Review: Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson

This was an odd time-travel story. The only thing that travelled back in time, really, was information, but it did so in an impressive way. Giant statues and monoliths began popping up in southeast Asia to commemorate some warlord’s victory… twenty-three years into the future. They result in political instability in the region as well as study in how such things are possible. This ends up being the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy: scientists figure out how to make these happen and the affected regions start falling apart, making them ripe targets for any warlord who wants to snatch up the mantle and declare himself to be the anonymous Kuin.

This was a pretty high-concept book, and the style was more literary than I’m used to seeing. In some cases, however, I felt it was more literary than it needed to be. Specifically, the author got into a habit of telling events out of order – not because of any time travel, but just because he felt like it. That got a little old, but it was not prevalent enough to make me stop reading.

So, all in all, it was okay. I liked the concepts involved, but the telling of it was not to my taste.

Review: Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein

This was one of Heinlein’s juvenile books from the 1950s. It’s the tale of a young slave, Thorby, rise from the very bottom of society – a beggar’s slave – to the pinnacle of corporate wealth and power. I confess my motivation for reading this was that someone compared a bit of my own work to it, so I thought I would go check it out. I hadn’t read any Heinlein in perhaps 20 years, so I figured it was time to look again.

It was okay. Mostly, it simply didn’t age well. Maybe it was that it had been written as juvenile, which back in the 1950s was aimed quite a bit lower than today’s Young Adult fiction, or maybe it was merely that SF and narrative styles have changed a lot in 60 years. There were a number of sociological ideas that were belabored in a “Hey, look at my cool idea” way. That was fairly common in the early love affair between science fiction and libertarianism, but it’s kind of dated now. Also, the narrative style was a somewhat clutzy omniscient POV, which has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. As such, it robbed the story of the kind of punch-in-the-gut immediacy that I’ve come to enjoy in current fiction.

Nonetheless, it painted a broad canvas for humanity, and took our young Thorby through quite a bit of it. It did, however, end on something of a cliffhanger. Sure, things are more or less resolved, but there’s this big, fat challenge sitting out in front of our hero, and then the tale ends. As far as I know, he did not write a sequel, so it’s just left hanging.

So, I think that for its intended audience of kids in the 1950s, it was spot-on. Today, less so.

Review: WWW: Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer

This is the second in Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, where we see the world wide web emerge into a conscious entity, making first contact with a blind girl whose sight has been restored through a computer implant along her optic nerve.

Now in the second book, we have young Caitlin deciding who to trust with the knowledge of the Webmind and what to do about it. Meanwhile, the story of the sign-language chimp finally connects properly with the rest of the story, and some of the world government’s begin to take notice of what’s going on.

I found this book more grounded and believable than the first. The way various people reacted was pretty much spot-on. The optimistic people imagined the possibilities. The paranoid people saw the danger. It was very much a first-contact situation with the full spectrum of reactions.

I’m definitely looking forward to the conclusion WWW: Wonder, but I’m pacing myself.

Review: This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman

This is one of the annual Edge Question books, where the Edge website asks several prominent thinkers an interesting question. The result is a collection of short essays answering that question. Past questions have included “What do you believe but cannot prove?”, “ What have you changed your mind about?”, and my favorite so far, “What are you optimistic about?” The question that spawned this book was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Like most of these Edge books there were a few answers that were thinly veiled screeds against religion, but for the most part, the answers were pretty good. They included things like the Pareto Principle (aka the 80-20 rule), the idea of positive-sum games, that you can demonstrate danger but cannot demonstrate safety, that correlation is not causation, and black swan technologies. There are about 150 in all, and they give good food for thought.

My recommendation is to read this a little bit at a time, perhaps an answer or two each day. It takes a while, but it keeps the brain from getting numb.

Review: Princep’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the fifth book in Butcher’s Codex Alera, where a nation of elementalists is struggling through war, infighting, and a difficult succession. In this installment, Tavi is across the sea helping his new allies deal with some problems of their own, while things actually go from bad to catastrophic back home. The First Lord fights a losing battle against the Vord, while others uncover some secrets about what started the whole problematic succession in the first place.

As much as I enjoyed the earlier books, this one rose to the challenge and raised the bar even further. Tavi, who grew up as a poor child without any command of the elements (aka the “furies”), has spent a lifetime learning to adapt. Instead of overpowering his enemies, he has had to outthink them. His talents shone here more than ever before as he faced down the implacable Vord. Even the First Lord Gaius Sextus – the most powerful man in the world — found himself wishing for Tavi’s insight back home.

The ending, while resolving things for the moment, was also an excellent cliffhanger. It would seem that all the cards are now on the table. All the last-ditch heroics have been done. It’s all down to Tavi to rise to the occasion and… well… save the world is not exaggerating. I will be diving into First Lord’s Fury very soon.

Review: Rule of Evidence, by John G. Hemry

This is the third of Hemry’s (aka Jack Campbell’s) “JAG in Space” series, following the legal complications in Paul Sinclair’s career in the United States’ space navy. He is still serving aboard the USS Michaelson, and now he has risen up to the rank of Lieutenant. He is still the ship’s legal officer which is how he is usually dragged into the legal matters in the first place.

This time the legal drama hits closer to home for young Sinclair as someone close to him ends up in the crosshairs of a serious investigation. Instead of being a nominally neutral player in the legal games, this time he is hard over in the camp of the defense counsel, going up against the toughest prosecutor he knows. It’s not just personal. It’s desperate.

Overall I liked the book, but a couple of anachronisms bothered me. First, there was more of this notion of “US-controlled space” vs. “SAA-controlled space”. That bugged me in the first book, and it was back in full force here. Yes, I get the on-Earth naval parallels, but they did not translate well into space where the borders in deep space seemed to have no correlation to any planetary asset. Then there was a defense contractor conspiracy that seemed to be lifted right out of the Pentagon Papers. That translated into the future somewhat better – greed and ambition will always be with us – but I still found myself annoyed by it.

Still, the courtroom drama was good, and I liked the more personal stakes this time. I didn’t like it as much as the second book, but I will likely look for book #4 in due time.

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City, by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is a legend in the podcasting community, from her award winning “I Should Be Writing” show back to her early years of “Geek Fu Action Grip” show. She has been publishing in small and indie press for a while, but this is something of a breakout novel for her. She recently won the Campbell Award for best new writer, and she has more books in the pipeline.

This is the story of Zoe, a down-on-her-luck travel writer in the big city. It’s not actually new to her, since much of childhood was actually in New York, but now she is on her own, unemployed, and feeling pretty low. But then she stumbles upon the city’s underworld of coterie, the polite term for monsters of every stripe from dragons to zombies. She is just desperate enough for work to get over her squeamishness and take a job writing a travel guide for New York monsters, pointing out the best hotels, entertainment, and *gulp* feeding grounds.

I liked it. It was a good exploration of the coterie culture and how it interacted with our world, both in secret and somewhat in public. The conflict managed to tie in with Zoe’s personal story, and it all came together nicely at the end. I suppose my only complaint was that the ending kept building battle up on battle. After a certain point through that escalation, I started feeling detached from the tale and the fates of the characters. Still, I’m looking forward to the next book where she attempts to do a similar guide for New Orleans.

Review: Captain’s Share by Nathan Lowell

This is the fifth in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series, following the life of Ishmael Wang as he rises through the ranks of merchantmen. As the title suggests, this is the book where Ishmael finally becomes a captain, but that’s not all that happens.

It’s been a long gap since we left Ishmael in Double Share where he had gotten his first posting as an officer. In fact, it’s been over ten years, and while some things have remained the same, quite a few others have changed. While Ishmael is still on the same ship, now he’s first mate, and back on station, he has a wife. Pride and Prejudice fans should enjoy the opening homage.

Like all of the Solar Clipper series, this is not a tale of gripping adventure or thrilling crisis. This is the work-a-day world of a guy making the system function, day after day. Strangely, Lowell turns what some would call a detraction into an asset. If you’ve ever wished you could live on a starship, then this series is pure wish-fulfillment. If you’re that kind of reader, then even the routine things will fascinate you.

For this particular book, there are some rather dicey moments before Ishmael makes captain where he has to do a salvage operation on a dead ship. What is particularly chilling is that had Ishmael not made the choices he made back in Double Share, this was precisely the kind of fate that awaited him and his crewmates. Sloppiness kills in space, and this was a gruesome object lesson.

Once he becomes a Captain, of course, he had all new troubles. He was given the runt of the fleet, complete with all the problems you can imagine: rebellious crew, lazy and crazy officers, crappy ship performance, and poor profits. As always, he tackled them straight on. He made a few missteps along the way, but as always, Ishmael found his way. I had expected a bit more pushback from the crew and officers on this, but it seems they were desperate for any improvement.

So, if you’ve already been reading the Solar Clipper series, you probably already have this. If not, check it out.

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

This is the tale of those poor schmucks in red who always seem to die just to prove how serious things are for Captain Twerk and Mr. Smock. Their situation is exactly as ridiculous and lethal as you would think. These poor blokes beam down with the landing party, and the killer robots announce their presence by shoving a jagged spike through some poor bastard’s red-shirted back. Or maybe it’s the subterranean sand sharks, or the exploding instrument panel. Whatever the threat, stage-left of Captain Twerk is probably the most dangerous place in the universe.

In short, it’s a hellish life filled with random brutality, and there is no way to transfer off this ship unless you’re fated to be killed in the exiting shuttle. There’s nothing they can do about it, and they can see the statistics on the wall just like anyone else – anyone except the dashing officers, of course. But then, one day, the find out why this is happening to them.

The why, of course, is the big reveal of the novel, and if you haven’t already heard it, it’s worth letting the book reveal it in its own way. But that’s not the end of it. Nope. The real tale is what these unlucky corpses-to-be decide to do about it, and I have to admit that even though I saw where it might be going, I was impressed by how they pulled it off.

Now, this novel also has three “codas”, and it gets a lot of grief over that. These are basically three short stories that follow the natural consequences of what happens in the main novel. They’re not properly part of the same conflict and climax, but they are necessary collateral storylines that would have normally been left hanging. Instead, Scalzi wraps them up and does a good job with them. My only complaint was that he got a little too artsy in his choice of POV. That the first and third stories were in first person and third person respectively was just fine. But telling the second one in second person was a contrivance too far. I got what he was doing, but I felt it was unnecessarily awkward.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s Scalzi’s best work by far, but I won’t begrudge it the Hugo award.

Review: Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

This is the second Mercy Thompson book, and it built nicely on top of the first one. In fact, I recall what seemed like an unnecessary vampire diversion in the first book, and this book is where that pays off. Here, Mercy gets called upon by her tie-dye loving hippy vampire friend to do one little favor, except nothing can ever be that simple for poor Mercy.

It turns out there’s another vampire feeding in town, and he doesn’t want to pay homage to the local vampires like a polite bloodsucker. Instead, he’s daring them to stop him, and when they try, it turns out he’s more than he appears. This leads to a full-on hunt including both other vampires and some of Mercy’s werewolf friends. For a while, Mercy gets sidelined since this particular hunt is way above her pay-grade, but when the hunt goes bad, it’s time for her to take matters into her own hands again.

The book was well-paced – even the portion where Mercy was sidelined had its share of conflict – and Mercy’s talents gave her a role even when no one else believed in her. About the only thing that threw me was… well, this is treading into spoiler territory, but the story wasn’t really over when I thought it was. There was still action yet to come.

All in all, a good tale, and book #3 is working its way through my in-pile.