Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist » scifi

Archive for the ‘scifi’ Category

King Rat, by China Mieville

Sunday, March 6th, 2005

Amazon link

I remembered China Mieville’s name from Aneel’s book page, so when I stopped by the library, I looked him up, and this was the one book by him that they had. It’s somewhat in the same vein as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, describing a London with more dimensions than most of us ever get to see, or the urban fantasies of Charles de Lint. The cover description plays up the importance of drum and bass techno music to the story, but I think that’s just to draw in the hip kids. I thought it was okay. The writing is gorgeous in spots, but the narrative seemed to kind of wander without a clear idea of where it was heading at times. It was okay. I’m happy I got it from the library.

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

Monday, February 28th, 2005

Amazon link

I stopped by the library a few days ago and picked up a bunch of books that I was vaguely interested in, but not enough to toss into one of my Amazon orders. Mostly quick reads, so you’ll see several book reviews over the next couple weeks as I slam through them.

This one was recommended by a friend due to my Buffy obsession as another take on the tale of the young woman called into service to fight the vampires. It was okay. I liked the world, and the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the otherworldly. None of the characters really grabbed me, though. And some of the more interesting aspects of the world are never fully developed. I thought it was an okay read, but it’s not a book I’m going to run out and buy.

Then again, I’ve only bought one of the Buffy books, and thought it was terrible. The presentation on screen brings the Buffyverse to life in a way that the books fail to. Credit for that should probably be split between Joss and the actors. Plus the dialogue is much better in the real episodes. And I’m totally a sucker for witty dialogue.

The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King

Sunday, December 12th, 2004

A few weeks ago, when I was in the library, I saw books 5, 6 and 7 of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King (that’d be Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower). Since I’d liked the first few books in the series, but had dropped it when it wasn’t clear whether King would ever finish the series, I decided to pick these up. I actually went back and re-read book 4, Wizard and Glass, when it was clear that I didn’t remember it, and it had some relevance. So I’ve slammed through probably close to 2000 pages of crap in the last few weeks. Fortunately, it’s fast reading, so I didn’t waste as much time as you might think.

Spoilers ahead, if any of you care.

I really did like the first three books in this series. They all have some memorable moments, with mythic overtones. Wizard and Glass was okay – obviously not very memorable, since I had to re-read it – it’s basically a standard Western plot set in a fantasy realm. The last three books are just kind of painful. King apparently decided that this was his opportunity to tie all of his books together, so he started dropping in characters from all of his books to meet the gunslingers and help them out. Characters from Salem’s Lot all the way through his more recent books like Insomnia (none of which I’ve read). So that added confusion, since I hadn’t read these stories, and these characters which I’m clearly supposed to recognize are showing up.

It gets even better, though, when King has these fantasy characters cross dimensions into a facsimile of our world. In this world, they meet, yes, that’s right, King himself, who is portrayed as one of the most valuable people in the universe, supporting one of the “Beams” that holds the universe together through his writing. I started losing steam quickly at this point.

Plus, the writing just isn’t very good. King, if nothing else, generally spins a good yarn. Books like The Shining or It are gripping, and have a sort of inevitability about them that is one of the keys to horror writing. These books just start wandering; in his attempt to include all of his other books, it just becomes a series of vignettes – “Oh, look, another of my characters!” And it suffers for that. By the time the main characters start getting killed off, I no longer cared about them.

In the last couple books, he also started pulling the omniscient narrative nonsense – things like “He slipped the .40 into his docker’s clutch almost without thinking, so moving us a step closer to what you will not want to hear and I will not want to tell.” How melodramatic is that?

I kept with it, mostly out of a desire for completeness. Just to finish it. And to find out what’s in the Dark Tower. And, of course, it’s a copout. I should have known.

Anyway. Strong anti-recommendation. The first three books are worth reading if you like a western-crossed-with-fantasy kind of book. And maybe book four. But if you never read 5, 6 and 7, you won’t be missing anything.

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, by Minister Faust

Thursday, November 25th, 2004

Amazon link

I saw this in the library. The title was just too good to pass up, especially since I’m always fascinated by tales of the trickster, of which the coyote is one of the main avatars. I flipped through the first few pages, liked the tone, and checked it out. I mean, each character is introduced with a D&D-style character sheet, with comments like “Technological Intelligence: +99 A-Team/MacGyver” and “Genre Alignment: SF (general), ST (original series), SW, Marvel, Alan Moore +79”. The Genre Alignment listed for each character is actually pretty useful if you follow sci-fi, because it gives you an idea of what they like and what they respond to. Of course, you have to be a pretty big geek to catch all the references.

Overall, the book has a Snow Crash-like feel to it in a lot of ways, with African mythology replacing Sumerian mythology. It has the same sort of breezy action-packed narrative, with a bit of “Um, what the hell” when it delves deeper into the mythology. One of the interesting narrative tricks used is to write in first-person, but switch the character speaking to provide different perspectives. Each character is introduced by the D&D sheet before their first narrative section, and after that, you have to keep track of who’s talking by the different authorial voice used. It’s artificial, but it gives a bit more insight into what’s going on in the other characters’ brains.

The other thing I liked about the book was the author’s willingness to explain things slowly. Because it’s first person, he’ll have a character drop a reference to something, and not explain it until 200 pages later when that character is talking to somebody else. It gives you something to look forward to as you’re trying to figure out what the heck is going on. It’s also interesting because the main character is writing his sections after the book’s events have taken place, so he gets to drop in remarks about what’s going to happen (early on, you read this sentence, “In a few days’ time, when machetes are pointed at me, when an old, old friend betrays me, when a sharpened ice-cream scoop is poised to scrape out my eyes, I’ll be wishing I’d never met this woman”) to sharpen the anticipation.

Overall a fun read. Not one I’m planning to buy and/or re-read, but pretty entertaining.

Inversions, by Iain M. Banks

Thursday, November 25th, 2004

Amazon link

Christy read this and then gave it to me. It didn’t do a lot for me. Several of my friends really like Iain Banks, so I keep on trying his work, but very little of it sticks with me. I think I have three or four of his books on my bookshelf, and I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about what happens in them without re-reading them, whereas there are books that I read once and grab me and stick in my memory. I mean, it’s competently executed, and a tolerable way to pass the time, but that’s about it. And since these reviews are my way of recording what struck me about a book, and I don’t have anything to say, I’m just using it as an excuse to comment about this weird disparity between the high regard people I know have of Banks and the disconnection I feel from his work. Anyway.

Clans of the Alphane Moon, by Philip K. Dick

Thursday, November 4th, 2004

Amazon link

Brian bought this on our layover in Chicago on the way out, mostly because his other choice of reading material was a mathematical optics book. I don’t know what he was thinking. Anyway, I was running out of reading material on the way back, so I borrowed it from him, and traded him the novel I’d been reading. Like most Philip K. Dick material, this book is really weird. I’m not sure it’s even worth describing. Here, I’ll quote the back cover:

When CIA agent Chuck Rittersdorf and his psychiatrist wife, Mary, file for divorce, they have no idea that in a few weeks they’ll be shooting it out on Alpha III M2, the distant moon ruled by various psychotics liberated from a mental ward. Nor do they suspect that Chuck’s new employer, the famous TV comedian Bunny Hentman, will also be there aiming his own laser gun. How things come to such a darkly hilarious pass is the subject of Clans of the Alphane Moon, an astutely shrewd and acerbic tale that blurs all conventional distinctions between sanity and madness.

Um. Yeah.

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Monday, December 1st, 2003

Amazon link

I adore the Vorkosigan series, by Bujold, but haven’t warmed quite as much to her fantasy series set in Chalion. I borrowed the first one, The Curse of Chalion, from the library, and it was a good read, but not particularly memorable; in fact, I recall almost no details of it at this point. But my friend staying with me for Thanksgiving week had the recently published second book in the series, Paladin of Souls, so I read it last week. It was a well-told story that was a quick read. I like the world in a lot of ways. But for some reason, it just doesn’t grab me. There are books that I read them once, and I can remember every detail of it vividly. I finished this book a week ago, and already most of the details are fuzzy. Such is life. I’d recommend it as a library read rather than a must-buy.

The Liaden universe, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Monday, November 17th, 2003

(originally posted 9/4/03, fixed links on 11/17/03) After reading Partners in Necessity, I said I’d go pick up the rest of the series. Which I did. The day after. And then read most of it over a three-day weekend. And I really enjoyed the rest of it. So I recommend the whole set now. In universe chronological order (as opposed to publishing order), they are:

  • Local Custom and Scout’s Progress (these two prequel novels describing the adventures of the parents of the main protagonists in the rest of the series are also available in the omnibus edition Pilot’s Choice)
  • Conflict of Honors (also kind of a prequel, describing events that took place seven years before the events of the rest of the series)
  • Agent of Change, and Carpe Diem (this is where the main action starts – these two novels are packaged with Conflict of Honors in the omnibus edition Partners in Necessity)
  • Plan B, and I Dare (these two novels pick up where Carpe Diem left off, despite a ten-year gap between publishing Carpe Diem and Plan B, finishing up the main Liaden universe story line)

So basically, three prequels, and four arc novels.

I was intrigued by one of the forewords calling these romance novels set in space. I suppose they might be considered such – four of them (the three prequels, and Agent of Change) have as their main plot arc the meeting and “lifemating” of two prominent characters. I didn’t feel that the romance dominated the novels, though, as I expect them to in “romance” novels. I’m not even sure what I mean by that, but I’m sure it’s some sort of rationalization to avoid me having to consider the possibility that I would enjoy romance novels as I enjoyed these.

One of the other things I really liked about this series was the concept of melant’i, describing the confusing mix of roles that characters play in their lives. One of the main characters, Val Con, is a younger cousin, a clan head, a Scout, and a husband. As a younger cousin, he properly shows deference to his elder relatives. However, as clan head, he deserves their deference. Lee and Miller disentangle these roles by postulating the Liaden language to contain different modes that are appropriate for each role. By a combination of non-verbal actions such as bows and hand gestures, and verbal hints (addressing Val Con as Delm indicates he should be in his role as clan head, as opposed to the younger cousin), the different roles that compose each character’s melant’i are kept distinct. This concept is particularly interesting to me since I’ve been reading a lot about semantics recently, and the power of language to shape our thoughts and attitudes. So the idea of a language that differentiates the many roles that we play in our daily lives sounds like a good one to me. It would lead to much less confusion, I suspect.

But anyway. I digress. Great story. Interesting characters. Interesting culture and world. Neat aliens. All good. I highly recommend. Or just borrow them from me sometime.

Partners in Necessity, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Thursday, August 28th, 2003

This book (well, technically, books – this is an omnibus edition of Conflict of Honors, Agent of Change, and Carpe Diem) had been lurking at the top of my recommendations list at Amazon for months before I finally decided to give it a shot (mostly because I’d received an Amazon gift certificate for filling out some survey or something online so I could buy it for half price). It was compared to the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I adore, so I was curious whether it would live up to the hype. And I’m happy to say that it does. The universe is interesting, and the characters are compelling. One thing I like a lot is that Lee and Miller don’t explicitly explain the universe. They’ve clearly planned it out and its details, but instead of telling us what’s going on, they show us through the interaction of the characters and offhand remarks. It’s a lesson many authors need to learn. I’m definitely going to buy the rest of the books in the series when I get the chance.

The Dragonlance novels, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Monday, July 28th, 2003

One of the used bookstores near me has a couple carts outside where they put $1 books. One buck. There’s pretty much no book that’s not worth a buck. So every time I walk by there, and scan the cart to see if there’s anything that catches my eye. One day there was. The first six Dragonlance novels, the Chronicles trilogy and the Legends trilogy. For those of you who weren’t nerds in the eighties, the Dragonlance books were basically a straight-up extension of Dungeons and Dragons into novel-writing. The novels play out as a role-playing adventure and, in fact, are based in large part on the role-playing games of the authors. So you’ve got your group of adventurers (a half-elf, a kender (aka halfling) thief, a mage and fighter set of twin brothers, a cleric) at a local inn, and a wacky event happens – in this case, a barbarian man and woman get arrested. Off you go on your adventure!

But Weis and Hickman do a good job of developing characters that we care about, and of developing the world to make it interesting. So interesting, in fact, that a whole slew of other novels have been based in the same world. Anyway, so when I saw these books for a buck at that store, I had to buy them as a remnant of my childhood. I didn’t even mean to read them particularly. But I was bored last week, and picked up the first one, and was drawn right back in, and ended up re-reading all six. Good solid fun.

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