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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 2 comments

A line of spaceships head toward a planet.Summary:
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?

Review:
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.

*spoiler warning*
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.
*end spoilers*

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

Source: Borrowed

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Blind Date With a Book Win Reveal!

September 9, 2014 6 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

The Little Red Reviewer, a blog I’ve followed since I started my own, had the brilliant idea to do a blind date with a book giveaway a few weeks ago.  For those of you who don’t know, a blind date with a book is when a library/bookstore/person wraps a book up and puts a few clues about what the book might be about on the cover.  The idea is that you’re matched by concepts instead of cover or blurb.  I hadn’t seen this in giveaway form before, and I thought it was super brilliant of Redhead to use it for a print book giveaway.  Imagine my delight when I won one of the books!

It arrived still wrapped, just as it had been pictured on her blog.

Book with label stating "Time travel, Looking for a cure, Big Questions, drastically different futuristic world"

Since I knew I had won before Redhead mailed out the books (obviously, as I had to provide her my mailing address), I’d had weeks to wonder what book, exactly I was getting!  You guys are lucky I manged to be patient enough to take a picture of the wrapped book before unwrapping it.  :-P

Anyway, I unwrapped the book to reveal my mystery book date!

Photo of the book "Hollow World" by Michael J. SullivanThe book I won is Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan!  Here’s the blurb from GoodReads:

Ellis Rogers is an ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing, but when faced with a terminal illness, he’s willing to take an insane gamble. He’s built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and the cost of paradise. He could find more than a cure for his illness; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time began…but only if he can survive Hollow World.

I have to admit, I’m pretty darn excited to read it.  A time machine built in a garage? What appears like it might possibly be a retro future world? Yes, please!

Thanks to Redhead for hosting such an awesome giveaway!  I might have to steal the idea in the future for one of my own. ;-)

Giveaway Winner: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (INTERNATIONAL)

August 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Brightly colored buildingsThe giveaway winner of one ebook version of The Running Game (review) by L. E. Fitzpatrick, courtesy of L. E. Fitzpatrick herself is…….

Comment #1 Amanda Ramsay McNeill!

Amanda, your email as entered in the comment form has been provided to the author who will send along the ebook to you.

Thanks for entering!

Book Review: The Postmortal by Drew Magary (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Green book cover with a grim reaper impaled on his own scythe.Summary:
John Farrell got The Cure before it was legal.  Three painful shots, and now he’ll never age, although he can still be killed by accidents, murder, and disease.  It doesn’t take long before public pressure forces governments to legalize The Cure, in spite of the concerns, sometimes expressed in the form of terrorist acts, of those who believe in natural aging.  Of course, nobody listens, because who wants to age?  But slowly the world starts to change in more ways than becoming increasingly overpopulated.  We’ve reassembled what happened when The Cure was legal through combining John’s blog entries with news articles from his time period, as a cautionary tale.

Review:
I actually bought this when it was released because it sounded so intriguing to me.  A futuristic epistolary novel looking at overpopulation is right up my alley.  Unfortunately, I got so busy that I didn’t have time to read it right away.  I was happy to be able to finally pick it up.  The book presents an interesting dystopia but the storytelling struggles increasingly throughout the book, falling flat at the end.

The book starts out incredibly strong.  Magary strikes the right balance of realistic personal blog entries with snippets of news, twitter/facebook feeds, etc… to tell the early story of The Cure.  The world building doesn’t suffer at all, with a clear near-future established, and John’s character is immediately easy to understand.  The years immediately after The Cure is legalized are similarly well-told, with Magary choosing interesting and realistic consequences to The Cure, including violent anti-Cure extremists, peaceful anti-Cure moderates, bohemian everlasting youth, those who build fortresses around themselves and their families, and even internet trolls who take their trolling out into real life.

The world slowly establishes to the point where it’s clearly too overpopulated, and various governments make various choices about how they’re going to deal with that, and John gets caught up in the control side of the US government’s choices.  It is here, midway through the book, where things stop being so well-written and thought out and stop working quite so well.

First, the parameters of The Cure seem clear early on in the book.  It appears that it cures not just aging but any illness that could be correlated to being the result of aging, such as heart disease.  It is clearly listed out that The Cure protects you from many things but not extreme things like AIDS or being smashed by a safe.  Later on in the book, though, those who have The Cure but have a real age of elderly start having diseases that tend to show up late in life, such as cancer and heart disease.  This shakiness of exactly what The Cure does is a real problem in the book’s world building.  The reader expects one set of parameters but then gets a different one.

Second, although early in the book Magary strikes a great balance of realistic blog entries, news articles, and twitter/facebook feeds, as the book continues on, this balance drops off, and the book reads more and more like a straight-forward first-person narration, with only the occasional news article.  This makes it harder to believe these are real blog entries, particularly as they get more and more unrealistically long as John becomes busier and does more dangerous tasks.

Similarly, as the world becomes more complex, some of the world building choices make less and less sense.  For instance, a certain country chooses to periodically blow up its cities with nuclear bombs in order to control its population. It’s hard to imagine any country dumping nuclear waste into itself just to control population.  Surely even just bombs with less environmental impact would be chosen.  Similarly, a certain type of violent gang becomes rampant across the US but their motivations or reasons for turning so violent and bloody are never examined.  Are they striving to be the only people left? Do they just enjoy causing chaos? Dehumanizing them makes it easy to other them, which in turn makes the dystopic future less frightening, as it’s only the crazy, monstrous people who form into violent gangs.  Some of these limits come from the fact that our main character, whose blog entries we’re reading, isn’t a particularly inquisitive person.  He tumbles along and doesn’t seem to care much about anything, particularly in the final portions of the book.  Yes, he is probably depressed, but even early on he never seems that interested in other viewpoints.  The rare two occasions where we get glimpses into something besides his day-to-day life are once at the behest of his job, and once because his son implores him to come to his church.  In other words, it takes extraordinary circumstances for John, our narrator, to investigate anything other than what is right in front of his face, which makes for a story that’s missing a lot of information about this dystopic future, particularly when we only get John’s perspective for hundreds of years.  The story would probably have been better served by analyzing multiple different people’s blogs.  Perhaps John’s, his son’s mother’s, his son’s, his partner’s at work, a troll’s, etc…. This would have given the same epistolary feel but also more information about the dystopic world and more depth.

Finally, the ending takes a sharp turn into manic pixie dream girl land, that I found incredibly frustrating.  John makes a sudden, completely inexplicable, unrealistic change in personality thanks to a manic pixie dream girl showing up (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope).  Given the whole rest of the book, the ending was completely out of left field, and frankly felt lazy.  A much richer, deeper ending could have been written that went right into the depth and darkness of John’s soul, giving him no miraculous last-minute redemption.  Instead his character does a complete 180 and gives the reader an unexpected, and unearned, ending.

Given all of these complaints, why am I still giving the book three stars?  The world it sets up is awesome.  It’s a dystopia I want to visit again and again.  The first third of the book handles the futuristic, tech-savvy epistolary novel really well, and that’s hard to do.  Finally, most of my complaints have to do with the author not giving me enough, not taking things deep enough, dark enough, not living up to the writing in the first third of his own book.  It’s a sign of a good book to leave me wanting more, and that’s why I’m still happy I read it.  It’s a creative vision of a dystopic future that I hadn’t seen before, and I would love to see more books set in it.  Recommended to fans of dystopias who won’t mind a frustrating ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Gray book cover.Summary:
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.

Review:
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

Source: Netgalley

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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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Giveaway: Stinger Stars by Paul Bussard (US and Canada Only)

July 22, 2014 1 comment

Image of what appears to be a golden bird with a glowy bit in it.This giveaway is now over! Thank you all for entering!

It’s time for the fifth giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.

There is ONE signed PRINT version of Stinger Stars (review) available courtesy of the author, Paul Bussard!

What You’ll Win:  One signed print copy of Stinger Stars by Paul Bussard

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating what creature you think might secretly be more intelligent than we give it credit for.

Who Can Enter: US and Canada only

Contest Ends: August 5th.  Two weeks from today!

Disclaimer: The winner will be contacted via email by the blogger to acquire their mailing address to send the print book.  The blogger will then provide the mailing address to the author.  The author will send the winner the print book.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

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