Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Reading Night

Sony Triniton TVAs a kid, I naturally took to books. Way back in the 70s, the internet was still the province of the Defense Department and a few select universities, our phones didn't do anything more than ring, and computers were these massive monoliths that didn't do much besides crunch a few numbers. Sure there was TV, but we only had 13 channels. The only real medium to feed your imagination was books.

Despite my best efforts, my son lost interest in books after several years. He blamed school for forcing him to read dull books. My daughter made a decent attempt at it, but I could tell I was losing her to games and social media.

This was disheartening and completely unacceptable. I wanted them to read more, but I didn't want to make it seem like a chore. After years of failed attempts to persuade them to read more, I made the rather draconian move to institute "reading night." One night per week, the family would gather in a room and read for an hour. My wife had my back, so my iron fist of literacy wouldn't break.

There was resistance at first, but when I explained that I didn't care what was read, they decided to test me on it. Graphic novels were brought out, but I didn't say a word. In fact, I engaged them afterwards about what they read. I even picked up books from them after they'd read them, and when I finished, I talked to them about them.

Nowadays, my kids actually look forward to reading night. One of them will remind me, and if we missed our regular day, they'll insist we make it up. And this summer my son got a job at our local Barnes & Noble (yes, they still exist). This morning he let me know about a sale that was going on soon and mentioned a book that he thought that we'd both be interested in.

While this victory may be a small one for me, I feel that the true winners are my kids.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: All Systems Red

book cover for All Systems RedIn a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

As it says in the blurb, Murderbot hacked its governor module—for those not mechanically inclined, think of it as a choke collar. While it follows its orders so that it isn't discovered and risk getting scrapped, it has the freedom to ignore commands it doesn't want to carry out or just pretend to carry them out. It doesn't want to talk about its feelings or hang out with the human crew. It wants to spend as much free time as possible watching thousands of hours of entertainment media it downloaded. Introverts everywhere will identify with Murderbot and quite possibly want its weapons complement to keep pesky annoyances at bay.

The novella is told entirely from Murderbot's POV, but it is perceptive enough to gauge others' reactions to it. And the internal dialogue is full of plenty biting humor that I guffawed audibly several times, eliciting curious inquiries from my family.

Being part-organic, Murderbot isn't invincible either. Although the company has built them to be self-repairing, they are disposable to some extent. Murderbot's vulnerability is made obvious to the reader from the outset. But despite this, Murderbot doesn't hesitate to throw itself into danger. Is its programming overriding self-preservation, or does it actually have a smidge of empathy for the humans it's assigned to protect? That's up to the reader to figure out.

Highly enjoyable. 5 stars.


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Book Review: First Light (Red #1)

book cover for First LightLieutenant James Shelley, who has an uncanny knack for premeditating danger, leads a squad of advanced US Army military tasked with enforcing the peace around a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The squad members are linked wirelessly 24/7 to themselves and a central intelligence that guides them via drone relay—and unbeknownst to Shelley and his team, they are being recorded for a reality TV show.

When an airstrike almost destroys their outpost, a plot begins to unravel that's worthy of Crichton and Clancy's best. The conflict soon involves rogue defense contractors, corrupt US politicians, and homegrown terrorists who possess nuclear bombs. Soon Shelley must accept that the helpful warnings in his head could be AI. But what is the cost of serving its agenda?

Back in my indie book reviewer days, I'd heard that this book was originally self-published before it was picked up by Saga Press (Simon & Schuster). Then the accolades poured in, and the story garnered three award nominations. So I made a note to pick it up once I had the chance. Now, having read it, I can see why. The writing is tight and polished. The opening hook grabs you ("There needs to be a war going on somewhere...") and pulls you in, the action is well-choreographed, and there's plenty of dramatic tension.

The military jargon and procedural actions ring true. The gear is well thought out and frickin' cool. Nagata provides mid-21st century soldiers with powered exoskeletons, "skullcap" computer interfaces that send signals to the body to adjust biochemical responses to the surrounding environment, and implants to connect with weapons and recon drones.

The story starts in the Sahel, and I enjoyed the way it unfolded, but then, in a major plot twist, Shelley gets injured and the story shifts stateside to focus on his recovery and rehabilitation. The time in the hospital gives him a chance to reconnect with his former lover, his father, and the journalist who fatefully led to his army recruitment. We learn more of Shelley's past and the dystopian world (similar to our own) he lives in. We also learn that there appears to be an AI that's gone rogue (The Red). It's intentions are unknown, but it seems very interested in Shelley.

I would've thought that a military thriller with cyberpunk elements would've been everything I needed here, but it didn't pan out. So what's the problem? Quite simply, me. The book had me hooked at the start, but then it lost me with the setting change. Developed characters were suddenly lost, irrelevant to the overall story. The pace slowed way down, too. I cut it some slack, feeling that Nagata was ramping things up for this new direction, but then the plot radically changed course again. The confrontation I expected was pushed back to another novel. I couldn't get on board with the new course.

As well written as the story was, I couldn't connect to it. I felt like I was reading the script to the Rock's next action movie. Once Nagata described Shelley, I couldn't not picture him in the lead. And that's fine. I think he's incredibly talented for a particular genre of films, and I've enjoyed every one that I've seen him in. It's just that Mr. Johnson's movies aren't something I want to read.

3.5 stars.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Review: A Princess of Mars

book cover for A Princess of MarsJohn Carter is out in the American West of the 1880s and, while being chased by bloodthirsty Indians (paraphrasing his description), stumbles into a cave whereupon he's mysteriously teleported to Mars, or Barsoom as the locals call it. He proceeds to have swashbuckling adventures as the planet's lower gravity gives him amazing strength and agility.

My interest in reading this book came from watching Disney's movie interpretation. Other than getting the title wrong, I thought that they did a fine job. My daughter loved it even more than me, particularly for the lovable woola. But I'm going to say something unpopular with the fans of the books: I liked the Disney version more. Blasphemy, you say? Well, here's the thing. This book was written in 1912 in first person diary mode. John Carter writes about how awesome he is at everything—which gets tired real fast—and we know he's never in any real peril as the diary was written years after his adventures, taking away any sense of suspense. The dialogue is weighed down by romantic writing, better suited for yearning hearts on the wastes of Scottish moors. I realize that that was the preferred style of the day, but it suits Poe and Hawthorne far better than the dry and dusty deserts of Mars, chock full of people fighting over dwindling resources.

Speaking ill of the classics is frowned upon. These people were literary pioneers, forging forward into territories no one had dreamt of before, well, published anyway. They inspired millions! For that, I give credit. But the thing is, first isn't necessarily best and doesn't mean the story won't age well. They need help in the modern age. I certainly haven't seen a Western where people talk this way. Look at it another way. Shakespeare's works are timeless, part of the reason is that they take place when, and often where, they were written. I don't see anyone mourning their broken iPhones, saying, "Alas, poor Siri! I knew her, Horatio; an AI of infinite search results, of most excellent fancy; she hath borne me great Yelp reviews a thousand times..."

Plenty of the writers that I enjoy were inspired by Burroughs (Bradbury springs foremost to mind), yet they broke away from stodgy writing to tell their tales in more modern terms using language that has a longer shelf life.

Were there elements that I liked? Sure! But I can't say that there was enough to truly enjoy it. Perhaps, if I'd read it a century ago...

2.5 stars.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review: Three Days in Moscow

book cover for Three Days in MoscowDon't let the title fool you. This book is about far more than that. It covers Reagan's adversarial relationship with the former Soviet Union and communism. There's quite a bit of background biography to explain how Reagan came to be the hardliner he was. It highlights the big four speeches he gave and the summits with Gorbachev.

Baier parked himself in the Reagan library (with Catherine Whitney's help) and interviewed many people who worked with Reagan through his political career. There's a ton of footnotes to back up things that were said and done. While it glosses over the uglier parts of Reagan's foreign policy and his anti-communist crusade (an observation, not a criticism), the book is really good when it focuses on the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev. I was pleasantly surprised to find Gorbachev treated so well in the text.

As for Baier, it was clear that he was wearing his fanboy pants when he wrote this. That's clear from the introduction when he recalls "being struck by awe" during a visit to the White House for a special event when he was a senior in high school. The press were on the outskirts of the event and Baier remembers being pissed off (my words, his emotion) at Sam Donaldson for rudely interrupting the event. I think if the young Mr. Baier could've bopped him on the nose for it, he would've, not that I could blame him. Sam Donaldson was annoying. But Baier seemed a little obsessed, referencing him three more times, IIRC, each time negatively.

Another negative of the book was the last chapter. I think the effect was intended to bring the US-Russian relationship to the present day. After panning Bush-43 and Obama for their failure to properly address Putin's trouble-making, he went on to compare Trump to Reagan. The text is contorted with attempts to make Trump seem like Reagan while acknowledging some of the glaring differences. For someone who was so enamored of Reagan, I don't see how he could even think about equating the two in a positive context.

I was a teenager while Reagan was President. I had issues with authority back then (Ok, I still do), and Reagan's fiery rhetoric coupled with the cult-like fandom he inspired gave me nightmares. I didn't expect to live to see thirty. I was shocked when the Berlin Wall came down. Surprise! Reagan's strategy worked! Alas, the democratic principles he sought for the Soviet Union didn't survive Putin's thugocracy.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate Reagan. While I still don't see eye-to-eye with plenty of his policies, I miss his congenial disposition, something sorely lacking in today's politics. I wasn't planning on reading this book, but a friend of mine insisted I read it, and I'm glad that I did. Well, most of it anyway.

4 stars.


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.