John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday. Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army. Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth. In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t? So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away. I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.
I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting. Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth. Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again? Completely. Fascinating. And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary. And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well. The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures. They feel real. And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well. The worldbuilding here is phenomenal. It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.
The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding. John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life. He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page. He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be. Other characters feel that way, but not John. In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself. I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes. But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body. Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife. Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much. This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that. It’s gross. It is not romantic. And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character. The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes. However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.
4 out of 5 stars
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it. China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines. Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work. It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace. Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous. When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it. I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise. It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.
Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move. It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers. This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.
Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs. It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science. That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening. It feels like an actual possibility.
The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.
The characterizations are fairly strong. Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not. Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace. Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good. This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.
The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end. The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely. It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women. Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now. It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book. It feels like an entirely separate story altogether. I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.
After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first. Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans. Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book. But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.
The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism. It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation. This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.
Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)
Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans. Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.
4 out of 5 stars
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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