Sunday, December 26, 2021

Book Review: Demon by John Varley

Book cover for DemonGaea is back with a new avatar: a fifty-foot tall Marilyn Monroe. She's pulling out all the stops on her obsession with movies. She's even created new organisms which are capable of making movies and ordered the construction of a city-sized movie lot. Her casting call has been set and production is about to begin on her greatest film: The War with the Demon, Cirocco Jones.

Twenty years have passed since the events in Wizard. The human population has swelled, primarily as refugees flee Earth's latest nuclear war—handled with cavalier disregard that rang implausible to even this cynic. Besides politics, Varley also savagely satirizes Earth's religions. Each faith is represented on the wheel, and all serve Gaea instead of Earth's traditional pantheons. Gaea accomplishes this by raising the dead, making them literal zombies who serve her accordingly, rotting corpses every one. All are jealous of one another, believing themselves to be Gaea's favorite, and hated by the living.

Gaea also takes propaganda to a new level. Utilizing computer technology, she places the image of her avatar into the starring role of movies that are broadcast on closed circuit TV in order to generate sympathy from her captives. I think this may be the earliest account of deepfakes in fiction.

New arrivals means new characters. These mix with old characters, and the dynamics of relationships swirl about until a new equilibrium is established. Yes, as has been common in this series, that means people are having happy, well-adjusted sex, no matter which hardware they have. The only character in the group who takes issue with it is basically told to get over it and join the human race.

In essence, Varley's worldview here boils down to this:
  • Good guys: Racial and gender diverse. Sex positive.
  • Bad guys: Politicians, generals, religion. Basically any structure that tries to coerce people through fear or shame to control them.

Cirocco doesn't want any part in Gaea's madness, particularly after the death of her closest friend, but Gaea has kidnapped someone very special to her and thus makes it impossible to say no.

The second half of the novel is about Cirocco raising an army and making preparations for war with Gaea and her minions. There are several meetings with Cirocco's "inside woman" wherein we learn more about Gaea's machinations going back several decades in order to make all of this possible. Everything we thought we knew gets turned on its head. While the characters all call Gaea insane, I found it too simplistic a term. To plan and orchestrate all of these events takes tremendous forethought. Gaea isn't so much insane as diabolical.

Demon made for an enjoyable end to the series. Varley's worldbuilding is superb, although his worldview might be a tad simplistic. The big reveal on Gaea felt a bit too much like telling, but as her appearances in the first two novels were limited to the climax of each, I don't know how Varley could have shown what was really going on. All we had were the intrepid humans, too busy trying to explore and survive to look behind the curtain.

4.25 stars


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Book Review: The Pythons Autobiography

book cover for The Pythons AutobiograpyMy parents are responsible for getting me hooked on Monty Python. I remember seeing the dead parrot sketch, the lumberjack song, the Spanish Inquisition, and so much more on PBS back in the day. But what hooked me forever was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My parents had a copy of the movie on Betamax. I lost track of the number of times I'd watched the film after about the 40th time.

I even got to see Graham Chapman on a speaking tour in 1987 while I was in college. I don't recall much from it, but one thing still sticks with me. He was talking about the making of Holy Grail and confessed when he realized that he was an alcoholic. They were in the Scottish Highlands. The weight of playing King Arthur was getting to him. He desperately wanted a drink to steady his nerves, but there was nothing available. Between the cold, the dampness, the pressure, and withdrawal symptoms, he was shaking and feverish in his chain mail and wool. He was completely miserable. The auditorium had grown completely silent as Chapman revealed that he was not an invulnerable comedic hero but a human being with all the frailties of mortality.

In October of 1989 he died of cancer.

This book is an account of the group's lives growing up, their days at university, their early pre-Python work, the coalescence of what would become Monty Python, the TV show, the movies, and the inevitable end. Each of the Pythons provided the information in interview format with Chapman's parts taken from previous memoirs and from his brother and his partner. So you would get each of their recollections about events, what they were doing and thinking.

It's clear to me now that postwar English schools were horrid places. Roger Waters, Bruce Dickinson, and the members of Monty Python have all provided details about how miserable these places were. It's almost as if the adults were punishing the children for not having a dour disposition brought on by the travails of the war.

It was really interesting to see how the Python troupe came together, and I'm curious to know how well the pre-Python work holds up. Of course, with the BBC in the habit of recycling all of its tapes back then, I don't know if any of it still exists.

There was a certain joie de vivre that the group back in the days of the TV show, and it was a delight to read about it. But you could see it start to slip away. Certain members didn't want to do the TV show anymore, so others suggested a movie. And for a while they were happy again. Holy Grail was a success and then Life of Brian. They would separate to work on their personal projects, but they would always come back. But they got the work process wrong with The Meaning of Life. Lessons of creation were forgotten. The joy was gone.

When Chapman died, the unraveling of the knot that kept them together quickened. They tried to reunite, but there was always someone to veto a project, whether it be TV, movie, or tour. While they still professed their love for one another, it was clear to me by this book's publication in 2003 that Monty Python had ceased to be as a creative entity.

While there was an abundance of detailed material for their early years, it seemed like when the joy was gone, so too went many of the details. All of these non-Python side projects they were involved in left huge gaps between events in the Python history. The interview format kind of broke down with grudges and hurt feelings creeping in. Subjective accounts obscured objective reality, forcing the reader to deduce what actually happened.

I'm glad that I read it, but now it's more of a reference book than something to revisit for nostalgia's sake, which I guess is why I read it in the first place.

4 stars


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Book Review: Star in Bankruptcy

book cover for Star in BankruptcyJordahk isn't sure who or what he is anymore, and just trying to be “normal” is becoming increasingly challenging. As adulthood looms he'll face his greatest challenges yet both personally and in space.

For Janus hasn't been idle. His schemes within schemes will launch the First Cruiser into the most audacious stratagem since the Sojourners' Crusade. Perhaps only the mystic technology from that era has a chance to stop the Prime Orator's designs.

But neither Jordahk nor his grandfather can currently operate on that level. When the most eclectic space battle in centuries begins, only desperation will bring one side to victory.

This is book three in the Tethered Worlds series. With over a thousand pages published so far, this isn't a series you can pick up in the middle. You really have to start from the beginning. Here are links to spoiler-free reviews for books one and two.

If you've made it this far into the series, you're familiar with the universe that Faccone has built and the factions contending with one another for power in this space opera. You need to be, of course, as Faccone doesn't offer a refresher in what's already been published besides the occasional character reminiscing about past incidents.

Right off the bat we're back with Jordahk's family in the midst of a training exercise. But before you get disgruntled with a "not another one", Faccone throws a cyborg assassin at them. The encounter gives the reader some idea as to how far Jordahk has come in developing his fledgling sojourner skills.

After this confrontation has played out, we learn that trade negotiations are planned at Aventicia, one of the worlds in the Banking Confederation. Janus has plans in place to affect the outcome favorably for the Perigeum and himself, but the Trade Union sends a fleet of their own to provide security. And then a pirate fleet shows up to toss a match on the powderkeg.
"Sadly, war is but politics stripped of every civilized façade
While this is the longest book in the series, 569 pages, I found that it had less filler than in the two previous books. However, the inevitable confrontation that ensues when plans are set in motion takes up about half the book. While one major story arc comes to an end, it's clear that the author has more stories planned for this series.

Characterization, plotting, and world-building all remain strong. Faccone proved that in the first two books. The personalities of the various characters are well-developed and distinct. The setting is rich with detail. Unfortunately, typos remain an issue: My notes highlight misused or missing apostrophes and spelling errors.

Bankrupt Star is a fine addition to the Tethered Worlds series. While there isn't as much exploration or side quest action as the two previous works, the plot is more focused and the stakes are just as high. It's still big and bold space opera with a protagonist you can root for as he grows to fill some very big, heroic shoes.

4 stars.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Book Review: A Song for Quiet

Book cover for A Song for QuietDeacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can't escape, and music that won't let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.

This story really could've been something. The blues mixed with Lovecraft. Definite potential.

We meet Deacon James while he's riding a train to Arkham, famed fictional city of Lovecraft's. Between his recent past and this quote, I connected with him right off the bat.
Deacon looks up as civilization robs the night of its endlessness, finger painting globs of light and farmhouses across the countryside.
I was thinking that this might've been an update to Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zahn."
Raw, unevenly syncopated, the music's a clatter of droning notes, looping into themselves, like a man mumbling a prayer.
No trace of the blues, no ghost of folk music, not even the wine-drunk laughter of big-city jazz or the thunder of gospel. Only a hard lump of yearning that snags like fishbones in his throat as he plays, plays, plays, improvisation, frantically straining to wrench the bassline into familiar waters.
But then the story ran into problems. First off, Deacon himself. He struggled to carry the story. He got off to a great start, but then spent the rest of the story running in fear. I didn't need an action hero, but I wanted him to either confront his emotional burden or make a feint towards dealing with the social injustices he regularly encountered. His actions at the climax of the story might've been perceived that way, but it could also be perceived as surrender. I can't say anything more without spoiling it.

And the way Khaw handled him when he first encountered Ana seemed abrupt. There was no parley, no interpersonal recon. He instantly bonded with her as if she were a long lost daughter. That isn't hyperbole.

I was disappointed that Khaw didn't make use of Arkham besides name dropping. There's nothing in the story that really made use of it. This could be set in Anytown, USA, circa 1950.

I really liked Persons in the first book, but here he's pushed into a supporting role. While his narration in the first book could be a bit much at times, it always lent itself to the story. Maybe this book should've been published first with Persons' minor role serving as an introduction to the character, piquing the reader's interest to learn more.

In Hammers on Bone, Khaw used noir and metaphors to set the scene and help build the story towards its climax. But here the noir was replaced by a wall of purple prose. It was wonderful at times ("cutlery scraping over crockery"), as the above quotes hint at, but then it became repetitive. Later, it meandered like so much jazz improvisation that I lost all sense of what was going on. I had to re-read parts a couple of times, scrutinize sentences, to piece together what was actually happening, find some semblance of structure. It was there though, buried beneath a lovely purple blur.

The resolution proved unsatisfying, so all I was left with was a bunch of lovely prose. So, 2.5 stars because I needed more.


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Book Review: Hammers on Bone

book cover for Hammer on BoneJohn Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He's been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid's stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He's also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he's hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

The story opens with the kid in Persons' office, looking to hire him for the job. Persons' dialogue is all 1930s-40s gumshoe, including using terms for women that would be considered sexist today ("dame", "skirt", "broads", etc.), but excusable for the time period. Khaw follows it up by creating a juicy noir atmosphere.
The cold feels good, real good, a switchblade chill cutting deep into the cancer of a thousand years' nap.
But as chapter one starts winding down, I realize that the story isn't taking place back then, it's contemporary.
These days, it's all bae and fleek, bootylicious selfies and cultural appropriation done on brand.
It was jarring, and no explanation was given. It would've made more sense to either place the story back several decades or update Persons' slang to something more fitting of the times.

I loved the way Khaw made use of scents to describe how Parsons interacted with his environment.
There's a pervasive smell in the hallway. Not quite a stench, but something unpleasant. Like the remnants of a molly party, or old sex left to crust on skin.
Khaw then uses that scent imagery to let the Lovecraft vibe seep in.
The stink grows strong: less human, more maritime malfeasance. A reek of salt and hard use, of drowned things rotten with new life.
Until it's staring at us, straight in the face.
In his agitation, his skin splits, spreads to frame a moist blue eye, cataracted and lethargically sullen.
From here on, Khaw goes all in on body horror visceral imagery that echoes Lovecraft.
The thing in his neck is a blasphemy, a mutagenic outrage of flesh, an insult to man and beast and all of us that came crawling out of the ocean before.
But by the time the story reaches its climactic battle, I grew weary of the constant fleshy metaphors in the narrative. The whole sinew, squishy flesh metaphors, and too many eyeballs references lost their impact on me. And the battle itself, which had been built up to be this epic clash didn't really feel epic to me. It was kind of over before I knew it.

What I thought was much better was the epilogue. The conversation that takes place there between Parsons (There's a second book and Parsons is in the blurb so that wasn't a spoiler!) and the acolyte was really enjoyable. Khaw brings in a deity that Lovecraft rarely used and thus got to shape said deity in an interesting way that, for me, made up for things.

4 stars.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Book Review: Wizard by John Varley

book cover for WizardThis review will contain spoilers if you haven't read the first book in the series, Titan.

Several decades have passed since Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew had their ship torn asunder and dragged aboard Gaea by one of her sub-brains. Once Cirocco and Gaby made the arduous journey up the spoke to confront her, Gaea apologized for the actions of the rebellious subordinate that committed the attack. In the interim, Gaea has negotiated peace with Earth, established embassies there, and opened herself up to Human tourists, albeit in limited quantity.

Two travelers have come to the world of Gaea in hopes of receiving a cure for their afflictions. One is Chris, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and was fine until he was forced to go off his meds. The other is Robin, a judgmental epileptic from a lesbian Wiccan society that believes all men are rapists. Neither has quite the meeting they'd hoped for with Gaea and must prove their mettle as "heroes" by completing an epic journey or quest to satisfy the capricious god.

Cirocco was offered—and accepted—the role of Wizard, a position second only to Gaea herself. Cirocco would travel the world of Gaea, acting as her representative and messenger, and granted perpetual youth. But the passage of time and other unfair responsibilities have taken their toll on her, and she's fallen into alcoholism. Gaby has also been awarded perpetual youth, but hers was earned through work as a civil engineer, building and maintaining a trans-Gaean road and way stations. She hates to see Cirocco suffer and resents what Gaea has done to her friend.

Gaby and Cirocco are planning a trip to circumnavigate Gaea, a periodic responsibility, and invite Robin and Chris along in hopes that the journey will give each of them a chance to "do something heroic." Four Titanides also come along for the journey. The multi-sexual centaurs are excellent craftsmen and prove invaluable companions to the Humans. But there's more to this trip than just touring the kingdom and finding opportunities for adventure. For Gaea has far outlived her expected lifespan, and her ability to give a shit is less than her desire to be entertained.

Once again, Varley utilizes a quest as the primary story structure and, like so many journeys, the characters are not the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Robin is forced to re-examine her beliefs and prejudices while Chris must learn how to balance his opposing personalities, in essence, passion versus logic. While Varley uses him as a counterpoint for Robin, he also represents all humans in the complex love-hate relationship the Titanides have with us.
"Humans brought alcoholism to Gaea. We have always enjoyed wine, but the beverage you call tequila and we call"—she sang a brief melody—"which translates as Death-with-a-pinch-of-salt-and-a-twist-of-lime, has addictive properties for us. Humans brought venereal disease: the only malady of Terran origin that affects us."
Varley isn't shy about using the Titanides to point out our species' faults, but he also recognizes that we are capable of so much more.
"And there are among you individuals with life burning so brightly within them that we are dazzled by your brillance."
My one complaint would be that a scene where Gaby discovers the identity of the antagonist who has been orchestrating malevolent events against them and confronts that person took place off screen. While we are later told about the confrontation, it would've been better for the story if the reader was shown it rather than told about it.

While Titan and Wizard were published only a year apart, Varley's writing is so much better. Characterization is much stronger and he did it without sacrificing worldbuilding. In fact, it's even better. There's less focus on numbers and more on substance. And the pacing never drags. Varley figured out how to fill the spaces between dramatic events to hold the reader's interest. The surprise ending is the icing on the cake.

4.25 stars


Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Goodreads' Problem With Trolls and Extortion

I just learned about this today. In a nutshell, indie authors with a high visibility on social media—particularly those with progressive politics—are being targetted by extortionists. Typical message:
Failure to comply with these demands results in authors getting slammed with hundreds of one-star reviews on Goodreads. The company is typically slow in its corrective actions.

All indie authors know how difficult it is to get readers to check out their work. It means putting yourself out there on social media (the introvert's equivalent of smelling sweaty socks) to get the public's attention. Many authors choose to discuss topics of personal interest to them. And if there's anything we've learned over the last few years, doing so puts a target on your back. As their audience grows, the trolls take notice.

Amazon used to have a sock puppet problem, but then it found ways to restrict reviews to verified accounts by simply making use of data it already had (verified contact info, purchasing history, etc.). Since Amazon owns Goodreads and offers potential readers easy to access links to buy said book, you would think that they would make every effort to ensure that the number one social media site for books was free of crippling attacks on their revenue stream.

Thanks to Monica for bringing this to my attention.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Titan by John Varley

book cover for TitanThe first manned expedition to Saturn discovers a new moon, but closer examination reveals it to be a huge space station.

Wait. What?

All kidding aside, the station is in the shape of a Stanford torus, albeit a thousand times larger. Attempts to dock with the station go horribly wrong for Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew. Stranded on the station, they have no choice but to find who's in charge in hopes of finding a way back to Earth.

Titan was published in 1979 and is the first book in John Varley's Gaea trilogy. I didn't find out that this was a series until after I'd read the third book, Demon. During the 80s, I'd joined a science fiction book club that sold hardcovers for paperback prices. Demon was one of the books I bought along with Varley's standalone Millennium. I enjoyed both, but I didn't find my way back to this series until recently when I'd heard that Varley was having heart surgery. But I digress.

At first blush, Varley's space station comes across as another Big Dumb Object (BDO). I admit to being a sucker for this type of story. Ringworld, Rama, the Halo videogame, etc. In BDO stories, exploration of the BDO is often the story itself. Cirocco's search for her crew runs parallel to her exploration of this strange new, and manufactured, world. But Varley's BDO has more going on that just a bunch of humans poking around in a sterile alien vessel or the ruins of an advanced civilization. Fantastic alien creatures are met. The sentient ones have a unique culture and speak of Gaea, the entity in charge. And so, Cirocco sets off on a quest to find Gaea, whether Gaea is an alien, a committee, or computer.

Varley was one of the few men in sci-fi that wrote strong female protagonists in the 70s. Cirocco Jones is the first woman to command a NASA mission, and the pressure of it weighs on her, though I wish that it had been explored a bit further. Instead, Varley explores sexual freedom among his characters. Bearing in mind that this was written in the 70s, Varley imagines that on long space missions, the crew will likely pursue sexual relationships because that's what people do. Details are light, just enough to give the reader an idea of what's going on. Once on the space station, Varely takes things a step further, not just among the crew but the aliens as well. With regards to the crew, non-binary relationships are explored. Among the aliens, the titanides have multiple sex organs, so keeping their genders sorted out would probably require a spreadsheet.

Personal transformation is another theme explored by Varley. Each of the crew go through some sort of change once they're on the station. While some changes are benign, like suddenly knowing how to communicate with the various alien species, others are darker. Certain aspects of one's personality are magnified. A loner finds herself transformed into one of the alien species who lead a solitary, predatory existence. Another finds his toxic masculinity magnified, leading him to become a rapist (again details are fortunately kept brief). No one in the crew is untouched, and how they respond to adversity under these circumstances is itself a transformative event.

Titan is all about discovery: a new world to explore, new life forms to interact with, self-discovery among the characters. I'll admit that sometimes the story bogs down in the space station details. I felt that Varley had to satisfy the gearheads by throwing out specifications about the place to justify how and why it works. While the place is wondrous, sometimes the wonder wore off with the minutiae. And the quest itself seemed rather long with rather little to offer the reader between momentous encounters. But the payoff in the end was worth it. What Jones discovers about Gaea is far from expected for just a BDO.

3.5 stars


Sunday, June 27, 2021

Book Review: Lost Kin

Book cover for Lost KinAfter the events in Liberated Harry Kaspar has been relocated to Munich. As he enters the final weeks of service as an administrator for the military government, his life is good. He resides in a nice house with cushy amenities, has a former WAC girlfriend, and the locals appreciate his efforts to restore some semblance of pre-war normalcy. And then a cop shows up on his doorstep one night informing him that there's been an incident and his brother may be involved. Having not seen nor heard from his brother for several years, Harry's interest is piqued, though for a German-American, he knows this could be a scam, or worse. What follows is an investigation into a murder, black market sales of the spoils of war, and old scores that demand to be settled in blood.

There are elements of noir in this story. Harry's girlfriend has a bit of femme fatale to her which both excites and worries him. Meetings with informants take place in dark alleys and secluded rooms, forcing Harry to always be alert for the double cross. The atmosphere of downtrodden Munich is leaden with cold autumnal rain and early snow. And the American military government is seen through a lens of world weary cynicism.
She knew so many majors, colonels, and generals, all rearguard types who'd never seen combat but rode desks like gladiator chariots except their shields were their puffed-up chests done up with medals of every color, the swords their sharp tongues and stern memos, the feints and thrust their back-room whispers and leaks applied with extreme prejudice. Opponents cowered, colleagues awed, and mistresses swooned.
As with Liberated, Anderson has done the research. The deal that FDR and Churchhill made with Stalin in Yalta would soon turn out to be a Faustian bargain. I don't want to spoil it, but Anderson explores an aspect of that here as a way for the two brothers' paths to cross again.

Lost Kin is a strong finish to the Kaspar Brothers trilogy. The noir elements spice up the intriguing plot, and Anderson's characters are well-developed. I got caught up in their predicament as Anderson entwined their fates with historical events. I'd recommend the series as a whole for WW2 historical fiction fans looking for something different from that time period.

4 stars.


Friday, May 14, 2021

Book Review: The Wrong Stars

book cover for The Wrong StarsA ragtag crew of humans and posthumans discover alien technology that could change the fate of humanity... or awaken an ancient evil and destroy all life in the galaxy.

The shady crew of the
White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials... and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.

This was a fun read. Likable characters trading quips and jovial banter. There was action, but the peril didn't seem all that perilous in that the crew always seemed to have a workable solution at hand. Dare I say that it was almost too easy?

Pratt writes an all-inclusive character ensemble with regards to gender, but didn't make it the focus of the story. People just were who they were. With a monstrous evil alien race lurking about, no one gave a shit about what made their motor hum, if you catch my drift. While that works for me, if you're unsure, you'll be relieved to know that there were no details on "engine maintenance."

Having said that, the main romance in the story is a bit over the top. They were like two hormone addled teenagers. Actually, that might be an insult to teenagers. More like what TV execs think teenagers are like. Some of the conversations were just too cheezy. Plenty of eyeroll moments.

If you go into this looking for a beach read, you'll be fine. The science is light, and many things are handwaved away. It's best if you don't look too closely (It's about as far as you can get from Stoss, Reynolds, and Watts as you can get and still be sci-fi). The point is that it's a light-hearted, fun, sci-fi adventure with a cheezy romance.

3.5 stars.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Book Review: Liberated

book cover for LiberatedIn the early days of post-war Germany, Captain Harry Kaspar has been assigned by the US military government to oversee recovery efforts in the town of Heimgau. Unfortunately, the post is already occupied by Major Membre. It seems that the office that assigned Membre supersedes the one that picked Kaspar, and obviously the major outranks the captain.

Kaspar and Membre butt heads from the start. Besides smarting from missing out on the position that Kaspar feels should've been his—he trained for it after all—Membre comes across as a self-serving opportunist, more interested in personal gain than helping this Bavarian town start over. Kaspar heads off in a huff to survey the town when he discovers three German men lying in the road, evidentially tortured and murdered. He now has a mystery to solve.

With the aid of Katarina, a former German actress, Kaspar navigates black markets, systemic corruption, the aftermath of the Holocaust, and a disgruntled conquered populace in an effort to solve the murders and right some wrongs, all while trying to avoid getting killed.

Anderson's story was born out of research he did in Munich to get his master's in history. Besides touching on prejudice towards German-Americans stateside, the book calls attention to Allied looting in post-war Europe. While it might be dismissed as stealing from Nazis, it should be noted that the Nazis stole it from innocents. Be sure to check out the afterword to get an idea as to the extent of the theft.

While the story was intriguing and rooting for Harry was easy, Liberated didn't resonate with me quite as much as the previous work—The Losing Role, a story about Harry's brother Max who fought for the Germans—did. I feel that certain characters weren't as developed as I think they could've been. Still, I liked it and plan on reading the next book in the series.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Book Review: Blindsight

book cover for BlindsightIt's been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since - until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who to send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet? Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder, and a biologist so spliced to machinery he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior, and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Siri Keeton, who went through a hemispherectomy as a child to correct his epileptic seizures. While successful, it also rendered him emotionally detached, perfect for a job as a synthesist, a type of observer whose job it is to "integrate traits, attitudes, and impulses to create a total personality." His job here is to observe the crew, a bunch of transhumanist misfits, as they try to figure out the aliens and then translate their findings into something comprehensible for mere mortals back home.

But Siri isn't really a reliable narrator. I wasn't convinced he knew what he was doing or what was going on. The crew didn't trust him, thinking of him as a spy for mission control, despite the fact that the ship was literally over a half a light year from home. We get flashbacks to Siri's time before the mission, showing his emotionally reprehensible behavior towards his ex-girlfriend which only underlines his incompetence towards relating to people. He blames the surgery for his shortcomings, but as it his job to read people, he fails to understand himself and what it means to be human.

The third most egregious offense is the addition of the vampire character. In this series, vampires co-existed with humans in paleolithic times but went extinct. Someone thought it would be a good idea to dig through our junk DNA to genetically engineer them back to life, complete with superhuman capabilities. I can't confirm it, but it seems that Watts—who earned a Ph.D from the University of British Columbia's Department of Zoology and Resource Ecology—got the idea from human bones that showed evidence of cannibalism. To me, that's too much of a stretch.

The second most egregious offense pertains to the aliens themselves. They have a certain ability that literally had me say "bullshit" out loud. It shattered my suspension of disbelief. After burying me in mounds of psychology, physics, and neuroscience, he finally went too far. To delve further into this would be to invoke spoilers, so I'm going to leave it at that. Since I lack the education to debate him on this matter or the existence of paleolithic vampires, I can't possibly win the argument.

This is probably the oddest first contact story that I've ever read. But it really isn't about first contact; it's a debate over intelligence vs. sentience. The characters argued over what the latest discovery about the aliens meant in this debate. Honestly, considering their behavior and the stakes involved, I felt it was a moot point. I didn't particularly care for how the crew interacted with one another, how contact with the aliens was handled, or the way the investigation was conducted. The methodologies the crew employed when studying the aliens went to such extremes that I felt like they were digging their own grave.

Complaints aside, this isn't a bad novel. It won prestigious awards. And Watts bleak worldview on humanity isn't lost on me. I certainly wouldn't argue with him on that. There is so much going on in here (the science, the debates, the unique aliens in an otherwise well trod storyline), and the fact that I've had such a visceral reaction to it demonstrates that I was engaged in the story. But Watts' most egregious offense, and the one that I will not yield on, is that he didn't give us a protagonist worth rooting for. By the time the Siri confesses his sins and the epilogue fades, I can't help but feel that the price for the reader to get there was too high.

3 stars


Friday, March 5, 2021

Book Review: Nemesis Games

book cover for Nemesis GamesA thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land-rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the
Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.

The plot to this one takes a backseat to character development. That's not to say that there's no plot. It's just that events happen here and there, and the focus is on how the crew of the Rocinante, separated by millions of miles, deal with these events and find their way back to each other.

James Holden has been the consistent POV character through this series. In this installment, we get the POV of Naomi, Amos, and Alex as well. So it was nice to see how they think and get their take on each other. The Rocinante is not just a job, it's family. Bobbie Draper, Chrisjen Avasarala, Fred Johnson, and Clarissa Mao are also present, and each adds to the story.

I read this after watching the latest season of The Expanse. Once again, I think the TV show did a better job handling the material, amping up the drama and focusing on important character moments which were glossed over in the book. We got to see more of the relationships Naomi had with Filip, Marcos, and her old crew. The book came up short here. It was almost as if Filip and Marcos were too busy, so why make the effort at all?

The whole Martian corruption storyline, which the TV show started exploring in season four, was far more intriguing than Alex's sad attempt at reconciling with his ex-wife. Fortunately, this yielded to his assisting Bobbie rather than dragging on any further.

Amos's storyline was pretty close to a match (book vs. TV show). The TV show did a better job of humanizing him though. It touched more on his past and emotional development points that were lacking in the book (I understand that "The Churn" provided a good deal of that background). He also saw something in Clarissa way back in Abaddon's Gate, and his visit to her here can be seen as an attempt by the writers to rehabilitate a character that I thought was lackluster.

Holden's storyline wasn't much to write home about. Except for the attack on Tycho Station, he spends most of his time pining for his friends. Admirable, but not all that entertaining.

This must sound like I didn't like the book, but I did. It's just that the TV show was so much better. I'd give the show 5 stars and the book 3.5 stars. I'm hoping to read the next book before the next season comes out.


Friday, February 12, 2021

Book Review: I Hope This Helps

book cover for I Hope This HelpsTommy Siegel is a musician in the band Jukebox the Ghost (Me either). After messing around with several doodles, he was challenged to produce a new comic every day for 500 days. He posted them on social media, garnered a following, caught the attention of famous people, and landed a book deal. This book is the result.

It was a gift from my son, and I found it to be laugh out loud funny, certainly guffaw worthy.

As the title suggests, this is very much a satire of life here and now. There are contrasts ("Football vs. Football", "Star Wars vs. Star Trek", "Scrambled Eggs vs Cereal"), helpful guides ("Fall Fetish Checklist", "Stages of Coffee Addiction", "A Guide to Paper-free Hand Dryers", "What Your Sandals Say About You"), as well as political humor ("How Your Grandparents Act vs. How Your Grandparents Vote").

Interespersed among the comics, Siegel shares his experiences and opinions about the 500-day comic challenge and dealing with social media, Facebook in particular. It's fairly astute, as Siegel's experiences and conclusions have been corroborated by digital media analysts. Completed in mid-March of 2020, the worst of it came to fruition while the manuscript was being readied for production in October.

If you like humor that holds a mirror up to society and pokes fun, then it's for you. If you're easily offended, particularly if you're in denial about your coffee addiction or social media is your daily meth, then this book isn't for you.

3.5 stars


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Book Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo

boo cover for A Dead Djinn in CairoEgypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha'arawi leads her through the city's underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and plot that could unravel time itself.

Forty years prior to the start of this novella, someone let magic into the world, altering it forever. Colonial powers have gotten the boot thanks to an alliance with the creatures who entered through that portal, and now Egypt is enjoying a boost in prosperity. But on the flip side, there are dark forces at work who recognize that this is a world ripe for the picking.

I thought that a woman working as an investigator in early twentieth century Egypt seemed especially progressive given the country's treatment of women in more recent times, but it turns out Egypt was ahead of the curve relative to its neighbors at the time. The erosion of women's rights didn't begin until the 1970s. So this story makes more sense in 1912 than say 1992. But since Clark has a doctorate in history, he knew what he was doing all along.

Even so, there are subtle hints that Fatma is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable for women at the time. Her haircut and penchant for wearing outfits more appropriate for British men lends her an "exotic" appearance that does not go unnoticed. Clark doesn't explore this avenue further, but rather focuses on her self-confidence, intelligence, and courage in the face of mortal danger.

I love the world building. It's both familiar and strange. Elements of steampunk mix with shades of Middle Eastern lore. Clark's prose is thoroughly descriptive without going purple or cluttering the narrative. He's created a rich world with the potential for many stories.

My only complaint would be that the story was too short and a tad bit rushed. Clark could've easily expanded this story into a novel.

4 stars


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Book Review: The Human Division

book cover for The Human DivisionFollowing the events of The Last Colony, John Scalzi tells the story of the fight to maintain the unity of the human race.

The people of Earth now know that the human Colonial Union has kept them ignorant of the dangerous universe around them. For generations the CU had defended humanity against hostile aliens, deliberately keeping Earth an ignorant backwater and a source of military recruits. Now the CU's secrets are known to all. Other alien races have come on the scene and formed a new alliance—an alliance against the Colonial Union. And they've invited the people of Earth to join them. For a shaken and betrayed Earth, the choice isn't obvious or easy.

Against such possibilities, managing the survival of the Colonial Union won't be easy, either. It will take diplomatic finesse, political cunning...and a brilliant "B Team," centered on the resourceful Lieutenant Harry Wilson, that can be deployed to deal with the unpredictable and unexpected things the universe throws at you when you're struggling to preserve the unity of the human race.

This book is actually a collection of serial episodes that were initially released online. I didn't read them when they were released as I was taking a break from Scalzi. I'm glad that I waited for them to be bundled together as that works better for me. While each story is self-contained, strung together they apply to a larger storyline: Who is behind the effort to destroy the Colonial Union's efforts to reunite with Earth and get along with its neighbors? [Highlight to read SPOILER] Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn't in this book. [END SPOILER]

The stories are primarily about the work of the "B Team", a diplomat, her retinue, the ship's captain and crew, and their CDF technical liaison, Lt. Harry Wilson. If you read Old Man's War, he was one of John Perry's buddies. During their adventures, they discover evidence of the larger storyline, but as they try to piece together the clues or climb out of the trap about to spring on them, they always seem to be a step or two behind their adversary.

A few other stories served as background for the reader, but were always relevant to the main storyline. These tended to be darker, a juxtaposition to the B Team's typical "we've stepped in it now" attitude in the face of adversity.

I have to say that I've missed the effortless way that Scalzi can carry a story and develop characters with dialogue. Humor is a big part of that. Good-natured snarky pokes at their jobs or the situations that they're in makes them relatable and thus endearing to this reader. But there's a lot of heart as well. The main characters are good people forced to work in difficult situations with lives at stake, theirs or others. If you're in it up to your neck, there's no time for whining. You just have to do your job and hope that it all works out in the end. When the shit hit the fan in the climactic episode, I couldn't help but care about who made it out alive. And that's an important lesson for all writers, if you want people to come back and read your stories, you'd better give them some characters to root for.

4.25 stars


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book Review: Semiosis

book cover for Semiosis In this character driven novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke, human survival hinges on a bizarre alliance.

Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet's sentient species and prove that mammals are more than tools.

Forced to land on a planet they aren't prepared for, human colonists rely on their limited resources to survive. The planet provides a lush but inexplicable landscape—trees offer edible, addictive fruit one day and poison the next, while the ruins of an alien race are found entwined in the roots of a strange plant. Conflicts between generations arise as they struggle to understand one another and grapple with an unknowable alien intellect.

The book is broken up into seven sections, each with a different narrator from a different generation. Roughly thirty to forty years pass between the first four. The remaining story is told over the span of a couple years. The initial gaps between sections affords the colony a chance to develop and set the stage for the major plot development hinted at early on in the story. For that reason, I didn't mind the gaps, though I regretted seeing a couple of these characters go.

The first section details the arrival of the colonists and the early days of their settlement. Octavo was the narrator, and I rooted for him to solve the colony's initial problems. They were off to a bad start: A navigation error sent them to the wrong planet, and a botched landing destroyed a good chunk of their equipment and supplies. After several deaths, he figures out that the colonists are pawns in a war between two plants. The irony is dispiriting after fleeing an Earth overwhelmed by war and environmental collapse.

But things didn't get any better in section two. Sylvia narrates how the colony leadership, now made up of the few remaining colonists from the first generation, has resorted to rape, murder, and intimidation to maintain control. Burke's colonists named their world Pax. It's another sledgehammer's worth of irony.

These two sections of the book were so bleak that, after finishing them, I had to take a break from the book. While I liked the two narrators, I wasn't too sure about the rest of the colony. When I returned to it, things looked less bleak, but I still didn't care about the colonists and the narrators varied in likeability.

By the time I finished section five I was convinced that Burke didn't like these people either. She beat the crap out of the idealistic first generation only to have them turn bitter, embracing the despotic tactics of the very people that they fled from Earth to keep dissenters and their children in line. A couple of generations later and the colonists are mostly annoying, dirty hippies. In a major encounter, Burke sets them up to fail, crushing the idealism out of the narrator and his like-minded compatriots.

The idea of sentient plants made for an intriguing premise, but I found myself with more questions than answers. The major plant character rattles off its very detailed knowledge of organic chemistry, but no explanation is offered as to how it came to acquire said knowledge. There are no plant schools, nor any surviving members of its kind to pass on this knowledge. I inhale air into my lungs, extract the oxygen molecules, push them through my alveoli into my bloodstream, extract carbon dioxide from blood vessels, and exhale that gas. Not only do I not have to consciously think about doing this, but without the education I've received, a lifetime of breathing would not impart that knowledge to me. Does the plant somehow see or taste—or whatever the botanical equivalent is here—the molecules? I could accept that if offered as an explanation. If I could see molecules, after several millenia of existence, I'm sure that even I could've performed much better in my organic chemistry class.

After finishing this, I'm left to wonder what Burke is trying to say here. Is this a friendly warning that while solving Earth's problems is hard, running away to colonize other worlds is no easier? Is she cynically saying that no matter where people go, whatever their idealistic intentions, they're going to screw things up?

To summarize, great world building but a bleak narrative with cynical messaging and very few characters worth rooting for.

2.5 stars


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Writing Has Resumed

I finally seem to have made enough progress processing my father's death that I'm able to write again. Obviously the real world events of 2020 didn't help to move things along. While terrible things are still going on, it seems that on a personal level I've been able to turn the page.

Over the summer, I was inspired by a status update I saw on Goodreads to write this short story. The idea rattled around my brain, but I wasn't able to write it up until the week after Christmas. It's titled "Staking Sunflowers". It's 2,100 words long and has sci-fi and horror elements in it.

My wife and kids read it and gave their approval. A reading group on Goodreads has given it positive reviews, too. After a few edits, including tacking on a darker ending, I've started reviewing markets that it might work for. First submission and rejection happened yesterday, so I must keep looking. In the meantime, now that it's out of my head, I can get back to working on Gateway.