Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Book Review - A Life for the Stars

book cover for A Life for the StarsChris stood on the outskirts of Scranton, PA, hoping to watch it take off to join the multitude of cities that had left Earth for the stars (natural resource depletion being the #1 driving force for said exodus), but an impressment gang snagged him and brought him aboard, forcing him to leave his family behind. Going into space was something that he dreamed of, but this wasn't how he envisioned it. Now he needs to prove himself useful or else be forced to shovel slag for the rest of his days.

This is one of those coming of age stories for young men that were written in the 50s and 60s. The common lesson being: A good education and a solid moral compass is all you need to make yourself a valuable member of society. Yes, Chris has a couple of adventures, too, which showcase his bravery to save others even when he lacks the self-confidence to do so. It was a fun read, but the real exciting action took place off-screen as it wouldn't be prudent for a teenager to get involved in combat situations.

Another complaint: It was too short! I felt like Blish was just getting started with Chris's story.

While A Life for the Stars is the second book in the series, it was the last to be written. It's set about 1,100 years after the events that took place in They Shall Have stars. The reader is filled in about what they missed over that span through Chris's schooling: fact dumping directly into the student's brain via a VR helmet. It's interesting to note that, in this series, the decline of Western Civilization came as it began to mimic the Soviet Union (repression, not economics). Today, some of us worry about a similar decline coming in the West as certain leaders have begun to mimic authoritarian Russia. Hopefully, we meet a better fate.

3.5 stars


Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Book Review - They Shall Have Stars

book cover for They Shall Have Stars2018 AD. The time of the Cold Peace, worse even than the Cold War. The bureaucratic regimes that rule from Washington and Moscow are indistinguishable in their passion for total repression. But in the West, a few dedicated individuals still struggle to find a way out of the trap of human history. Behind the screen of official research their desperate project is nearing completion...

To be honest, I thought the iconic Boston album cover was inspired by the Cities in Flight series, of which They Shall Have Stars is the first in the series. But I can find no evidence of that.

For old science fiction, this one had some elements to it that were surprisingly not dated. There were female characters—one major, one minor—that held technical jobs. Both were described as being rather plain instead of being made to uphold the era's standard of beauty. One woman's Latin name was just that, a name, as "such once-valid tickets no longer meant anything among the West's uniformly mixed-race population." Blish was apparently downright progressive for his time.

While paper is still a thing, robots can be operated remotely via VR gear. "Believer" terrorists spray gasses at people to induce feelings of euphoria or shame. Fireworks can be designed to bring sparkling messages to the sky.

Published in 1956, Blish was living in an America deep in the Cold War and infected by McCarthyism. So he took that fear and paranoia and ran with it. Domestic spying is rampant, and everyone, including Congressmen, has to watch what they say and do lest they be tossed in prison. But there's one senator that's determined to restore freedom to his fellow Americans.

But Big Science is still a thing. There's a "bridge to nowhere" down in the depths of Jupiter being used for scientific study and experiments. Remote workers on Jupiter's moons use VR to control robots on the bridge to affect repairs in the gas giant's tumultuous atmosphere. The experience can be off-putting and tends to stress out the workers.

And some astronaut has retrieved soil samples for a pharmaceutical company in hopes of discovering something useful to aid mankind. He's miffed that no one at the company is dropping everything to attend to him. While waiting he gets suspicious that there's something going on at the company. Impatient with waiting, he gets downright mean with a receptionist, and it takes a while for him to stop being an ass.

These three plotlines take nearly the entire length of this short novel (novella by today's standards) to bear fruit. I couldn't figure out where any of them were leading or how they were connected until the big reveal. The astronaut's work with the pharmaceutical company offered some clues, but the disgruntled bridge worker's story was just so much angst. If the individual storylines did more, then I would've liked it more.

3 stars


Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Book Review - The Integral Trees

book cover for the Integral TreesLarry Niven is most well known for his Ringworld series. Therein, he established his hard sci-fi credentials with his elaborate world-building, an artificially constructed ring around a star providing enough livable surface area equivalent to thousands of Earths. And true to form, this book's strength is its world-building. It posits a star system composed of a G-class star in orbit around a neutron star. Closer in, the neutron star has a doughnut-shaped ring of gas fed by a gas giant, whose atmosphere is slowly being stripped by said neutron star. Life exists here in the form of kilometers-long trees, shaped like integrals (you know, the kind from Calculus), inhabited by alien birds and insects. Free floating ponds (giant spheres of water) occasionally crash into the trees, providing life sustaining water.

An exploration vessel from Earth happened upon this system. The entire crew of the ship disembarked, telling the ship's AI that they wanted a close-up look. But they never returned, choosing to settle there instead rather than live under the oppressive Terran government, simply referred to as "the State." The story picks up 500 years later. The AI is annoyed but still has some measure of patience.

The descendants of these mutineers have split into tribes and live on separate trees or opposite ends of the same tree. They've adapted to these new low gravity conditions while technology has almost all but reverted to primitive means. And so does the culture! Back to patriarchy! Oh yay!

Niven's early work is guilty—as many sci-fi authors of his generation are—of being stuck with outdated attitudes about women. This early 80s story shows a modicum of progress, but still clings to the past. In one tribe, there's a group of women warriors who patrol and hunt, but it's because the other option is to just cook and make babies. One character joins this group because she was tired of being groped all the time. She wants to find some kind of middle ground, but can't find it in her tribe. Others in this group are hinted at being lesbians, and there's one man who's been granted the "courtesy" of joining as he's gay. In other tribes, women have multiple roles, and in one, a woman is a scientist-apprentice. But lest you think this tribe is progressive, they take slaves from other tribes. The men are forced into labor while the women do the cooking and laundry while occasionally serving as "comfort women."

Niven flits about with which character runs the narrative, so we get multiple POVs within the same chapter. Just as we get to know a character, the POV switches and that's that. We start with the AI, then Gavving, the teenager coming into manhood, and then he-man Clave takes over with his twin girlfriends (eyeroll). The character of Merrill was born without legs, but we never get her POV of things.

It was an entertaining read for the first 70 pages, but after that, the writing felt amateurish. It was like Niven put most of his effort into the world-building and the start of the story, but didn't have anything left to continue. With his editor complaining about a deadline (I have no idea. I'm just making this part up.), he had an event hijack the story, forcing the characters into a slave rescue plot.

While this book is listed as being in the same series as A World Out of Time, there's no connection to it other than a reference to the nefarious State.

3 stars


Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Book Review: The Persistence of Vision

book cover for the Persistence of VisionThis is a collection of short stories John Varley wrote in the 70s. Most of them take place in the same universe—the Eight Worlds universe—as his novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline. So those stories make use of memory recordings, cloning, commonplace sex changes, nullfields, AI, and humanity's exile from Earth.

Stories that aren't part of Eight Worlds universe are marked with an *.

"The Phantom of Kansas" - A woman who composes meteorological symphonies can't recall how she crafted her most successful work because she keeps getting murdered. Told not as horror or thriller, but more as a puzzle to be solved. Begs the question: Is sex with your clone considered masturbation?

"Air Raid" * - Someone hijacked the plane! Terrorists? Nope, time travelers. This story became the kernel for what would become Varley's novel, Millennium.

"Retrograde Summer" - While swimming on mercury on Mercury, a young man learns about his family's past. It was ok. I didn't care for the details revealed about families in the Eight Worlds series. While I'm not privy to the details of Varley's divorce from his wife, I suspect that this story might've been his way of processing it.

"The Black Hole Passes" - Unrequited love between a self-absorbed, lonely, whiny guy and a tech-savvy woman that goes on for too long. Not sure why she bothers with him. I guess she's bored listening in on the signals coming from 70 Ophiuchi. And then the black hole comes along to make the story interesting.

"In the Hall of the Martian Kings" * - A group of astronauts are marooned on Mars. The outcome is very different from The Martian. One of two stories in this collection where Varley explores what sort of society arises when free of the constraints imposed by our contemporary civilization.

"In the Bowl" - Rock hunting on Venus. Would've been better—believable—if the character of Ember was, say, five to ten years older. I have a difficult time believing that an eleven-year-old can have the necessary acumen to be a doctor.

"Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" - Symbs—human - plant symbiotes that like to float around in space around Saturn—apparently make the best music composers, but need the help of a music producer to get the songs out of their heads. Maybe sex will help.

"Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" - A child's prank leads to protagonist's mind getting trapped inside a computer. Apart from that, it bears no resemblance to the PBS TV movie version that starred Raul Julia.

"The Persistence of Vision" * - In a collapsing America, a drifter wanders into a commune for the deaf-blind. At times, it takes on the tone of an anthropologist who, as he learns more about the society, wants to become accepted as one of the tribe.

There are three stories in this collection where I wish Varley had aged his female characters five to ten years. I don't get Varley's Lolita-esque flirtations with his characters. I know the sexual revolution hit sci-fi authors hard in the 70s, but this seems creepy at best.

The best stories in the bunch are the ones that don't take place in the Eight Worlds universe: "Air Raid," "In the Hall of the Martian Kings," and "The Persistence of Vision." Each of these stories demonstrate how well Varley can craft an interesting story, build a world on a limited word count budget, and solid characters. The Eight Worlds stories all annoyed me in some fashion, leaving me to shake my head. And I couldn't help but put my editor's hat on and note how each story could be better.

Recommended for Varley completists or those with a Jared Diamond level of cultural objectivity.

2.5 stars.


Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Book Review - Sailing Bright Eternity

book cover for Sailing Bright EternityIf you made it this far into the series, congratulations. Whether or not you'll like how it ends is a bit of a coin toss.

We learn that the old man at the end of Furious Gulf is none other than Nigel Walmsley. Someone how the jerk protagonist from the first two books managed to survive some 30,000+ years (time dilation and really advanced technology helped) and is now present to help Toby escape the Mechanicals that have been pursuing him. So the first solid chunk of the book is a flashback of Nigel's life since arriving here at the Galactic Center. Amazingly enough, the man changed! He's gone from being a jerk to a curmudgeon. Yes, that's an improvement. He's been humbled by marriage and parenthood, not to mention the discoveries made at the Galactic Center and how humanity fits into the galactic pecking order. But loss probably shaped him the most. This Nigel I liked, but I couldn't help but feel that the guy is a stand-in for Benford himself.

But the Mechanicals get the upper hand, errr appendage, and Toby is off on his own, wandering through those volatile estys again, trying to find his father or, at least, other Bishops. At one point, the whole thing transforms into the sci-fi adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the space-time-river equivalent of the Mississippi. I really wondered where Benford was going with this. It had its moments but it seemed like a distraction. Ultimately, this section comes to an abrupt end, and Toby is reunited with Killeen.

There's a final showdown with the Mantis, which was needed as the thing was responsible for so much suffering. The method of resolution was unexpected, but fitting. Afterwards, there's a bit of a long epilogue as we see glimpses of our main characters' lives. I found it to be a bit sad. There is no "happily ever after," but there is an after. And the takeaway borrows thematically from Shakespeare:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
Benford could be considered guilty of meandering around with metaphysical speculation about higher lifeforms, but I can forgive him for that. We humans have this arrogance that the world—you could argue the universe—revolves around us. We are blissfully ignorant of older and far more advanced lifeforms in the universe, and our narcissism boasts that they don't exist because we don't have proof of them having visited us, as if we were so special that we merited being fawned over. It's a conceit that Benford doesn't ascribe to.

3.75 stars


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Book Review: Lines of Deception

book cover for Lines of DeceptionWest Germany, 1949. Former actor Max Kaspar suffered greatly in the Second World War. Now he owns a nightclub in Munich—and occasionally lends a hand to the newly formed CIA. Meanwhile, his brother Harry has ventured beyond the Iron Curtain to rescue an American scientist. When Harry is also taken captive, Max resolves to locate his brother at all costs. The last thing he expects is for Harry to go rogue.

Max's treacherous quest takes him to Vienna and Prague to Soviet East Germany and Communist Poland. Along the way, dangerous operators from Harry's past join the pursuit: his former lover Katarina, who's working for the Israelis, and former Nazi Hartmut Dietz, now an agent of East German intelligence. But can anyone be trusted? Even the American scientist Stanley Samaras may not be the hero Harry had believed him to be...

In the fourth novel of the Kaspar Brothers series, Steve Anderson cranks up the dramatic tension. The story is set in a postwar Europe transitioning to the Cold War. The Soviets have begun to flex their muscles in Europe, and the Americans are trying to hold them off while the U.K. and France are busy mending their wounds. Weary of war, all sides have resorted to brinkmanship to see who takes the leadership role for the second half of the twentieth century.

Into this setting, we reunite with Max, who we first met in The Losing Role, where he was an operative in Operation Greif during the Battle of the Bulge. Max spent most of that novel running scared, fearing for his life. He wasn't a hardened soldier or zealous SS officer. He was just a down an out German actor conscripted into service.

But since the war, he's spent the time trying to forget it, except when he's called upon to do the right thing (as in Lost Kin) because the factions may have changed, but there are still evil men in the world bullying the weak and downtrodden. And it makes him angry. When he's visited by an odd, little man while working at his nightclub that anger resurfaces. The man claims that Max's brother Harry is being held for ransom, which Max must deliver. Max is furiously protective of his brother and can barely restrain himself from taking it out on the messenger. Later, when Max encounters the man responsible for the death of a dear friend, he so desperately wants the man to suffer, but as the man is necessary to complete the mission, he has to tamp down that anger.

As suggested in the book blurb, no one is completely forthright with Max. Whether that's to protect him or deceive him is dependent on the person in question. It leads to a constant string of surprises for Max (and the reader), forcing him to react quickly or change plans in order to find his brother and get home safely. He reacts differently to these deceptions. They become a way for him to work through his anger, on some level accepting what he cannot change, which leaves him exhausted.

Lines of Deception is another solid entry in the Kaspar Brothers series. The setting is thoroughly researched with Anderson dragging in historical events to craft a credible and entertaining story. Strong characterization leads the reader into believing what the characters are telling Max, but when their deceptions are revealed, it doesn't strike one as being out of character. One realizes that Anderson left clues all along the way. Ultimately, it enables Anderson to turn a spy thriller into catharsis for his protagonist.

4 stars


Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Book Review: Furious Gulf

book cover for Furious GulfTrying to escape the relentless mechs, the last humans from the planet Snowglade take their ancient starship on a dangerous course straight into the Eater, the black hole at the galactic center. Hungry and desperate, the refugees begin to question the leadership of Captain Killeen, who believes the center holds their one hope of survival. Meanwhile, Killeen's son Toby struggles with the microchips that were implanted in his spine—a technology that now threatens his sanity. Caught between their genocidal pursuers and peril in the galactic center, Killeen and Toby bring humanity to its final destiny.

So this chapter in the Galactic Center saga is told from Toby's POV. Life isn't easy for the son of a captain. He wants to talk son-to-father, but too often it's in front of the crew, so it winds up sounding like an out-of-line ensign sowing discord. And when it seems like they're talking father-to-son, Killeen reverts back to captain-to-crew. The reason for that is Toby is carrying around the personality of his father's dead girlfriend, Shibo, on a chip mounted into his internal computer system. Killeen claims that it's because she was an important member of the crew with valuable skills, but Toby thinks Dad just can't let go. They're both right.

In the hierarchy of dead people stored on computer chips, personalities are at the top. They take up a lot of memory and, given enough time, can override their host. And that's what Shibo starts to do.

After a hellish trip through the high energy physics equivalent of Scylla and Charibdis, the Argo arrives at an odd oasis in some kind of balanced region within the maelstrom, a bit like a Lagrange Point but with space-time at work instead of gravity. Interacting with the people there is odd, and there is much confusion between the two parties with the locals using home field to their advantage rather than trying to help their distant cousins.

In the midst of negotiations, Toby has an outburst which complicates matters. Killeen tosses him into the brig. When Toby gets word of what transpired in his absence, he feels like he was setup. Toby runs away with Quath, who acts as a guard/guide. They sneak behind the proverbial curtain only to fall into what I think were pocket universes of space and time. Things get a bit strange as Benford plays around with physics at a level I can't pretend to understand. Toby finds himself on his own, struggling to deal with Shibo's needy disembodied personality, the weirdness of the landscape he finds himself in, coming of age as an adult, and being pursued by malevolent entities.

At my age, I'm not really into coming of age stories, but when Benford doesn't make the story all about Toby, it holds up. The exploration of around the galactic center made for some entertaining reading. I wouldn't have minded more of that. But I struggled with the physics involved getting near the core and Toby's explorations at the oasis. The conflicts are kind of resolved, but not really, and the ending is something of a cliffhanger. Still, if you've made it this far into the series, you have to go all the way.

3.75 stars