Sunday, February 16, 2020

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4 - The New Scum

book cover for Transmetropolitan volume 4It's the last two weeks before the election. Spider Jerusalem is still coping with Vita's death and disgusted by how her death has been used by Senator Callahan to rise in the polls. He interviews both the senator and the President. The latter being a chance for Robertson to vent at some past politician, but the vitriol seems quite relevant for the current occupier of the White House, though the two men are vastly different in their respective outlooks.

In the other storyline, Channon discovers that Yelena had drunken sex with Spider and won't let it go. Yelena hates herself for doing the deed and Channon for constantly being on her case about it.

It reads very much like an interim chapter in the overall storyline. No big revelations to see. What it does it set the stage for what's to come. Good to read if you're looking for Spider's one-on-one with the candidates.

Bonus issues: "Edgy Winter" and "Next Winters." Both of these stories are standalone and show Spider in full rant. The former shows Spider in a rare moment of regret. The latter provides some background on how the world of Transmetropolitan functions.

3 stars.


Friday, January 17, 2020

Book Review: The Difference Engine

book cover for The Difference Engine1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history—and the future: Sybil Gerard—dishonored woman and daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory—explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant—diplomat and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for...

TL;DR version: Gibson and Sterling combined their skills to craft an exquisitely detailed world, but failed to come up with a story worthy of the setting.

Ugh! What a disappointment! I should've just abandoned this early on. I kept going with it, hoping that somewhere along the way it would improve, but it didn't. I can't believe that these two put all this effort into creating this world—every, and I do mean every, single detail gets some kind of mention even if it's a list of items on a table or how each and every single person is dressed—but forgot to write a cohesive storyline. The world itself requires some suspension of disbelief, but that isn't the problem here. The storytelling is the problem.

The blurb informs us that we have three main characters in this book. But don't assume that their stories are told co-currently or are entwined in such a way as to reach a dramatic climax. Their stories are told one at a time, but they don't flow into one another. In fact, they seem like they could've been three different ideas for how this novel could've been approached. Rather than picking one or finding a way to tie them together, they're just carelessly pasted into the manuscript.

Sybil is up first. He story slowly builds up to a dramatic conflict and then she fades off the stage, with only a fleeting encounter with the McGuffin (the box of punched Engine cards), and we're told that she spends her days from here out in Paris.

Mallory is up next. Early on, he stumbles into the McGuffin after a brief altercation with a thug at the racetrack. Said thug turns out to be Mallory's antagonist and later develops offstage into some kind of Moriarty-type villain. Meanwhile, Mallory puts the McGuffin somewhere safe and we don't hear of it again. We're introduced to Oliphant, whose purpose seems to be to warn Mallory that he's messing with some serious people, but Mallory...I don't know where his head is. He seems to be incredulous all the time that these things are happening. His story climaxes during the "Great Stink," a real eco-disaster. Then Mallory's story is done and we're told how he dies decades hence.

Finally, Oliphant takes control of the narrative. He's investigating something and lets it be known that Mallory is over in China digging up fossils. We kinda learn the fate of the McGuffin and Oliphant is off to Paris to recruit Sybil into taking down a politically dangerous man whom she has a personal vendetta against. And then that's it; Oliphant's story is done. The story ends with a whimper.

The last thirty pages of the book are a collection of narrative chunks of various topics that amount to nothing more than discarded bits of backstory, character development, and storyline. Did they not know how to weave this into the story, or is it filler to bump up the page count?

All-in-all, a complete waste of time, unless you're researching a steampunk setting and need help with the details.

1.5 stars


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book Review: Broken Angels

Book cover for Broken AngelsCynical, quick-on-the-trigger Takeshi Kovacs, the ex-U.N. envoy turned private eye, has changed careers—and bodies—once more... trading sleuthing for soldiering as a warrior-for-hire, and helping a far-flung planet’s government put down a bloody revolution.

But when it comes to taking sides, the only one Kovacs is ever really on is his own. So when a rogue pilot and a sleazy corporate fat cat offer him a lucrative role in a treacherous treasure hunt, he’s only too happy to go AWOL with a band of resurrected soldiers of fortune. All that stands between them and the ancient alien spacecraft they mean to salvage are a massacred city bathed in deadly radiation, unleashed nanotechnology with a million ways to kill, and whatever surprises the highly advanced Martian race may have in store. But armed with his genetically engineered instincts, and his trusty twin Kalashnikovs, Takeshi is ready to take on anything—and let the devil take whoever’s left behind.

While Altered Carbon is a noir inspired mystery, Broken Angels is a treasure quest. Takeshi Kovacs, having had his sentence commuted after his success in the first novel, is now making a living as a mercenary on the war torn world of Sanction IV. His Envoy skills make him a valuable asset, and thus he is suited up in an enhanced sleeve—slang term for body, whether organic or artificial—with all sorts of neurological advances (thought controlled weapon interfaces) and biochemical additives (combat ready focus, situational awareness) that make him more lethal than ever. Despite his propensity for killing, we know from Altered Carbon that he's not a heartless monster. He has a code that he lives by, and it's pretty much what keeps him from falling into the abyss of soulless killing machine. He's no prig; he knows what he's doing. But even in war, there are lines that shouldn't be crossed.

All the carnage has added an extra layer of world weariness to his cynical mindset, so when he's offered a chance to go AWOL for a huge payout, he jumps at the chance. The prize is an ancient Martian spacecraft, floating in a remote location of the solar system, but only accessible through a teleportation gate. The only person who knows where the gate is and how to open it is archeologist Tanya Wardani, who's currently wasting away in a refugee camp. Envoys are more than elite soldiers; they're also skilled in the social sciences. Wardani has PTSD, and Kovacs has to work with her—primarily in VR as time can be sped up or slowed down as per the situation—to assist in her recovery.

The Martians were barely discussed in the first book. Basically they're the key to interstellar travel, even providing maps to inhabitable worlds in this corner of the galaxy. Much is still unknown about them, but their remnant technological artifacts are priceless. Archaeology has become a multi-billion dollar industry, despite the protests of actual scientists, and corporations fight over access to dig sites, hoping for the next big find that will yield a bonanza.

Mandrake, one of these corporations, is bankrolling this mission and profiting from the war. Matthias Hand is the executive representing Mandrake. He and Kovacs put together a team from a pile of purchased cortical stacks—the constructs which house the backup of everyone's consciousness, built like airplane black boxes—from the salvaged war dead. The recruitment process, which takes place entirely in VR, makes for a great introduction to each of the book's minor characters, and I found each of these interviews intriguing.

The team then heads to the site of the gate so that Wardani can get to work. There are a host of problems: The nearby city of Sauberville has been nuked, and radiation is slowly killing even these engineered sleeves; there's a saboteur in their midst; Hand's rivals have dropped a semi-intelligent lethal nanobot assembly nearby; and the only way out is guarded by Kovacs' former mercenary unit.

There are a couple sex scenes in the book that seemed gratuitous, especially as they didn't do much in the way of character development, but Morgan plants a clue to the identity of the saboteur in each scene that could easily be overlooked. Still, I have to wonder if they could've been handled differently.

The violence is graphic, but essential to the story. Morgan is emphasizing how terrible and dehumanizing war is. Sanction IV has become a corporate testing ground for the latest and greatest in military hardware. Human life is devalued so much that it becomes nothing more than a line item on a corporate balance sheet. Death is a form of slavery as soldiers become indebted to those who upload their stacks into new sleeves—at a price—and sent back to the front. The alternative is eternity in VR limbo. Stack death is the only true death.

Fortunately, the Martian ship proves to be more than just a MacGuffin. In fact, Morgan plays it up like a cross between a haunted house and Egyptian tomb. Morgan also ties it into the book's anti-war theme, but I won't spoil it for you.

All in all, I found Broken Angels to be a highly entertaining and engaging read, full of action, mystery, and the occasional philosophical debate on the nature of life, death, war, and spirituality.

5 stars


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 5 - The Conqueror Worm

book cover for Hellboy volume 5Part two of my Halloween read, and as good as part one was, this was even better.

This volume contains the one story and there's a lot to it. The Nazis are back, and one of their experiments from the war is coming to fruition sixty years later. Hellboy and the homunculus—they named it Roger—are sent to a spooky castle somewhere high up in the Austrian Alps where said experiment was conducted and thought to be destroyed by a military expedition led by some vigilante named Lobster Johnson. Much smashing occurs.

This collection has everything: poetry samples from Poe, Lovecraftian nightmares, restless spirits of the damned, hordes of ghoulish creations, undead minions, transmogrified soldiers, subterranean lairs with steampunk machinery, and a Nazi mad scientist. What else could you want?

Ok, there's more. Hellboy has his usual witty responses to the situations he stumbles into. It's his coping mechanism. Loyalty and trust are two of his strongest traits. He's expects underhanded behavior from strangers and outright villains, but the BPRD does something to royally piss him off, and he's forced to reconsider his relationship with them.

Roger the homunculus gets plenty of screen time. There's some self-reflection on what he is and how he fits into this modern world, centuries after his creation.

This is probably my favorite of the Hellboy volumes that I've read so far.

4.5 stars


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 4 - The Right Hand of Doom

book cover for The Right Hand of DoomHalloween is fast approaching, but I didn't have anything spooky on the nightstand or the kindle, so I went to the library and picked up the next two volumes of Hellboy.

The Right Hand of Doom is a collection of eight stories: one backstory, five missions, and two which deal with Hellboy and his destiny.

Hellboy typically gives people the benefit of the doubt. He might harbor suspicions, but he won't act on them until he gets more information. As such, people mistake this behavior for weakness or cluelessness. But in the end, Hellboy rallies or fate intervenes, and these people ultimately come out on the losing end of things. This theme runs through "The Nature of the Beast," "King Vold," and "Heads."

And Hellboy has a sense of humor, too, although it can be a bit dark sometimes. "Pancakes," "Heads," and "Goodbye, Mister Tod" have their humorous incidents, whether they be intended or not.

"Pancakes" kicks things off, and it's about Hellboy's introduction to, as can be surmised, pancakes. It's a short—merely two pages—and cute. I won't say anything else to avoid spoiling it.

"The Nature of the Beast" sees Hellboy off to meet some cabal of Englishmen in 1954 to investigate the folktale of one Saint Leonard the Hermit. Apparently there's a dragon involved.

Professor Bruttenholm asks Hellboy to go to Norway in 1956 to help out a friend, and fellow paranormal researcher, in "King Vold." Said friend is investigating King Vold, aka the Flying Huntsman.

Hellboy goes to Japan in "Heads." The year is 1967, and Hellboy is wandering in the forests outside of Kyoto, looking for a haunted house, where he is put up for the night at the local equivalent of a bed and breakfast.

In 1979, the Bureau sends him to Portland, Oregon to investigate a complaint about a physical medium in "Goodbye, Mister Tod." "Just say no" never carried as serious a repercussion as what's portrayed here.

"The Vârcolac" sees Hellboy investigating the rise of Countess Ilona Kakosy, a powerful vampire, in Romania in 1992. Even Hellboy feels fear.

"The Right Hand of Doom" and "Box Full of Evil" are bookends of a sort. The collection's title track gathers all that we have learned about Hellboy's past and details that came up in volumes one and two and reflects upon them. The latter story finds someone attempting to force Hellboy's destiny upon him, not to bring about the Apocalypse as Rasputin hoped, but to enslave him. Combined, these stories reflect on destiny and fate. Are we bound to it, and thus, do we let it control us? Is free will an illusion? Do we make our own fate, or is it predetermined? These are questions that Hellboy has to answer for himself, with a little bit of help of course.

The artwork remains quintessential Mignola. The man knows how to make the most of shadows and light. Dave Stewart colored this volume, using a palette of muted pastels to evoke the surroundings of our intrepid red friend.

4 stars.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Book Review: The Lost Fleet - Dauntless

book cover for Dauntless - Lost Fleet #1The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century—and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who's emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized, beyond belief...

Captain John "Black Jack" Geary's legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic "last stand" in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. But a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.

Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance's one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic "Black Jack" legend.

This book got off to an awkward start for me. We're introduced to Geary shortly before he's ordered to take command of the Alliance fleet. First impression: cranky and in serious need of a chill pill. After we're finally given some backstory, we learn why he's so irritable. He eventually learns how to deal with his situation, so between the two, he grew on me as the book went along. But I can't help but feel that that initial awkwardness could've been avoided if Campbell had written a prologue that depicted the "heroic last stand" attributed to Geary or the scene where they revive him from stasis with his mind clouded by confusion over memories of the battle and waking up a century later. I think either scene would've generated immediate sympathy for Geary rather than this standoffish behavior.

Jack Campbell is the nom de plume of John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer. Given his experience, the manuscript has an air of authenticity when it comes to the interactions between the characters. Hemry lived the life; it's second nature to him. So while the story takes place centuries from now, the way Hemry handles navy culture makes the story all the more relatable.

The story is told entirely from Geary's POV, but the narrative is in third-person so Geary can't hide his feelings or motivations from the reader. He struggles with returning military discipline to a fleet full of would be heroes, a trend that he inadvertently helped to create. While other characters might accuse him of duplicity, we know that isn't the case. Speaking of other characters, the two other characters that interact the most with Geary are Captain Tanya Desjani, who commands the Dauntless, and Victoria Rione, Co-President of the Callas Republic, a key Alliance ally. Both of them believe in the legend of Black Jack Geary, but interpret it differently. As "ancestor worship" has become the de facto religion among humans, having a legend seemingly return from the dead is seen by a blessing by some and a curse by others. Desjani hopes that it means Geary will lead the fleet home, but she doesn't fawn all over him like a schoolgirl with a crush. Rione shares the same hopes, but she worries that the legend will overtake the man and fuel an ambition for political power.

I'm going to speculate a bit here since I can't find the answer on the internet. Geary is shocked to learn that the Alliance navy has grown distant from the values and traditions that were held in high regard back in his day. Some things are merely surprising (hardly anyone salutes); others are downright shocking to him. The rules of war seem to have largely been abandoned. In particular, the way the Alliance treats POWs disgusts him. This book was first published in 2006. Given how long it takes for a novel to make it to market, I wouldn't be surprised if Hemry started writing this element into the story after learning about the Bush administration's use of waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation" technique. I can't imagine that John McCain was the only veteran to be sickened by that. I don't know Hemry, but if Geary's values are in any way a reflection of his, then I have to think that those revelations played a part in this story.

Overall I found it an enjoyable story, even if the dialogue was a little stiff at times and the relativistic physics lessons were repetitive. Geary was a clever character put into a difficult situation with problems to solve and relationships to juggle. I can see why the series has been so successful and continue with it.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Book cover for Cibola BurnThe gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity's home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what's theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden - with help from the ghostly Detective Miller - can find the cure.

Some refugees from Ganymede have come to settle Ilus (New Terra to others). Life is hard, but it's better than spending the rest of your life stuck on a spaceship begging for food and scrounging spare parts for your CO2 scrubber. The soil chemistry isn't quite right, but the lithium mine is a cash cow. Just gotta fill up the cargo hold and head back to Medina Station to sell it. That'll generate enough cash to buy what they need to thrive.

The thing is, they didn't check with anyone first. Why would they? It seemed like everyone turned their back on them. Along comes Royal Charter Energy (RCE) with a UN claim for the world and things get complicated fast. And by complicated, I mean people die.

Chrisjen Avarsarala (UN) and Fred Johnson (OPA) decide to hire the crew of the Rocinante to mediate the dispute. Holden doesn't want to go, but the protomolecule Miller simulacrum insists. It's been formulated by the protomolecule remnant to investigate why its creators are all gone, and it nags Holden just enough to make him even want to know.

Besides Holden, we get POVs from Basia Merton (one of the squatters), Elvi Okoye (RCE scientist), and Dimitri Havelock (security officer on board the RCE ship Edward Israel, presumably named after the astronomer). The authors do a great job getting you into their heads so that you can understand their motivations. Basia will do anything to protect his family after losing a son on Ganymede. Elvi is the consummate biologist, thrilled to be exploring a new world. Havelock was Miller's partner back on Ceres before the Julie Mao case became Miller's obsession and dealt with his share of anti-Earther bias.

His boss is Adolphus Murtry, a ruthless by-the-book kind of guy, who—to borrow the description that Amos and Holden have for him—is an asshole. Havelock mentions him working corporate prisons and industrial security his whole career. We don't get his POV though, so it's tough to figure out why he's so hardcore on enforcing RCE's charter given what happens over the course of the novel.

The authors explore the mythologizing of public figures. Holden and crew have a solar system-wide reputation at this point. In light of their accomplishments, Holden's public persona has been manipulated in the news media so much that he is hero to some, villain to others. We see that here as some characters are heartened at the news of his arrival to the colony. They assume that he will inherently agree with them on the spot and set things right, not realizing that things aren't that simple. Others view him as a dunce, easy to manipulate and render feckless. But, as Naomi put it to Havelock...
"A lot of people have underestimated Jim over the last few years. A lot of them aren't with us anymore."
I had a tough time putting this down at night and constantly checked the clock to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. Besides obviously wanting to know what happened to Holden and company, I was engaged with all of the POV characters this time. Each one went through personal growth, discovering things about themselves that felt good to see realized. While the standoff between the RCE personnel and the squatters was tense enough, a certain natural disaster that occurred midway through the book just amplified things.

This was a much better story than Abaddon's Gate. While all the interesting stuff happened in the first half of that book—and the second half was tedious with power mad jerks and body count padding—Cibola Burn carried my interest all the way through. It's a sci-fi adventure that lives up to the promise made in the first book. Now I get to worry and wonder what the TV show is going to cut out for season four.

4.5 stars