Tag: Review

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1980.

This is probably what Robert Heinlein would have classed as a “gadget story”. Granted the gadget is awfully big, a ground to geosynchronous orbit space elevator, it’s still a gadget. And if some of the characters are more dimensional than in the typical gadget story, that’s a good thing.

At its heart, this is a novel about the quest towards an idea and turning that idea into reality. There’s a lot of well thought out science and engineering going into this book, and the characters are all competent folk in their own fields, which run the gamut from space engineer to dedicated monk at an isolated monastery.

There isn’t a lot of conflict or adventure to be had here. Aside from the space elevator itself, and a few tense moments during a rescue sequence, this is more a story about ideas. Ideas like the big engineering projects that will take us forward, like science being what will get us to those big projects in the first place.

And I rather enjoyed that the hero of the story, if hero is the right word, is an engineer. A brilliant and supremely competent engineer, to be sure, and one who builds big and dreams bigger.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I liked this better than Rama, the last Clarke book I read, mainly due to actually being able to get to know the characters, particularly the main POV, but other books of his rank a lot higher with me. At the same time, there really weren’t a lot of emotionally intense moments.

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Book Review: Gloriana

Book Review: Gloriana

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Part of my quest to read all of the World Fantasy Award novel winners. This book won in 1979.

This book starts out so description laden it’s hard to stay awake. On several occasions, that description slides into list making and the lists are long enough that it feels like that scene in Holy Grail when we’re learning about what people ate when the Lord bestowed the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch on his followers, except no one is available to say, “Skip a bit, Brother.”

When we finally do get to the point where there are characters, we skip from character to character without warning or apparent reason and the chapter breaks seem completely arbitrary. That arbitrariness doesn’t change a whole lot.

The British Empire is big and early, but otherwise this is clearly an alternate Earth and Gloriana is a representation of Elizabeth I, if in a slightly later time.

There are paragraphs lasting pages, with such overdone lavish description that you get lost between sentences, particularly when those passages interrupt actual storytelling, of which there’s precious little.

And a main point of the book is that Elizabeth, I mean Gloriana, in spite of being the Empress of some large fraction of the world, is an incomplete woman because she can’t have an orgasm, no matter how hard she tries or with who or how many people.

Really.

The main antagonist, an artist of deception and eceipt by the name of Quire, makes her fall in love with him with a flick of his fingers, more or less, and because he’s annoyed with his former patron, Gloriana’s closest advisor, Montfallcon, who just doesn’t get him.

Other members of the court have a variety of sexual tastes and fetishes, none of which are really relevant to what there is of the story, but which nonetheless play for a lot of wordage.

Overall rating: 1.5 stars. Because I did finish it, but this was not a good read for me. For two-thirds of the book, nothing really happens, there’s just a slow buildup of tiny events that add up to maybe a long novelette’s worth of story. When there are actual events finally going on, they’re still mostly boring. And the Queen achieves her ‘fulfillment’ (and orgasm) while being raped by Quire, a point which seems missed a lot.

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Book Review: Dreamsnake

Book Review: Dreamsnake

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1979.

So I’m pretty tired of the whole post-nuclear holocaust theme. Post any holocaust, really, but Dreamsnake worked for me.

Points for a well written, strong female lead in 1978. Points for a well thought out setting and a wider universe that’s only hinted around the edges. Points for a cast of multi-dimensional characters.

Snake is a healer, moving from place to place trying to help people as best she can, often in the face of fear and ignorance. She’s also a realistically constructed character, with understandable motivations and emotions and, as the primary (but not only) POV character we get to see the world through her eyes.

There was a nuclear semi-apocalypse, so common in 1960s and 70s SF, but less common that it happened after humans had managed to get off world, at least a little. There are remnants of the old civilization, and some of those still have contact with off-world humans. There may also be aliens. None of these are exactly central to the story, but they make pieces of the puzzling world Snake lives in, though none of them are ever really explained in any detail, much less the level of detail I’d like to figure things out. But that’s okay. Snake accepts the all as part and parcel of existence, so we have to as well.

The book is named for one of the snakes a healer depends on to make their way in the world. And it’s not native to Earth. The other two are, though, and bio-engineered to be a healer’s tools and companions. More than that gives things away.

Lots of reviews will flag this as feminist SF. Is it? Probably insofar as the main character is a competent woman who doesn’t require a man to protect and provide for her. But Snake is an interesting character and subverts a lot of expectations for the world she lives in.

Lots of reviews will flag this as social SF. Is it? Well, there’s plenty of social commentary, and on such diverse subjects as sexuality, relationships, slavery, gender roles, and societal structure. So yes, I suppose it is.

Lots of reviews will flag this as soft SF. Is it? It doesn’t strike me that way, though I suppose it may depend on how you read things. Alien worlds and creatures are a given (the Dreamsnake, among other things, and it’s life cycle is well thought out and important), but they’re not the subject of the story. Genetic engineering is an important part of the background, but it’s not the subject of the story. The science is here, but it’s extrapolations and not front and centre, so easy to miss.

Overall rating: 4 stars. In a decade of Hugo and Nebula awards with more 4s than 3s (the 70s), this is a strong 4 for me. I enjoyed Snake as a character, and the way she tackled her existence in a harsh world still recovering from a nuclear conflict hundreds of years in the past.

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Book Review: Our Lady of Darkness

Book Review: Our Lady of Darkness

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Part of my quest to read all of the World Fantasy Award novel winners. This book won in 1978.

Meh.

I spent a lot of this book waiting for something to happen. I spent even more of it waiting for that to be something with a speculative bent. All I had up until the last dozen or so pages was the main characters seeing something that might have been a figure at the limits of his visual acuity through a set of binoculars.

I want to say there’s a Lovecraft influence here (a lot of other people have), and there are certainly plenty of references, but while Lovecraft tended towards the weird and bizarre, this book tends a lot more towards the boring. Right up until the last couple of chapters, all we really have is the story of a recovering alcoholic with weird friends trying to solve a mystery that may just be a faulty recollection from his alcoholic days.

It’s well written, certainly, especially when compared to the last Leiber book I read (The Wanderer), and the characters might be interesting if they had anything to actually do, but the plot is rather plodding and uninteresting and there really isn’t anything speculative about the story until the climax of the novel.

Yes, the book won a major speculative fiction award and there really isn’t anything speculative about it until the last 10% of the story.

Overall rating: 2 stars. I find it hard to go lower since I did manage to finish the book (a first on the WFA quest) and didn’t hate it. I just didn’t find anything to really love about it.

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Book Review: Storm Dancer

Book Review: Storm Dancer

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I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. Steampunk isn’t my thing, whether or not it’s got a flavor I don’t usually get in my fantasy. Steampunk with a Fantasy bent doesn’t help much because it’s still Steampunk.

But I’m trying to push boundaries in the fiction I read, to break out of molds, to see through different lenses than I’m used to seeing through. And I got a copy of this for Christmas in 2015 that’s been sitting on the shelf staring at me for quite a while now.

While reading, I found the book has other strikes against it.

It’s kind of info-dumpy for the first few chapters as the author tries to introduce us to the world. A slow start, it takes quite a while to get to the point where the story is actually moving.

I don’t speak much Japanese, but there are some misuses that appear to be just for flavor that even I pick up. Honorific suffixes that are used for titles instead, and the regular tossing in of Japanese words into otherwise English sentences just for flavour. You can get a lot from context, but there’s a glossary built into the book, just in case.

If I were more familiar with Japanese culture and history, there would probably be more to bother me, and I think that probably expands to other aspects of Asia borrowed and twisted a bit to fit into the world. There’s a lot of Asia out there, and it’s all part of the Empire, but we don’t see a lot of it directly, at least in this first book.

Stormdancer has a dystopian flavor and I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction (have I said that before?). Chi (the stand in for fossil fuels) is ruining the world in a lot of ways. In fact, more or less all of the evils in the world are laid at the feet of Chi and the Emperor.

Speaking of fossil fuels, the book comes across as a bit on the preachy side talking about environmentalism. Be subtle. Influence my thinking. Don’t smack me over the head.

Okay, enough negativity.

The story does have things going for it, and it’s those things that push me up from a 2-star rating. The heroine is a competent young woman who is able, and willing, to think and act for herself. She’s not thrilled with the society she lives in or her place in it and does try to act to change both. That she needs other characters to show her more of herself and the world than she’s been seeing to take some of those actions sometimes makes her a more rounded character.

And then there’s Buruu, the thunder tiger, the arashitora, a slightly modified and suped-up griffin created for the series. I like the character, the concept, and the relationship that builds between him and Yukiko.

Overall rating: 3 stars. A lot of problems balanced out by the two primary characters. For me, things work out that I enjoyed the story overall. It was fun, but those problems still exist, so I’m not too likely to read the rest of the series.

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Book Review: The Dwarves

Book Review: The Dwarves

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There are a lot of standard tropes and clichés here, Tolkien-esque fantasy seen through a continental lens and translated back into English for North American consumption.

In fact, the farther I got into the book, the more it read like the novelization of someone’s RPG campaign where the events just get more and more implausible. The main character can be talked into just about anything so long as he thinks it’s for the greater good. The rest of the characters have varying, and variable, degrees of depth, but are mostly caricatures.

There’s the beserker warrior dwarf.

His brother, the calm warrior dwarf.

The noble but misguided king dwarf.

The sneaky, backstabbing, traitorous dwarf.

The cute, love interest, girl warrior dwarf.

The grouchy but kindly old wizard.

The bitchy wizardess with a heart of gold.

The arrogant and imperious dark elf.

And another one of him.

The arrogant and imperious regular elf, who turns out to be a reasonable guy once you get past the arrogant and imperious exterior.

Denethor. Um, that is, the good guy who studied the bad guy just a little too closely and wound up being subverted to become the worst traitor the world has ever known.

Legions of thoroughly useless orcs who can’t outfight anyone with less than a twenty to one margin but who, off screen, seem to have no problems capture and butchering entire cities full of people.

The overall plot is less a plot than an overly complicated series of quests for the main character with a lot of random encounters and pointless fighting on the way.

Overall rating: 2 stars. While the translation is excellent, this doesn’t read as well as RPG novels in the 80s did.

And there are five books in the series.

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Book Review: Gateway

Book Review: Gateway

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1978.

Most of the time, I hate it when part of a story is told in a later timeframe, especially when that later timeframe makes it clear the main character survived to live a long and full life. It robs any dangers or difficulties of immediacy or tension. It steals most of the drama from the story, making it a mere description of imaginary past events. It makes me wonder why I should care.

Frederik Pohl, however, was good at it.

Conceptually, the story has a pretty neat hook. There’s an asteroid, christened Gateway (hence the title), that serves as giant alien artifact, covered with tiny alien space ships. The aliens have been gone for a million years or so, but their stuff still works. However, that stuff is dangerous to figure out. Punch in some coordinates, which aren’t completely understood, and the ship will take you somewhere your own technology would take you thousands or millions of years to get. But it’s dangerous. Casualties are high. A million years is a long time. Things move and things change. More than that will spoil surprises in the book.

Our main character, Robinette Broadhead, which is usually shortened to Rob or Bob, is not entirely stable, grew up poor and with a rather tragic childhood, and is more or less incapable of being in an adult relationship. More on that in a minute.

These are his stories.

Yes, these. Because this is two stories. The first tells of his time on Gateway and as a prospector. The second leads us through his therapy sessions. Intersection between the two is not what you expect, and is a wonderful twist. Strange as it is not wanting to spoil a 40-year-old book for anyone, me putting the revelation here would, I think, ruin the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. It’s an idea that’s been used since, but not often.

Broadhead is, however, a whiny, abusive dick.

Certain things can be forgiven in his long list of character flaws, because he did have a tough childhood, between poverty and the loss of everything resembling family when he was fairly young. There are moments in the story when he tries to redeem himself, when he does the right thing, and even when he tries to sacrifice himself to save nine other people.

But he’s still a whiny, abusive dick.

He almost never shuts up about what a coward he thinks he is, how tough he’s had it, and how much other people piss him off.

And, undealt with stresses far too high, when his girlfriend smacks him for being an asshole, he cracks and beats the crap out of her. She comes back, by the way, and even talks about resuming the relationship because when it’s good, it’s really good for her. And that annoys the hell out of me. Not because it’s not realistic (happens all the time in the real world), but because it is.

You’re not supposed to like Broadhead, at least the young Broadhead, and I don’t. The slightly older Broadhead carries a lot of guilt into his therapy sessions. He’s earned it and is trying to deal with it. I still don’t like him, but I can see him working toward fixing his broken self.

People do that in the real world, too.

Overall rating: 3 stars. Wonderful at times, dated at others, but not as much of the exploration of alien places and technology as seemed promised. Plus, I have a hard time getting past a main character I don’t like, particularly in first person perspective. Not liking him makes it hard for me to be interested in Rob’s story.

The characters around Broadhead are often, well, mostly written with some depth and humanity. That’s probably the real strength of the book, beyond the original setting. We’re seeing what people might reasonably be like when adapting to the world of Gateway and what it represents.

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Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo Award novel winners. This book won in 1977.

Dystopias are making a comeback in the last few. So are end of the world stories. Neither is a new story, and if some of the modern ones give an interesting twist here and there, most of them are more or less walking over the same ground, sometimes with new technology or slightly more inclusive casts.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is an end of the world as we know, staring across the edge of human extinction, dystopic, far side of the apocalypse story.

Actually, it’s three of them.

And it mixes other things in besides. Like predicting ecological disaster, human cloning, and what it means to be human.

Three very connected novellas here. The first is a tale of the collapse of society, as seen by a close-knit group of survivalists who didn’t start out that way. A strong extended family and its friends who somehow are able to see what’s coming and do everything they can to prepare their small town for it.

The second picks up decades later, where some of the clones go on a mission to find things their small society needs, digging through the refuse of the world nearby, a world bereft of humanity. The longer they stay separated, the more they change and have a hard time maintaining who they are. For some, that difficulty doesn’t go away when they finally return.

The last is the story of the natural-born son of one of the clones who went on that mission, the pain in the ass he is to the tiny society, and the myriad ways in which he helps it, or tries to, before the inevitable collapse and disappearance.

But the last story does leave you with a little hope.

Overall rating: 3 stars. Why only 3? The story didn’t give me enough of the things I really wanted from it. I wanted a deeper explanation of what made the clones a different kind of human and how they wrapped their tiny society around the differences. I wanted to know something about what happened to the rest of society. I got a taste of each of these, but not nearly enough.

It’s a good story, and I’d probably stand it against the vast majority of modern dystopic or post-apocalyptic stories, but I wanted more.

One interesting little note, Ms. Wilhelm predicts what Star Trek will call “replicative fading” about a decade later. The idea being that a copy of a copy of a copy will eventually be less viable, less hardy, and less able to be human than the original, possibly to the point of non-survivability.

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Book Review: Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 6

Book Review: Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 6

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I’m not sure about “best”. Other than containing a mediocre Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story, it seems like there are a lot of fairly standard, stereotypical stories in this collection. Not one of them, sadly, jumped up and grabbed me. None of them were horrible, but none of them were really good, either, and I can’t pick a story out of the batch that stands above the others.

And there’s not a lot of variety in the fantasy represented here, with the bulk of it, even admitted by the editor, falling into the Sword and Sorcery camp. That’s clearly what Mr. Carter preferred at the time, which is fine, but in that case, why not call it Year’s Best S&S?

But I suppose the thing that bothered me the most about this volume is that the editor slipped one of his own stories into the volume. Not a crime in and of itself, maybe until you learn that it’s not just any story, but one that hadn’t actually been published. So how was it eligible for inclusion in a Year’s Best anthology? Oh, it had been accepted at Fantastic, but Fantastic folded before the story could be published, and the editor thought it was a great story, and since it had been accepted at a now-defunct magazine it clearly should be counted among the best the genre had to offer during the previous year. Well, no. To my reading, it’s a rather derivative tale of a barbarian warrior king, walking over some ground that was pretty well trodden even in 1980.

Overall rating: 2 stars. Full of meh.

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Book Review: Quantum Night

Book Review: Quantum Night

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As I read this, it’s near future SF. Very near. Like three years from now near. The story takes place in 2020 and in Saskatchewan, which is kind of neat. There are a lot of Canadian references dropped that are more than just prairies-related, as well, so that adds to the fun for me.

And this book was fun.

I’ve read many (most) of Mr. Sawyer’s books and I’ve enjoyed all but one so far, and this one falls firmly into the enjoyed category, with a couple of small caveats.

The basic principle underlying the book is the tying of quantum mechanics to consciousness. There’s a lot of research that’s gone into the book (Mr. Sawyer has actually put a reading list on his website), but it mostly doesn’t intrude on the story. Yes, the main character is a very competent experimental psychologist. Yes, his love interest is a very competent experimental physicist. Yes, that lets them have some info-dumpy conversations to bring each other up to speed and stitch the critical scientific ideas together. But it mostly doesn’t get in the way. Mostly.

Utilitarianism. I get it. Shut up already. The main character is a deep subscriber to the doctrine of Utilitarianism, the idea that actions are right and good if they benefit the majority of those affected in a measurable way. But if there was a flaw in the character it was how he vocally looked at everything from a utilitarian perspective and told other people he was doing it, or offered advice from that perspective, or even in the privacy of his own skull. It’s clearly a deliberate flaw, because otherwise the character is a really great guy, though the story shows him parts of himself he might rather not see. If he’d used the phrase, “The greatest good for the greatest number,” one more time, I would have wanted to smack him.

The real world intrudes very well into the story. With a story taking place only a few years after publication, that can be a dangerous thing in near future science fiction, but Mr. Sawyer extrapolates current (2016) political and social trends, turns them up to eleven, and ties some things in with the science fiction ideas he’s presenting to give a potentially scary short term future (not quite the same one we’re looking at now, but there are eerie parallels). It will, hopefully, pass into the realm of alternate history in a few years, but that doesn’t make the all-too-human possibilities in the book any less chilling.

Overall rating: 4 stars. This book has a good mix of what I like in near-future SF: human characters, realistic events, and potentially plausible science. If it also has a little too much psychopathy, well, that’s part of the story too.

Philosopher’s Zombies? The idea is a little frightening, but I’m quite sure I have an interior monologue so I can’t possibly be one. Not so sure about all of the people around me, though.

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