Month: March 2016

PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE

PrisonerOfConscience_All

PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE
susan r. matthews
Published by Avon Books, 1998.

I admit I do not know this for a fact, but I suspect many readers do not enjoy serious depictions of torture, rape, forced relocation, slavery, subjugation, and characters who justify such a spectrum of atrocities with the entire weight of a societal moral system behind them. Much of the science fiction I have read tends to avoid meditating on such grim fare.

PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE is not most books, and the universe it presents is not like much science fiction I have read. It submerges its characters, its entire universe, deep in precisely such grim fare. And yet it is more than a pornography of misery, for it does not glory in these things, but presents a universe steeped in them which invites reflection. In the spirit of the “what if?” tradition of science fiction, it takes the question of torture and a morality other than ours, constructs a universe and culture and institutions and characters around it, and then story and plot build out of the resulting interactions.

The tale which consequently unravels is difficult, strange, and often-times confusing, as much of the society and characters are so contradictory to the values that I hold dear. The characters conscience such acts that I would consider unconscionable for any good person. And yet it becomes clear that they have their own code of honor and morality, their own balance of guilt and shame, their own boundaries and horror at acts which cross those boundaries.

The writing is well done, and possesses a quality of otherness that is elusive to describe: it does very well at presenting the world, the characters and their thoughts impartially, which contributes a great deal to the atmosphere of the book. The universe is detailed and atypical, and the characters are developed in depth. Still, the book is grim and depicts much unpleasantness, although it is not overly graphic in presenting it. But if that will not disturb you, then it may be an interesting read.

Cover Art Review: Confusing, and utterly unrelated to the story at hand. So, in many ways, a typical science fiction book cover.

The Man Who Never Missed

TheManWhoNeverMissed.jpg

The Man Who Never Missed
By Steve Perry

This is an entry in the field of the “self-made man fixes the galaxy” stories, aka “rags to riches”. I do like this one more than usual, though, as it fits more into the former category than the latter. The underlying concept is great, the action is well written and intense, the main characters’ feats are impressive, and the plot is very well structured.

Typically, these stories have two main issues for me:

  • The lack of plausibility in the protagonist’s complete lack of failure in climbing the ladder.
  • The sheer infeasibility of the plot’s basic premise of one person controlling an entire city/continent/planet/galaxy, often proceeding in that order.

While the first problem is present, Perry structures the plot to minimize these issues. The character’s prolonged reflectance on his plans does much to help minimize this issue. Secondly, while the “upwardly mobile” theme of this type of story does appeal to me as an American, for much of the story Emilie Khadaji engages in sideways mobility rather than upward mobility, building his own skills rather than an empire. Additionally, his goals are not so grandiose, and thus are automatically more plausible.

I found the plot very well structured in how it provided an intense and intriguing opening that hooked me, then pulled back to explain the genesis of the conflict slowly, giving me time to speculate on the conclusion, before returning to the conflict. If you are sick and tired of the Heroes’ Journey archetype, you might find it not interesting, but I found it quite well done.

The secondary characters were all fairly static, but in this instance it is well suited to the story, given its use of the Hero’s Journey archetype. Some warning, there is one character in particular (an “exotic”, a woman-species genetically engineered for prostitution) which some may find problematic or degrading, but to me the story seems to avoid glorifying that, focusing as much on her viewpoint as on how others perceive her.

One thing I definitely enjoyed was the story’s focus on contrasting an overall life plan vs. proceeding with the daily grind. There were moments that captured those “wait, it’s been how many years that I’ve been here doing this same thing?” epiphanies.

This book was published in 1985 by Ace Books, although it looks like I have a reprint by Penguin Books. It is apparently the first book in the Matador series, which I am excited to continue reading further.

COVER ART REVIEW: This is a pretty awesome cover that meshes very well with the story. I love the title font, and the colors all work very well together. Emilie Khadaji seems a bit tall, but that is a minor nitpick.

Crossfire

Crossfire_Front.jpg

A human colony settles on a distant planet, a colony formed by Jake Holman– a man trying to escape a dark past. But as this diverse group of thousands comes to terms with their new lives on a new world, they make a startling discovery: primitive humanoid aliens. There are only a few isolated villages, and the evidence seems to indicate they aren’t native to the planet–despite the aliens living in thatched huts and possessing only primitive tools.

When a handful of human colonists finally learn the truth, they will face the toughest decision of their lives, a decision that could determine not just the fate of their new home, but the fate of all humanity.

 

 

 

CROSSFIRE
NANCY KRESS

I really liked Crossfire. The characters felt believable*, and their personal situations were well tied into the plot. For example, the relationship between father and daughter, or between a man and his criminal past, or the romantic relationship between two characters were all relationships that impacted the plot a great deal. And these are the types of universal-ish situations that we either have been in, probably will be in, or can imagine ourselves being in, and that fact makes the tension regarding how the characters will act in a given situation greater (Will they do it? Won’t they?), and the resolution of their action (and the resulting complications/simplifications of the situation) more satisfying.

*One drawback of this approach was that two of the characters felt hollow, literally just an archetype. But this was only two of a large cast, and it became glaringly obvious only in the latter third of the book, though, so I was safely hooked and in no danger of putting the book down by then.

The scenes are quite discrete in place and time, with gaps of years to months between chapters. At first I found the skips and gaps in time and events to be jarring, but I quickly became used to it, and actually think it provides a stronger sense of plot and theme than if the story were told continuously. I think I settled most into the style around when the larger themes relating to the eponymous “Crossfire” began surfacing.

Something I found quite good was how each character had some sort of philosophical argument underlying their thoughts regarding the current situation, from settlement of the planet and creation of a new society to interaction with the natives, how first contact should be handled, perspectives on when and how wars should be waged corresponding to the stakes, etc.

While I read Crossfire on a Kindle, the book was originally published in 2004 by Tor Science Fiction.

Cover Art Review Mandatory Kindle Notice: Big downside of a Kindle: the cover art is black/white and you rarely see it. Also: doesn’t provide copy of a back cover for me.
Cover Art Review: I… guess that thing in the back is a starship? And that is not entirely how I pictured the natives…

Wolfbane

WOLFBANE

Wolfbane_All

Aliens have kidnapped the Earth and its moon, turned the moon into a dim but serviceable artificial sun, and taken the Earth out into deep space. The human population has dwindled, and society has made major adaptations to manage reduced levels of sunlight and calories available. The only way the aliens interact with humans is with occasional teleportation-based kidnappings. There is nothing humans can do to resist, but there are always those who resist.

Until, of course, a main character is kidnapped, and we see the motivation behind the kidnappings. It is exactly this which gives humanity the chance to resist, and from then on the story is much more enjoyable than the preceding setup regarding the calorically-limited society.

I did not really like the style of this book as I started reading it. There is tension between the serious mood and between the less serious scenes, dialogue, and characters. However, as the plot develops and the story kicks into gear, I found myself enjoying the story more, and my appreciation of what it was doing grew. That jarring tone stayed, but became less important in the face of considering the story’s messages on meditation and warfare. The characters never particularly interested me, but the plot was captivating.

Part of my dislike may stem from how the style is semi-serious but the plot seems like an elaborate joke. However, partway through the book it doubles down on that joke and integrates it into the heart of the plot, rather than using it as a throwaway gag, which is something I chose to respect.

This book was written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, and published in 1976 by Bantam Books.

Cover Art Review: Text so metal. Hair so curly.

Alien Taste

AlienTaste_All.jpgALIEN TASTE

Wen Spencer

ALIEN TASTE is the first book in the UKIAH OREGON series. I liked it very much. Having already read the fourth book in the series, DOG WARRIOR, I already knew many of the characters and concepts, but I feel the novel did a great job at easing the reader into the craziness that is this series’ world. (Then again, there was also much less craziness in ALIEN TASTE than in DOG WARRIOR, so there is that…)

The characters were all well realized, but the highlight was Ukiah. I found the portrayal of Ukiah, his interactions with more normal humans, and his slow journey of understanding what was happening around him genuinely persuasive, interesting, and moving. Something I found particularly impressive was how Wen Spencer integrated his heightened senses and photographic memory into his character, using them to create behaviors that set him apart from other people, rather than (as is done in many novels) just giving him these abilities and having them be things he uses when the plot needs to move on. His tracking abilities were also an incredibly fascinating exploration of the senses beyond sight, and inspired me to pay a lot of extra attention to the sensory details in the world around me and how authors/books translate those into words. His photographic memory and the portrayal of how he uses it was also very well done, as it was rarely used merely to advance the plot, but was integrated into the character as something that he uses on a daily basis.

It’s worth saying again is just how many novel concepts there were in this series, and how well Wen Spencer introduces each of them and integrates them all with each other.

Cover Art: I like the rain. It could be worse… but I feel the picture is not a good representation of Ukiah.

Norse Code

NorseCode_All

NORSE CODE

Several moons ago I read this book by Greg van Eekhout, published in 2009 by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. Fortunately, I took detailed notes.

I give this title full points for cleverness, and the concept is alluring. Unfortunately, for me the novel never realized the concept well. There are enjoyable elements: Greg van Eekhout is clearly well versed with Norse mythology, and I enjoyed many of the scenes that pulled details from the depths of Norse mythology. Some examples include the three wolves, the world tree, Odin’s two ravens, and scenes where the relationships between the Norse gods are on full display. However, where van Eekhout alters the classic Norse mythology to merge it into the modern world, the story often stutters. Several of the mythological characters bring very little of the feel of the gods they are adapted from, and the connection between the two realms is always tenuous.

The story also suffers from strange pacing and flow. The plot always felt confused and drifting to me, with characters motivations and actions  having little to do with what actually transpires, which is one of my pet peeves. The transitions between characters and transitions between scenes were frequent and often jarring, and action scenes / description within scenes often left me wondering exactly what had gone on. I also did not find the main protagonists particularly interesting.

While Ragnarok seems a fairly common trope in fantasy worlds, NORSE CODE does a good job at painting its own version while providing some great authentic mythical Norse flavor. Unfortunately not all elements are integrated so well, and the plot and main characters are less interesting than the concept as a whole.

Cover Art Review: Very well illustrated and meshes well with the actual story. Bonus points for an excellent depiction of gorgeous, luscious hair.

DOG WARRIOR

DogWarrior.jpg

DOG WARRIOR

I am extraordinarily tempted to summarize all of the various things that I suspected this book would be. Let me instead cut straight to the heart of the matter by surgically stating what is important: sadly, the book is not about what you would expect a book titled DOG WARRIOR would be about.

Happily, the book frequently takes much stranger turns than you would expect from a book titled DOG WARRIOR. Aliens, mysterious twin brothers, blood mice, supernatural powers, federal agencies, undercover double agents, invisible red drugs, and motorcycle gangs. It was very refreshing, despite being a lot piled on all at once. There were quite a few concepts used I have not come across, and I read a fair bit.

I am not frequently confused, but for the first half of the novel I was quite befuddled by the switching of character viewpoints, as well as the casual mention of characters, groups, events, relationships, and concepts with very little to no grounding or world-building. Then I checked the book jacket and noticed that DOG WARRIOR was book four in the UKIAH OREGON series. That explains that.

If you like being thrown into the deep end, then I recommend reading DOG WARRIOR before any of the other books in the series. It was that fun of an experience. On the other hand, I genuinely liked the story and characters, and must state that starting from the start would probably be a better approach if you are less into the “meta” aspects of writing (What is this author trying to do? What is this person’s relationship / role? How normal is this blood mice thing?! Wait, WHAT HOW HE DO THAT), and more into the “enjoying a story with a bunch of novel stuff going on.”

I will review the other three books in time, so when it comes to plot, I just want to touch on one great bit of emergent behavior that came from me reading this book before the other three. DOG WARRIOR is the finale, and starts with Ukiah Oregon’s unbeknownst-to-both-of-them twin brother, Atticus Steele, finding Ukiah tied up in the trunk of some criminals’ car. That chunk is told from Atticus’ perspective, and so I imprinted on Atticus Steele, and was suspicious of Ukiah for most of the book. But Ukiah is the protaganist of the first three books, so anyone who read the first three books would be imprinted on Ukiah, and suspicious of Atticus. I thought this was awesome, if unintentional.

In general, DOG WARRIOR does a great job of taking all the characters, groups, and concepts from the last three books, bringing in new characters (Atticus et al.) in a way that builds suspense and works well, building ominously to the climax, and having a satisfying resolution that doesn’t really leave you wanting more, because it was well ended.

DOG WARRIOR was published in 2004 by ROC, a publishing group at the Penguin Group.

Cover Art Review: . . . The writing is much better.

Hegira

Hegira.JPG

Today I finished reading Hegira, by Greg Bear, published by TOR. The text is copyrighted 1979, and notes a revision in 1987.

Hegira was intriguing and had a unique feel to it. For a story of adventure and travel, the tone is rather calm and reflective for much of the book, although there are periods of grim dread as well as tense action at times. Hegira follows the journey of three people across the surface of Hegira, seeking knowledge of the world and the truth: Bey Bar-Woten, an Ibisian soldier, Barthel, Bar-Woten’s man-servant, and Kiril, a young scrittori scribe from Mediwen. They are all well developed, Kiril and Bey more so. The narrative flows from all three of their perspectives, often without a clear transition. Surprisingly, this was only jarring a few times. I think this is part of what lends the book its unique feel, in how despite their vastly different backgrounds and outlooks, they share the same goal and drive, and this technique of melding their perspectives shows that.

The Obelisk concept works greatly to establish that unique feel. Bear uses it especially well to explain and develop the world believably. Hegira is a highly intriguing mix of cultures, philosophies, societies, and economies, which is interesting not only intellectually but also has ramifications for the societal and character interactions that drive the plot. There is also a mystery woven into the entire story that compelled me to keep reading, the mystery of Hegira, the obelisks, and the truth of the world. I would say the story becomes less interesting and believable as more of the mystery is revealed and the end approaches, but it is not a fatal failing. I could see where the plot was going, but the exact contours were still a reveal.

COVER ART REVIEW: Super awesome, and does a great deal to convey the concept behind the obelisks.