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Book Review: Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg (Audiobook narrated by Stefan Rudnicki)

July 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Image of glass blocks against a blue skySummary:
Simeon Krug, creator of androids, has a new vision.  Earth is receiving a transmission from deep space, and he’s determined to answer it.  He’s building a tower in the Arctic tundra, a tall tower that reminds many of the Tower of Babel.  With this tower he will send a return transmission to whoever is sending the message to Earth.  He also has his androids building a spaceship, to be entirely manned by androids, to try to reach those sending the transmission.  However, the androids he designed that now outnumber and serve humans have other things on their minds.  They want to be recognized as equal to humans, their brothers of the womb.  While some seek this politically, others seek it spiritually, worshiping their creator Krug.

Review:
Robert Silverberg wrote one of my all-time favorite books (The World Inside), so I now have an informal goal to read most (if not all) of what he has written.  This one was, unfortunately, a miss for me, but at least the world he has created was fascinating to visit.  The book presents a fascinating possible future that is marred by the rampant misuse of the term android and the length of time spent on the “android” religion.

I loved the idea of this book, and I love books about ai/androids/robots.  I thus was horrified when within the first chapter we discover that the “androids” are, in fact, clones.  They’re not machines at all.  They are genetically engineered humans, created in vats, and whose genetic code is changed enough to give them plasticine skin so that humans can tell themselves apart from them.  I like the concept of GMO humans vs non-GMO humans.  I like the idea of the vat versus the womb.  I cannot, however, tolerate the fact that everyone calls these folks androids.  That is not what an android is! (Merriam-Webster definition of android).  It really put a sour note on the whole book for me, and the misnomer is never explained.  Did Krug just call them androids to make people think of them as robots when they actually aren’t?  If that’s the case, he himself would not think of them as androids.  But he does.  He calls them machines.  What scientist would genetically manipulate humans and then call the outcome machines?  It just makes no sense, and in a scifi book, it’s something I can’t look past.

The plot is a bit of a bait-and-switch.  The reader thinks it’s going to be about the tower, the possible aliens, etc…  In fact this is the backdrop to the story of the “androids” fighting to have their humanity recognized.  I liked that the book was ultimately not the Tower of Babel retelling I originally thought it was going to be, but potential readers might want to know that the “androids” and their fight for human rights are actually the focus of the book.

Readers should also be ready to have every minute detail of the “android” religion worshiping Krug outlined for them.  While that type of scifi book definitely has its audience, it might be different from the one expecting the tower story.  The one aspect of the telling of the “android” religion that I found incredibly annoying was how they recite their DNA strands as prayer.  Think of it as like a Catholic person saying the rosary.  Only instead of words, it’s series like “AAA-ABA-ACA-CCC-BBB-AAA,” and it goes on for a very long time.  Perhaps this is less annoying to read in print than to hear in an audiobook, but going on for such long stretches of time each time an “android” prays seems unnecessary.

The characters are all fairly well-rounded.  There is Krug, his son, a high-ranking “android,” Krug’s son’s “android” mistress, a couple of “android” politicians, and more.  There are enough characters to support the complex plot, and it’s fairly easy to get to know all of them.  The “androids” are also given the same amount of characterization as the humans.

The audiobook narrator was somewhere between pleasant and unpleasant to listen to.  He has a very deep voice that doesn’t fluctuate much for various characters or narration.  It works really well for Krug but not so great for the female characters.  If the narrator’s female voices were better and if he emoted more for emotional scenes, his narration would be more enjoyable.  Between this fact and the reading of the DNA mentioned earlier, I definitely recommend picking up the print over the audiobook version.

Overall, the book presents an interesting world of GMO humans worshiping their creator and seeking freedom while he is entirely focused on the project of communicating with the stars.  The misuse of the term “android” throughout the book will likely bother most scifi readers.  Some readers may find some aspects of the “android” religion a bit dull.  Recommended to scifi readers more interested in the presentation of future religions than in contacting deep space or hard science.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Stinger Stars by Paul Bussard

July 19, 2014 3 comments

Image of what appears to be a golden bird with a glowy bit in it.Summary:
Maria is working on her thesis at a genetics research lab specializing in looking for ways to get human limbs to regenerate.  When the owner’s son brings back a new species from Peru, a tiny worm-like creature with pyramidal tentacles, she discovers that the larger clones made from them are intelligent.  But the owner’s son wants to conduct brutal experiments on them, involving cutting off their appendages, which grow back.  Can Maria strike the balance between life-changing science for humans suffering from disabled or missing limbs and respecting the lives of an intelligent species?

Review:
Near-future books that question where to draw the line in research are a particular favorite of mine.  It’s a gray area in many people’s minds, and scifi lets us explore the myriad possibilities and options at a bit of a distance, which allows for clearer thought.  This book does an admirable job setting up a realistic near-future world to explore this issue, although the characters don’t quite live up to the world-building and story.

The near-future world of genetics research is established both clearly and with subtlety early on in the book.  There are two competing genetics research organizations, and rather than looking into something monstrous or far-flung, they are looking into regenerating limbs.  It’s a logical next-step for a near-future book.  The research labs themselves, as well as how they are run, including the field-work, have a real-world, logical feel to them.

At first I was concerned from the book’s official description that the creatures discovered would be aliens, since alien experimentation would be less of a gray area to explore.  They are not, in fact, aliens, they are a newly discovered species originating on Earth.  The mystery is whether they were always sentient or if something in the modification and cloning process made them sentient.  This makes the conflict of how to use the creatures to help humans without harming them better, because exactly what they are is a bit unclear.  It’s not as simple as if they were simply aliens or some sort of cute, fuzzy creature.  They’re these slightly creepy worm-like things with tentacles, and the conflict is do we still respect these kind of ugly, cloned creatures for their intelligence, or do they need to look cuter or more humanoid to gain that respect?

The plot is complex and keeps the reader guessing.  Even though I was fairly certain things would ultimately end up ok, I wasn’t sure how they were going to get there.  This made it an engaging and quick read.

Unfortunately, the characters are rather weak and two-dimensional.  I never was able to truly connect to any of the characters.  If anything, I connected to the creatures a bit more than the main characters.  There are also a few instances that feel out of character for the small amount of characterization done.  For instance, Maria thinks she can’t date because her family wants her to have an arranged marriage to keep the family Spanish.  This type of arranged marriage situation could definitely happen, but I had a hard time believing that a woman so strong in the sciences, with so much agency for her career and for her grandmother’s well-being would actually even think about not seeing someone she cares for in order to have an arranged marriage.  It felt out of character and simply forced upon her to add conflict.  Similarly, there is an incident that at first is considered a rape and then later brushed off as not a rape.  Without giving anything away, I agree it wasn’t a rape, but I also don’t think the character who at first mistook it for a rape would have made that error in judgment.  It was out of character for their level of intelligence.  This again felt forced to provide extra conflict that wasn’t needed.  The main plot had plenty of interest and conflict to keep the book going without these out-of-character moments.  I also felt the accent written for one of the characters was badly done and distracting.  This character is a scientist with an advanced degree, yet he speaks in an informal, unrealistic accent that primarily consists of him dropping g’s and using a lot of contractions.

In spite of these characterization short-comings, the book still tells a unique near-future genetics research story with a quick-moving, engaging plot.  Recommended to those looking for a scifi-style beach read.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The Coin by Glen Cadigan

June 6, 2014 6 comments

A dime sits on a black background between the title and author name, both of which are on a marble background.Summary:
When Richard’s physicist professor uncle dies tragically in a plane crash and leaves him his coin collection, he is shocked to find a brand-new dime from 2012.  The only thing is, it’s 1989.  A note from his uncle states that the coin is important.  Richard thinks the answer to the mystery might be in his uncle’s personal diaries he also left him, but he’s not a physicist and can’t decipher them.  As the year 2012 approaches, Richard increasingly wonders what the coin is all about.

Review:
I had previously reviewed a book by Glen Cadigan, Haunted (review), whose concept I really enjoyed.  When he offered me this novella, I was happy to accept.  This fun novella tells an old-fashioned scifi mystery story in a way that reminded me of reading similar works from the 1800s.

Richard’s first-person narration follows a style similar to that used often in older scifi; it reads as if the main character is writing everything down in his journal for longevity.  It’s a cozy narration style that works well for the slow-moving mystery it tells.

This narration style also helps establish Richard into a well-rounded character quickly.  The reader almost immediately feels an intimacy with Richard as he discusses his sorrow at his beloved uncle’s sudden death, why he was close to his uncle, and his thoughts on the mysterious coin.  The uncle is, perhaps, less well-rounded but only in the sense that the reader comes to know him only through the eyes of a loving relative.  It thus makes sense that mostly his good qualities come through.

Cadigan artfully maneuvers Richard’s handling of the mystery from the days before the internet to present.  Richard first employs old-fashioned research techniques to try to figure out the mystery then loses interest.  With the advent of the internet, though, he regains interest and starts researching again.  This is completely realistic and reads just like what a person might have done.

Some basics physics of time-travel and time-travel theories are included.  They are written at the right level for a general audience reading a scifi book, neither talking down to nor being too technical.

What really made me enjoy the book was the resolution to the mystery.  I should have seen it coming, but I did not, and I always enjoy a surprise that feels logical when I think back on it.

So why four stars and not five?  The novella left me wanting something more.  It felt almost too short.  Like there was something left out.  Perhaps more time spent on Richard’s researching of the mystery or snippets from the uncle’s journals or some photos of the uncle and his airplane might have helped it feel more fully fleshed-out and real.  The old-school narration style was enjoyable but some additions of some of the types of things a person might put in their journal would help it feel more complete.  Even some simple sketches or perhaps a poem by Richard about his uncle, since he’s in the humanities, would have helped.

Overall, this novella is a fun new take on the storytelling method of having a character write in their journal about a mystery.  The science is strong enough to be interesting but not too challenging, and the result of the mystery is surprising.  Some readers might be left wanting a bit more to the story.  Recommended to fans of scifi classics such as The Time Machine or The Invisible Man.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58 (Series, #228)

June 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Blue aliens walk in a long line by a yellow building that looks a bit like a spaceship.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1956 to 1958.  The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)–When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it.  Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress.  They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)–In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other.  The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been.  This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first.  In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.  Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen.  Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive.  Which he does.  What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)–A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet.  Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest.  Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet.  The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate.  While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth.  Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.

Who? by Algis Budrys (1958)–In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (1958)–It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
This is my third Library of America collection and, unfortunately, is the one I’ve liked least so far.  Perhaps I have simply discovered that the Red Scare overtakes American scifi of the late 1950s more than I had previously realized, and that is just not to my own personal scifi taste.  The collection still does what it purports to, though: it gathers a selection of the best of American scifi in a particular time period, letting the reader immerse herself and truly come to know a particular genre in a particular period.

Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I have reviewed the books individually as I read them.  Thus, here I will simply summarize my reviews to give you a feeling of the collection as a whole.

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society.  A fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit.  The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story.  Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.
4 out of 5 stars
Full Review

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals.  Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here.  Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting.  Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.
4 out of 5 stars
Full Review

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences.  It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created.  However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

Who? by Algis Budrys
An interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
A thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

In Conclusion
This is an interesting collection that shows how gradually fear of Communism came to take over American thought by the end of 1958.  The two earliest books in the collection are set in a far future with no concerns about the long-reaching impacts of the Cold War.  By the last two books, the futures are heavily impacted by the perceived threat of Communism, with one book even having time itself being unraveled and re-written in an attempt to stop the Russians.  The most light-hearted, entertaining book in the collection is Double Star.  I would recommend fans of witty scifi pick it up as soon as they get the chance.  The most thought-provoking, with a cool world that could work quite well for cosplay is The Stars My Destination.  It withstands the test of time quite well.  The most interesting world is the planet and culture of Lithia in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.  The collection as a whole is primarily recommended to scifi fans with a heavy interest in how the Red Scare of 1950s America can be seen in scifi of the time.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Series, #1)

June 3, 2014 1 comment

On a yellow backgrond, two boxes over each other display a snake and a spider. The title and author of the book are written on the boxes.Summary:
It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
I’m a fan of time-travel as a scifi trope, and I liked the concept of a time war, so when I saw this sitting on my virtual ARC pile, I figured it would be a quick, appealing read.  The book is less about time-travel, and more a type of scifi game of Clue, with everyone trapped in a waystation instead of a house trying to figure out who turned off the machine that connects them to the galaxy, rather than solve a murder.

The book takes place entirely within the waystation.  The waystation exists outside of time to give the time soldiers a place to recuperate without the pressures of time travel.  All but one of the soldiers are men, and most of the Entertainers are women.  The one female soldier is from ancient Greece, the clear idea being that her era of women are the only ones tough enough to be soldiers.  This definitely dated the book and led to some eye-rolling on my part.  On the plus side, the book is narrated by a woman, and she is definitely one of the brains of the bunch.  There thus is enough forward-thinking that the sexist distribution of time soldiers doesn’t ruin the book; it’s just irritating.

The crux of the book is the soldiers wondering who, exactly, is telling them what to do up and down the timeline and worrying that they are ruining time, not to mention the planet Earth they once knew.  The soldiers are told they’re on the side of the good guys, yet the good guys are insisting that Russia must be stopped at all costs, even if that means the Germans winning WWII.  Thus, the soldiers are awkwardly paired up with Nazis in the fight.  It’s interesting to force the Allies to attempt to see Germans in a different light.  However, the whole idea that Russia (and Communism) will ruin the world is just a bit dated.  It’s easy to get past, though, since the dilemma of how to know if who you are following is making the right choices is a timeless one.

The attempted mutineer ends up trying his mutiny because he falls in love with one of the Entertainers.

I decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. (loc 10353)

The attempted mutiny against the cause is thus kind of simultaneously blamed on love and on the woman behind the man starting the drama.  It’s true that love makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I do wish the characters were more even-handed in dealing out the blame for the mutiny to both halves of the couple.  On the plus side, it is left unclear if the mutiny is a good or bad idea, so whether the idealistic couple in love are right or not is up to the reader to decide.

The final bit of the book dives into theories about time-travel, time, and evolution.  It’s a bit of a heady side-swipe after the romping, Clue-like plot but it also shows how much of an impact the events of the book have on the narrator.  At the beginning, the narrator states it was a life-changing sequence of events, and the wrap-up deftly shows how it impacted her.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron

April 19, 2014 1 comment

A pencil drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting in front of a bookcase.Summary:
Professor Jacob Wentworth is the last of his kind, the only humanities professor at the university.  With his retirement at the end of the year, the humanities department will officially be closed.  But when the university’s star genius student, Bryce, takes a liking for Jacob and what he can teach him, Jacob stays on indefinitely.  Jacob has refused to ever use the Interface directly.  He won’t put in the contacts or earbuds that open up a whole virtual world.  He doesn’t want to give the Company that much control over his life.  In spite of his tutelage, years later Bryce is working on improving the Interface, making it into a brain implant instead of contacts.  But Bryce’s connection with Jacob has done something to him, and he finds himself distracted by building a time machine and not wanting to help the Company anymore.  Together they decide to bring Abraham Lincoln to the present, replacing him with a double just moments before his death.  Maybe it will take a man out of time to save the future.

Review:
When this book was submitted to me during my annual review copy open submissions, I was immediately intrigued by the combination of a dystopian future with time-travel and history.  Cameron’s story didn’t disappoint.  The book gives a unique flair to the concept of fighting an overpowering dystopian government with the addition of time-travel and a historical figure that makes it engaging and highly readable.

The futuristic setting is both well-imagined and evoked in a non-intrusive, showing not telling way.  It is easy to relate to Jacob immediately on his walk to work, and the futuristic elements are introduced gradually.  It helps that Jacob is a bit of a luddite, as it gives him a bit of an outsider’s perspective to describe things to the reader.  The futuristic tech described in the book is well-imagined.  High tech contact lenses are definitely the wave of the future, and jumping from that to a neural interface makes total sense.  Cameron also takes into account other elements of the future beyond the science, such as climate, politics, and trends.    It’s a fun world to visit in spite of it being a dystopia.

Jacob and Bryce start out a bit two-dimensional but grow to be three-dimensional over the course of the story.  The addition of the female biologist who assists them manages to add both diversity and a romance, which is nice.  She also much more quickly takes on a three-dimensional quality.  Having her and the romance around really kick the whole story up a notch.  Abraham Lincoln was probably the most difficult character to handle, since he is obviously based on a real person.  He is presented respectfully, yet still as a flawed human being.  When he speaks, his words are accessible yet sound just different enough to provide the reader with the consistent cue that he is a man out of time.

The plot mostly works well, moving in a logical, well thought-out manner.  The end has a bit of a deus ex machina that is rather disappointing.

*spoiler*
A main character is saved from death via time travel, thus making all of the main character “good guys” survive the battle with the Company.  Stories about battles of one ideal against another are generally better if at least some casualties are had.  I do not count a minor secondary character who dies, since that is akin to killing off a red shirt in Star Trek.
*end spoiler*

Some readers may be bothered by the level of anti-tech found in the book.  The Interface isn’t just bad because the new neural version will give the Company control over people.  It also is bad because it supposedly inhibits the development of the users’ brains, rendering them to an elementary level of intelligence.  The book also strongly argues the idea that friends in virtual reality aren’t real friends, and that old tech, such as print books, are better.  Even television is lauded as better than any virtual reality activity.  I’m fine with not agreeing 100% with the protagonists in a story.  It’s not necessary for me to enjoy it, and I appreciate seeing their perspective and the freedom fight that follows.  However, this perspective may bother some readers, so they should be aware it exists within the story.

Overall, this is a well-written, original take on the idea of fighting a dystopian future with an advisor ripped out of time.  The book is weakened a bit by a deus ex machina ending.  Some readers may not like or enjoy the anti-tech position of the protagonists.  It is still a fun frolic through a richly imagined possible future.  Recommended to fans of dystopian scifi and US History.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The Golden Torc by Julian May (Series, #2)

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Image of a silver torc against a gold and black backgroundSummary:
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth.  Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah.  In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery.  They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own.  They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah.  This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah.  Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah.  When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.

Review:
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy.  When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible.  This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in.  It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.

This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens.  It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump.  The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful.  Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities.  May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand.  The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society.  She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.

The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it.  Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice.  A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story.  In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.

The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional.  The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented.  I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character.  She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia.  I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her.  She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society.  However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp.  I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering.  I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.

Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile.  Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one.  Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list.  The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging.  Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Many-Colored Land, review

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Carolyn McCormick)

April 5, 2014 2 comments

A viney green plant with a flower and a dragonfly wrap themselves around the title of the book.Summary:
Nobody quite knows what is wrong with Area X, but everyone has their speculations.  It’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, and the government has kept precisely what is going on rather hush-hush.  The government periodically sends teams in to investigate it.  The narrator, a biologist, is part of Team 12.  The team is entirely made up of women, based on a supposition that women are less badly effected in Area X than men.  The biologist’s husband was part of Team 11.  She is curious to know what happened to him but also entirely intrigued by the tunnel her team finds.  She insists on calling it a tower.  Through her mandatory journal, we slowly discover what may or may not be in Area X.

Review:
I picked this book up since it sounded like it would be a mix of scifi and Lovecraft style fantasy, plus it features an entirely female investigative group.  Although it is an extremely interesting premise, the actual book does drag a bit.

The biologist narrates in a highly analytical way that is true to her character but also doesn’t lend itself to the building of very much tension.  Since the biologist calmly narrates everything, the reader stays calm.  She also, frankly, isn’t an interesting person due to this same tendency to view everything through an analytical lens.  Imagine if Star Trek was 100% written by a Vulcan, and you can begin to imagine the level of ho-hum.

This narration style could have really worked if the language used was stunningly beautiful.  While I think that’s probably what the author was going for, it largely missed for me.  While the language was good, there was also nothing particularly special about it.  I marked three passages that I enjoyed throughout the whole book.  Looking back, two were extremely similar.  The passage I found to be the most beautiful is:

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you. From the outside in. Forcing you to live in its reality. (time 3:15:47)

While pretty, it’s not pretty enough to make up for the rather dull narrator.

Since the story has four women to work with, it probably would have worked better to bounce around between their four narratives.  This also would have given the bonus of seeing the mysteries of Area X through multiple sets of eyes, enhancing the tension the mystery, while also giving the opportunity for a variety of narration styles.

The mystery of Area X is definitely intriguing and different from other Lovecraft style fantasies.  In particular, the passage describing the terror of seeing the thing that cannot be described was particularly well-written.  However, the passages describing the horror in Area X are mostly toward the end of the book and are not as well spaced-out as they could have been to help build the tension.  The end of the book is definitely the most interesting and managed to heighten my interest enough that I was curious about the next book in the series.

Overall, this is a unique take on the idea of a scientific investigation of an area invaded by Lovecraft style, fantastical creatures.  It features an entirely female investigative crew but unfortunately limits itself to only the narration of one overly analytical and dull biologist.  Recommended to big fans of Lovecraft/fantastical invasion style fantasies.  To those newly interested in the genre, I recommend checking out Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp first (review), as it is a more universally appealing take on the genre.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)

March 14, 2014 3 comments

Woman wearing a half-necklace standing in front of a mountain rangeSummary:
In the future, the universe exists in a peace-loving era that allows many alien races and humans to co-exist.  People are expected to act within the confines of acceptability and are offered various humane treatment options to help if their nature or nurture sends them the wrong way.  But some people don’t want to conform and would rather live in the wild, warrior-like days of old.  When a scientist discovers time travel but only to the pliocene era, these people think they have found their solution.  There’s only one catch. The time travel only works to the past.  For decades the misfits step into the time travel vortex, not knowing what is on the other side.  The government approves the solution, since it seems kind and no time paradoxes have occurred.  When the newest group steps through, they will discover just what really waits on the other side of exile.

Review:
I became aware of this book thanks to a review by fellow book blogger, Resistance Is Futile.  Imagine my surprise when going through my wishlist to check for audiobooks, I discovered a brand-new audiobook production of it featuring the audiobook superstar Bernadette Dunne.  This is a creative, action-packed book that truly encompasses both scifi and fantasy in a beautiful way.

Since this is the first book of the series, it takes a bit to set the plot up and get to know the characters.  People are sent through the time travel portal in groups, so we get to know everyone in one group prior to going through the time portal so we can follow them all after they go through it.  May spends the perfect amount of time familiarizing the reader with the future world, as well as the people who are choosing to leave it.  Some readers might be sad to see the imaginative future world left behind for the pliocene era, but it quickly becomes evident that the pliocene is just as richly imagined, albeit different.  The pliocene era is not as straight-forward as the exiles believed, and new problems quickly arise for them.  It’s not the lawless paradise they were envisioning, and while dealing with the realities of it in an action-packed manner, they also must deal with themselves.  Now that they realize there is no true escape to solitude or an imagined perfect past, they must address those aspects of themselves that led them to exile in the first place.  These deeper emotional issues are the perfect balance to the other, action-oriented plot.  I did feel that the book ends a bit abruptly.  However, it is part of a series and clearly the cliff-hanger is intentional.  I prefer series entries that tell one complete smaller story within the larger, overarching plot, but this is still a well-done cliff-hanger.

The characters offer up a wide variety of experiences and ethnic and sexual backgrounds, representative of all of humanity fairly well.  One of the lead characters is a butch lesbian, another is an elderly Polish-American male expert in the pliocene era, another a nun, another a frat boy style space captain.  This high level of diversity doesn’t seem pushed or false due to the nature of the self-selection of exiles.  It makes sense a wide variety of humans would choose to go, although the statistics presented in the book establish that more whites and Asians than Africans and more men than women choose to go.  Some of the characters get more time to develop and be presented in a three-dimensional nature than others but enough characters are three-dimensional that the reader is able to become emotionally invested in the situation.  My one complaint was in prominently featuring a nun in a futuristic scifi, yet again.  Statistics show that less and less people are choosing to become nuns or priests.  Given that this is set so far in the future with such a different culture, a religious leader of a new or currently rising religion would feel much more thoughtfully predictive of the future.

Most engaging to me is how the book mixes scifi and fantasy.  Without giving too much away, the book offers a plausible scientific explanation for human myths of supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, and shapeshifters.  The presence of the inspirations for these myths give a delightful, old world fantastical feel to the story, even while May offers up scientific explanations for all of it.  This is not a mix I have seen in much scifi or fantasy, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Overall, this is a delightful new take on time-travel that incorporates some fantasy elements into the scifi.  Readers looking just for futuristic hard scifi might be disappointed at how much of the book takes place in the ancient past, but those who enjoy scifi and fantasy will delight at the mixing of the two.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Waiting For the Galactic Bus by Parke Godwin (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

March 12, 2014 2 comments

An ape sits on a grassy plain with a hand coming down out ofthe clouds pointing at him.Summary:
When two brothers from an incorporeal alien species get left behind on a spring break visit to prehistoric Earth, they decide to put their, as yet uncertified, evolutionary development skills to work by prodding along the the evolutionary process on Earth.  In doing so, they accidentally create a species with a spirit tied to a body for a certain amount of time that then is tied to the idea of an afterlife.  They also manage to turn themselves into Earth’s spiritual mythology.

Review:
An ingenious take on the aliens made humans concept with two overlapping plots, a tongue-in-cheek take on world religions, and a wry wit.

This take on aliens made humans makes humans the result of the bumbling activities of aliens from a species that controls evolution in the universe.  However, these aliens are currently uncertified, unsupervised, and basically the frat boys of outerspace.  At least at first.  Thus, instead of it all being some evil experimental conspiracy, the direction of life on Earth is much more of an accident of floundering fools.  Granted, the fools grow and change over the time that they spend on Earth waiting for their ride back from spring break, but the fact remains that evolution on Earth is a result of the experiments of two aliens who are not yet fully trained.  This is also used to explain the phenomenon of souls in bodies and then souls that have an afterlife.  All other species have souls that can either choose to be in or not in a corporeal body.  This is the result of the two aliens, Barion and Coyul, not staying within the rules of evolution.

We thus get to the other really creative part of the book.  Since the souls are unfotunately tied to bodies that die, when the bodies die, the souls don’t know what to do or where to go, and so humanity creates the idea of the afterlife, with the two aliens serving as the rulers of the two options (again, created by humans).  The aliens thus are kind of forced into the roles of God and Satan.  The way afterlives go, though, is generally more the result of what the various humans think it will be or think they deserve.  The aliens have mostly tried to stay out of the way, but when they hear rumblings that remind them on the beginning of the nightmare that was Nazi Europe in the American midwest, they decide to dive on in and try to fix it.

Clearly the plot and setting are extremely engaging and thought-provoking.  I could truly talk about them for hours.  They are creative and a vision of the world I enjoyed visiting.  The characterization of the two aliens is a bit weak though.  I mixed them up a lot, constantly forgetting who was God and who was Satan.  I honestly can’t remember right now if Barion or Coyul plays Satan.  I wish they had been characterized more clearly, as this would have strengthened the story.

Overall, this is a unique take on aliens creating humans, featuring a rollicking and thought-provoking plot.  The characterization can be a bit weak but the action-packed plot and vibrant setting generally make up for it.  Recommended to scifi or fantasy fans looking for an extraterrestrial take on mythology.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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