Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

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I’m Back (condensed version)

June 28, 2009

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Greetings all.

This post has been a long time coming, and thanks to a lack of time right now will not follow the previous format. Hopefully I can get it together and start posting again, as I have been remiss.
The last time I posted a review (back in February?!?) I was in the middle of the book ‘In Search of Captain Zero’, which if you dig wonderfully written prose about surfing, is a must read, I found the story arc running through those descriptions to be anti-climactic, but I’d go as far as to say that if that if surfing interests you, it’d be worth picking up.
Around the time I was reading that book I underwent a serious life change, that being I left my job of 24 years to be a stay at home Dad for my two sons. I won’t go into too much detail, but my wife and I decided that for the sake of the kids, and for the continued sanity of the entire family, this would be the way to go.
This change disrupted my reading for quite some time as I became acclimated to the new routine. It was sometime in the spring that I was in the book store when I happened upon a display of various post-apocalyptic novels, many of which (including ‘Alas Babylon’ and ‘Earth Abides’) I had already read. One series, written by S.M. Stirling caught my eye, but thanks to the numbskulls at his publishing company, it wasn’t readily apparent which book was the first in the series, so I made a note, picked up something else (the excellent ‘World War Z’ by Max Brooks), went home and did a little research.
Good thing, too, because Stirling is a prolific author with several series to his name, including two related series that included the book I was looking for.
That series (known as the Emberverse) starting with ‘Dies the Fire’ has to do with a world beset by a mysterious, apocalyptic “change” that renders all electricity, internal combustion engines and explosives useless. It starts in the late 90s and progresses more than a decade over the course of the first three novels (numbers two and three are ‘The Protectors War’ and ‘Meeting at Corvallis’).
Stirling’s books drew me in right away. He has a real talent for plotting, creating compelling characters and researching the hell out of just about every topic covered in the novels.
I’ve read complaints about one of the major characters/settings in these books, but they didn’t bother me as much as the fact that if these books have a fault it’s an excess of “medieval battle porn”, i.e. constant, deeply detailed descriptions of arms and armor that got to be a little repetitive after a while.
That said, if you have an interest in good stories in the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I would recommend the first three novels in the Emberverse series. I read straight through all three (more than 1500 pages) and decided to take a break and read some other stuff before moving on to the next two (more are planned) which take up two decades after the end of ‘Meeting at Corvallis’.
After finishing those books I rambled and meandered through bits of non-fiction, magazines etc, before starting Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. I only got about two-thirds of the way into it when I decided that it was too dark and depressing, but vowed to pick it up and finish it soon.
Right now I’m reading the autobiography of comedian Tom Davis (of Franken and Davis) which was a fathers day gift. I’m enjoying it so far and will report back as soon as I’m finished.

Next up – 39 Years of Short Term Memory Loss

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Escapement / Watchmen

August 15, 2008

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Escapement By Jay Lake

Greetings all.
It’s been a while since I posted, but this is another one of those whipped through one book dove right into the next (and then again into another) things.
When I posted my review of ‘Mainspring’ I had already begun reading its sequel ‘Escapement’.
Though at the point that I wrote that post it seemed that Jay Lake had conquered some of the pacing problems from ‘Mainspring’, once I completed the second book it was obvious that instead of going away, the problems had merely come into sharper focus.
‘Escapement’ continues the story of the alternate, clock driven, orrery-esque earth. Though the hero of the first book is present only in a few peripheral mentions, two of the three main characters in ‘Escapement’ are carried over from ‘Mainspring’.
The main problem with these books is ironically also their greatest asset, that being the world that Lake has created. This alternate universe and the warring religio-philosophical factions that attempt to control it are a truly amazing invention.
Perhaps too amazing.
Lake spends a tremendous time on exposition/explanation, and the detail is wonderful, but I finished ‘Escapement’ wishing he’d spent less time on minutae and more time actually plotting the book.
My main issue with ‘Mainspring’ – that the story moved in fits and starts, with long periods of slow unwinding (no pun intended) followed by inorganic jumps in the story and changes in tone – was continued in ‘Escapement’. I found myself with less than 50 pages left wondering when and how the story was going to be resolved, and arrived at the end unsure that it had. Though there was an “ending” of sorts, the book concluded as if I had just purchased not a full novel, but the first half of one.
I’m not a huge consumer of series, but one that I’ve been reading for the last few years, and enjoying a great deal is the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik. Though the books cover a finite period, and the adventures of the dragon and its master continued from book to book, these stories (and the word story is crucial) have a beginning, middle and, here’s the catch, and ENDING. Each book, though connected to the ones before and after, has it’s own distinct plot.
‘Escapement’ has a number of loose ends, one of them unforgivably huge. The ending of the book points directly to a sequel, but ends not like a self-contained novel, but more like the first half of a larger book.
I’m not exactly a prodigious consumer of fantasy literature, so maybe this is par for the course (I doubt it), but I’m not sure I’m going to want to read the next book in the series.

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Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

On a more positive note, I finally got with the program and grabbed a copy of ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (20 years late…I know). Though I knew about the series (now collected into a single volume), my lack of interest in superhero comics kept me away. My interest was piqued by a recent review (and an endorsement by a friend), so I grabbed a copy at ye olde book barn, and I’m glad I did.
I know that the whole “turning comics clichés on their head” thing is pretty much a cliché itself, but Moore and Gibbons were  – in 1987  – at the vanguard of this movement.
‘Watchmen’ is, like the best of the genre truly a graphic novel (as opposed to a swollen comic book). The characters are complex (as is the plot), and the story is told in a manner that still seems innovative. There are sequences in ‘Watchmen’ that are absolute masterworks of the combination of text and visual storytelling.
While I can’t wait to see the movie, I wonder of there’s any way to bring the story to the screen without doing it a great injustice.
A good friend of mine – a huge comics fan with a serious grip on the history of the genre – tells me that Moore and Gibbons have steadfastly refused to expand upon ‘Watchmen’ with spin-offs, prequels or sequels. This is both cool – in that they feel the story is strong enough to stand on its own without elaboration (and it is) – and a huge drag because several of the characters, especially Dr, Manhattan are ripe for expansion.
Either way, if you’ve been avoiding graphic novels because you thought them lacking in depth, go out and get yourself a copy of ‘Watchmen’.

Now reading – Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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Mainspring

August 7, 2008

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Mainspring by Jay Lake

Greetings all.

The book I bring you today is yet another tome that I was turned on to by a post over at BoingBoing.
While I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado of steampunk/clockpunk (and PLEASE spare me a corrective post delineating the subtle but important differences between the two), but I do like what I’ve read and seen.
Thus, when I read about Jay Lake’s ‘Mainspring’ I filed it away for future reference.
A few weeks later the wife and I happened to make an unscheduled visit to the local Barnes and Noble (to avail ourselves of the restrooms, if you must know) and, in the kind of coincidence that seers and conspiracy theorists lay awake at night pondering, there, next to the bathroom door, was the sci fi/fantasy section of the store.
I was almost done with whatever it was I was reading at the time, so I figured I take advantage of the timing and see if ‘Mainspring’ were available. At first all I could find was Lake’s current novel (‘Escapement’, which I’m reading now), but then I decided to check out the ‘new in paperback’ shelf, and there it was.
The coolest (and simultaneously the most difficult) thing about ‘Mainspring’ is navigating the alternative universe Lake has created for his characters. Though the time period is the beginning of the 20th century, and the locale New Haven, Connecticut, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The vast majority of the western world (including all of North America) is dominated by the British Empire, the rest ruled by the Chinese.
The equator of the earth is marked by a huge wall, the top of which serves as the seat for the gears on which the world turns. Everything south of the equator is pretty much terra incognita and the cause for much speculation, as well as the target for possible empire building by both of the major powers.
The hero of the book, a clockmaker’s apprentice named Hethor Jacques is sent on a quest by the angel Gabriel (the world in ‘Mainspring’ turns on a fanciful reinterpretation of Christian dogma, which in itself is cause for all kinds of conflict between warring forces).
Lake does a fairly good job of establishing, and elaborating upon his remarkable framing device. There are points in the book where the tone of the book ‘stutters’ a little bit, but he has a lot to establish here, so a little bit of unevenness is certainly better than another three-hundred pages of exposition. I especially like Lake’s ability to maintain suspense using a kind of motivational ambiguity about many of the characters.
I won’t spoil anything, but I’m about halfway into ‘Escapement’ and I’ll say that things have evened out considerably (especially since two of the three major characters in ‘Escapement’ were introduced in ‘Mainspring’).
Recommended.
Now reading – Escapement by Jay Lake.

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Two More…

June 28, 2008

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Greetings all.
Whoa…
I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time (though the Oprah endorsement put me off for a little while). Thankfully my in-laws came down to visit and they brought with them a copy of the book, which my mother-in-law had listened to as a book on tape and loved.
I ripped through ‘The Road’ in two days, and I’d be willing to say that this is the first modern novel I’ve read in many, many years that I would recommend wholeheartedly as a genuine literary classic.
Cormac McCarthy is one of those contemporary authors who I’d heard about for years but never connected with (probably because no one I trusted recommended his work). When ‘The Road’ came out to almost universal acclaim I was intrigued, and then – as I said – when Oprah chimed in (I happen to be one of the minority that thinks Oprah is deeply full of shit, possessed of a messianic complex and a major representative of the lightweight form of self-analysis so shallow as to be completely meaningless, thus my reluctance to read ANYTHING she recommended).
Anyway…
I heard enough positive things about the book from other, reliable sources that I figured the Oprah endorsement was a fluke of the “even a broken clock is right twice a day” (the other intersection of our interests being Mr Obama) school, so when a copy dropped in my lap a few days ago I set upon it like a hungry wolf.
First off, if you are in the grip of a serious depression I would suggest that you avoid ‘The Road’ until you’re in a “better place”.
This is bleak, gut wrenching stuff.
I won’t drop any spoilers, but I will tell you that McCarthy has crafted one of the first post-apocalyptic novels that in no way romanticizes life after the bomb (or whatever it is that’s devastated the world).
I’ve been on an apocalypse-lit binge of sorts for the better part of the last year, and I would say that ‘The Road’ is by far the best of the lot, comparing favorably with ‘Earth Abides’ by George R. Stewart. It never descends into science fiction (though there are elements of horror, never supernatural) and is possessed of a spare, deceptive simplicity.
Beautifully written, an absolutely perfect, heartrending (especially if you have children) book.
Highly recommended.

NOTE: I had to come back and write some more about this amazing book. I finished it around 3PM this afternoon and I haven’t stopped thinking about, or realizing how much I was moved by it. How much of this is the book itself or seeing myself and my son(s) reflected in McCarthy’s characters I can’t say yet, but I suspect I’ll be obsessing about it somewhat over the next few days/weeks/months, up to and likely including reading it again after I get a little time between my mind/emotions and the book. Go get a copy.

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Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper

Greetings all.
Guess who’s back? Back again?
Me…
Once again I’ve gone ahead and finished two books since I last posted, but since I’ve bee busy, with the blogging, and the job (as it is) and the family stuff, that’s just how it is.
‘Fuzzy Sapiens’ is the sequel to H. Beam Piper’s ‘Little Fuzzy’, which coincidentally I just happened to have on hand as I read both books in an omnibus of Piper’s ‘Fuzzy’ stories.
‘Fuzzy Sapiens’ continues the tale of the Fuzzies, now recognized as sapient beings on their home planet of Zarathustra and all of the events that unfolded as a result of that decision.
The story takes some interesting turns, and the main characters – most of whom are carried over from the first novel (there’s not time lapsed between the end of the first novel and the beginning of the second) are well developed.
Though the plot of the second novel struck me as a little trite – considering the depth of the issues Piper addresses in both books – I still think it made for an enjoying, if slight read. I only mention that last criticism because the brevity of ‘Fuzzy Sapiens’ cast a similar light on the equally brief ‘Little Fuzzy’, bringing the first book down a step in my estimation.
That said, if you’re looking for a quick read, you could do a lot worse.

Now reading – Not sure yet….

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Another Two In the Outbox…

June 17, 2008

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Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

Greetings all.
Thanks in large part to a combination of sloth and speed reading I come to you today with not one but two books.
The first is the graphic novel ‘Bottomless Belly Button’ by Dash Shaw.
Oddly enough both of the books I’m writing up today were picked up via mentions on BoingBoing.
The BB plug (for Bottomless Belly Button) sounded so interesting I ordered the book from Amazon forthwith. A few days later I arrived home to a small Amazon box that was shockingly heavy.
“What’s this?” I thought. I didn’t recall ordering an anvil, but I went ahead and opened the box anyway, discovering the graphic novel in question.
“Oh dear…there is no fucking way I’m lugging this thing with me back and forth to work.”
I immediately resolved to hold it in abeyance as a “home” book to be read at night and on weekends.
As it turns out the physical size of the book was deceptive, as I ripped through in in a two day period.
‘Bottomless Belly Button’ is another example of a graphic novel with a drawing style that I found immediately off-putting, which ended up grewing on me over time. I’ve seen other examples of Shaw’s work and realize that not everything he draws looks this way, but I’m from the old school where I’ve come to expect a higher level of craft where drawing is concerned.
I am of course – as is often the case – wrong on that count. The deal with graphic novels is (at least as I see it) that the story is at least as important as the art (or it ought to be) and that sometimes an individualistic, non-traditional drawing style is really a crucial part of the whole presentation.
In the case of ‘Bottomless Belly Button’, Shaw has taken the story of a family coming together to mark the disintegration of their parent’s marriage (after 40 years). The characters are well thought out and the storyline – which contains a fair bit of symbolism – creeps up slowly, enveloping the reader along the way.
Interesting, but in no way crucial reading, though I will be on the lookout for Shaw’s other work.

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Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Though I wouldn’t call myself a sci-fi nut, I will say that over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of excellent writing hiding inside that scorned genre (and many others as well). Great writing that was basically published as disposable paperback pulp, often lost to the ages except where passed on from one generation to another (though H. Beam Piper’s ‘Fuzzy’ novels had been reprinted over the years, so I would hesitate to describe them as ‘forgotten’, but rather lesser-known).
The BoingBoing was written to announce the fact that Piper’s novel ‘Little Fuzzy’, which had – due to copyright neglect – passed on into the public domain, was being released as an audio book. The story sounded interesting, so I looked on-line, found a used omnibus of the three ‘Fuzzy’ books (two published during Piper’s lifetime and one posthumously) on the cheap.
Man, what a great book.
Sure, there are traces of 50s/60’s space opera clichés, but that could be said of almost all sci-fi written during that era. That aside, ‘Little Fuzzy’ sounds like it could have been written this year, with it’s themes of ecological destruction, industrial (and official) espionage and the onrush of corporate hegemony.
The story concerns the discovery of a new race of beings on a corporately owned planet and the threat that presents to the company, and in turn to the Fuzzies themselves.
I had a little trouble at the beginning, mainly because I mistakenly (arrogantly) thought that I had the whole plot figured out. By the time I was a third of the way into the book I was hooked and found several satisfying plot twists (I even got choked up a couple of times…).
I haven’t started the second book (‘Fuzzy Sapiens’) yet, but I plan on digging in tonight at bedtime.
I’ve seen it mentioned that ‘Little Fuzzy’ has been classified by some as “juvenile fiction” but it is definitely a great example of a book of that type that transcends that classification in spades*.
If you are so inclined you can download the public-domain version of the book, or if you’re a book fetishist like me you can grab a used copy very inexpensively.
Excellent.

*Like Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy

Now reading – Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper