Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Review: Across the Sea of Suns

book cover for Across the Sea of SunsGalactic Center Saga Book #2.

First, a bit of backstory. I actually started this series, not knowing it was a series, back in the 80s. I'd picked up this book through a sci-fi book club as a teen. Upon reading it, I realized that it wasn't a standalone but a sequel. However, there was enough backstory that it didn't matter. But then the ending was left wide open, so I knew that it was, in fact, a series. I was not amused and subsequently forgot about the series for decades. A couple of years ago I stumbled across the first book of the series at a library book sale and decided that I would read the series from start to finish. Review of the first book, In the Ocean of Night, can be found here.

Decades have passed since the events that transpired in the first book. The alien wreck on the Moon has been reverse engineered to provide humanity with interstellar flight capability (roughly 0.9c). Earlier, a radio signal had been detected from a world (Isis) orbiting Lalande 21185 (Ra). A hollowed out asteroid, dubbed Lancer, has been fitted the new technology from the alien wreck (basically a Bussard Ramjet). Nigel Walmsley, our "hero" from the first book, and his girlfriend, Nikka, have been selected to be on the mission to investigate the source of the radio signal.

Meanwhile on Earth, alien ships have arrived and landed in the oceans, releasing two alien lifeforms, Swarmers and Skimmers. The Swarmers, roughly the size of a great white shark and equipped with sticky proboscises attached to their bellies, are attacking shipping worldwide and, for some reason that I can't fathom, has managed to cripple commerce and stymied the world's navies through headbutts and sticky bio-rope. It's a premise that defies belief. Even if one continues the assumption in the first book that the global economy never recovered from the malaise of the 1970s, nearly a century has passed in the book's timeline (and this book was written during Reagan's first term). For a species to be able to reverse engineer an alien spacecraft and achieve interstellar flight to not be able to figure out a solution to its global energy crisis and provide for national defense against space sharks is just plain nonsense.

Anyway, back to the plot. Warren is a survivor from one of these attacks. After floating on a makeshift raft for weeks, he manages to make a discovery about the Skimmers that offers some clues about the invaders. Warren is a tough guy to like. While I applauded his exceptional resourcefulness (if more people were like him...sorry, going off topic again), he could be a bit of a jerk. It took me a while before I could root for him to succeed.

Back in space, Nigel and Nikka struggle with the most petty onboard ship politics and relationships (I hope this is the last of Benford's books with three-person relationships. It smacks of wish fulfillment.). Much is learned about the aliens on Isis, but mysteries remain. Nigel argues that based on their discoveries here, the Moon, and his encounters with alien craft back home, that there is an malevolent alien intelligence afoot. But since the guy's an arrogant jerk, people don't want to believe him. Lancer is run as a democratic socialist state with one elected leader, Ted, who calls the shots with input from section chiefs. Ted thinks that Nigel wants to run things and blocks him whenever he can justify it. Benford is clearly no fan of this command structure, writing:
It took a week to reach a shipwide consensus, then another to plan the raid.
Could you ever imagine that happening in Star Trek?

There's even more wrong with this book. For instance, whenever Nigel listens in to the shipwide communications channel, we get all of the voices coming at once without any real designation of who's talking. It's like being at a party and attempting to listen to every conversation at once with everyone talking over one another. While Nigel is supposed to be able to follow it because his mind was "touched by an alien" in the first book, we poor readers are stuck with pages of babble, presented in italics without punctuation or speaker identification. And for a group of people that are supposed to be among the best and brightest, they come across as so much rabble, thumping their chests in proud ignorance.

Benford also gives an inordinate amount of time to on-demand sex changes. I wonder what transgender folks think of his approach. Is he flippant for making it something done on a whim, or is he progressive for this society's attitude that it's not a big deal. Both Nigel and Warren have to deal with others who have gone through the change. In neither case does it advance the plot, but rather it serves to further alienate the men from their fellow humans. And neither transgendered person comes across better for it, merely petty. I think I have my answer.

The original ending to the book was the worst sort of cliffhanger. There was no sense of direction and far too much unresolved. Ten pages were added to the paperback edition (which I somehow seem to have acquired). There was enough there to resolve events that transpired in this book and offer a way forward for the series. It changed the tone of the story. Even Nigel managed to lead by example, rather than just being a curmudgeon.

So what's good here? Well, there are kernels of good plots here with the protagonists attempting to figure out who is responsible for the turmoil they're seeing. The world building is great, both scientifically plausible (ignoring the space sharks) and interesting. And the malevolent alien intelligence that takes shape promises to be a worthy villain for the series. Benford is a physicist, having had his Ph.D fifteen years before writing this book, and continued working in the field up until 2006.

2.5 stars.


Friday, May 31, 2019

Book Review: Saga - Volume 7

book cover for Saga Volume 7While en route to reunite Sir Robot IV (no longer a prince) with his son, the treeship has run out of fuel and makes an emergency stop on the war torn world of Phang. In previous issues, Phang has always been referred to as a terrible place. Sophie, who was a child when she was sold as a sex slave, was orphaned on Phang. Marko's unit had a rotation there. So it was with some trepidation that the ship touched down, though it was in a ruined city far from the front lines. They soon meet a tribe of simple meerkat-like people who lived among the ruins and spend the next six months taking care of them, making food for all these mouths greatly slows down the refueling process.

Sir Robot IV's emotional struggles return to the forefront. He projects his internal conflict upon Marko and Alana, hating them, yet admiring them on some level. He grows tired of the wait and plans on heading out to scout out a robot embassy for fuel. Isabel volunteers to go first to make sure the way is safe.

Petrichor, who took Klara's spot on the ship, maintains her vigilance. In many ways, she could be Marko's sister. She has all of Marko's mother's initial attitudes towards Marko and Alana yet remains protective of Hazel. It's as if Vaughn hit the reset button on Klara but took away the familial connection.

The Will continues to struggle with the loss of his girlfriend and his sister. Yeah, his story arc is tired as this "woe is me" crap has been going on since Volume 2. As bad as he was in Volume 6, he seems to find a new low. He goes in search of Gwendolyn and Sophie, who are working on a project that can bring the war on Phang to an end once and for all, in hopes that working with them again will help him get out of the gutter. Later, he encounters someone from his past that will hopefully do something to his storyline to make it less pathetic.

With The Will mostly incapacitated, a new freelancer has been hired to track down Alana, Marko, and Hazel. Alas, this person didn't make for a convincing character or villain. Nothing about this character seemed plausible, which is saying a lot considering the creativity employed thus far in this fantasy series. The character seemed more like a means to an end and wasn't properly thought out.

All of the past talk about Phang being such a terrible place was foreshadowing. Actual battle scenes are few, but terrible things happen.

Artwork continues to be excellent. While I really notice it in the color palette, the rendering of many a scene completely captures the emotions and thoughts of characters in events both mundane and charged.

4 stars.


Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: Abaddon's Gate

Book cover for Abaddon's GateFor generations, the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt - was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the
Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

I have to say that I'm glad the TV series only spent half a season on this book and only really dealt with half of the material. I get to the midway point of this one and I'm like, "All the important stuff is done, so what's the next two hundred plus pages going to be about? Really? That's how we're going to spend our time. Ugh."

Pieces of the characters from the book were taken apart from the book and re-combined for the TV show. If you didn't like Ashford in the TV show, he's unbearable in the book. Far less depth to him, too. I didn't like the character of Melba/Clarissa in either the show or the book. Her character's story arc ended differently in the book, but I'm not 100% convinced by it, even after 547 pages. Anna was fine, seemed solid. Bull's character was chopped up into pieces and divvied among the TV show. His scenes would've been too expensive to film in the second half. I didn't mind him either, but didn't feel like he contributed much to the story other than providing another POV.

Overall, I'm calling this one a letdown. I didn't really care for any part of the storyline that didn't include the Ring. Even the Rocinante crew storyline, which was focused on Melba/Clarissa's revenge plot and its aftermath, was more annoying than entertaining. Knock off a couple hundred pages from this book and it improves. Too much filler with Melba/Clarissa's angst-filled storyline and details about the physical effects of sudden braking on the human body. Knock off a couple hundred pages from this book and it improves.

3 stars.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

Book Review: Adulthood Is A Myth

Book cover for Adulthood is a MythI got this book for my daughter this Christmas. I'd checked out a couple of the cartoons and thought that it was a match for her. And, it seemed like I could read it, too, and then we could talk about it. Bonding with my daughter over a book. How cool is that?

It's a cute, quirky book full of daily comics about an introverted young woman's life and all that that entails. It covers the awkwardness of dating and dealing with people, the simple joy of curling up with a good book, the agonizing pain of conforming to social norms, and the mean-spirited whims of the menstrual cycle.

Being a fellow introvert, I could relate to a lot of the feelings Andersen tried to convey and actually chuckled out loud. It didn't matter that the character was easily less than half my age. And I understood the "girl stuff" humor just fine. It didn't matter that my biological hardware is different than hers. I'd recommend it to any dad whose daughter identifies in any way with this book.

My daughter has this book memorized. Last night, I'd give her the set up of one of my particular favorites, and she'd deliver the punchline. Now I'll have to buy the rest of the series. For her, of course. ;)

4 Stars


Friday, April 12, 2019

Book Review: What Does This Button Do?

book cover for What Does This Button do?Bruce Dickinson is best known for his role as the lead singer for Iron Maiden, but fans know that he's accomplished so much more than that. World-class fencer, commercial airline pilot, novelist, radio presenter, scriptwriter, beer brewer are just some of the occupations outside of music that the man has pursued through the years. This memoir explores the passions of a man with an insatiable curiosity.

I wasn't planning on reading this book. Biographies and memoirs really aren't my thing these days. However, a friend of mine who shares my Iron Maiden fandom insisted that I read it, going so far as to mail me his copy. In the end, I'm glad that he did.

This isn't the "aging rock star looks back to cash in with a salacious tell all." Yes, there's bits of Iron Maiden in here, particularly how he came to be in the band, why he left, why he came back. Notes about recording the albums are there, too, but serve more to mark the passage of time. Rather, this is a story about the pursuits of the man over the span of his life (so far).

"Nothing in childhood is ever wasted" is a phrase that's repeated throughout the book. Although his adolescent education may have been ill-suited to him (other than instilling his outsider POV), the curiosity that inspired him as a child was still with him as an adult. While out on his first world tour with Iron Maiden, he realized that if he didn't find something else to do besides party all the time that he'd wind up dead. For his mental and physical health, he'd need to find pursuits outside the band. He would need to apply that childhood curiosity into a lifelong pursuit of learning.

He knew nothing of fencing, but it intrigued him. He trained rigorously until he was good enough to compete. He knew nothing of aviation, but it fascinated him and he kept at it, stealing time away while on tour until he accumulated enough hours in the cockpit to qualify for a pilot's license. Not content with small aircraft, he continued his education, eventually seeing him piloting 737s.

The book's concluding chapter references his recent successful battle against throat cancer. From diagnosis to treatment, few details are spared. While initially terrified, he was determined to beat it, though he acknowledges that the treatment, a mix of radiation and chemo, took a toll on him.

Believe it or not, there's a lot that Dickinson has done that I'm not even touching on here in this review. If you're intrigued by the man, it's definitely worth reading, just don't expect your typical rock star memoir here because you'll be disappointed. It's been said that he's a polymath. This book is testimony to that.

4 stars.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Book Review: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

book cover for The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan HoagSix stories (five short, one novella) of Heinlein's that were published from 1941-59. I don't remember how it came to be in my possession, but it'd been on my nightstand for years. I got tired of looking at, so now seemed like a good time to read it.

My expectations were low, due to the publication dates of the stories. Typically, I've found that sci-fi doesn't age well. But I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality. Only two of the stories really were sci-fi, though they all had speculative elements in them. Magic realism played more of a role in in the others. All of the stories would've made for solid Twilight Zone episodes.

The title track, a novella published in 1942, opens the book. Mr. Hoag can't remember what he does all day, so he hires a husband and wife private eye duo to figure it out. It was a surprisingly good mystery.

A widower recalls his salesman past, traveling the country with his wife in "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" (1957). A bit shmaltzy.

"'—All You Zombies—'" (1959) is probably one of the strangest time travel stories that I've ever read. I can't say anything more without ruining it. Probably the best story in the bunch.

"They" (1941) is a tale of paranoia. Our unnamed protagonist thinks the whole world is a lie, a simulation meant to keep him preoccupied, from discovering some grand malevolent plot. Everyone is either a robot or one of the conspirators. Kinda predictable now, but maybe it wasn't back then.

"Our Fair City" (1948) is a whimsical tale of a reporter investigating corruption in the city's government with the help of his friend's domesticated dust devil.

An architect is looking for the next big thing in home design in "'—And He Built a Crooked House—'." Pretty speculative for its day (1941) as the architect tries to explain what a tesseract is to an investor.

Recommended for Heinlein completists, people who like Twilight Zone style stories, or those who either appreciate or are curious about the early days of speculative fiction.

3 Stars


Monday, March 18, 2019

Book Review: Saga - Volume 6

book cover for volume 6 of SagaA couple of years have passed since Volume 5. Marko and Alana have been searching for Hazel and Klara, not knowing where the surviving members of the Last Revolution cell took them. They finally discover their whereabouts and recognize that they're going to need the help of a frenemy if they're to have any hope of rescuing them.

Hazel and Klara have been in a Landfallian prison for non-combatants. Fortunately for Hazel, the prison has a school and the teacher actually cares about the well being of her students. At this point in the overall story, Hazel doesn't merely narrate the story, she's old enough to interact with the other characters. So we get not only the raw emotion and inquisitiveness of child Hazel, but also the older, seasoned Hazel reflecting back on that time in her life. I thought it was well done.

Meanwhile, the Will is out of the hospital, but one wouldn't say he's cured. Upset by the death of his sister and his ex-girlfriend, he resorts to drug use—a common theme in the Saga series—to cope. It's taken a toll on him both physically and mentally. Since leaving the hospital, he's been tracking down the man who killed his ex-girlfriend. Clearly, his progress is slow as his skills have been dulled by drugs and grief, but he eventually makes a discovery which threatens the lives of innocents.

And the reporters, whom we were introduced to in Volume 3, return to the scene. They haven't forgotten about Alana and Marko. Once the news of a certain character's death from Volume 5 makes it way to them, the investigation is on again.

One point that Vaughan has made in this series is that gender variation doesn't lead to stereotypes, bad or good. The reporters from Volume 3 are a gay couple, but their approach to their career is different. While the photographer is more inclined towards journalism shining a light on injustice, the writer is more egotistic, preferring to chase the big stories that'll grab them fame. There's also a transgendered Wreath woman in the prison who's just as racist towards the Landfallians as the cisgendered folk.

Staples' artwork is just as topnotch as ever. There were so many different settings for the story in this issue, yet each was uniquely rendered. The colors really make the scenes pop. Everything from realistic renditions of kindergarten artwork to intricate detail of a vault full of bureaucratic scrolls to the lush pastels of IV's hideaway world are great.

4.5 stars.