, Dawn returns to Russia, where she is groomed as a spy by the organization that later becomes the KGB.

Set against the turbulent decades of the early twentieth century, Polostan is an inventive, richly detailed, and deeply entertaining historical epic, and the start of a captivating new series from Neal Stephenson.

Well that’s certainly interesting… Funnily enough, the plot doesn’t mention any particular scientific or technological themes (I guess “dawn of the Atomic Age” is something), so it’s quite possible this is just a new historical fiction series, but who knows? Also: who cares? I guess goobers like me, but whatever the case, we’re getting some new Stephenson soon. The Russia angle feels relevant without being too on the nose, and I’m guessing this will be more of a spy thriller type of historical fiction, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Current release date is October 15, 2024, which is right in line with Stephenson’s normal cadence of new books every 3-4 years. No book cover yet, and who knows, maybe they’ll further complicate matters by changing the title. (Hat tip to Kaedrin friend and fellow Stephenson fan ARNE for the pointer…)

Update: Book cover has been revealed, so I added it above.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Star Maker

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.

Info-Dumps inhabit a unique place in Science Fiction. Much maligned and discouraged by conventional standards, they nonetheless serve an informative need that might otherwise be impossible in a traditional narrative. Obviously this can be done well and it can be done poorly, not everyone can be Greg Egan or Neal Stephenson, and in a very real sense it often conflicts with admirable rules of thumb like “show, don’t tell.”

There are some tricks that can hide the worldbuilding in the very mind of the reader by implying rather than baldly stating information. The typical example of this is when you encounter the phrase “ground car” in a science fiction story. There’s an obvious meaning here, a car that drives on the ground just like many of us ride in every day, but the inclusion of “ground” as a modifier implies not just the existence of other modes of transportation (most likely an “air car”) but potentially entire worlds that can be unlocked (including, for example, differences in architecture or how accessibility of previously difficult terrain changes, and so on). Eric S Raymond explains how these SF words indicate prototype worlds, delves deeply into what makes them work, and how this operations within the works of the genre, but the ultimate point is that science fiction operates on information and as such, info-dumps, even ones cleverly implied by previously established jargon are a key part of the genre.

Star Maker book cover

I say all of this because Olaf Stapledon’s 1938 Star Maker is less of a novel than an extended info-dump. A man gazes at the stars one night only to find himself hurtling through the firmament, a disembodied mind exploring the cosmos, stumbling on alien cultures, and traveling beyond galactic boundaries, eventually to glimpse the eponymous Star Maker, an inveterate and eternal tinkerer who has been creating each cosmos with more ambition than the last.

All of this basically takes the form of a sorta fictional Athropological text, part memoir, part travelogue (I suppose the more accurate term would be Xenology). Stylistically stripped down, simplistic, and conversational in tone, it’s not really a fast-paced page-turner, but neither is it bland or boring. This is why info-dumps are generally frowned upon in the first place, but on the other hand, the idea quotient is astounding. There’s a massive amount of imagination on display as Stapleton cycles through observations of astronomical features, exoplanets, alien life (humanoid at first, but then stretching boundaries to all manner of strange consciousnesses, galactic societies, utopias, and eventually even alternative cosmoses.)

The sheer quantity of novel ideas on display is impressive. Stapledon covers a lot of ground and popularizes if not originates numerous concepts that would become famous genre tropes later. For example, Freeman Dyson credits his idea of a hypothetical megastructure that surrounds a star and captures a large percentage of its solar power output to Star Maker, even suggesting it be called a Stapledon Sphere (it’s now known as a Dyson Sphere). That example is also illustrative of the fact that Stapledon was writing this before the terminology or jargon was even invented. He touches on things like the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the Great Filter, and the Dark Forest Hypothesis, even if he didn’t have the words to describe it. And I’m only really scratching the surface here. There are a ton of big ideas that originate from this book. The only thing that isn’t particularly well captured are computers and artificial intelligence (and associated speculations like the Technological Singularity, etc…), but that’s a topic that wasn’t particularly well explored in science fiction for another 30ish years (and even those early examples were rudimentary compared to later efforts).

More surprising is how spiritual the book can get. Stapledon was an agnostic, but the yearning for meaning and utopia that is present here is essentially a religious impulse. When the titular Star Maker appears, it’s portrayed in conflicting terms as indifferent yet somehow also loving, but also at its core: unknowable. Our humble narrator is overwhelmed by the task of describing it using our imperfect language, and essentially leaves it at that. Still, he describes many an alternative cosmos, including one that is basically Judeo-Christian in nature: a universe that consists of successive phases where lives end in one phase and reappear in another (there are two alternative secondary phases that could be described as heaven and hell). Stapledon’s story doesn’t entirely resolve anything here – you could see this as a a Turtles all the way down type of situation – and as such, there are some who could consider this view of God as heretical. For instance, C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, famously quipped that Star Maker “ends in sheer devil worship.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the spiritual endgame of the universe is something you don’t see often in science fiction.

It’s a fascinating, seemingly foundational work of science fiction. It doesn’t necessarily dive deeply into every concept, but it prefigures much of what would come after. It’s not really a beginner’s text, nor is it a fast-paced page-turner, but it’s not impenetrable either. Very much worth seeking out for students of the genre and a perfect example of the sort of thing Vintage SF Month is all about.

2023 in Book Reading

It’s become fashionable to point to a specific date on the Gregorian calendar and call it arbitrary (and I’m certainly guilty of this), but the calendar is based on astronomical movements in the solar system. Even granting that it doesn’t perfectly capture, for example, moon cycles (not to mention other idiosyncrasies), it’s not entirely arbitrary. It’s rational and considered. Our tendency to use this specific time to take stock of our lives, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed, is perhaps a touch more arbitrary, but I dunno, it’s cold out and I’m stuck inside, so might as well do something. Given the state of the world these last few years (not to mention that 2024 is a presidential election year in the US), such examinations can get a bit depressing, but let’s focus on the positive and less-existentially terrifying aspects of life, like book reading in 2023.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of rudimentary 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. So let’s get to it…

Graphing Books and Pages Over Time

I read 56 books in 2023, a little above last year (and my usual calendar-based goal of 52) but still a far cry from the pandemic fueled heights of 2020. It’s more or less in line with pre-pandemic reading patterns…

Number of Books by Year

You can see the full list of books I read in 2023 on Goodreads. Pandemic patterns have mostly disappeared, socializing and other activities are higher than the past few years, and so on, such that earlier in the year I was actually lagging behind my usual goal. But then I got kinda hooked on a series (who happened to have a great audibook reader) and that fueled something of a resurgence.

Average book length was 347 pages, a slight uptick from last year, but basically on par with established patterns (and honestly not that far behind my record average of 356, set in 2013). I didn’t read a lot of short fiction this year (I also didn’t participate in the Hugos, which can drive shorter fiction reading), though I didn’t read a ton of massive tomes either. Overall page length is also basically on par with last year as well (again, a slight uptick).

Page Numbers by Year

Of course, we must acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, which can be very misleading. In any case, this seems like a pretty solid pace that I seem to be gravitating towards.

The extremes

Shortest and Longest Books of 2023
Most and Least Popular Books of 2023

The shortest story being just 26 pages is notable given the relatively high average this year, but it was basically the only short fiction I read all year (maybe one novella?). The longest story being 758 pages is the lowest since 2017, though not by much. Basically, this just speaks to me having read mostly 200-400 page books throughout the year, with only a handful of things significantly above that count. The most shelved book is Agatha Christie’s first Poirot book, a series that I read several entries in last year (and will most likely continue to explore). The lowest shelved book was something I didn’t enjoy very much, which perhaps indicates why it’s not very popular… All of these extremes are fiction, and I do seem to have had an off year on the non-fiction front.

Assorted Observations and Thoughts

I’ve been leaving off the graph of publication years because I read some Shakespeare a few years ago which has made the overall chart look awkward (a ton of whitespace), but last year’s reading was sufficiently diverse in publication year that I think it’s worth trying to crop the chart down a bit.

Books Graphed by Publication Date

The X Axis is cut off to avoid copious whitespace, but the last two columns are 2023 (click the image to embiggen and see the full, uncropped image).

Of course, there’s still something of a bias towards recent releases, but the overall pattern is more consistent.

  • Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad was the oldest book I read in 2023. Published in 1904, it’s also the fourth oldest book I’ve read since 2010. That said, the bulk of Agatha Christie novels that I read were all in the 1920s and 1930s, and there was also some Vintage SF Month entries early in the year. Plus, a bunch of 1960s and 1970s novels creeped in, which drove a pleasing pattern to 2023’s reading in the graph above…
  • 7 non-fiction books in 2023, a dramatic decrease from last year. I can’t think of a particular reason for this, but it’s something I should try to improve in 2024, I think…
  • 14 books written by women in 2023, a significant decrease from last year. This isn’t something I generally try to consciously control, but it’s worth noting that at least half of those 14 were written by Agatha Christie. I suspect this number will go up in 2024, but you never know…
  • 26 science fiction books in 2023, a bit of an uptick, mostly driven by the Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson, which I kinda got hooked on (and which represents a rather significant portion of my overall reading in 2023). I have mostly caught up with the series at this point, though, so it’s a bit of an outlier in 2023.
  • My average rating on Goodreads was a 3.9, which is a tad higher than last yea, but I will note that I tend to round up to 4 stars for the grand majority of books. A lot of those 4 ratings would be 3.5 if that option was available. Also of note: I didn’t participate in the Hugo Awards this year, and that tends to drive at least a few lower ratings…

So 2023 was yet another solid year in book reading. The only thing I think I’ll consciously change in 2024 is seeking out some more non-fiction. I’m still on the fence for participating in the Hugos, but I’ll at least be checking in on the nominees.

Anywho, stay tuned for the year in movie watching, at least one Vintage Science Fiction Month review, and the kickoff of the Kaedrin Movie Awards, starting in mid-January and culminating in the traditional top 10 in February sometime (yep, two months after most people post theirs, I know, I know).

The Book Queue

It’s been a while since I posted about the Book Queue, but these books won’t read themselves, and I’ve found that posting about them publicly does tend to motivate me to actually read the books I have (rather than getting distracted by new shiny objects and the like). So let’s get to it:

  • Starter Villain, by John Scalzi – The last few Scalzi books have felt like he’s treading water, but his style is snappy and fun and not every book needs to be some sort of world-changing epic (which, to be fair, has never been Scalzi’s metier). This story about a guy inheriting his uncle’s supervillain business seems much more inclined to be comedic than anything else, which is fine by me. Probably would have gotten to this earlier if he didn’t release it during the Halloween season…
  • System Collapse, by Martha Wells – The latest Murderbot story has finally arrived, and that’s all I really needed to know. No idea bout the plot, but the Murderbot series has been consistently great (I obviously have not read this one yet, but I recommend you start with the initial novellas, they’re short and well done and you can come up to speed quickly…)
  • Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon – I apparently purchased this many moons ago, put it on a shelf somewhere, and promptly forgot I had it. I was doing some reorganizing recently and stumbled upon it and realized I should probably read the darn thing. Not sure what to expect as this could range anywhere from impenetrable literature to page-turning genre fare. I guess there’s only one way to find out.
  • A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys – Not sure how this got in the queue in the first place, other than that the premise sounds interesting and I’ve been somewhat neglectful of recent SF of late. Sounds like a first contact story that could be interesting enough.
A Half-Built Garden book cover
  • The Blighted Stars, by Megan E. O’Keefe – Another recent SF book with a decent enough premise, and I don’t remember where I heard of it first, but it sounds good…
  • The Icarus Plot, by Timothy Zahn – About 25 years ago or so, Zahn wrote a book called The Icarus Hunt, a very enjoyable space opera in the vein of Star Wars (I mean, really quite inspired by Star Wars, like at this point they probably could put the Star Wars logo on it and while you might wonder why there’s no member-berries or, like, Jedi in it, you’d probably enjoy it). Anywho, Zahn has finally written a sorta stealth sequel to that book. As I understand it, it’s not particularly reliant on the events of the first book, it’s just set in the same universe (it’s not even particularly being marketed as a sequel, which sorta makes sense because this one has a different publisher than the first). Anyway, Zahn has long been a reliable genre page-turner, and I’m glad he seems to be finished with his Star Wars Thrawn novels for now…
  • Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon – Vintage SF Month is quickly approaching, and this one is rising to the top of the list for now. It appears to be a sorta history of the future, spanning billions of years, sounds like fun.

Obviously lots more on the queue, and all of the above are SF or SF-adjacent, so perhaps I’ll leave the other fiction book queue and non-fiction book queue for other posts.

Halloween Reading Roundup 2023

From all appearances, the Six Weeks of Halloween is primarily a movie watching exercise, but all is not what it appears: the Halloween season is filled with other nominally spooky activities like hayrides, haunted houses (and haunted dining establishments and haunted mini-golf and haunted bonfires/cookouts, you get the picture), pumpkin mutilation carving ceremonies, and of course, lots of Halloween Reading. The past few years have led to several new discoveries on the horror writer front, but I also like to dip my toes into some more obvious choices, so let’s see how this year’s selections fared:

Halloween Reading Roundup 2023

Wounds, by Nathan Ballingrud (aka The Atlas of Hell) – A collection of six stories ranging from short to novella length, it’s named after a (not very well regarded) movie adaptation of one of the novellas, but the original title of The Atlas of Hell is a much more fitting descriptor of the collection. (Now that the movie has come and gone, future editions of this will revert back to The Atlas of Hell as title and man, even the artwork is much better…)

The Atlas of Hell

All of the stories touch on Ballingrud’s peculiar conception of hell as a physical location, some more than others, and “The Atlas of Hell” is also the name of the first story, a horror/crime hybrid that works well as an introduction to this vision of hell. “The Diabolist” veers in a completely different direction, taking a mournful first person perspective that speaks to the reader in an odd way. It’s a stylish approach which only serves to make the more traditional horror elements more effective. “Skullpocket” goes even further afield, telling the story of how a particular town is coexisting with literal ghouls with an almost YA tone to it (my guess is that this would be the most divisive of the stories). “The Maw” returns to more conventional territory, though as the characters start to explore Hell’s intrusion into our reality, the distressing imagery and creepy ideas become more effective. “The Visible Filth” is the aforementioned novella that got adapted into a movie. It’s about a bartender who finds a cellphone in his bar and starts getting increasingly disturbing text messages. It’s a neat setup, and it actually reminded me of a more serious and sober take on something like Unfriended 2: Dark Web. It wasn’t my favorite story and it’s not an obvious choice for an adaptation, but it’s certainly creepy.

“The Butchers Table” is the longest story in the collection, and by far the best. Ballingrud accomplishes in just 100 pages what most writers would spend 500 pages (or more) to do. Several of the other stories in the collection touch upon the mythology that Ballingrud is building, but mostly on the periphery. Here, it emerges fully formed and perfectly calibrated. This story packs in so much: pirates, satanists, cannibal priests, disturbing hellscapes where, like, the characters hang out in a giant corpse of an angel, and absolutely terrifying monsters called Carrion Angels that are hot on our protagonists’ heels. It’s truly impressive how much worldbuilding Ballingrud was able to pack into this story without descending into tedious info dumps and still finding room for the requisite intrigue and betrayals that you’d expect given the type of people involved. I will most certainly be reading more Ballingrud during future Six Weeks of Halloweens…

X’s For Eyes, by Laird Barron – A genre mashup evoking the like of the Hardy Boys and The Venture Brothers taking on elder gods and touching on cosmic horror, this is a short novella (novelette?) that incorporates plenty of corporate skullduggery, science fiction, and a heaping helping of adventure.

Xs for Eyes

Not quite as impressive or seamless as Ballingrud’s “The Butcher’s Table”, this nonetheless manages to pack a lot of ideas and worldbuilding into a quickly paced thriller. It’s not quite episodic, but there are some jarring and sudden twists and turns that might throw you for a loop, but I wound up quite enjoying this. Recommended!

Skeleton Crew, by Stephen King – Over the past several years, I’ve been working my way through King’s major short story collections. As with all such endeavors, especially longer ones like this, the stories can be hit or miss. But it’s Stephen King, so most are a hit.

Notable stories include “The Mist”, a novella that’s almost too perfectly constructed (with a great movie adaptation as well). “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” has a great progression and might be my favorite of the collection. “The Jaunt” is the odd science fiction story that King manages to add his usual touch to. “The Raft” is also quite effective for such a simple story (and the best part of Creepshow 2). “Survivor Type” has a delightfully macabre premise that would be a spoiler by itself. “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is also quite effective and clearly taps into the fears writers (perhaps particularly fears of horror writers) have about where their inspiration comes from.

As usual, some of the stories fall into King’s standard traps. He sometimes writes himself into corners, and some of the stories can get wordy and go on for too long, which brings down the pacing some too. That said, he’s a consumate storyteller, and his skill is on ample display. I’m a little disappointed that I’ve seemingly exhausted his major short story collections, though there are a couple of other collections (of novellas and the like) that I could check out in future marathons. Or maybe I’ll finally bite the bullet and read It.

The Dead Friends Society, by Paul Gandersman & Peter Hall – Longtime readers of this blog know that I have an inexplicable love of slasher movies, but I’ve had a lot of trouble finding books that can execute the formula well. This is actually a decent example of that sort of thing, though there are some severe flaws. An old house with a tragic past is haunted by a masked killer known as The Fireman, and our heroes must find a way to prevent the tragedies of the past from being revisited upon the present.

The Dead Friends Society

There’s the shape of something quite good here, but several aspects of the story kept pulling me out of it. We spend too much time in our main character’s head. She has the makings of a solid final girl, but is hamstrung by uncertainty and constant whining about this or that. Look, there’s plenty to whine about, but it’s boring as hell and makes the story drag. Oddly, if they made a film out of this, I think it could be far more effective, as we wouldn’t get the agonizing inner monologue of the final girl. Her actions are competent and even effective, but it doesn’t feel like it because she’s constantly berating herself. Side characters are marginally better, but they come off as one dimensional and it’s still slow going after the exciting initial set-piece. The pacing bogs way, way down for a long time in the middle before picking up again towards the climax. The motivation and powers of the Fireman are unclear, though that’s more or less par for the course on this type of thing.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, and I didn’t especially like the reader, which I’m trying not to hold against it. Not sure if, for example, the excessive pop culture references are as annoying as they seem because of the way it was performed, but regardless: there’s too much of that sort of thing here. All of that said, there’s some surprising twists that I was definitely not expecting, and there’s an effective mix of slasher and ghost story going on here. I genuinely think a movie adaptation could greatly improve upon this story, if only because we wouldn’t have to deal with the constant whinging.

Traveling With the Dead, by Barbara Hambly – The sequel to Hambly’s Those Who Hunt the Night, one of my favorite discoveries of last year, comports itself quite well, though it does perhaps go on a bit too long. That first novel was about a former spy being recruited to hunt down a vampire killer that was plaguing London’s vampire community. This time around, Asher notices an infamous spy from a foreign power smuggling a vampire away from London. He immediately pursues, while his wife follows on his heels, enlisting the services of Don Simon Ysidro, the suave London vampire that has become something of a friend to the Asher family. Like the previous book, there’s plenty of tradecraft, intrigue, and vampire worldbuilding. This does bog down in the middle section as all of the chess pieces are being maneuvered for the final showdowns and revelations, and some of that maneuvering is repetitive, but Hambly is a good storyteller, and I appreciate the attention to detail. I don’t think this is as successful as the first book, but I like it well enough.

Dead Silence, by S.A. Barnes – A deep space salvage crew stumbles upon a long lost ghost ship and sets about securing a big payday. Naturally, they don’t call it a ghost ship for nothing, and our salvage crew starts to find all sorts of suspicious stuff about the long dead passengers, who all seemingly went insane and killed each other. Will our heroes suffer the same fate?

Unfortunately, I don’t think this novel clicked with me. Part of this might be that the main protagonist is absolutely obnoxious and, like the protagonist in The Dead Friends Society, we spend a lot of time getting inside her head. It also speaks to modern horror’s obsession with characters who are severely traumatized and emotionally stunted. I suppose it could be something of an empathy shortcut to give someone a tragic backstory, but it’s getting tired at this point, and the romantic angle feels a bit perfunctory as well. Later, we get the bog standard modern sci-fi explanation of corporate greed as the root of all evil, another trend that’s becoming overused these days.

It’s not a terrible novel, but it’s one of those things where I feel like the blend of horror and science fiction clash a bit. Sometimes that oil and water approach can work, but, um, you need an emulsifier like mustard to really get it going properly. How’s that for a tortured metaphor? Unfortunately, the science fiction elements generally take a back seat to the horror here, and the horror… isn’t very scary or even creepy. This does seem to be a popular book though, so I’m clearly the outlier, though it’s ratings are not astronomical…

Hidden Pictures, by Jason Rekulak – Fresh out of rehab, Mallory hopes to get her life back in order by taking a job as a nanny to 5-year old Teddy. Things are going well, but soon Teddy’s normally playful artwork starts to depict a grisly murder, and Mallory begins to suspect something supernatural at work. As she sets about to solve the mystery, she discovers more than she bargained for…

This apparently won the Goodreads award for Best Horror novel of 2022, and to be fair, Jason Rekulak does have a knack for turning pages. Unfortunately, the overall story leaves a lot to be desired. It spends too much time on a particular red herring, and once the revelations start flying later in the book, they all feel pretty implausible.

I think I can see why this is successful and I didn’t hate it or anything, but there were just too many little things that kept bugging me… There’s always some tolerance for this sort of thing, but I’ve learned that when I find myself nitpicking things, it’s a sign of some sort of deeper problems in the story. In some ways, the protagonist here is more likable than the ones in Dead Silence or The Dead Friends Society, but there’s a similar sort of focus on a character who’s been traumatized that’s, again, getting kind of tired these days. And while she’s able to make progress on the mystery, she does seem way too willing to jump to the supernatural, and she makes some baffling choices throughout. Again, I can see why this became popular, but I wasn’t quite able to get on its wavelength…

Another successful Six Weeks of Halloween in the books (literally!) At 7 books, I didn’t really approach the pandemic fueled record of 9 in 2020, but I’m still averaging about a book a week, which is a pretty solid pace…

SF Book Review – Part 40: Expeditionary Force and More

It’s been a while since once of these. This is partly due to covering some books in Tasting Notes style posts or Vintage SF Month posts, but mostly because I’ve been reading less SF. Or maybe not, but what I have been reading has been part of a single series (which I’ll cover below). Anywho, I thought it was time to catch up and clear the baffles before the Six Weeks of Halloween gets started in September.

Columbus Day, by Craig Alanson – Expeditionary Force Series – Aliens choose the thematically appropriate Columbus Day to invade. Sergeant Joe Bishop organizes a small counteroffensive, and eventually ends up joining with different aliens who come to Earth’s rescue. Now he’s headed offworld to fight the invaders. But is he fighting for the right side?

Expeditionary Force Book 1: Columbus Day

I’m eliding a lot of things because the plot here is almost besides the point. This is straight-down-the-middle military science fiction comfort food. The defining characteristics of the series don’t really take hold until about halfway through the first book, when (spoiler alert, I guess) Skippy the Magnificent arrives. Skippy is an ancient and powerful AI that decides to help out lowly monkeys humans in their quest to not be wiped out by various warring factions in the galaxy.

Whether or not the series will work for you depends greatly upon how much you like the bro-ey bickering between Skippy and Joe Bishop, dad jokes, military slang, and pew-pew style action, as well as the general problem solving patterns that represent the bulk of the series. Even if you do like those things (and I enjoy them well enough), the series gets extremely repetitive, and while Alanson never takes it easy on our protagonists and forces them to come up with workable solutions, they do sometimes rely a bit too heavily on Skippy’s almost magical powers. And there’s this whole thing where Skippy is a genius but can’t ever seem to think up the basic schemes that Bishop proposes. Skippy’s frustration at this sort of thing gets old fast, but the series eventually outgrows it as Skippy and Joe (and the rest of the crew) establish a more meaningful rapport.

There are fifteen books in the Expeditionary Force series (and a couple of spinoff books called Mavericks) and I’m about two-thirds of the way finished, so obviously this works for me. I won’t call it mindblowing and it’s not especially filled with the sense-of-wonder that populates the best SF, but it’s entertaining and fun and absolutely perfect audiobook fodder. It helps that the audiobook narrator, R.C. Bray, is excellent. What’s the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner? That’s what this series is.

Alanson does a good job exploring various dynamics of the universe he set up, from the differing alien factions to the technology and other worldbuilding, and as mentioned earlier, he never takes it easy on our protagonists, who always encounter problems on top of problems. It does get repetitive, and sometimes the story bogs down into minutiae of a specific operation that, in the grand scheme of things, probably isn’t that important. This leads to the books feeling a bit samey and repetitive (hence I’m reviewing the entire series here, not individual entries). Alanson’s good at that sort of problem solving stuff, and his strategic outlook on the galaxy’s various forces works. Interpersonal relationships are perhaps not as successful; the professional military stuff works very well, the more romantic stuff a bit less so. Pretty much par for the course there.

There’s some semblance of a larger background story surrounding Skippy’s past and the Elder race that supposedly “transcended” eons ago, but that stuff is super slowly explored (like, don’t get your hopes up, even when it seems like progress is being made). I’m assuming this stuff will come into play as the series comes to a close (though I’m guessing that Alanson could keep this sort of thing going indefinitely), which could be interesting. All in all, I’m enjoying the series. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much of Skippy and the treading-of-water inherent in these stories you can tolerate at any given time.

Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines – Eli has a few encounters with a mysterious woman who wears a tri-corn hat, drives a steampunk version of a Model-A Ford, and is being chased by… something. So Eli and the woman go on the road, but this is a road through time and history. So yeah, this is a sorta goofy Mystery Box style time travel story. It’s not exactly rigorous, but there’s some clever twists and turns and the villains are suitably creepy.

It’s perhaps not as good as 14 or The Fold, but Clines is good at turning pages (or the audio equivalent; this is another good audobook presentation) and has decent storytelling instincts. This isn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s fun and interesting and worth a look if you’re into American History or simple time travel stories with a hint of horror lurking in the background.

The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke – An engineer seeks to build a space elevator, but runs into challenges ranging from the technical, to the geographic, to the political, to the religious. The concept of a space elevator had been around for a while, but Clarke was among the first to portray such a thing, and he does so in a fairly thorough fashion.

The potential sites for such a project are limited, and the most promising site is in a fictionalized version of Sri Lanka. As our engineer works through various obstacles, we also get a series of flashbacks to thousands of years earlier as a Sri Lankan king builds a palace (complete with a pleasure garden and functioning fountains) high on the mountain top. The parallels between the two projects are well established and provide some themetic heft and characterization that is atypical of Clarke’s oeuvre.

It’s a short novel that nevertheless covers a lot of ground, but still hews to a lot of Clarke’s common themes and subjects, particularly once you get towards the ending (which I will not spoil!) This won a Hugo award in 1980, and it’s easy to see why, even if it’s not Clarke’s most propulsive or exciting effort.

Slow Time Between the Stars, by John Scalzi – Short story about an AI sent out into space on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity. Of course, space is big, so it takes a long time to traverse, and that gives the AI plenty of time to think about it’s place in the universe, what it was built to do, and more importantly, what it should do. There’s a few nuggets of a good idea here, and this functions just fine as a short story, but it’s not breaking new ground and it comes off as somewhat preachy and condescending on Scalzi’s part. Still, he’s a good writer and this is a snappy little story with some interesting notions.

I’m finishing off some mystery/crime books I’ve been exploring of late, and then I have several horror books I’m looking forward to during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but I’ve got a few SF books on tap for later in the year.