Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Practice Effect

book cover for The Practice EffectPhysicist Dennis Nuel is the first human to probe the strange realms called anomaly worlds: alternate universes where the laws of science are unpredictably changed. But the world Dennis discovers seems almost like our own—with one perplexing difference. To his astonishment, he’s hailed as a wizard, meets a beautiful woman with strange powers, and finds himself fighting a mysterious warlord as he struggles to solve the riddle of this baffling world.

While this novel is couched as sci-fi, it reads like fantasy. Sure, the beginning of the novel takes place in a near future Earth, and there's the zievatron thingee that allows Nuel to travel to another world, but it ends there. The rest of the novel is spent in a medieval world, and Nuel must put his wits to use inventing things to gain favor and the upper hand in his struggles with the denizens of this world. There's a princess who needs rescuing, castles and dungeons, and superstitious peasants.

So what is "the practice effect?" Well, you know how you have to practice playing the clarinet to learn a song or get on the ice and skate to improve your hockey skills (maybe not the best examples, but you should get my point)? On this world, that's how you make objects better. The more you use them as they're intended, the better they get. Got a pair of ripped jeans? Wear them a lot and let them practice being jeans and those rips will go away. Got a crude stone axe? Go chop some wood with it, and it'll slowly sharpen on its own accord.

If you remember physics class, you'll know which law has been turned on its head to make worn out things magically like new. Just another element to bolster the case for this being a fantasy novel.

90+% of the story is told from Nuel's POV. Fortunately that 10% exists as it affords the reader a chance to learn that the villainous Baron and Princess Linnora aren't two-dimensional stock characters. The Baron is greedy and lusts for power, but he does have a few principles. It was especially nice to see that, while the princess was in need of rescuing, she carried her own weight as the novel wore on.

None of this is said to infer that this is a bad book. It's definitely not. I enjoyed it. The pacing is good, and the story is entertaining. The characters are fine, though they could've used a little more depth. They're likable, you still root for them to succeed. The story could've devolved into one of those stereotypical square-jawed male heroic fantasy tropes that were so popular decades ago, but it didn't. Not Brin's best work, but still fun.

3 stars

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DED

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Review: Mission of Gravity

Book cover for Mission of Gravity2.5 stars.

Clement's world building is the highlight of this sci-fi classic from 1954. Mesklin is a large, disc-shaped world that spins so fast that days are only 18 minutes long. Gravity runs from 3 G at the equator to 700 G at the poles. It is a world of liquid methane seas and ammonia snow. The humans have special environmental suits to protect them from the hostile atmosphere and tanks to get around, provided they stay close to the equator. And yet there's sentient life: 15 inch-long centipede-like beings who are in the early stages of civilization.

And that's the high point of this book.

Characterization is flat. Even the aliens show very little depth, behaving very much like their human counterparts. Interactions between Barlennan, the local Meskinite captain, and Lackland, his human contact, are rather easy. Lackland taught Barlennan English (before the story begins) and except for the occasional idiom or scientific concept, there is little lost in translation. The most interesting part is that the humans and Barlennan's trade group work together to solve problems rather than trying to kill one another.

Science fiction doesn't really age well. Unforeseen technological advances (Computers!) and cultural progression trip up most stories. While the technological hiccups here are few and easy enough to skip over (slide rule, film projector reel), and there isn't any cultural baggage, the writing style is stuck in the time period from when it was written. It's stale. Conversations are all business. The prose is stark, all too objective. It's the Asteroids video game equivalent of literature, with far fewer explosions.

The story is a very linear progression from one encounter to another as the Mesklinites journey from the equator, where they encountered to the south pole of their world to retrieve very expensive equipment from an incapacitated human rocket. It's as much a mission of exploration for the north pole dwelling Barlennan as it is for the visiting humans (though they're keeping an eye on the action via a radio). Unfortunately, we drown in minutiae, both travelogue and mathematical. At times, it seems as if Clement has written this story for boys yearning for careers in science. "Look lads, you can have all sorts of adventures if you study hard!"

It isn't bad, but it isn't terribly exciting either.

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DED

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Aftermath

book cover for AftermathAs the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance—now a fledgling New Republic—presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial Star Destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.

Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world—war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’s urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is—or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.

Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving Imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit—to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies—her technical-genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector—who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.


I wasn't planning on reading this one. After reading reviews by those whom I follow, it didn't strike me as a must-read. It's not an angry fan boy thing. Except for two volumes of the Knights of the Old Republic graphic novels, I haven't read any of the pre-Disney Star Wars novels either. But then I received this book for Christmas and so I had to read it.

I didn't like the writing at the beginning of the book. It was all short, choppy sentences, a good many of them incomplete. It was more like someone blocking a scene in the script to a movie. Fortunately, that style was abandoned and a true narrative took over. This is my first Wendig novel, so I have no idea if he does that sort of thing. Maybe he felt the need to set the scene that way, give the feel of a watching a movie. I liked his writing the rest of the way. Action scenes were choreographed well and his descriptions of the setting made it easy for me to visualize the scenes.

Other reviewers have pointed out how difficult it was to connect with characters that have never made it into film. I get that, but that wasn't much of a problem for me. Wendig's characters were well-developed. I particularly liked Jas the bounty hunter and Sinjir the ex-Imperial loyalty officer. I couldn't stand Norra's teen-aged son Temmin because Wendig nailed it (being a parent of one and a soon-to-be one I can attest to it), so props to you, sir! I think that Wendig had more freedom to develop these new characters than the familiar faces—I found Wedge Antilles to be sorely lacking, but Admiral Ackbar was ok, albeit limited.

Every few chapters there are "interludes." These short tales offered a glimpse into the lives of the everyday people on several worlds and how they dealt with the aftermath of the fall of the Empire. To be honest, I enjoyed these more than the story itself.

Which brings me to the reason why I didn't really love this book: the perceived significance of the events portrayed here. There's more drama packed into the lives of the Interlude characters than the main story. Sure it's entertaining, but I never got the impression that the stakes were high. The Epilogue may have teased something, but it was left too vague to ascertain what was actually teased. If Aftermath were a collection of Interlude short stories, I think I would've enjoyed it more.

All in all, this is still a fine book by an author forced to write with one hand tied behind his back. Three and a half stars.

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DED

Monday, March 5, 2018

First Milestone in a While

Murphy saying hello to a frogEvery winter for the last several years, I've made it my resolve to take advantage of being cooped up indoors and write. If you've paid any attention to me whatsoever, you know that I haven't been successful at all at seeing that resolution come to fruition. Sometimes the reasons are good: I have a freelance job editing or coding and I'm actually earning money. Sometimes the reasons aren't so good.

I'll confess here and now: I have seasonal affective disorder. I've had it at least as far back as my teens. It varies in intensity over spans of weeks and from one year to the next. Most years, it just wears on me, dragging on me like I'm pulling a sled full of firewood uphill in the snow. But occasionally, it pulls me down into a pit of despair. Over the last few years, I've had back-to-back bad winters and life came to a grinding halt. Fortunately, I have a loving wife and family to help me get through it.

I don't bring this up because I'm seeking pity. I don't like talking about it in general. When I grew up, admitting that you had a problem like this was a sign of weakness (I can only imagine what it's like for veterans with PTSD), and that hasn't left me, though society seems to be getting better about it. The reason why I'm bringing it up at all is that I feel like I owe an explanation to anyone and everyone who has paid any sort of attention to me as a writer. I feel like I've let them down. I want them to know that I'm not lazy or apathetic; I self-sabotage. I make up reasons not to write, or I'm such a zombie that before I know it, the day is gone. And this goes on every year.

But this winter I've managed to keep plugging away. I still throw up roadblocks to progress, but I've been able to make my way through the barricades more often than not. So I'm happy to announce that I've reached the 30,000-word milestone with the manuscript. To me, that could very well be halfway. Armistice Day wound up at 66,000 words over 250 pages, so there's that. For me, it's a psychological milestone, and I felt like sharing. It gives me a measure of hope that I'll actually keep my word about finishing the book this year.

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DED

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Review: Equoid

Book cover for EquoidIf this story had come out ten years earlier, I would never have let my daughter play with those MyLittlePony™ things. But she grew to love giraffes instead of horses or unicorns, so I suppose that worry would've been for naught anyway. At least until Stross pens something horrific about those ungainly ungulates.

If you're new to the Laundry Files, this series is a bit of James Bond battles Lovecraftian beasties and the occult with a healthy dose of The Office thrown in. But our intrepid hero (Bob Howard) resembles John Oliver more than Daniel Craig. In Equoid, Bob is sent to investigate reports of an equoid infestation (unicorns) at a farm in southern England.

Stross has managed to take the wholesome creature of little girl fantasies (here's why) and, after running it through a Lovecraftian filter, turned it into a horrific monstrosity replete with squishy, icky things and pubescent nightmares (If I had read this at 14...[shudder]). It's so bad that, in all seriousness, some readers will be genuinely disturbed by the imagery. But it all fits. If you understand Lovecraft's universe and the biology of anglerfish well enough, you'll recognize that none of the horror is gratuitous.

Stross also offers a glimpse into what drove the first of several nervous breakdowns that HPL suffered during his teens. He does so by offering snippets of a letter "written" by HPL, which the Laundry has on file. I think Stross did a great job mimicking HPL's style for the letter.

If you've read any of the books in the Laundry Files series, you'll be familiar with the writing style and story structure. It's a great addition to the series, and I highly recommend it to all those who enjoy it.

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DED

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: Caliban's War

We are not alone.

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .


Caliban's War is a breakneck science fiction adventure following the critically acclaimed Leviathan Wakes.

I really enjoyed this book, even more so than Leviathan Wakes, and that was great. This time around, I think the book is better than the TV show (too much chopped out so far), though there's still the second half of this book that season three of the TV show needs to cover.

For POV, Holden's still here, but gone is Miller's noir. In its place is Martian Marine Sgt Bobbie Draper, the political machinations of UN Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, and the forlorn quest of Prax, a Ganymede biologist. It's a diverse cast with wildly different perspectives and personalities.

Prax's daughter was kidnapped just before the war started on Ganymede, so he spends all of his waking hours searching for her. He's wasting away, praying that she's still alive, but expecting the worst. By the time Holden and the others encounter him, he's so far gone that he's barely capable of speech.

Chrisjen is a foulmouthed bureaucrat. She cusses like a sailor, possibly worse. When asked why her language is so "colorful", she replies that it's to prevent others from thinking she's soft. Why would anyone think that of her? It's not because she's happily married and a grandmother. It's because she "won't kill children." It's a brutal insight into the political landscape of The Expanse. It's all a game, but she can't give it up because she doesn't trust the other players. Her repartee with Holden was excellent. I hope it holds up on the TV show. If it doesn't, it won't be because Shohreh Aghdashloo didn't hold up her end. Her portrayal of Chrisjen is spot on.

Bobbie's coping with PTSD after her squad was obliterated by the aforementioned "monstrous supersoldier" (I don't want to spoil it, but the title is a clue.). She wants answers; she wants revenge. IIRC, she's two meters tall and intimidates anyone who has a clue. And that's before she puts on battle armor. After the Martian government lets her down, she goes to work for Chrisjen, because she's the one person whose objectives are in line with her own. It's not without bumps along the way though. Bobbie is a stranger in a strange land and must confront her perceptions about Terrans (Mars seems a bit like Sparta).

So you have Bobbie and Chrisjen hunting down the bastards that made the supersoldiers while Prax and Holden's gang are searching for Prax's daughter. The plot lines converge, and all hell breaks loose. It's all so epic that I couldn't help but love it. I had too much fun reading this, which isn't an easy things for me to say about a book that's spitting distance from 600 pages. I can't wait to see season three and read Abaddon's Gate.

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DED

Friday, December 22, 2017

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1

book cover for Transmetropolitan Volume 1After years of self-imposed exile from a civilization rife with degradation and indecency, cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem is forced to return to a job that he hates and a city that he loathes. Working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper The Word, Spider attacks the injustices of his surreal 23rd Century surroundings. Combining black humor, life-threatening situations, and moral ambiguity, this book is the first look into the mind of an outlaw journalist and the world he seeks to destroy.

Spider Jerusalem is the cyberpunk homage to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can see it in his appearance, demeanor, personality, and politics. And he's always smoking. Like HST, he savagely attacks what he perceives as a corrupt system filled with politicians, aristocrats, and cult leaders on the take with the use of his trusty computer. He's an anti-hero sticking it to—and sometimes kicking—the man. But he's also flawed. In Spider's case, it's manifold: booze and drugs, loyal to no one but himself, sloth, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur that manifest in the form of a self-righteous arbiter of morality attacking the powerful. He's judge, jury, and punisher (he doesn't execute anyone) who takes too much delight in carrying out his sentences.

Forced out of retirement due to bankruptcy and a publishing contract, Spider returns to the city he loves and loathes. He feeds off that loathing to craft his column for one of the local newspapers. His editor rewards Spider with a generous stipend and improved lodging (and later an assistant), which feeds Spider's ego and gives him all the justification he needs to continue his crusade.

Volume 1 collects the first six issues. The first three issues see Spider's return to the city from his mountain retreat. We learn about this world of his as he gets re-acquainted with it, noting what has changed, what hasn't. Along the way we discover that there are transients, humans who are re-writing their DNA to become aliens. Spider decides to make their story the subject of his first column.

The next three issues are one-offs where Spider meets his assistant (Channon, who deserves hazard pay for putting up with Spider's eccentricities) and runs into the President in a public bathroom, spends an afternoon watching TV (watch out for the ad bombs!), and visits a religious cult convention.

Darick Robertson's artwork is spot on. He perfectly captures the commercial chaos of the city, filled with the circus sideshow of humanity with all of its quirks, cultures, fashions and fetishes. I love scrutinizing the wide shot panels, combing through the debris of this world to catch a glimpse of the detritus and details that offer clues into what this world is all about: Ebola Cola, Necro Porn and Playgray magazines, Sin Gin, Dead Boyz cigarettes.

On a personal note, I just finished this volume before attending a corporate Christmas party. When I wasn't engaged in polite conversations with people who would soon forget I existed, Spider Jerusalem's commentary was there, running through my head with acerbic opinions about the occasion and its attendees. Having a character stick with you like that is a good sign that the author did his homework.

Given the current political climate, Transmetropolitan seems more relevant now than when it debuted 20 years ago. One major difference: the caricatures of people in the comic have now come to life.

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DED