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

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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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Book Review: Doctor Rat

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

“I’m on page 47 of 215 of Doctor Rat: I’m honestly not sure how much more of this book I can take. The purpose is clear, but the presentation is disturbing, as it’s obviously meant to be. Not what I’m looking for in my entertainment.”

When I finished typing that update, I realized that I was putting myself through this book for no good reason. I’m already against animal testing and for animal rights. It’s possible that this book might have something to teach me, but whatever that lesson might be isn’t worth the discomfort suffered to get there, and that would be nothing next to the discomfort of some of the creatures in this book.

When I started Doctor Rat, I was aware that it was going to be an uncomfortable read. Written in the 1970s when all of the nasty secrets of animal testing were first coming to light and before there was much in the way of legislation or even social conscience in the area of animal rights. Going in, I understood the book to be pointed satire, a blazing light on the horrific practices in laboratories across the western world.

And maybe I should have taken a hint at that point, before I started reading. Horrific is absolutely the right word, but it’s only a place to start. Much of the story is told from the point of view of the titular character, Doctor Rat, a long-term survivor of experimentation and firmly in the corner of the so-called scientists as they work to further “knowledge”. The good doctor extols the virtues of the methods used and the various inhumane acts of violence, vivisection, and torture performed on rats, dogs, and other animals.

In the meantime, there’s a kind of animal revolution going on in the outside world, somehow sparked by the dogs.

Overall rating: 1 star. Even if it wasn’t a DNF, I can’t see pushing the rating higher. There’s not a single comfortable moment in the scenes narrated by Doctor Rat. And while there’s not supposed to be, this isn’t what I’m looking for in my entertainment. Make me think, make me question, make me work to understand new or different ideas. But I’m not looking to be disturbed and I’m not looking for nightmares. If I’d finished the book, those might have been on the way.

I had to remind myself that this came from the same author who just a few years later would write the novelization of E.T., otherwise there probably wouldn’t be any chance of my picking up anything by Mr. Kotzwinkle again.

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Book Review: Bid Time Return

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Part of my quest to read all of the World Fantasy Award novel winners. This book won in 1976.

The last book I read by Mr. Matheson was I Am Legend, way back in 2015. Loved it. Quick, precise prose. Just enough description to let your imagination work on what you would see. A clean, character-driven story that I recommend to just about anyone.

Bid Time Return is something very different.

It’s an almost stream of consciousness (presented as transcriptions from an old Dictaphone) trip through the last few months of a scriptwriter dying of inoperable, incurable cancer. He randomly stops at an aging luxury hotel, falls in love with the picture of an actress, and then hypnotizes himself into going back in time to meet her so she falls in love with him.

So, stream of consciousness, the main character falling in love with someone he’s never met, time travel by force of will. I’m surprised I made it as far into the book as I did.

Overall rating: 1 star. I seem to be really racking up the DNFs this year. That’s three so far and not even the end of March.

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Book Review: The Hard SF Renaissance

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Long, very long.

And not always in a good way.

But mostly.

There are 41 stories in this volume, 12 of them novelette length, and 7 of them novellas. At 960 pages, there’s a lot of SF here, and most of it enjoyable. Most of it also published in the 1990s, but since this collection was published in 2002, that shouldn’t be surprising. If Mr. Hartwell were still with us, I wonder what kind of volume of Hard SF he might have put together using the first decade or so of the 21st century.

As it is, he gathered a group of good stories. Yes, there were a few that didn’t quite work for me or were only okay, but only one I actually disliked and more because I found the concept and the structure of the people and society a little on the ridiculous side.

For standout stories, I’ll give five, alphabetically by title:

An Ever-Reddening Glow by David Brin

Bicycle Repairman by Bruce Sterling

Immersion by Gregory Benford

Into the Miranda Rift by G. David Nordley

Reasons to be Cheerful by Greg Egan

It’s not lost on me that four of these fall into the longer ranges. Of course, the stories on the lower end of my enjoyment spectrum fall into the longer group as well. A couple of those were really hard to finish, dragging on for a ridiculously long time. Marrow springs to mind as the foremost in this group, something that later ballooned into a novel with two sequels plus a gigantic collection of short stories.

But better to dwell on the positive, because there’s a lot positive here, and the author list is almost a who’s who of 1990s and early 2000s SF. A little more gender balance would be nice, but the quality of the writing is high.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars, which I’ll probably round up to four. It’s a well put together anthology with a lot of variety built in. If you like SF, there will be something in here you’ll enjoy.

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Book Review: The Name of the Wind

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So I’m still having a hard time deciding whether I liked this book or want to say it was just okay. The rating on Goodreads will probably come down on the latter, even though there were things to love about the story. There just weren’t enough of them in a book this size. Pair that with it not delivering on the story it initially promised, and I’m not sure I can round up.

The story I was looking for, the story that seemed to be promised in the beginning of the book, was the world’s greatest wizard who’s had a rough time of it coming out of retirement to face a foe who’s far too much for him. What the heck are the scrael, where are they coming from, who sent them, and when are we going to start on the journey to face them? This is not that story, though that story is hinted at in odd, short chapters breaking up the main narrative and adding tension that you can immediately forget about until the next interlude chapter.

The story we’re actually getting is a tremendous amount of background on the decades of events of that wizard’s life that lead up to the story I thought we were getting. In short, it’s a first person story told from a comfortable distance, an autobiography of the world’s greatest wizard.

Or the first volume of it, anyway.

The main story is in three distinct parts: Kvothe the happy kid, Kvothe the kid living on the street, Kvothe the university student. These parts are all interesting and very good stories in their own way, but they all still suffer from a lack of immediacy. Before going into each section, or the any given adventure in each section, we more or less know how it’s going to turn out because it’s being told from decades in the future, when Kvothe is that retired world’s greatest wizard. Yes, there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know about events in between. But we know he survives it all, intact, and we know he becomes the world’s greatest wizard and that at some point he’s going to survive facing some pretty bad people and killing a king.

That’s a major problem using something in the present as a framing story for the main tale being in the past, the classic story within a story that never really quite works for me.

You’ll also read some reviews calling the main character a Gary Stu, a wish fulfillment character for the author or reader to live vicarious fantasies through. There’s some strength to this. Kvothe is too good, too smart, has too excellent a memory. He’s also socially awkward, at least when it comes to interactions with folks of the female persuasion, and he tends to make decisions that he thinks will get him closer to what he wants without thinking too closely about the consequences. Sometimes that gets his ass kicked. Sometimes external events also kick his ass pretty well. Is he too powerful? I don’t know yet, but I do know he really isn’t in any danger until the main story finally catches up to the framing story.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I’ve changed my mind. I am going to round up. Why? Because while I didn’t get the story I actually wanted when the book began, I did enjoy reading each section of the book and the adventures Kvothe had along this first part of the path to become who he is now. Whether I enjoyed it enough to go on to the second volume and wait for the third remains to be seen.

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Book Review: The Forever War

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1976.

I remember reading this book for the first time during my university years, recommended by a friend. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, so when I started the quest to read all of the major SF/F award winners in the novel categories, this was obviously going to be on the list.

Finishing the book this time, I almost wish I’d let it live in memory as I had to downgrade my rating on the book.

Conceptually, this is great. Realistic physics surrounding space travel and development of combat systems. A realistic portrayal of how the government would treat its soldiers in training, development, and combat surrounding a war that, by its nature, will last for centuries or millennia. And a reasonable presentation of alien aliens with motivations we can’t wrap our heads around because, well, they’re alien.

So there’s a lot to like about this book.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of meh here too. The characters are mostly flat and there really isn’t a lot of growth for the main character, William Mandella. Don’t get me wrong, he learns from his experiences and changes not just his outlook but his habits and actions. However, a lot of those experiences don’t seem to affect him on a mental level all that much. More than once, the unit he’s serving with is nearly wiped out, but he’s fully functional and continues on, accepting the next promotion that he only deserves because he was lucky enough to survive.

And the story is less a story overall than a set of almost self-contained novelettes held together by the basic premise. Growth in the narrative is slow, and while there are a lot of neat ideas built into things, their presentation isn’t always that exciting.

My preference would have been to see a lot more of the effects of time dilation on both the soldiers and the society they were supposedly protecting. We really only got brief glimpses of earth for the most part, except for the stretch after the survivors came home the first time, and I found a lot of the changes there to be unreasonable, or at least not reasonably justified in the narrative.

Overall Rating: 3 stars. It’s not a bad book, and there are certainly still things to like about it, but it doesn’t come together as a classic, award-winning novel anymore. I’d stack a lot of recent military science fiction up against it fairly easily. I think the big thing to note here would be its influence on the genre at the time, that you could still write an interesting book, especially in a military SF vein, using reasonable extrapolations of current technology and science that actually fits the understanding of the day. That influence ripples forward even to books being written now.

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Book Review: Willful Child

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Yeah, no.

I love Star Trek and I really enjoy well done parodies, but this one isn’t well done, the characters here aren’t parodies, and the story does nothing more than mock. Not enough to make it a worthwhile read.

The hero of the story, Captain Hadrian Sawback, is supposed to be a parody of Captain Kirk, but actually presents as a sad attempt at a parody of Zap Brannigan, rebuilding him as a completely narcissistic sociopath without any of Zap’s humanizing qualities.

I made it through about sixty pages of juvenile innuendo, toilet humour, and mindless stupidity before saving my remaining brain cells.

And somehow the book has a sequel?

Marking this one as DNF. I didn’t make it past chapter 4. Try Scalzi’s Redshirts (but skip the three codas) or DeChancie’s The Kruton Interface for far better tales in this vein.

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Book Review: Abaddon’s Gate

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Picking up the third book in the Expanse series, I worried that the story might not grab me as hard as the first two had. Silly. There’s plenty of big stuff going on here, from the protomolecule being finished on Venus and throwing a ring into space settling into a really outer system orbit, the OPA refitting a colony ship with some serious firepower to Julie Mao’s little sister Clarissa deciding that she needs to get revenge against Holden and crew. Well, mostly Holden.

I’m a sucker for well done space opera, and this whole series qualifies so far. All of the things to love about the first two books are here.

The characters are all deep, well-rounded, and well-realized, though I’m missing both Bobby Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala in this book, who I really enjoyed in Caliban’s War. Alex doesn’t get enough screen time for me in this story, but there’s a lot of Amos moments, and that makes me happy. We get new elements and expanded depth to the relationship between James and Naomi. It’s also worth noting that Pastor Anna eventually proves to be the character who presents everything that could be good about religion, an unusual take in SF. There is a character of the opposite stripe, however, someone you might enjoy disliking.

The world, and here the word takes in the entire solar system, its environs, and the various cultures and political entities inhabiting it, gets more complicated and more varied. Things are still going on, things outside the purview of the story itself, and some of those things impact the story in ways you don’t always expect.

The stakes are huge. The political situation is still tense and now it has three real sides, plus the independents who don’t really fit on any side, the crew of the Rocinante, for example. And some revelations about the protomolecule, the ring, and their origins crank the stakes even higher through the book. At the end, we’re left with a broadened view of what the universe might be like for the flawed and varied humans living in it.

Overall rating: 5 stars. Oh, sure, but it’s the third book in a series, and that series is currently slotted to have nine books. It’s hard to review a third book and have anyone care, especially if you want to keep things spoiler-free, which I try to do with most reviews.

But here’s a good spot to say I don’t give a lot of 5-star reviews, and I’ve given the first three books in this series 5 stars each. I really, really enjoyed Abaddon’s Gate, but it’s worth stating that you should start with the first book first. I started with Leviathan Wakes only after seeing the TV adaptation and guessing that the rule holding the book to always be better would actually hold. It does, and continues to. But read Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War first.

I’m not going to immediately move to Cibola Burn, and not because I’m worried about being let down. I want to draw out the reading experience on this series and not get to the point too soon where I have to wait for each new volume until it comes out.

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Book Review: So Anyway

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I’ve been a Monty Python fan since grade 9, and I discovered I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again on public radio only a couple of years later. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Cleese’s film work as an adult and even took my teenagers to the theatrical broadcast of the O2 show several years back.

Until I received this as a Christmas present, I didn’t even know he’d written an autobiography. Based on where he leaves off, just at the beginning of the Monty Python period, I wonder if there’s going to be another volume. Or two.

And if you’re looking for a recounting of anecdotes and oddities from the Monty Python years, you’ll have to wait for that next volume. This book is about John Cleese, the early years, from boyhood and school, tracing the path that took him into acting, through stage, theatre, radio, and television. It’s all pre-Python, other than a few mentions here and there of things that eventually developed into Python sketches.

A few of those sketches get reproduced in whole or in part in the course of the narrative, and you can hear things in his voice as you read. (The audio version has the original recordings of some of these.)

This is John Cleese as a person, looking back over his early career, young friendships, first marriage, professional relationships. He spends a little more time on Graham Chapman than you’d expect, dismissing a lot of the controversy surrounding his shock at Graham coming out by just making it part of the natural course of things, and talks about hints of the alcoholism that he feels he really should have picked up at the time. You don’t get a lot about his relationships with the other Pythons, but he and Graham went back some years further. Maybe this will come in future books.

In this book, we get his school years and how he almost became a lawyer, a bit of background about his parents, the Cambridge Footlights, how he came to work for the BBC, his time on stage in America, ISIRTA, At Last the 1948 Show, The Frost Report, and other parts of his early career and life. And all of these things, seen in the cold light of history, seem to drag him inexorably forward into comedy and towards the formation of Monty Python.

If you’re looking for a long string of jokes and funny bits, you’re probably going to be disappointed, because that’s not what this memoir is or is supposed to be. Mr. Cleese is walking us along the path that took him from childhood to Python. If he occasionally tangents or is a bit critical of something or someone, this shouldn’t come as unexpected based on the public persona he’s shown over the decades.

Oh, there are jokes and funny bits, don’t worry, but they’re not the ones you might expect, and they often take you by surprise. The book lives in the interesting bits in between, the parts that show us more than just John Cleese on screen. It’s a wonderful read in the main.

Overall rating: 4 stars. This book is part of the story of John Cleese the human being. As such, it doesn’t focus on just John Cleese, the Python. In fact, it doesn’t really focus there at all. And that’s more than okay. It’s a lot of fun.

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