Science Fiction

SF Book Review – Part 38: The Long Winter and Moar

I’m still catching up with recent SF reading and I figure it’s best to get this out before the Six Weeks of Halloween revs up. This post covers stuff I read from June right up until last week, so we’re pretty much caught up. Naturally, we’ll cover some horror books during the 6WH, so it may be a while before returning to SF proper. Anywho, let’s get to it:


First up is the Long Winter Trilogy:

Winter World, by A.G. Riddle – A new, inexplicable ice age has descended upon earth. Desperate for answers, scientists send probes out into the solar system and discover mysterious objects disrupting solar energy. James Sinclair is a disgraced roboticist serving time in prison, but is nonetheless tapped to be on the team that will confront the forces disrupting earth. Will this team be able to figure out what’s happening and find a countermeasure? A sorta light space opera/first contact tale in the vein of Blake Crouch or Peter Clines (to name two folks I’ve read recently that operate in a similar way).

Winter World book cover

Old SF hands might not find a ton of new ideas here, but it’s well executed and entertaining. Some of the twists and turns are foreshadowed hard, so hard that maybe they’re not supposed to be twists? I mean, some things that are blindingly obvious to readers somehow surprise some characters in strange ways. As an opening shot in a trilogy, it’s just fine. Won’t blow your mind, but it’s a well told story and it’s achieving what it sets out to do…

I’ve avoided spoilers thus far, but talking about the next two books will necessarily mean a little bit of spoilers (overall, an entertaining light SF trilogy that manages to hint at some actually fascinating stuff towards the end). Alright, Spoilers aho:

The Solar War, by A.G. Riddle – This picks up where the first book led off, with earth and humanity enjoying a brief respite from the winter. They’re using this time to prepare for the return of the Grid, who will no doubt be focusing more energy on getting rid of humanity this time around. That’s not just meant as a metaphorical turn of phrase: the Grid is almost entirely motivated by the collection and conservation of energy. Their original plan was to harvest our Sun’s energy in such a way that humanity would be quickly destroyed in the process. In the first book, humanity managed a small victory, but now the Grid has returned. They’ve flung asteroids at earth, but will humanity’s defenses hold up? Eh, sorta.

Like a lot of middle stories in a trilogy, there’s a lot of water treading here, and setup for the next book. I’m of two minds as to how this all goes down. On the one hand, humanity did seem awfully outmatched and only managed success in the first book because the invaders weren’t really trying that hard. On the other, it’s not especially entertaining seeing the humans get nearly obliterated, and Riddle spends an awful lot of time on the nuts and bolts survival aspects of the story. All well and good, but the overarching narrative isn’t advanced much. Also, the deal that the Grid offers doesn’t make a ton of sense, even if the humans in the story are appropriately suspicious. In any case, the tone and pacing are pretty much par for the course here, and this is a similar experience to the first book. Nothing really new here, but well executed and entertaining enough that I wanted to see what would happen next.

The Lost Colony, by A.G. Riddle – The remnants of humanity now number in the thousands, and have settled on an eyeball planet around a low power star that the Grid doesn’t find interesting enough to harvest. This plays out like two novellas smushed into a novel. The first story is all about survival in the new wilderness, which contains deadly predators (along the lines of a T-Rex), vicious storms caused by celestial mechanics, and smaller scorpion-like threats. Like in the second book, this feels a lot like water-treading… but the second phase of this novel recontextualizes in an interesting way.

In fact, the entire series thus far is recontextualized. Riddle really swings for the fences in the second act of this book, devising an origin for the Grid that is novel and fascinating. I’ve described the previous two books as a sorta light SF that you’ve seen before (if well executed), but this second half of the third book does offer something new. Does it entirely work? Did we really need to march through two and a half books to get here? Do the physics actually work out? Does the Grid’s plan hinge on too much chance? Are the ethical implications of what’s really going on justified? Maybe not? But I can appreciate the ambition and effort. Perhaps it’s just the notion of being lulled into that feeling of a familiar, derivative story being shattered by something kinda out-there that did the trick, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Overall, I enjoyed the series and I liked how bonkers the ending got, but I wish there was less water-treading throughout the series and more of that sense of wonder stuff interspersed throughout.


The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt – Humans have expanded beyond their solar system and they’ve begun to find mysterious alien artifacts. They’ve dubbed the aliens Monument-Makers, but have been unable to discern anything about them. Each artifact is different and beautiful, but they defy explanation. Then a team of scientists discover an artifact that appears to have played a role in a lost civilization. Previously discovered artifacts can also be tied to lost civilizations, making them somewhat more ominous. Earth itself is facing ecological disaster – do the Monument-Makers have something in mind for us?

It’s an interesting spin on the big dumb object sub-genre. Instead of a giant unknowable artifact, we get lots of smaller ones. McDevitt does a good job setting all this up, perhaps somewhat less so of establishing characters and plot mechanics. Like the Long Winter books above, there’s a significant portion of this book that’s focused on episodic tales of survival or races against the clock. All well and good, but spending a bunch of time fending off throngs of crab-like monsters doesn’t really advance the narrative much. Progress is made in the end though, and the explanation makes sense. I’ll cut this a little more slack because it’s all completed in a single novel, though there are apparently additional stories set in this universe. I will probably make my way to those sequels at some point, which says something, I think. Not exactly top tier stuff, but well executed and interesting enough.


Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson – One night when they were ten years old, Tyler Dupree and his neighbors Jason and Diane Lawton were playing in the yard when the stars went out. There was a brief, bright flash, then the sky just went black. Scientists eventually discover that earth has been placed within some sort of “spin membrane”. Outside the membrane time is moving at a hugely accelerated pace – about 3 years outside per second inside, or 100 million years on the outside per year inside. How will this development affect humanity? How will we respond? What about the Hypotheticals – the aliens who put the membrane in place? What’s their endgame?

It’s a great setup, and to be sure, Wilson puts the premise to good use and develops some great, extra-crunchy SF ideas throughout. For example, the time passing outside the spin membrane is terrifying, but it also opens up some avenues that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Because time is moving so fast, the notion of terraforming Mars becomes much more feasible. That’s a neat extrapolation from the base idea, and there are others throughout the book. However, the bulk of the story is comprised of character-based drama surrounding the three kids as they group up during the spin. Jason becomes a scientist working to understand the spin and develop various strategies to work around it, but he’s also struggling under the grip of an overbearing father not to mention his own medical problems. Diane retreats from society, basically joining a cult. Tyler just sorta meanders about, eventually coming to work for Jason but still struggling to find a way to reach Diane (who he’s clearly in love with). They’re all well drawn and fleshed out, even if I sometimes had a difficult time connecting.

This is a book for those folks who like to define SF as “all about the human condition” or some such. Those of us who are in it more for the sense of wonder and idea content will have plenty to chew on, but the proportion is far more focused on character than it is on ideas. So I’m a bit torn here. I really love the SF ideas , but I didn’t quite connect with the characters enough to love all the time spent on their foibles. Your mileage may vary…


Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi – The second novella in this series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, to be sure, but both novellas are fun mystery thriller type stories suffused with Scalzi’s usual tight plotting, snappy dialog, and light humor. For whatever reason, these were conceived as Audible originals and initially released only on audiobook. It’s read by Zachary Quinto, who does an admirable job. This particular installment involves shady business deals, a dispatching gone wrong, and a frame job on our hero. All quite entertaining and fun. I know Scalzi can rub some folks the wrong way outside of his books, but the stories themselves are almost always fun and worth checking out.


And we’re all caught up. Stay tuned for Week 1 of the Six Weeks of Halloween!

SF Book Review – Part 37: Heaven’s River and Moar

I’m woefully behind on my science fiction book reviews, so let’s catch up, shall we? I read some of these in the February/March timeframe, so bear with me. Also of note, I did do full reviews for a couple important release, including Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary and Nicole Galland’s Master of the Revels, so it hasn’t just been 1978 movies for 6 months. Anyway, let’s take a look at a few of these books.


Heaven’s River, by Dennis E. Taylor – The fourth book set in Taylor’s “Bobiverse”, where a man named Bob was turned into a Von Neumann Machine and duked it out with competing Von Neumann programs. The original trilogy was very enjoyable and came to a satisfying conclusion, but of course there were some dangling threads that could be pursued in sequels, so here we are.

Heaven's River book cover

At the start of Heaven’s River, original Bob and his closest descendants want to seek out their old friend Bender (one of Bob’s replicants that had gone off exploring in the previous books), but the issue of replicative drift means that future generations of Bob are becoming less and less Bob-like, so internal strife is on the rise. Especially with an internal faction that refers to itself as Starfleet. Things get so bad that a civil war is brewing, and meanwhile, other external threats are emerging.

It’s all par for the Bobiverse course. Which is to say, it’s quite entertaining and involving and Taylor continues to put these ideas through their paces. It’s episodic but not completely disjointed, and I generally enjoy spending time with the various incarnations of Bob. This is certainly not a place to jump into the series (start with the first book), but it’s a solid way to continue the series. Looking forward to the next installment.


Colonyside, by Michael Mammay – The third book in Mammay’s series about Colonel Carl Butler and the various mysteries and conspiracies he gets embroiled in, usually from some military angle. This time Butler is brought on to find the missing daughter of a CEO, and naturally there’s more here than meets the eye. I’ve generally enjoyed this series, but it’s never quite delivered on the potential of the premise. A sorta mixture of Military SF and Hard Boiled Detective fiction should be more fun than this… which is not to say that this is bad, per say. As I mentioned, it’s enjoyable, but the mysteries never quite give you the rush that great detective fiction manages, and while the action is solid, it’s not quite Military SF grade action. I’m on the fence about reading the next installment (assuming there is one), but if Mammay can wrangle the two genres better, it could be really something.


Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells – The sixth Murderbot story is actually a pretty good example of what Mammay is trying for. Murderbot gets embroiled in a mystery involving human trafficking in a space station around her friends’ planet. Good characters, a well drawn mystery, great action, propulsive pacing, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real complaint is that it’s perhaps a bit too short, but that’s one of those “leave them wanting more” good things. I actually didn’t realize that this would be a novella-sized story when I got it. I just assumed that because the last entry in the series was a novel, this one would be too. Anyway, that’s not really a complaint. If you’re not on board the Muderbot train, it’s worth purchasing a ticket (or, uh, the first novella in the series, you know what I mean).


Year Zero, by Rob Reid – Hey look, it’s a book that isn’t part of a series! Low level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter (not that Nick Carter) is visited by aliens desperate to license music. The problem? The entire universe, teeming with life, is terrible at music… except Earth. When our music is discovered, aliens enjoy decades of pure joy… and also wind up committing the biggest copyright violation in the history of the universe. The resulting fines and penalties would bankrupt the entire universe several times over.

It’s a great premise, and in case you can’t already tell, this is a SF Comedy owing much to the likes of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Big shoes to fill and for sure, Reid isn’t operating on that level. It’s not terrible or anything, and I quite enjoyed the novel, but the beginning is the best part and as the novel progresses and the silliness of various characters and concepts start to compound, it gets to be a bit much in the middle. The ending works well enough, though, and if you can stomach the constant Pop Culture references, you’ll have a good time with this. Personally, I’m not really a music expert, so I’m sure some of the music references went over my head, but I enjoyed it all well enough. It’s not going to change your life or anything, but it’s a fun time.


The Assassins of Thasalon, by Lois McMaster Bujold – The latest Penric & Desdemona story is longer than usual (technically it’s novel-length, though it’s short by today’s novel standards), but that doesn’t matter because this series is great. Penric’s brother-in-law (General Arisaydia) has been enduring various assassination attempts as a result of political turmoil in his homeland (I’m simplifying a little here – events in previous Pen & Des novels flesh this out a bit), so Penric and General Arisaydia attempt various hijinks to deal with the issue. The usual sorcery and intrigue abound, and Bujold’s ability to introduce new side characters that you can immediately connect with is on full display (plus, the series has been going on long enough to have a regular stable of well-established side characters to draw upon). As usual, the series as a whole is highly recommended.


Still have a few books to go, but this is a start at least…

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir first rose to prominence with his self-published novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars, The Martian. It caught on with readers, eventually got picked up by a big publisher and even adapted into a pretty great Ridley Scott movie. He followed that book up with the moon-based Artemis, a novel that clearly didn’t hang together as well as The Martian, but had its moments I guess. Still, the Sophomore Slump felt real. Now we come to Project Hail Mary, Weir’s third book and I’m happy to report that it represents something of a return to form.

Earth’s sun is dimming and the cause is traced back to a microscopic life form (dubbed the Astrophage) that lives on the sun and uses its energy to migrate to Venus. The dimming effect is accelerating and will eventually cause catastrophic changes on earth and potentially wipe out humanity. What’s more, most of our neighboring stars are also dimming… except for Tau Ceti, a star that’s twelve light-years from earth. Project Hail Mary is quickly assembled to visit Tau Ceti, devise a solution to the Astrophage, and save all humankind. We learn all of this in flashback, as Ryland Grace, a middle-school science teacher wakes up with a nasty case of amnesia. He quickly deduces that he’s on a spaceship and his memories start to come back. Will Grace be able to find a solution in time to save Earth?

Some minor spoilers up there, I guess, but there’s lots more to this story that I will try not to spoil too much. As with The Martian this is a novel about a lone astronaut sciencing the shit out of things to save himself and in this case, humanity. The science is handled well and in detail. It’s not diamond hard science fiction that’s difficult to understand, it’s actually quite accessible and while sometimes tedious for the characters, mostly not for us readers. I suppose it could wear you down though, especially when you get towards the end of the story and you know where it’s going, but Weir puts Grace through the paces as he attempts to find a needle in a haystack. Still, it’s well drawn and clearly explained. All of which serves to keep the story grounded, even when Grace does some crazy stuff to, for example, snag a sample of a potential Astrophage solution.

The technology is mostly present-day stuff. Since Project Hail Mary is humanity’s last hope, the plan relies on old, well-established technology that’s pretty much guaranteed not to fail. Except, of course, for the new spin drive propulsion system that can help the ship traverse interstellar distances. But here Weir finds a clever solution.

Indeed, one of the impressive things about the book is that Weir takes one counterfactual, the Astrophage, and once established, he puts it through a whole battery of extrapolations that have far and wide implications. There’s lots of things in this book that are surprising, but at their core, they are explained by a relatively simple microorganism. It speaks to one of Science Fiction’s broad strengths. Establish something simple and relatively innocuous, then tease out the implications until things start to get weird. Weir also manages to weave this sort of thing into the plot too, which shows some storytelling chops.

It’s hard to get into the rest of the story without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. Fans of The Martian will certainly enjoy this, though it may come off a bit samey. Weir is great at presenting complicated science in an accessible manner, but he’s not exactly a prose stylist. Characterization isn’t a strong suit either. Ryland Grace is your typical competent man SF hero (much like Mark Watney from The Martian). Weir does attempt to flesh him out a bit, especially with a late revelation that didn’t quite sit right with me, but he’s still a pretty familiar SF archetype. As with a lot of older SF, the ideas at the core of the story are the real hero. It does a great job evoking that vaunted sense of wonder that’s at the core of SF. That’s what makes a book like this work, and it’s the sort of thing that’s missing from a lot of modern SF.

Modern SF has a tendency towards extreme cynicism, dysfunction, angst, and oppression, and fans of that will likely see this book, with its optimism in the face of disaster, competence, and happy ending, as jejune and unsophisticated. I found it to be a breath of fresh air and ultimately loved the book, flaws and all. It’s a throwback SF vision that we could probably use more of these days.

Hugo Awards Season 2021

The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!

Best Novel

The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.

This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.

I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…

Short Fiction

Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Tor.com. Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.

Best Series

This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).

Best Dramatic Presentation

This award is always very strange, and it features this year’s weirdest finalist: what the hell is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doing on this list? The list is otherwise pretty decent, though there’s obviously lots of smaller fare that the voters never seem to go for. Pour one out for the likes of: Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow (as usual, some of these may have eligibility issues due to weird distribution dates, but still). Also, how did The Invisible Man not garner a nom? It’s so squarely within the voter’s usual wheelhouse…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.

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.