The Osiris Ritual (A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation)
by George Mann
Sir Maurice Newbury and Valerie Hobbes are back in another rollicking steampunk adventure in George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual. Like the previous book, The Affinity Bridge, there’s plenty of great action and adventure and nobility and constrained behavior and running around London. The characters of the two protagonists develop a bit more thoroughly in this one, though they end up spending much of the novel investigating two separate cases and worrying about the other. A few more thoughts:
Mann really excels at gruesome description. In the first book, it was automata — in this one it’s a rotting cyborg. Gross and awesome.
The fight scenes in the novel are where it’s at. Great action!
Alas, the relationship tension feels a bit tacked on to me. But I don’t generally enjoy that part of these kinds of stories anyway. Thoughts about feelings? GROSS.
A nice romp. If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t read The Affinity Bridge, I think you could enjoy this just fine as well.
We read this book for my SF group this month in anticipation of the film being released soon. Amazing!
Through a cascading set of mishaps, Mark Whatney is left for dead on Mars by his fellow astronauts. This novel tells the exciting and harrowing tale of attempt to survive. A few thoughts:
While I didn’t find this particularly difficult to read, many of my SF group expressed befuddlement at much of the science in the novel. It is a very “hard” SF book, meaning that it spends a lot of time on technical details.
The storytelling is terse and straightforward, which lends a lot to the drama of the moment — things unfold very quickly, but always told in the past tense (as they’re being written by Whatney in his mission log / journal).
I love the interplay of Whatney on the planet, the astronauts in the ship flying back from Mars, and the ground control folks. Excellent.
My only complaint about the book is that there are a few too many near misses – it feels a bit contrived in that regard. But like JAWS getting blown up by an air tank, it works because the story has you from go.
Books and stories to consider alongside this one: Robinson Crusoe, Apollo 13, Survivor.
Overall, an excellent, very good book. If you can get over the technospeak, this is a book for you.
The Manhattan Projects, Vol 1-5
written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Nick Pitarra
In the 1940s, the United States wrangled many of its best scientific minds together into the Manhattan Project, a military research group with the aim of creating the Atom bomb. Hickman and Pitarra’s comic asks the simple question: what if the members of the Manhattan Project were power-mad psychopaths dedicated to megalomaniacal development of unethical and monstrous super-technologies?
The comic series takes a series of historical figures from the middle of the 20th century and reimagines them in a world reminiscent of Garth Ennis’ The Boys, where the good guys are only marginally better than the bad guys, and all of them do reprehensible things. Only this time, it’s Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. A few thoughts:
Einstein is the most satisfying character, still somewhat admirable but much more practical and terrible than the sainted version of him we remember from Meg Ryan movies.
The heart of the government, particularly its Presidents, festers with corruption and incompetence, in this comic. It reminds me a bit of writing from Ellis, Ennis, or Chaykin. Not a comic for people who dislike iconoclasts.
My favorite part of the comic is the idea that the U.S. and Russian scientists bond together to use their joint powers to try and run the world secretly. Also, Laika is a talking dog, in love with Uri Gregarin.
The series has a delightful chaos to it, suited perfectly to Pitarra’s scratchy (almost filthy) art style. It’s science as science adventure. Worth a read, but gruesome and dark and funny.
When Siggy gets a job at an interplanetary supermax prison, she doesn’t know she’s going to become a conversational pal with a pair of serial killers. Or that this relationship will hinge on the fact that she’s one of the few people who has encountered time pockets more than once. Also, ballroom dancing.
Broken Time is an odd book, with lots of interesting ideas but not tight enough to work well. A few thoughts:
There are a bunch of great ideas and sketches of great ideas that the book doesn’t follow through on. Among the ideas we don’t learn enough about: a Lost Fleet that is trapped in time, showing up occasionally to attack a planet long after the war is over and an interstellar economy that’s brutal and punishing but we only hear about a little bit at the beginning of the novel. The book also features an alien species, the speedies, who move far more quickly than we do. It’s a cool premise that could also have had more attention.
I like the novel’s focus on Siggy’s interest in ballroom dancing, and it has a nice payoff later. The novel also takes some solid narrative steps to give Siggy the skills and ideas she will need later.
The references to differences in planets gives the book the feel of grandeur, but in practice the planets don’t get enough descriptions to really show how they’re different. Siggy might just as well have been in two different cities or countries on Earth.
I like the insight that in times of war, we will do whatever it takes, including science that destroys the people it aims to help.
Last, it’s a little off-putting how much Siggy’s job in the supermax prison feels like The Silence of the Lambs. From the hallway she has to walk down (passing rude and awful prisoners to get to the most horrible one) to his temperamental interest in her to his habit of standing very still, one can’t help but see that famous film. Adding just a few touches to make it feel different would have helped this part of the book a lot for me.
Overall, this wasn’t my favorite. It took a long time to capture my interest (I actually said “If I don’t like it a lot more tonight, I will put it down”), but the main character is nicely developed and the book focuses more on her character than on techno-wizardry.
Directive 51 by John Barnes; narrated by Susan Eriksen
What would happen if all the people who hate the “big system,” for the many, many different reasons that people do, decided that their differences of opinion about why they hate it were irrelevant, and all bonded together to do something about it? Technological apocalypse, that’s what. Barnes tells the story of a worldwide technological meltdown, brought about by a concerted sabotage campaign among tens or hundreds of thousands of activists around the world. They seed the world with rubber and plastic-eating nano machines, and things very quickly fall apart. The tale is told from many perspectives (nearly all American), and traces many paths people might take through the chaos. A few thoughts on the book:
The book feels like it has a significant Libertarian bent, though it takes care to recognize the dangers in extremes of any political philosophy. There was an awful lot of “smart people would do just fine, but dumb people would die off quickly” attitude, and often the ‘dumb people’ part equated to urban poor. So that part grated a little bit.
But there’s hope at the heart of the Libertarian mindset, the idea that people will work hard and, when the system gives them a chance, will do well. The “regular people pulling things together and doing it right” part of the book was downright nice.
I also really liked Barnes’ approach to politicians, skilfully interpreting the old canard that power corrupts, and viewing how easy it is for well-intentioned leaders to push us into war.
Last, one of the concepts of the book is the idea of a “system artifact,” a collection of ideas that gain power and a kind of agency despite not being steered by anyone in particular. It reminds me of two things: first, Dawkins’ original idea of ‘memes,’ as sticky ideas that evolve like genes in our collective intelligence matrix; and second, like the smart spam in Maelstrom that evolves in the information ecology of the new web.
Susan Eriksen does a nice job with the narration, using a few kinda-voices to add some depth, but generally hitting it straight and clear. Overall, a pleasant diversion, if you like your stories with apocalyptic megadeaths.
Shea’s novel is a light romp through a dark future where most of the Earth has been ravaged by economic and environmental collapse. Many people live in floating cities high above the Earth, and a few others vie for the limited slots among the global elite. Just making her way in the world is our titular vicious mercenary, who has been working as the owner of a brothel for the last few years. Alas, her past comes back to haunt her and she must make a run for it.
Koko is an enjoyable adventure, if a bit light on the plot arc. The main character is empathetic in as much as someone who used to be a mercenary can be, but the future Shea describes is so bleak that we need not worry too much about particular bleakness facing individuals in the world. Yikes.
One of the plagues of the floating cities is a kind of suicidal depression that’s diagnosed as an incurable disease. There’s an implication in the book that this sort of depression is just in one’s mind, which could imply some deeper readings of Shea’s view of modern mental health issues, or it could just be the view that the overlords of the future might employ a cynical terminal diagnosis to control population growth. (And thus, I just realize, I build a link between this novel and the under-rated Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan film Joe vs. the Volcano.)
Shea seems to have an equally dark view of corporations of the future — global capital has not been all that good for people in the world. That said, there’s an implication that the world collapses under some other malady and it’s only global capitalism that gets us going again, so maybe these vicious corporations are good? I would love to read another book written with a Margaret Atwood-ian seriousness in this particular world. (Actually, without too much tweaking, you could see this as a version of the Oryx and Crake world.)
This book comes as close as I’ve found to the edge of the nickel. It doesn’t offer enough, to me, to push it onto the recommended pile, but it has a few enjoyable facets that make it hard to recommend against. It’s a fine beach read, but that’s about it.
I’ve read my fair share of old science fiction. (By old here, I generally mean things written before 1980.) I acknowledge this line is relatively arbitrary, but so am I. Some old sf gets dated pretty quickly, and feels foreign and a little weird. The Cosmic Computer comes to mind. Some old sf holds together pretty well, remaining both entertaining and illuminating its age well–The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instance. And then there are sf books that age badly–they don’t comment on their own era except by accident and their storytelling style stales. Just putting this out there.
Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer disappoints in far more ways than it pleases. It’s got a killer hook — what if a hyperspace-traveling planet showed up on our doorstep, closer to the moon than we are? Chaos would rule on the Earth, where tidal forces would go bonkers, earthquakes would wrack the land, and people would die in droves. The Wanderer uses multiple plots to follow the experience of people all over the Earth over the course of the first three days after the mysterious planet shows up next to ours. Awesome premise, terrible execution. I don’t know how this book won the Hugo.
A few thoughts:
As an end-of-the-world tale, The Kraken Wakes is far better, using many of the same tropes a decade earlier and doing a better job of it.
The casual misogyny famously part of the SF boys’ club is on a rampage in this book, with women being either flighty or harlots, but always being condescended to. Despite the book’s setting in the future, Leiber fails to imagine any change in cultural norms about, say, race or gender.
The cat person is amusing, but petulant and childish too. Oh, and it’s the only representative we have of the alien race. It was pretty hard to distinguish the character’s flaws from Leiber’s sense of how women act.
The people in this novel have sex at the strangest times. And often it’s in the vein of women who don’t want to have sex being convinced by an eager man.
All the casual misogyny and racism aside, the book is boring. It’s too long for the tale it tells, and several of the storylines don’t change or grow at all.
Spoiler alert: There is one aspect of this particular tale that deserves a bit more discussion — it turns out that the traveling planet is part of a huge coalition of space entities that have a set of rules about what you can and can’t do as an interstellar space faring race. The people on the Wanderer don’t like the rules, so they’re on the run from the agency. I’m not sure if Leiber was criticizing a rising nanny state idea (it feels like he was), but the society they’re running from reminds me a lot of The Culture from Iain F. Banks novels, in a good way.
One more note — the cover above is the one on the edition I read. It’s very confusing, as there is no large spaceship like the one in the picture in the book. Also, the wandering planet is quite clearly described as being gold and purple, so the planet at the top isn’t even the right color. Each of these other covers fit the story better, and the ones with the cat person are particularly amusing:
Thomas wakes in a wide clearing, surrounded by boys who tell him that he’s now trapped in the center of a massive maze that changes every night and is patrolled by robotic-organic death beasts with blades and needles. The boys know they’re being watched by the “Creators” and they get many of the supplies they need to survive, but ultimately they need to do something in order to escape. And all their hopes rest on the shoulders of the boys who spend the day exploring the maze.
A diverting Y.A. adventure book that captures the genre’s rules well, if a bit derivatively. A few thoughts:
I know the new kid needs to prove himself, but I find the “new kid is the best at it all” trope that’s a central part of the Y.A. genre getting a bit tired. Thomas shows up and he’s far more brave, more clever, more maze-runnery than any of the kids who have been surviving here for two years. I’d love to see a Y.A. book that takes a more balanced approach. But that’s no fun.
The best part of the book was the grievers, the robots with organic outsides and rubber and gears and wheels and claws and knives and needles and and and. Dashner was smart to make them shimmery and hard to see–it makes them almost Lovecraftian in design, equipped to drive their victims mad before they chop them up.
I am disappointed that it had to be all boys. Again. And not differentiated by skin color, either. I guess they could have been of varying hues, but by making race invisible in the story, the book ignores race completely. This may have been part of the idea (post-apocalyptic worlds are race-blind?) but since our world isn’t race blind, I feel like the book spurs an erasure of difference in its lack of description. (NOTE: It’s possible that the book included more descriptions or signs of race than I’m remembering, in which case I guess I’m showing some blind spot of my own. To my mind, the only signifier of race in the book was the use of the name Minho, which gave him an Asian look in my mind.)
Everything is a remix, of course, but here are a few of the dominant flavors in The Maze Runner:
Lord of the Flies – Golding’s book about a bunch of boys trapped somewhere, trying to survive. The central conflict here arises in the dispute about leadership among the boys. The Glade seems to have had its own struggles with this, as they have a banishment ritual and a long pole and everything.
Cube – The film about a bunch of people trapped in a deadly maze with no memory of how they got there is more immediate, as the victims have no food or water, so they’re limited to a couple days at the most. (Wikipedia indicates this film was inspired by a Twilight Zone Episode)
Ender’s Game (or other kids-in-experiment stories) – the youth social circles and the lone genius who can solve their problems brings this Orson Scott Card classic to mind.
I am interested to see how they adapt the novel into a film. It’s eminently filmable as a story, with the right kind of plot structure and even the right length of story.
One spoilery thought:
The overall mystery of the book works well, as we only get tiny pieces of the outside world in drips and drabs. Thus, the reader spends most of their time trying to guess what all this is about. And I guess I am stuck like the rest in that since I don’t know what it’s all about, I can’t comment on, say, the value of making a maze as a test. Or any of the other plot points.
When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience. In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together. Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations. This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader. Electracy changes the relationship again. The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up. But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth. I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.
First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book. Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing. He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself. This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast. I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read. It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page. Somebody go build that!
Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State. Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them. At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote. The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.
Fan art will appear. The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work. This is storytelling in the digital age.
by Adam Christopher; narrated by Phil Gigante
The dark and shadowy world of Empire State is kind of like New York in the late 20s, but not quite. This tale of adventure, mystery, weird technology, and haunting atmosphere will have you running in circles, marveling at the buildings, and peering into the fog. A few thoughts:
The first half of the novel is fantastic. I mean that both literally — as in: it includes fantastical science-fiction elements and a complicated plot set in an alternate New York called The Empire State — and figuratively, in that it’s quite enjoyable. The second half, for me, was not quite as good. The novel explains more than I wanted it to, and the mysteriousness of the first half overwhelmed the result of the second half.
In mood, Empire State resonates with dystopian city sci-fi scapes like Brazil, The Manual of Detection, and Kafka. It also injects noir tropes and pulp science heroes into the mix. The result is a world that draws on many of the same tropes in vogue throughout speculative fiction right now, but does so with verve and gusto.
Most impressive about the first half of the novel are Christopher’s casual world-building moments. He excels in writing sentences that open new doors on the world, shifting the whole nature of what you see as you read. I enjoyed these moments so much that I’ve excised a lot of references from this review so that these syntactical gems can remain inviolate. To explain what I mean, though, consider the classic example from Heinlein: “The door dilated.” With the simple use of a word in a new context, Heinlein downloads a whole new set of expectations and ideas about the world. Christopher does this several times (at least three that I can think of), and it’s a delight.
At the same time, some of these reveals are cheats of narrative convenience. For instance, at least one “big reveal” from fairly late in the novel depends on visual information that, had we been watching this as a film, we would have understood from the beginning. Thus, the value of carefully excluding details.
I like that Christopher includes a playlist and an invitation to fan contributions at the end of the book. I’ll write more about that tomorrow.
All in all, very enjoyable. Phil Gigante does a good job handling different voices in the story, particularly given the complex relationships between some of the characters.
The Spirit: Femmes Fatales by Will Eisner
I have, of course, heard about Will Eisner’s The Spirit plenty, so when I saw this collection at my library, I thought I’d give it a try. Not a best first collection for the new reader of the Spirit. While some of the adventures are entertaining, the book is chock full of straight-faced sexism that makes women out to be flighty, villainous, slutty, or all three. A lot of it’s played to humorous effect, but the gender dynamics really overpower the text. And to top it off, many adventures also feature the Spirit’s African-American sidekick, drawn in painful racist caricature. Best left to the dedicated Spirit reader, and even they probably won’t like this.
Deadpool vol 2: Soul Hunter by Brian Posehn, Gerry Duggan, et al.
Posehn has a strong grasp on what makes Deadpool particularly entertaining. The snarky attitude and flexible morality make the tales he’s telling all the funnier, and like Garth Ennis’ Punisher comics, the other heroes in Marvel’s New York become foils for Deadpool’s antics. In this volume, Deadpool has to hunt down and kill some superpowered people who’d made deals with demons. Particularly amusing are the running jokes about people mistaking him for Spider-Man.
Luthor: Man of Steel by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
In his afterward, Azzarello says his approach was to try to imagine a sympathetic Luthor, someone who strives to take Superman down not for his own ends, but for the altruistic motive of saving the city from a nearly-omnipotent alien who could turn on us at any time. Bermejo does a great job making Superman seem like a villain. When we see him through Luthor’s eyes, Supes is shaded in noir shadows, with burning red eyes that look positively demonic. Yikes.
Having just seen John Carpenter’s original The Thing in January, I sought out the recent prequel, also confusingly titled The Thing. It’s a weird prequel/remake, with an almost identical story structure to that of the original film. In the 1982 film, we find out that a Norwegian research station had already been gutted by the monster, as McReady’s trip reveals the horrors that occurred there. The Thing 2011 tells the tale of that Norwegian station and their travails. A few thoughts:
The film clearly isn’t a remake, as the tale involves different characters and locations, and sets itself up as a prequel. But its plot is so similar to the original film that it feels like a remake. As such, it’s good but a bit too derivative to be great.
The filmmakers do a great job with the effects, mixing practical monstrosities with CGI to give the film a real, meaty feel. It works great. The creature effects in the film admirably continue the tradition of the original. The best moment will make you re-think helping an injured pal walk by putting his arm around your soldier.
It was nice to introduce a couple female characters, including a woman who, in the tradition of Ripley, is no shrinking violet.
The acting in the film is great, with stellar paranoia and mania. I particularly like the Norwegians they used in the film, robust, bold men all. It was also fun to see Joel Edgerton there. I was reminded that he played the young Owen Lars in SW Ep 3. ( Can somebody make a list of people who have played characters in both deserts and ice-scapes? )
The best part of The Thing 2011 is the “reverse forensics” of the film, the establishment of the moments that create the settings MacReady finds when he visits the Norwegian camp in the John Carpenter movie. The payoffs that establish the axe in the door or the burned lab are excellent.
The Thing 2011 isn’t great, but it’s a pretty enjoyable follow up to the amazing 1982 original.
I was going to post some pictures from the movie, but it’s damn gross, so here’s a fluffy kitten from Martjin Berendse.
Judge Dredd, Volumes 3 and Volume 4 by Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel
Volume 3 finds Dredd in the wastelands, trying to track down criminals to save Mega-City one from “The Big Fail.” Think of it as “Dredd visits The Hills Have Eyes.” It’s a delightful, if goofy, adventure for everyone’s favorite Clint Eastwood doppelganger. Dredd’s celebratory return to Mega City 1 is hampered somewhat, by the return of a villain from a previous storyline, and the murder of oodles and oodles of judges. The tale continues to be enjoyable for its basic elements mixed up in new combinations. The short story one shots included in Volume 4 were particularly good.
Two Step by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner
When a mercenary gangster and a bored “camera girl” accidentally bump into one another on the streets of a futuristic London, all chaos breaks loose for a romping ride through the city. While the comic teems with funny ideas (as with the part of Chinatown where dudes in suits are shooting at one another all the time amid flocks of doves), the characters and the story never really come together for me. I also found the depiction of Rosi Blades, the girl who makes her living streaming her life and adventures 24hours a day, too exploitative without compensating for it with an interesting character.
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Vol 1 by Alex De Campi et al
“Bee Vixens from Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares” are both great schlocky titles, and the stories that accompany them are delightfully bloody and awful, in the way grindhouse movies were (and that Tarantino and Rodriguez captured so well in their double-feature). Alas, De Campi and the artists working the stories spent a lot of time on naked ladies as well, which detracted, for me, from the stories they were trying to tell. I suppose this is to be expected in a comic drawing on exploitation films, but I think the stories would have been more enjoyable if that aspect of the genre had been kept in check a bit more.
written by Ben Bova; narrated by Stephan Rudnicki
On the far side of the moon, a new observatory is building the biggest telescopes ever crafted by Man. These massive instruments, combined with the Moon’s airless surface, and the far-side’s shelter from the brightness of the Earth, give its scientists the ability to see things much more clearly than ever we have before. Alas, amid the excitement of the project, trouble is brewing. And in the vacuum of space, even a small problem can become a big problem quickly. A few thoughts:
This is only the second Bova book I’ve read, and it seems to be in the middle of his “Grand Tour” series. As such, there’s some context I’m missing, but generally it’s readable on its own. The characters are believable, even if they’re drawn a bit quickly, and their emotional lives take a stronger center stage than in most SF novels.
Bova’s hard SF angle works really well here, as the entire structure seems cogent and potential. Of course, it’s infused with current worries, but at least thinks through the potentials of the next century or so. I also didn’t catch any years listed in the dates, which will help keep it relevant longer.
I particularly liked the depth of the characters as the novel progresses. Often, quickly drawn characters prove to be two dimensional, lacking believability or depth that’s part of the human experience. As the novel goes along, the characters become more complex, and more interesting, and it works well.
Aside from thinking through the Moon stuff, the use of Nanotechnology plays a big role in this book. I like the discussion very much, and think it would make a nice entry into the field. A reader who finds this idea interesting should next explore The Diamond Age.
Stephan Rudnicki’s reading is excellent, and his voice is awesomely deep.
A good read – enjoyable and quick, with cool ideas and a strong story.
Detective Hank Palace just wants to solve this murder. But there are lots of things getting in the way: his colleagues and the coroner think it’s suicide, the mobile phone service is getting sketchy in his little Massachusetts town, the crime lab is backed up beyond belief, and other crimes are on the rise. And a giant meteor is going to hit the Earth in six months. This first novel in a trilogy wrestles with questions of ethics and philosophy at the end of the world, and weaves an interesting murder mystery on top of it. A few thoughts:
Many of Palace’s usual tools for investigation have gone missing in the beginning of the end — the network support structure, many of his colleagues, and the state crime apparatus, to name a few. In part, this provides the same environment that makes other writers return to the turn of the 20th century — one that lets the detective do the detecting, rather than relying on forensics and gizmos.
Motive has become the most difficult to parse out. The victim surely had a reason to kill himself, as does everyone in this world. But others also have much stronger motives for murder, since their ability to enjoy life is going to be quickly snuffed when a 6km rock smashes into the planet.
Most intriguingly, Winters gives Palace a convincing motivation to just keep going, despite it all. He focuses on this one death, this solitary injustice in the midst of chaos, and follows it where it leads.
The Last Policeman isn’t a great mystery, but it is a great book.