Reviews, August 2014

The Exile Waiting

Vonda N. McIntyre

When I began rereading this, I had only the vaguest of recollections about it, that it was in some way connected to the author’s more famous “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” and Dreamsnake, that it was set in the last city on a barren Earth abandoned by the civilized peoples of the Sphere and that was about all. I therefore had a certain level of trepidation because while I had fond memories of having had fond memories of this, the lack of specifics meant there was no assurance the suck fairy would not have visited it. I am happy to say that I can see why I liked this so much almost forty years ago.

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Digital Divide

K.B. Spangler
Rachel Peng, book 1

Embarrassing confession time: from time to time people have sent me books to read in my spare time and I accept them, despite knowing I never get around to reading books in my spare time because I try hard never to have spare time. NEVER. I have had a e-copy of A Digital Divide long enough to misplace it (I bought a new copy, along with a couple of other Spangler books) and I never got around to reading it because I am a terrible person.

Spangler is probably best known for A Girl and Her Fed, which shares a universe with this novel. As it happens, I’ve never read A Girl and her Fed so any elements that would leap out at a fan of that strip were missed by me.

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Red Planet

Robert A. Heinlein

1949’s Red Planet takes us to a Mars far more habitable than the real one, an inviting if challenging world whose ancient civilization seems to have little issue sharing Mars with a handful of human colonists from Earth. Changes are coming for the colonists, changes that will cast a stark light on the assumptions the humans have about their hosts.

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Search for the Star Stones

Andre Norton

Search for the Star Stones is an omnibus of two linked Norton novels, 1968’s The Zero Stone and 1969’s Uncharted Stars. Many of Norton’s books shared an ancient universe where the history of technological civilizations began long before humans appeared and would presumably long continue once we fell into dust with the rest. While the Zacathans managed to survive through two million years, such longevity is not the usual case and most of the civilizations that rose and fell, lumped together as a misleadingly unitary term “Forerunner”, are known only through enigmatic relics.

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Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Reki Kawahara
Sword Art Online, book 1

2022 AD: thousands of players around the world flock to log onto Sword Art Online, a cutting edge Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. They soon discover the VRMMORPG has features that even beta-testers like Kirito had no inkling of, the most obvious of which is the total absence of any way to log out of the game.

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Memory: Book Three of the Scavenger Trilogy

K.J. Parker
Scavenger Trilogy, book 3

His reunion with his family having not gone entirely well, the man using the name Poldarn flees back to the Empire he fled in the first book. People familiar with the series thus far might ask if that is an entirely sensible idea on Poldarn’s part; sadly, Poldarn’s talents do not lie in the field of ratiocination or even “learning from experience”.

Desiring to leave behind his life as an agent of chaos and doom – I misspoke, as an incarnation of the god of chaos and doom – Poldarn settles down in what he hopes will be a quiet life working for a bell works. Bells seem harmless enough, right? But there is no knife that does not turn in Poldarn’s hand; he is such that a job in a fluffy teddy bear factory would lead to the death of half the country.

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Space Cadet

Robert A. Heinlein

The second of the juveniles, Space Cadet is from 1948 but more improved over Rocket Ship Galileo than the passage of one year would warrant.

By 2075, the Earth unified, although not as peacefully as in Rocket Ship Galileo; Denver is a crater, as are other cities. The current peace is enforced by the Patrol and naïve Matt Dodson wants to be one of its many officers. Happily for Matt, he is one of the few good enough for the Patrol to consider but when we meet him, on his way to the academy, he has no idea if he will be one of the majority of washouts or if perhaps he can be polished into the sort of young who might kill a million of his fellow citizens in nuclear fire.

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A Voice Out of Ramah

Lee Killough

Lee Killough may be comparatively obscure now but in the 1970s she was one of a cohort of hard SF writers discovered by Del Rey. Later on she turned to horror and what would have been called urban fantasy if she had written it 20 years later but it was her SF that I loved.

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Hard to Be a God

Boris Strugatsky & Arkady Strugatsky (Translated by Olena Bormashenko)

In the olden times of the long long ago, Don A. Wollheim turned his new company, DAW Books, to importing, translating and publishing foreign SF. This interesting experiment was not rewarded with glowing sales and eventually the experiment was dropped. 

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Pattern: Book Two of the Scavenger Trilogy

K.J. Parker
Scavenger Trilogy, book 2

Although still an amnesiac, the man known as Poldarn has reunite with his people after a generation of separation and although he cannot remember why it was he had to flee all those years ago, no doubt such matters are of the distant past and could not possibly come back to haunt him now.

Amnesia isn’t the only thing dividing Poldarn from his devoted family; everyone else on the two islands of the raiders are telepathic, and in a society where households run smoothly thanks to what is almost a group mind, Poldarn is the odd man out, a stranger in a practical-minded community beyond such petty superstitions as religion or volcanoes.

So, bad news about volcanoes; turns out they are real….

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On a Red Station, Drifting

Aliette de Bodard

Just a short review today; I thought this was a full length novel and when I discovered it wasn’t, it was too late to bring a back-up book.

The Dai Viet Empire spans star systems but it spans fewer systems than it did a few years previously. As an ineffectual emperor and his court abandon peripheral systems to warlords, Linh, a functionary haunted by guilt over having abandoned her responsibilities flees towards Prosper Station and what she hopes will be refuge in the arms of family.

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Lucifer’s Hammer

Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

The 1970s were a golden age of disaster movies and books; skyscrapers burned down, nuclear reactors melted down, and earthquakes leveled cities. First published in 1977, Lucifer’s Hammer was a late entry into that genre0 but what it lacked in timing it made up for in scale; where previous entries had wrecked cities, Hammer smashed the planet and where others killed hundreds, Hammer killed billions. It’s a shame, therefore, that one could easily envision D.W. Griffith filming it and not for the spectacle.

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Rocket Ship Galileo

Robert A. Heinlein

First published in 1947.

Post-war but not too post-war America! While the UN police guarantee global peace and systems as different as the American and Russian ways of life live together amicably, three young men, products of America’s impressive new school system, are focused (as so many young men of this time were) on their homemade rocket. While the rocket itself goes all kerblooie, the young men - Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller and Maurice Abrams – count the experiment as a success, at least until they find the unconscious man on the doorstep of their test facility, apparently brained by a fragment from the exploding rocket.

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Shadow: Book One of the Scavenger Trilogy

K.J. Parker
Scavenger Trilogy, book 1

A battered man wakes on a battlefield, surrounded by the dead of two armies. His own clothing gives no hint which side he was on and when he stops to think about it, neither do his memories because he is an amnesiac. Happily, from time to time he encounters people who recognize him; less happily, recognition is immediately followed by attempts to kill the nameless man.

As murder attempt after murder attempt is foiled by the amnesiac’s preternatural skill at killing, the amnesiac begins to suspect that perhaps he isn’t the nicest person around. While he cannot do anything about the past, he can try to be a better person in the future.

As Arthur C. Clarke once observed, nothing is quite so ominous as “means well.”

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Cage on the Sea

Kaoru Ohno (Translated by Giles Murray)

Note: the Kindle edition of Cage will be going on deep discount on 8/14 (Thurs), the anniversary of the end of WWII. It will start at 80% off ($1.99), then tick up by approximately $2/day until it returns to its normal $9.99 price.

This is a bit outside my usual remit, a strictly historical novel based on events that occurred from 1944 onwards, but it seemed like an interesting choice to inaugurate Translation Wednesdays.

By 1944, the war in the Pacific had developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage. Logistical challenges were met with increasingly desperate measures, including dragooned cargo ships being sent out without military cover in the hope that if enough ships left port, a few would make it to their destination. Most, of course, did not.

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Prince of the Godborn, The Children of the Wind, The Dead Kingdom, & The Seventh Gate

Geraldine Harris
Seven Citadels Quartet

The Seven Citadels quartet is composed of the books Prince of the Godborn, The Children of the Wind, The Dead Kingdom, & The Seventh Gate and was originally published in the early 1980s.

I dithered about whether to do these as four stand-alone reviews or one but while each book works on its own, I read them all back to back and however I happen to have read something the first time is obviously the best way to have done it. Except for how I read Princess Bride, which involved having my left hand crushed under a rock; I don’t recommend that at all.

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Sight of Proteus

Charles Sheffield

(Ah, the lower-case “a” Ace colophon. I much prefer it to the capital A that showed up sometime after Baen started running Ace. What was it about him and publishers with triangular colophons)

Charles Sheffield (1935 – 2002), born in the UK but resident in the US for much of his life, was a moderately prolific science fiction writer, specializing what’s often called hard SF. You would therefore expect this particular book would be filled with mass ratios, slide-rules white-hot with the speed of calculation and engaging discussions of the implications of the Poynting-Robertson effect on deep space mining. Instead it is a glorious celebration of some of the wackier elements kicking around the United States deep in the now-legendary Disco Era.

2190(ish): three million humans live in space but the majority of the fourteen billion people alive live on an overcrowded Earth that is despite the best efforts of the experts of General Coordination teetering on the edge of collapse. Draconian measures to limit population growth1 have failed to produce a steady state and aside from one act of terrorism that killed a billion people, population has only crept ever closer to the the Malthusian limit. Space resources may help but they are only delaying the crisis and if Earth collapses, the United Space Federation will soon follow.

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The Desert of Stars

John J. Lumpkin
Human Reach, book 2

John Lumpkin’s second novel serves to remind readers that there is such a thing as well-written, carefully thought military science fiction, and that there is no reason why MilSF fans need to settle for sub-par Extruded MilSF Product churned out by a collective of once-greats and never-weres.

This picks up where the previous book left off: Japan and China are embroiled in a vast interstellar war, one triggered by the revelation that the distribution of habitable worlds near the Sun is far less homogenous than previously believed and the luck of the draw has gifted China with a natural route to the richest systems.

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Full Fathom Five: A Novel of the Craft Sequence

Max Gladstone
Craft Sequence, book 3

If the cover still has an Elizabeth Bear blurb on it 0, that’s a plausible choice on Tor’s part but the blurb that they actually went with was “The best yet from Max Gladstone.” – Charles Stross1.

Alt Coulomb remained loyal to their surviving god. Dresediel Lex massacred their gods and replaced them with Undying Kings. The tropical island nation of Kavekana chose a third option, replacing their dead gods with what amount to artificial deities, human-crafted idols used as center-pieces in mystical investment schemes. Until now, that compromise has seemingly worked well.

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Wheel of the Infinite

Martha Wells

Maskelle was once of figure of some significance in her native Celestial Empire – the human Voice of the Adversary, the great being charged with fighting evil - but having blotted her copybook with a bit of business involving a false prophecy and a trail of dead bodies she was consigned to exile in the provinces, far from the center of power. Now, after years of exile, she is returning home to Duvalpore, summoned by the Celestial One.

Many great empires style themselves the center of creation. The Celestial Empire is unusual in that this is true, the world is centered on the sacred mountain in the Empire. For the priestly functionaries of the Empire, a map in the sacred mountain can literally be the territory. For the most part the Empire has used this power to carry out rituals necessary for the functioning of the universe.

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Two Serpents Rise: A Novel of the Craft Sequence

Max Gladstone
Craft Sequence, book 2

In the follow-up to Three Parts Dead, Gladstone introduces a new cast, as well as a new setting. Unlike Alt Coulomb, the city-state of Dresediel Lex crushed its bloody gods entirely; roles that were fulfilled by the gods now fall to humans and the Craftsmen and Craftswomen of the city. If the humans fumble the ball, the entire city will suffer.

Dresediel Lex is an artificial, fragile oasis in a vast desert; ensuring the water supply is even more central to it than it is to other cities. Red King Consolidated manages the water supply and until now has done an acceptable job of meeting the city’s ever expanding needs. Until now…

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Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

I remembered Footfall as one of those excessively long science fiction novels of the pre-Aught Three and when I picked it up I was surprised to see that my May 1986 Del Rey mass market paperback was only 582 pages (including the authors’ bios at the end), barely an evening’s read. When I put the book back down eight long hours later, I was still surprised that Footfall was only 582 pages because the authors managed cram in the mediocrity and tedium of a much longer novel.

It’s still better than a lot of the competition.

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Three Parts Dead: A Novel of the Craft Sequence

Max Gladstone
Craft Sequence, book 1

I am very annoyed at the people who have been selecting my reading material for the last 13 years for not having ever sent me a Max Gladstone book and with Gladstone for not having more books in print now that I have discovered them.

Decades ago, the Gods declared war on the human Craftsmen and Craftswomen. The Gods lost, decisively. The Great Powers are for the most part the nations run by and for the interests of the Craftsfolk; this has certain implications0 that are developed over the series.

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