Science Fiction

Master of the Revels

In the English royal household, the Master of the Revels was responsible for overseeing royal festivities (aka revels) and stage censorship. An important role in the time of William Shakespeare, which turns out to be a key DTAP (Destination Time And Place) in Nicole Galland’s follow-up to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., aptly titled Master of the Revels. Galland had collaborated with Neal Stephenson on the first book, but took this sequel on by herself. I’m always curious about how authors collaborate on books with shared authorship, but it seems like in the case of D.O.D.O., Galland had done the bulk of the writing, with Stephenson adding some technical flavor and overarching story bits. As such, this sequel retains the feel of the first book, while progressing the story forward.

Master of the Revels

The story picks up right where D.O.D.O. left off. Our small group of intrepid heros have set up a small operation to counter the nefarious Irish witch Gráinne, who intends to utilize D.O.D.O. time-travel resources to reverse the evolution of all modern technology (and thus allow magic to be more freely practiced in modern times). Her travels take us to Renaissance Italy, feudal Japan, and of course, Jacobean England. It’s kinda hard to talk about the plot here without giving some stuff away or explaining what was covered in the previous book, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The story is told in an epistolary format, with everything being after-action reports, chat transcripts, bureaucratic documentation with acronyms galore, and so on. Much of the sense of administrative humor is retained, and it’s basically just a lot of fun to be hanging out with these characters again. We also get a few new characters, including Robin Lyons, Tristan’s sister and noted Shakespeare nerd, who is naturally recruited to infiltrate the office of the Master of Revels. She fits right in, and makes good friends with the Shakespeare brothers (in particular Bill’s younger and less famous brother Ned, who is another great addition to the cast). Alas, some of the original characters, notably Tristan himself, are sidelined for the majority of the book, but it all works well enough.

As the title of the book indicates, this English bits comprises the bulk of the story, so any Shakespeare nerds would really enjoy this. Actually, history nerds in general will get a kick out of this series. Lots of historical figures are mentioned, including the actual Master of the Revels during Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, amongst other actors in the troupe. The other DTAPs are a little less detailed, though Leonardo Da Vinci is a key to one of them…

Gráinne makes for a fun villain, though I must admit that I don’t really get how her plan will work. The limitations of magic that have been set in the D.O.D.O. universe are such that her task seems impossible or at least, inadvisable. To be sure, the stakes are clear and our heroes’ actions to counter Gráinne make sense, it’s just the overarching strategy here that I’m not following. Such is the way with a lot of time-travel stories though, and this has the added complexity of quantum physics and multiverses too, which help make the hand-waving plot machinations successful (and which I maintain is a clever sort of explanation for the way magic works in this universe). To be sure, I’m still having a lot of fun with these books, even if they are a little too focused on more narrow episodes rather than any sorta grand plan.

As such, this story is resolved satisfactorily, but I don’t know that the series has progressed very much… and yet, I’m pretty excited to see where we go next, which is a good sign. As yet, I’m not sure if there actually will be a third book, but it seems likely and from interviews, the notion of a trilogy has been thrown out there, so I’m hoping we’ll get a third book at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoyed D.O.D.O., this will scratch that itch (and even though Stephenson’s involvement is minimal, it might tide you over until Termination Shock comes out).

SF Book Review – Part 36: The Puppet Masters and Moar

Now that we’ve gotten the Movie Awards and various year-end recaps out of the way, it’s time to catch up on some science fiction reading. I did cover a few things already during Vintage SF Month, but I’ve been sorta slacking on the SF front of late. Still, I’ve read some things lately that are interesting enough.

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein – I read this towards the end of Vintage SF Month but never got around to doing a full writeup. Slug-like alien parasites have arrived on earth, attached themselves to people’s backs, taken control of their nervous systems in order to ride them like a puppet master. Two secret agents from a clandestine US intelligence agency have been sent to a small town to investigate a flying saucer sighting (and the disappearance of other government agents) and discover the plot.

The Puppet Masters book cover

If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s similar in content and theme to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was published a few years after Heinlein’s novel, yet it became far more famous thanks to a classic film adaptation (or two). Heinlein’s novel did finally get a schlocky film adaptation in the 90s, but I don’t remember thinking it was anything special (I do want to revisit it though) and really, it doesn’t get at some of the more out-there ideas in Heinlein’s novel.

Written in 1951, Heinlein was probing and echoing the paranoia and fear that drove the Red Scare, explicitly drawing comparisons between the mind-controlling parasites and Soviet communists. Still, much of this is really just an excuse for solidly paced storytelling and explorations of wacky ideas. Some of this has to do with the puppet masters themselves, but much of it is indirectly explored as part of the setting. You get the usual ray guns and flying car tropes, Heinlein reprises his infamous “the door dilated” line, and so on. There’s so more out-there notions too, like the notion of marriage being nothing more than a contract (and one that is frequently limited to short terms).

The fight against the puppet masters involves lots of common sense maneuvering between both sides, though even that gets a bit wacky because Heinlein posits that the best way to fight the parasites is to normalize nudity (if you’re nude, you can’t hide the parasite, you see – totally not a perverted idea at all). Still, the pacing is good and each step makes sense, even if a couple stray a bit far afield.

One conversation towards the end felt particularly fitting: someone speculates that all of the measures they’re taking to fight the Puppet Masters won’t go away overnight, or probably ever. Because we won’t be able to guarantee that every parasite has been eradicated, all of those protections will have to remain in place in one way or another. Fortunately, our battle with Covid 19 doesn’t involve some of these extreme measures, but it does appear to be here to stay.

All in all, it’s a solid little book, perhaps middle tier Heinlein. I can see why it wasn’t immediately jumped on for a film adaptation, but it’s a fun read for sure.


Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold – The 9th novella in Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series, though in terms of the internal chronology of the series, it falls somewhere in the middle. This one finds Pen & Des trying to hunt down an ascendant demon and a shipwrecked madman with the help of various locals from the canal town of Lodi (think Venice). It’s got the usual twists and turns one can expect from this series, and I always enjoy spending time with Pen & Des (and the ever expanding cast of characters in their orbit). The series as a whole is consistently great and highly recommended.


Into the Black by Evan Currie – The story of the human spacecraft Odyssey and her crew as they embark on their maiden voyage… and almost immediately get caught up in an interstellar war. It’s a nice little military SF tale with some space opera elements, I found myself thinking it resembled Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet Series. This is only the first novel in Currie’s series, so it hasn’t quite built up the same level of enjoyment just yet, but I could see it getting there. It’s not doing anything new, to be sure, but it’s enjoyable and interesting in its own way. I will probably revisit the series at some point.


The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner – The King’s chief scholar, called The Magus, has found the site of an ancient treasure. Said treasure is guarded by a series of locks and countermeasures that require the skills of a good thief. It just so happens that Gen has recently been imprisoned because of his excellent thieving skills. The Magus recruits Gen and they set off on a quest to find the secure the treasure for the king.

Short and sweet, this might bog down a tad in the middle, and while I wasn’t entirely sure I loved the characters at first, they grew on me. There’s a good setup and premise for sure, but some of the journey is a bit perfunctory. I wasn’t especially engaged by long segments explaining the mythology of this world, and much of it seemed extraneous. However, by the time it ended, I was fully onboard, and actually kinda excited for the next book in the series. I found this because Lois McMaster Bujold posted something about it on Goodreads, and she seemed to indicate that the series gets better as it goes.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: The Lincoln Hunters

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.

In The Lincoln Hunters, time travel exists for people 700 years in the future, but it is primarily used for historical information gathering purposes and museum-like desires to preserve same. Ben Steward is a Character; basically a time-traveling agent who acts as if he’s a member of the time-period he’s visiting so as to facilitate whatever history-recording task he may have. His latest mission: attend and record Abraham Lincoln’s famous Lost Speech, delivered at the Anti-Nebraska State Convention in Bloomington, Illinois on May 29, 1856.

The Lincoln Hunters book cover

On his first scouting mission, the time travel engineers overshoot their target and send him to the day after the event he’s trying to capture (rather than the day before). As such, he’s actually scouting in the aftermath of his mission. This has all sorts of implications, but from a storytelling perspective, it sets the stakes rather effectively. Steward is recognized by certain personages, he finds evidence of a snafu with the mission, and thanks to the (admittedly vague) rules of time travel, his next trip to the past (with a team of other Characters set to record Lincoln’s speech) is now time-bound because the same person cannot inhabit the same time at the, uh, same time.

It’s an effective setup, and author Wilson Tucker mostly plays it as a straight adventure story with some SF complications. Alas, this does represent a bit of a lost opportunity, as there’s a lot of thematic potential here that goes unexplored. For that matter, even the time travel mechanics are a little on the vague side. There is, of course, plenty of info-dumping up front, such as this bit explaining why Characters are taught the history leading up to their arrival, but not anything after:

“…the abstract ceased abruptly as near as possible to the target date itself. That was standard operating procedure designed to protect the Character and the assignment. It would not do for a man in the field to know the events of coming weeks or even years – his tongue might slip. To retain his value as a Character, he must be as wise, and as ignorant as the local people around him.”

The Lincoln Hunters (page 30)

However, as the story progresses, the exploration of time-travel mechanics gets left behind, instead relying on more vague assertions that something bad will happen if they don’t make it back home in time, follow certain other strict rules, etc… All well and good for the story and pacing, but it might leave something to be desired from a rigor standpoint.

There are plenty of fun little historical asides to be had, of course, such as this one:

“… He left a short time ago, to record a New Year’s Eve celebration in the year 2000, O.N. A place called Times Square. The client wishes to determine whether the century began with 2000, or 2001.”

The Lincoln Hunters (page 23)

Remember the pedants insisting that the century didn’t really start until 2001? It’s funny that Tucker anticipated that debate 40+ years earlier. Another fun bit of trivia is that one of the characters, Bobby Bloch, is actually named after Robert Bloch, a friend of Tucker’s and a fellow author who was about to become famous for writing a little novel called Psycho. This practice of including a friend’s name in your text as an in-joke is actually called Tuckerization, named after Tucker himself. But I digress…

It’s also worth noting that Lincoln’s Lost Speech is a real and seemingly pivotal event. We really don’t know the exact contents of the speech, so it would be an enticing destination for future historians. What we do know is that it sits at the fulcrum of several key historical events: the dissolution of the Whig party, the formation of the Republican party, Lincoln’s ascendency to the presidency, and eventually the Civil War itself. Tucker embeds lots of other real historical figures into the story as well, even including more obscure people like Owen Lovejoy (who Steward seems to have run afoul of in his, uh, future trip to the past).

Lincoln’s lost speech and the themes it presumably emphasized stand in stark contrast to the future that Tucker presents, but the comparison is mostly left as an exercise for the reader. The future appears to be very regimented and even includes references to things like “labor camps”, which seems like a ripe target for a more extended exploration of the analogy between Lincoln’s time and the future. Alas, like time-travel itself, this mostly takes a back seat to what essentially amounts to an adventure story. It’s there and I certainly managed to connect the dots, but Tucker could have probably squeezed more juice out of this premise without sacrificing much in the way of pacing or excitement.

For its part, the adventure plot is reasonably well done. Tucker sets up a few things during the scouting mission that come to fruition in the mission proper, and there’s always something satisfying about puzzle pieces coming together in that way. That said, it’s not a particularly complicated puzzle, and the ultimate ending leaves something to be desired. You might get some small hits of that vaunted “sense of wonder” that makes SF so fun, but it’s not going to blow you away either.

The Lincoln Hunters is a fun little time travel story. Short and sweet, it doesn’t have much explicit depth, but it kept me reasonably entertained for its short (less than 200 page) length. I can’t say as though it ranks among my favorite time-travel stories, but it has its moments, and folks familiar with the time-period might get an extra kick out of it. As such, it is an interesting exhibit in the “Science Fiction geeks often turn into history buffs” wing of the genre.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Worlds of the Imperium

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.

Worlds of the Imperium book cover

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: Killdozer!

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.

SF Book Review – Part 35: Network Effect and Moar

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.

Network Effect Book Cover

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.

SF Book Review – Part 34: MilSF Edition

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.

Hugo Awards 2020: The Results

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 novel nominees 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).

Best Novel

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…

Short Fiction

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.

Best Series

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.)

Retro Hugos

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!

SF Book Review – Part 33: Hugo Nominees and Moar

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.

Hugo Awards: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel from Arkady Martine and is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Awards. Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from a small, independent mining colony is sent to the heart of the Teixcalaan empire, only to find that her predecessor has died. Under mysterious circumstances that no one wants to talk about. Fortunately, with the help of an Imago memory device, Mahit has an old copy of the former ambassador living inside her head. Unfortunately, that copy is far too old and doesn’t explain why her predecessor had such an outsized influence on Teixcalaan imperial court, up to and including a personal relationship with the emperor. This being a story that involves an empire, there is naturally political instability, uprising, succession woes, a potential coup, and so on. Naturally, the emperor has his own plans, and our little fish out of water must carefully navigate her way through an alien society, solve the murder of her predecessor, prevent the empire from annexing her mining colony, and deal with promises made to the emperor. Oh yeah, and apparently there’s some alien threat out there somewhere that’s been swallowing up ships.

There’s a lot to like in this novel. The worldbuilding is solid and I like the way the Teixcalaan empire isn’t inherently evil, even if it’s large and unwieldy and suffuse with all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism. It might not be a good thing and it’s not like the folks involved in the uprising don’t have a point, but the empire, even at high echelons, isn’t entirely filled with cartoonish, mustache-twirling supervillains. It’s an empire whose culture is at least partly based on poetry, for crying out loud. It’s just nice to see that not everyone in the empire is the absolute worst. For instance, when Mahit arrives in the Teixcalaan system, she’s assigned an attaché by the empire. In most stories, this attaché would be shifty at minimum and probably outright betray our protagonist at some point, but here the character Three Seagrass becomes an invaluable resource and cultural guide, loyal to both Mahit and the empire. Ditto for Twelve Azalea, another Teixcalaan character who lesser novels would have betray Mahit. As a result, I generally liked the characters and spending time with them wasn’t a chore, even if their are better examples of this sort of thing out there.

The Imago device at the core of the story is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past few years. Whether it’s Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire stories or even Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, other stories of two people inhabiting a single brain have been surprisingly common of late (even amongst Hugo-nominated works). The one interesting thing that Martine does with this story is that she has the device malfunction, such that we don’t actually deal with the two characters/one head situation very much. On the other hand, the device becomes an important part of the plot in an obvious way that undercuts what should be revelations later in the story. This exemplifies the true issue with this book, which is that it drags rather heavily in the middle.

As I was sorta hinting at towards the beginning of this post, anyone who’s read a science fiction story about a galactic empire has seen what’s going on here a million times before. I won’t spoil it, but it takes far too long for our characters to suss out what’s really happening. Too much of the story takes place with characters just sitting around talking, and while this is a common convention of science fiction that I’m usually happy to put up with, it doesn’t help when these discussions seem repetitive and redundant. Martine does try to inject some action into the proceedings at times, but it all felt a bit muddled or underbaked. There’s this alien threat that’s hinted at all throughout the story, but we only get small snippits of what’s happening there, and are instead obliged to follow some obscure thread of court intrigue to its completely expected conclusion.

This is perhaps a bit harsh. There’s something to be said for a well executed version of a story we’ve seen before, and I did quite enjoy this novel and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this sub-genre… but that doesn’t make it the best SF of the year, for which the bar should be higher. Fans of Anne Leckie and Lois McMaster Bujold will probably like this, which probably explains why this has gained so much traction with the Hugo set. This is an excellent debut novel and I’d love to see how Arkady Martine evolves as a writer, but this is only the start. I suspect this would be a better match for the Astounding award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer. It’s also worth noting that I probably enjoyed this more than a lot of the nominees from the past decade or so, so there is also that to contend with (it would probably fall somewhere in the upper-middle tier). Its the first of the Hugo shortlist I’ve read this year, so it’s officially number one on my ballot and despite my misgivings, it might hold on to that spot for a while. Next up, we’ve got Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame (I’m about two thirds of the way through that one, and it’s pretty solid fantasy stuff…)