Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

May 18, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is a brilliant book. As with most amazing books there’s not a lot I can say other to strongly recommend it. The premise is a new spin on the traditional SF colonization. When the ship arrives at the colony long before the narrative of the book begins, the crew uses their unique access to technology to make themselves the controlling elite. The unusual aspect comes when they choose the Hindu religion as their method of control. The technology the ordinary people (and indeed soon many of the “gods” themselves) no longer understand provides the gods their powers while a device for transferring consciousness to vat-grown bodies and further means to examine the memory of that person in the process allows them to create a karmic reincarnation system. This is all the backdrop for the main character’s struggle against the authority. The tricky bit is he does this by starting Buddhism, even though he is not really a Buddhist himself.

With so many religious elements and a complicated cast, most authors would make a real mess of this. Zalazny not only vividly draws the characters but does an absolute bang-up job with the religious aspects. Admittedly I am a westerner and have little direct experience with either of the two Eastern religions featured, but everything was really well-written. Very strongly recommended.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

May 16, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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This is probably the most acclaimed humor novel in science fiction and fantasy that does not have the word “Hitchhiker” in the title. Despite knowing this I only got around to reading this recently, in part because Pratchett, unlike Adams, for me was only polite-smile funny for the most part in the few books of his I’ve read. This was not really an exception. Like any comedy there were hits and misses, but for me the real failing was the long stretches in the second half where it didn’t seem to be trying to be funny at all. Perhaps that was Gaiman’s influence. Whatever the cause, when it started taking itself seriously it was pretty much a write-off for me since I was not at all interested in the plot or the characters. As I said, however, this book has a large contingent of people who absolutely love it, so it’s certainly worth a try, especially if you are a Pratchett fan.

Berserkers: The Beginning by Fred Saberhagen

May 16, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Because of the book’s age I didn’t have high expectations for this one, and further damping my enthusiasm was the cover of the Baen edition: “Your Galaxy Is Toast, Monkey Boys!” Imagine my surprise to find it was not a Doc Smith space opera but something that is actually pretty sophisticated. The premise is now a trope but I think was pretty original at the time: autonomous, self-replicating machines created long ago as weapons are out to destroy all life in the universe. The book is really a collection of short stories that share a common universe and occasionally common characters, all revolving around humans struggling against the Berserkers. Like any collection there are hits and misses, and the framing device of an alien historian doesn’t add much of anything, but it’s solid stuff. Saberhagen makes the work the writers of Star Trek did with the Borg (who had to have been inspired by Berserkers in the first place) look shoddy. He gives the Berserkers both the implacable nature of a malevolent computer as well as an intelligence that is both cunning and alien. The human characters are a little on the Asimov side of the spectrum, but not too far. All in all it comes together quite well, and I can see why his work has entered the common language of science fiction even though most people under 30 haven’t read it.

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

May 10, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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fter writing what despite its many unique elements is a surprisingly traditional military book in Warrior’s Apprentice and a book that blended the military aspects with conspiracy in Vor Game, Bujold goes entirely to the conspiracy in Cetaganda. Really this is a detective novel which happens to have a space operaish SF setting. There are pros and cons to this, of course. The eugenics-based society of Cetaganda is an interesting one, although the people living in it are somewhat disappointingly normal. This makes the somewhat inevitable connect-the-dots nature of this and most detective novels a fun read. This is the best writing I have seen from Bujold, with the possible exception of the short story “Mountains of Mourning” (also a detective story). However Miles is wearing a little thin. I don’t buy his height at all…4’9″ is just ridiculously short. He is referred to as being shoulder high, but this seems awfully charitable to me. I’ve decided the books are best read with Miles around 5’3 or so in the mind’s eye…it makes it more believable that he would be taken seriously and makes up for the many sloppy uses of terms like “someone was at his shoulder” or “at his elbow” and so forth. That is a minor issue. The major issue is Miles is a jerk. He’s nice to people, but a jerk towards his own country, which is even less forgivable, especially in light of the values Miles himself claims to hold. In previous books his constant going-it-alone was played down, but here he does it himself expressly because he wants to be a hero and get promoted. Ugh. My sister has told me he doesn’t get away with this forever, but I’m wondering if it is worth it. Miles is so carefully drawn as a nice, smart guy I’ll probably feel bad if he gets the crushing he deserves, but infuriated if he doesn’t. At any rate, Cetaganda is a textbook example of good light reading.

The Great Wheel by Ian R Macleod

May 9, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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In this book Ian Macleod shows two great strengths as a writer: evocative scenes and realistic character. Unfortunately, you could argue that his characters, in particular his main character, are a little too realistic. Additionally the mood he his evoking is a mellow, sad feeling about lost opportunities and small dreams. This feeds into the realism of the main character: lost opportunities and small ambitions are very realistic. However, that’s not necessarily something you want to read about. The book concerns the interactions between the first world, represented by Europe and particularly the main character’s (and Macleod’s) Britain, and the third world, represented here by a massive slum covering hundreds of square miles of polluted, radiation-poisoned ground in the Middle East. The main character is a first world doctor at a missionary hospital trying to help the poor in the face of apathy from his fellow Europeans and resentment from those he wants to help. There’s no way an even mildly realistic story along these lines can hope to resolve the problems of its world, or even the problems of its character. Macleod is going for an exploration of and meditation on these themes and while he certainly succeeds the result is curiously unfulfilling. It’s not easy to put a finger on but I’ve decided the problem is this really shouldn’t be a science fiction novel. This criticism threatens to open up a whole other can of worms, but for the moment let’s just say that while I feel SF at its best is always about humanity and the present, a book loses a lot of immediacy by taking problems of today, transplanting them 60 years in the future, and drastically changing the societal structure around them. If Macleod was trying to do a strong allegory I missed it, and failing that while the overall themes are certainly similar his de-nationalized and amorphous third world just doesn’t snyc up with our problems today. My insistence that it does comes from the nature of the book: a sad and heartfelt examination of the contradictions of the first/third world interactions. If I don’t feel like it is relevant to present times, then I just don’t really care, and that leaves the book with very little to stand on. Hopefully you can see from this that The Great Wheel is a good, well-written book that just didn’t connect with me. I’m sure others will find it to be brilliant. Recommended to those who are looking for a book without whiz-bang action but character and introspection.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

May 1, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Altered Carbon is an SF detective novel, a somewhat neglected subgenre. Unlike many previous attempts, such as Brin’s Kiln People and Adams’ Dirk Gently books, this takes SF noir and plays it straight. It’s sufficiently noir that it really has lot more in common with Neuromancer than with Caves of Steel. Fortunately it comes off well. It also passes the second test, in that it isn’t just a normal detective novel with spaceships instead of cars. As the main character explores the seedy underworld in search for clues, the author explores the effects of personality backups, virtual reality prisons, and vat-grown spare bodies. This might also sound a little like Kiln People but where Brin made duplication technology ubiquitous but impermanent, Roberts makes his expensive but long-lasting…the latter meaning both the bodies and the storage of personality. The ramifications of the technology are well-drawn, but I found the characters and plot only moderately engaging. Important elements of the main character’s past are left more or less unexplained. While that leaves it open for sequels (and indeed there has since been a sequel) it left me without much in the way of a connection to the cypher of a main character. Still it’s a good read, stays consistent straight through to the end, and I recommended it.

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