Tag: science fiction

Tactics of Mistake

Tactics of Mistake front and back cover.

 

Tactics of Mistake was an enjoyable read. It’s worth noting that I generally like Gordon R. Dickson’s work, and have read a scattering of his Dorsai novels. The main weakness in this story is how well Cletus Grahame predicts events and people’s actions. There are a handful of cases where things go awry, but these setbacks are small scale and grounded in chance, not in a failure of Cletus’ strategic and tactical acumen. For the one main character to be consistently entirely correct is entertaining, but feels quite artificial, and crushed my suspension of disbelief. However, turns out I didn’t need it anyways. Cletus’ insights are always grounded in considering the environment or his opponent’s goals and psyche. In that regard, it is less a matter of Cletus being prescient and more a matter of it being unbelievable that all his opponents are incapable of making similar insights.

While there are many definitions of science fiction, one of the more prevalent is that science fiction asks “what if this set of changes happened? How would that change the world?” In that vein, Tactics of Mistake explores how the use of mercenary forces in colonial battles might affect the structure of combat organizations and the skills and outlook required for soldiers and officers. The introduction of the mental power of concentration and how useful that is for soldiers is fascinating, especially given the current trend promoting mindfulness and meditation for efficiency improvements in the workplace. Cletus is the vector for pretty much all of this considerations, and that gives the book a strong “one self-made man changes the universe” vibe.

There is also a romantic subplot that has to my eyes not aged particularly well.

Cover Art Review: Sublime! I really really like the shading on the jacket and the color palette used, especially the contrast of the stark white book title, the fiery glow of the background, and the blue military uniform in the foreground.

 

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The Tomorrow Log

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When trying to summarize this, my first attempt came out to “What even is I don’t even but whaaa…” But it is essential to note that this confusion feels masterful and intentional. This is not a lack of skill, this is Lee and Miller throwing together a surreal world and, through excellent execution, getting you to care about it and want to figure it out. Sharon Lee and Steven Miller produce fascinating cultures/societies as always, with stellar writing and amazing, evocative turns of phrase does a great job at submersing you into this weird little universe. If you have read books from their Liaden series, then this will feel familiar, but strange.

I honestly could not figure out how to define this as I was reading it. In the jacket description, Gem is named a wizard – literal description or metaphorical description of his mechanical training? Spaceships, communicators – science fiction? Houses and clans, powerful artifacts – fantasy? Action, drama, and advanced medical tech – sci-fi? Speculative fiction? Science fantasy? Mythos? I quickly decided that whatever it was, it felt magical and I liked it. This may sound inconsequential, but often knowing the genre you are reading sets a certain mood and expectation, and here nothing was certain.

The Tomorrow Log is also on a treadmill of crazy. It starts out fairly reasonable, but then slowly picks up craziness and gets crazier and more cray until it’s just blasting along and you don’t even care that it feels incoherent because it’s such a strange and evocative adventure and your brain is spinning hard to connect pieces to make sense of it.

Cover Art Review: This is a pretty great depiction of feeling of the novel. Dark, mysterious, but with playful elements. Additionally, it’s hilarious to me that this rendering of Gem ser’Edreth looks a little like Neil Patrick Harrison.

Starship Troopers

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In my opinion, Heinlein is generally pretty good. Starship Troopers is a classic science fiction work, and classic Heinlein. It is a classic science fiction work in that once you read it, chances are you will recognize elements of it in many other military science fiction works. It is classic Heinlein in that the writing is generally very good at creating a cohesive setting with characters who fit in very well, interesting, and compelling. However, there are also many pages of lecturing (literally, in-setting lectures) and philosophizing about why the only possible society is one that is paternalistic, libertarian, enmeshed in total war, denying representation to non-military personnel, etc. (Keep in mind, the first publication date of this novel is 1959.) There definitely were parts I found provoked thought, and parts which I found did not, or were thoroughly unconvincing in that they did not try to convince, but simply stated and assumed truths. So, quite simply: some people will love this, some people will hate this.

The story follows the life of a private of the Terran Mobile Infantry. It is a detailed depiction of the daily life and overall career path of a trooper, as opposed to a singular depiction of rare and heroic actions. I have no idea how accurate it is to the actual process of military training, but it feels quite realistic, albeit simultaneously idealized and romanticized.

Also, the enemy is a species of giant alien space bugs. This is a firmly established trope in sci-fi by now, and I think this is one of the works that launched it into prominence.

Cover Art Review: Aside from reminding me of a certain Star Wars prequel movie that was not terrible but not great, this is a pretty decent cover. I like that it is a full wrap, not just one image used on the front/back covers. There is also a lot of detail given on the military choppers, and the infantry being small and not in the foreground gives you a proper sense of scale. It sticks to its color palette a bit too much for my taste, though, and the font face clashes distractingly with the illustration.

Side Note:If you want to play Starship Troopers: Basically The Book But A Video Game That Only Has The Fighting Bits, Earth 2024 B-Movie Edition, then you should check out a video game that just came out called Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Terror. You play as a member of the EDF, fighting giant insects and alien robots that are invading Earth in 2024. Just saying, slaughtering giant ants by the hundreds, getting killed by scores of giant spiders, experiencing the joys of friendly fire… fun times!

Fantastic Voyage: Microcosm

FantasticVoyageMicrocosm_All.jpg Fantastic Voyage: Microcosm is an action-oriented adventure with a solid if-scientifically-preposterous concept, some great ideas and some very tense, gripping scenes. The characters are well developed, but in such a way that it builds up a comfortable archetype by focusing on their field of expertise and the interactions with the other members of the team. I never perceived the characters as people, but more in terms of actors playing a part. That may be because the style and plot structure put me in mind of a Hollywood novelization.

The story kicks it off in high gear, showing the incident resulting in the human possession of the alien pod. The international cooperation aspect, with the United States and the post-USSR Russia working together on the down low, is also very interesting, although I wish it had been a more prominent part of the story. The internal US politicking was less engaging, although it was brief. The meat of the story takes place within the alien pod itself. Aside from the preposterous concept (miniaturization of macro-scale objects), Anderson does a great job at weaving cell biology, physiology, and xenology / alien first contact protocols together.

COVER ART REVIEW: I am disappointed. I love the color palette and the silver-embossed text. But in terms of images, there’s nothing to look at! Just a vague reddish haze fading to black, and the vertical purple bar disfiguring the cover is beyond bizarre as well. While they are INSIDE the body of an ALIEN, all we see here on the cover are two short tubes with spikes and one or two attached molecules. A real disappointment, especially when you consider the truly alien environments in “The Inner Life of the Cell” video produced by Harvard University and XVIVO in 2006, or the “Powering the Cell: Mitochondria” video.

The Martian

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The Martian is one hell of an experience. It feels much more like a documentary of things that actually happened than a fictional story. It is a plausible story that could conceivably take place within the next thirty years. More importantly, it’s a really amazing story.

There are two main forms to the story: Mark Watney’s journal, and scenes from Earth characters’ perspectives. Weir balances both forms of narrative superbly, giving the reader a complete picture while Watney tries to get in touch with NASA and NASA desperately tries to learn more about Watney.

The plot is well structured, and a great example of an organic plot. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars by a freak accident, and has to survive. Every plan he makes, part he scavenges, and decision he makes has to take into account all the necessary variables that surviving alone on Mars entails. None of the challenges he faces are arbitrary. Mark Watney sets out a plan and follows it, but reworks it or scraps it as necessary to adjust to reality. This in particular made the book and character feel like a great anti-venom to the toxic political climate of the current time. The plot is paced extremely well to boot.

While Watney is the man trapped on Mars, the chapters on Earth show the reaction, planning, and work of a wide array of personnel at NASA and JPL. This part is essential, both in terms of plot and in terms of showing how space missions are a group endeavor of thousands of people, rather than solely the work of six astronauts. The chronicles on Earth reads as authentically as the personalities and decisions taken during NASA’s actual space programs such as Gemini or Apollo.

Outriders

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I really enjoyed reading this. It was very smooth, and felt more like a conventional spec-ops novel translated into the future, than a novel about a future with a spec-ops time, but in a good way. The world felt very natural: the characters had neat tech and tools, and the environment and power dynamics were different, but close enough to be familiar, and their operating procedure seemed pretty familiar as well. The plot is smooth in a similar fashion, with an excellent flow and only a few arbitrary connections.

The book was tense, but not negatively so: I generally had faith that the characters could handle whatever they got into, excepting a handful of situations: as a result, those scenes were very intense.

I like the characters. The protagonists are all reasonable, professional, capable people, and they work together as a team. They generally are fine with each others’ company, and banter somewhat, but know there is a time and place for it. That is really refreshing. The antagonists are also mostly not evil sadistic monsters, but are professionals who know full well the human cost of their actions and feel it. They are chilling in a way that is impossible for stereotypical villains to be.

The ending obviously sets up the possibility for more books, and I wanted to yell at the characters for missing some really obvious clues about this.

COVER ART REVIEW: I am going to be honest: I bought the book because its front cover looked great and grabbed my eye and made me wonder what was going on, and the back cover text explained it perfectly and made me go YES. The art is very slick and top notch, and filled with intrigue: we can’t see who is in the suit, but they clearly mean business. We can’t really see where they are, but it’s clear they are in space. We don’t know what the deal with the suit is, but it’s clear it’s high-tech and dangerous. I don’t know who the Outriders are, but whoever they are, they are high-octane and lead interesting, dangerous lives. I also really like the color palette: the artist does a lot with a very limited palette.

The Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark - Front and Back Cover.

I am having trouble figuring out how to write about The Speed of Dark, so I will start with the most important part: this book is very good and very powerful. It is literally mind-changing, in that it takes you and puts you into the mind of Lou Arrendale. There are sections written from the viewpoints of other characters, and these sections are important in how they provide context, give us a break from Lou’s viewpoint, and recognize plot in ways that Lou wouldn’t be able to. But these sections aside, the book largely focuses on Lou: how he sees the world and other people, how other people see him, and how he interacts with the world, and all of it is extremely absorbing.

Reading often has an influence on how my mode of thought for a few hours: read a collection of speeches by American presidents, and my thoughts will be longer, wordier, more eloquent. Read a chapter of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and my thoughts will be more clipped, casual, slang-y and strange. After reading The Speed of Dark, my mind would occasionally slip into Lou’s pattern of thought, and it would jerk me back to thinking about the book, how Lou sees the world and what he would make of the situation before me. That is powerful.

It is also worth noting that The Speed of Dark is a novel, not a series of vignettes describing one person’s life. There is a fully fleshed out plot that is believable, gripping, and compelling, with multiple subplots woven into the mix. The question of whether Lou would accept the cure or not had me biting my nails in suspense, and the ending was extraordinarily emotional.

The book shatters preconceptions. Sure, Lou is autistic, but he still has a life, still has a job and hobbies. He does not understand social interactions the same as others do, but he is hardly the picture of inappropriate social behavior, a stereotype often associated with autism. As one character says in the story, Lou manages far better than many people who don’t have a recognized mental disorder. In the end, what matters isn’t how labels apply to people or how people fit into various categories, but who the person is and how they see the world.

That said, The Speed of Dark does take place in the future, with some regulatory and medical developments that constrain the effects of disability. This is one way the book purposefully limits its depiction of autistics to functioning autistics, rather than depicting those who are more severely hindered by autism.

Cover Art Review: I think this cover set the mood for the story pretty well.  It is dark, haunting, and uncertain.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt

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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is a book I started reading months ago, put down after the first few chapters, and picked it up again recently and started over from the beginning. I am glad I gave the book another shot. The first few chapters are sad and overwhelming. Much more important than the tragedy that opens the story, though, is Vince’s moving depiction of how memory, grief, and the need for continued survival can all coexist and drive a recovery. The characters are our main lenses into the societies of Heaven Belt, and as flawed and unlikeable as some of them are, they feel tangible and believable.

Betha and the Ranger’s role as outsiders from Morningside fallen into the chaos of Heaven Belt sets up the inevitable comparisons between the three main societies of Heaven Belt: The Demarchists, The Ringers, and Lansing. Each society has adapted to the fall of Heaven Belt and their new-found vulnerability to environmental threats in different ways. This felt incredibly strong, especially given how each society’s available resources and territory guided their differential responses. One weakness is an over-reliance on telling rather than showing. There are some examples where Vince directly shows the culture in action, such as the mediamen circus on Betha’s arrival in the Demarchy, or where Vince uses characters behavior to get at social norms, for example Shadow Jack’s treatment of others, and these scenes are very effective. Scenes where characters spend a paragraph describing their culture and explaining how it’s different to the other feel more contrived.

One key aspect to each society is how they protect their women from cosmic radiation, and thus ensure the continuation of their society with a new generation of healthy children. None of the cultures fare very well by the standards of current Western society, but what makes this especially interesting is how these societies are confronted by an ‘alien’ ship captained by a woman, visibly challenging their beliefs and shaking their conviction. An explanation of why men are not similarly prized against the radiation is less convincing, although at one point a character explains they can freeze sperm, but not ova, which seems reasonable enough.

Confusingly enough, the ending was simultaneously utterly contrived feeling while also feeling perfectly reasonable and believable. Still not entirely sure how that’s possible.

COVER ART REVIEW: I love it! The gas giant and the teeny planetoid in the bottom right corner caught my eye as being particular awesome, and the ships are gorgeous. A great example of vintage cover art.

The Star Fox

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The Star Fox is suffused with an eclectic, vibrant atmosphere. Whether it’s Vadasz bursting into singing and strumming, Gunnar Heim’s cursing, shouting, and plotting, Uthg-a-K’thaq’s crab accent and practical nature, or the ardent French patriotism that is the cornerstone of Heim’s voyage, there is always a character full of life on the stage, pushing the story onwards with their pep and vive. I have read some stories with a similar plot concept – hero figure acts outside the law in order to prevent an alien menace from overwhelming Earth humans – but Anderson brews a feeling of real import and urgency behind Heim’s journey.

The story was published in the mid 1960s (1964 by Signet Books, of The New American Library), which in practice means that to me, the language, descriptions, and environments all feel delightfully “retro futuristic”. However, this comes with its problems – the characters who actually go out, do things, know things, and have long conversations about politics and science are mainly manly male men. Female characters are there largely to be admired, woo’d, captured, or to confuse men, or to serve as minor advisory characters. The book also spends a fair amount of time on Gunnar Heim’s romantic life, where he largely is agonizing over his romantic life, rather than actually having a romantic life. I found this was actually a good vehicle to delve into his character, as well as being generally entertaining. However, moving on, the novel does a particularly good job at not only showing Earth’s unified World Federation and how its constituents from different places and backgrounds work together, but also showing the cracks in unity resulting from the different views and opinions of its members. It is also interesting to me in that it is particularly European-focused.

There is an oddness to the plot pacing and structure. The story flows at a fluid pace for the first 40-ish pages, jetting through days and weeks of time. Suddenly, the story becomes mired in a particular stretch of days. After this, the story skips ahead several weeks once again, before finally settling into a more sedate pace that favors scene over summary, until it finally skips one last time. Additionally, many of the obstacles and difficulties Heim and his crew encounters have little to do with his actual goal, but with the random obstacles encountered on the way, and much of the voyage and the actual enacting of the plan is skipped over in the process. It’s a little disappointing, as the novel led me to believe we were going to have a story focused heavily on the execution of Gunnar Heim’s plan, and then it ended up with that mainly being the driver for other conflicts to unfold. Still, I greatly enjoyed reading The Star Fox, as the bulk of the plot was gripping and I enjoyed the style and the characters. If you enjoy retro-feeling futurism, this might be a book to check out.

COVER ART REVIEW: I am pretty sure that the Star Fox looked nothing like a giant floating head, nor did any of the character’s heads have giant fins and booster engines on them. However, I do like the coloration of the planetoids, especially the hatching fade-to-black effect. Also, I am torn over the advert for Ian Flemming’s The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s great period dressing, and hints that the book you’re getting may be more action-y than science fiction-y, but also detracts from the feel.

OBLIGATORY BRIDGEDNESS QUOTE: This book is complete and unabridged.

The LOST FLEET: BEYOND THE FRONTIER: LEVIATHAN

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This is book number five in The LOST FLEET: BEYOND THE FRONTIER series, which comes immediately after The LOST FLEET series, which begins with a book called The LOST FLEET: DAUNTLESS, which is a good book. LEVIATHAN is also a good book. It is also the only book in the entire LOST FLEET and BEYOND THE FRONTIER series which ends without a cliffhanger, to my knowledge. So if you were hankering for some good military science fiction, then you definitely could buy the entire LOST FLEET and LOST FLEET: BEYOND THE FRONTIER series and read them all in sequence and then finish with LEVIATHAN and not have a cliffhanger that makes you wait a year before getting back to the good stuff. Then again, LEVIATHAN is the conclusion of the BEYOND THE FRONTIER series, which followed The LOST FLEET series, which means there isn’t any more good stuff in this exact series coming up. (You could check out  The LOST STARS series for more stuff set in this universe, but I don’t like that series as much as the other two. While the first and second are intriguing, they seem to lack the focus and depth of the other two series, and the third novel seemed more like a fluffy romance drama with some seriously creepy twists than watching a seriously good commander make tough strategic and tactical decisions and deal with the consequences. But the fourth book seems to wrap up that series, so I probably will pick it up and reread The LOST STARS series soon.)

I think The LOST FLEET series is pretty good. It focuses on Captain “Black Jack” Geary, a legendary starship captain whose escape pod was lost in the first battle of a war that has lasted over a hundred years. The book starts with an Alliance invasion fleet recovering his escape pod. The invasion fleet then stumbles into a well-set trap, the fleet and its leadership is decimated, and it is up to Captain Geary to take control of the fleet and get it safely home.

This is even more of a challenge than it sounds, as a hundred years of bitter, unconstrained war have changed the Alliance so much that Captain Geary hardly recognizes his people and their war tactics. The books focus on how Geary adapts to that, and how he manages to sculpt change amongst his commanders and the fleet. There are also lots of space battles and plenty of intrigue.

The LOST FLEET: BEYOND THE FRONTIER series focus on the aftermath of what happens once the fleet returns to Alliance territory. (Spoilers!! But not really. I mean, it’s Cap’n Black Jack Geary. Of course he makes it home!) Here the focus changes to how Geary and his fleet interact with the various non-Alliance worlds, what they discover out beyond the frontier, and the resulting responses from the various inter-Alliance factions. This second series maintains the first’s focus on societal patterns and motivations, and the factors and reasons which shaping those outlooks. Except some of the societies involved are aliens (SPOILERS!! But not really… I mean, do you even read the book jacket summaries?), and they are carefully thought out, with motives that are more complex than simple ciphers of human behavior. The series also still has a lot of space battles and intrigue.

Cover Art: The paperback cover for Leviathan is much inferior to the hardback cover, which is awesome and amazing and colorful and perfect. And I got the paperback. See, here is a thumbnail of the hardback cover:

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Sigh…