Reviews, September 2014

You call it murder, I call it an unparalleled opportunity for the victim’s understudy

Murder on Cue — Jane Dentinger
A Jocelyn O'Roarke Mystery, book 1

In 2011, I got back into FASS and asked Jane Dentinger, then Editor-in-Chief at the Mystery Guild and someone who accounted for about half the books I was reading, if she knew of any theater-themed mysteries. She then very kindly sent me a package of Jocelyn O’Roarke mysteries. The Jocelyn O’Roarke theatrical cozies were exactly what I was looking for. Their author was none other than Jane Dentinger herself, thus underling the fact that I am the sort of lack-wit who wouldn’t think to drop an editor’s name into Google for the entire time I was freelancing for them. Because I suck. 

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Also, there is a shark

Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy — Matt Ruff

A note about the title: this book is the whole of the Public Works Trilogy. As much fun as it would be to encourage you to button hole the author to demand the next two volumes, Sewer, Gas and Electric is a standalone novel with a misleading subtitle.

I remembered liking 1997’s satirical Sewer, Gas & Electric almost 20 years ago so I was looking forward to rereading it. That may sound ominous and it should. I suspect the issue is not the book so much as it is me but unfortunately I seem to be stuck with being me 24/7.

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Pointed social commentary undermined by unfortunate world-building choices

Shadow of Earth — Phyllis Eisenstein

Eisenstein is probably better known for her Alaric the Minstrel stories, if only because that’s still an on-going series; the most recent Alaric story, “Caravan to Nowhere” appeared in 2014’s Rogues. As it happens, Eisenstein is one of those authors for whom I discover in retrospect I am a completist, so I could have reviewed Born to Exile, the first Alaric fix-in. Instead I decided to go with the considerably more obscure Shadow of Earth, a tale of a modern American  woman who finds herself trapped in a backward world where her only value is as a brood mare of rare breed: a full-blooded white woman! 

Some aspects of this novel have aged more gracefully than other elements.

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Sound and fury, signifying nothing

The Powers of Light Trilogy: Treasure of Light, Redemption of Light & Abyss of Light — Kathleen M. O'Neal

Kathleen O’Neal is probably better known these days as Kathleen O’Neal Gear; particularly in combination with her husband Michael, she is a prolific author, with at least 34 novels published since her debut novel, Abyss of Light, appeared in 1990. I am personally unfamiliar with the main body of her work but it appears for the most part to be an exploration of prehistorical North America, drawing on her training as an archaeologist. Have not read those books, don’t have an opinion on them.

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Innocent farmboys, spoiled heiresses and lovable rogues

Starman Jones — Robert A. Heinlein

1953’s Starman Jones sees Heinlein abandon the Solar System (and plausible propulsion systems) for the wider galaxy. He also discards the idea of his protagonists coming from loving (if sometimes troubled) families and the quasi-utopian settings of some previous books, although he does not venture into the outright dystopia of Between Planets, the better to force his protagonist head-long into adventure.

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A magnum opus of occult history

Ash: A Secret History — Mary Gentle

I will admit I’ve been kind of dreading Ash, first because I didn’t think I’d be able to find a copy, second because I knew if I did find a copy the novel was much longer than the books I had thus far reviewed and would require a lot of time to read and thirdly because reputation has this as very dark and I didn’t want to spend 1100+ pages being kicked in the face by the author. As it turned out, one of the local used bookstores had a reasonably priced trade paperback, although it is not exactly bedtime reading, Ash is nowhere near as grim as I had expected, and it was an astonishingly quick read because I had a hard time putting it down.

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“Because my tears are delicious to you” does not earn its title

The Planet That Wasn’t — Isaac Asimov

Following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, Russian-born American Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992) turned from focusing on fiction to a lengthy and extremely diverse series of non-fiction works. To quote Wikipedia, “Asimov’s books span all major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification except for category 100, philosophy and psychology” (and he had essays and introductions that ventured into category 100).

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“But what about Meade?”

The Rolling Stones — Robert A. Heinlein

1952’s The Rolling Stones is intriguing from any number of angles. It’s the final Heinlein juvenile set entirely in the Solar System. It has genuinely interesting and potentially informative rocket science. In contrast with several of the earlier books the stakes, while important to the characters, are comparatively low. The sexual politics are tragic in a way I can talk about. My discussion about the two leads will starkly illuminate how poorly I manage to keep current affairs separated in my head from whatever I happen to be reading. It’s all good!

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Ghosts, talking rats and teleporting couches - the speculative fiction of Suzanne Church

Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction — Suzanne Church

Unlike the previous two Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) Science Fiction and Fantasy authors, I have not to my knowledge met Suzanne Church – yet - but I did encounter her “Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop”, during my failed attempt to listen to every audio piece at Clarkesworld1. Church was first published almost a decade ago but she is not especially prolific and this is her first collection. Elements collects twenty-one stories by Church, which is actually eight more stories than are credited to her over at isfdb. I would like to say that the gaps in her isfdb entry are because seven of the stories in Elements are original to Elements itself - which is true - but Elements itself is mentioned in that entry.

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A quiet tale of the slow end of the world

Memory of Water — Emmi Itäranta

Between our time and that of 17-year-old Noria Kaitio is the Twilight Century, a period of climate-change-driven chaos left the world a much poorer place. Noria lives in the Scandinavian Union, which in turn takes its direction from New Qian. Democracy is a thing of the past, as it generally is in stories like this, and government is very much top down. A sensible person in these circumstances either tries to exploit a dying system for ephemeral personal power or they try to avoid attracting the attention of ambitious people. Noria rejects one and fails at the other. 

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“My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance.”

Expendable — James Alan Gardner
League of Peoples, book 1

Given that the University of Waterloo has been a hotbed of innovation since its founding it is not surprising that there have been science fiction authors connected with it at least as far back as the 1970s, but despite the fact that I have lived on campus on and off since 1961 I’ve met fewer of them than seems reasonable in retrospect.

It may be that at some point during his years at UW, I crossed paths with Thomas J. Ryan (The Adolescence of P1) but that would only have been in the literal sense, two strangers passing on some particular bit of campus. It’s not impossible that at some engineering mixer thrown by my parents I met the late Edward Llewellyn-Thomas (The Douglas Convolution as well as other books) but if I did I certainly never connected him with his pen name Edward Llewellyn. The first science fiction author connected with the University of Waterloo I know for a fact I met is James Alan Gardner, whose work I heard first on radio in the 1970s, who I met in person thanks to FASS, the University of Waterloo’s longest-operating amateur theatre group, and who gives me a ride to gaming every week.

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Magic meets politics in this overlooked classic

Metropolian — Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams wastes no time establishing his world in this mid-1990s science fantasy novel:

A burning woman stalks along the streets. Ten stories tall, naked body a whirling holocaust of fire. Terrified people on Bursary Street crumple into carbon at her passing, leaving behind only black char curled into fetal shapes. The heat she radiates is so powerful that structures burst into flame as she passes. A storm of paper, sucked out of buildings by uncontrolled drafts, spiral toward her and are consumed. Uncontrolled rivers of flame pour from her fingertips. Windows blast inward at her keening, at the eerie, nerve-scraping wail that pours from her insubstantial, fiery throat. In a city that girdles the world, all-devouring fire is the worst thing imaginable.

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Quietly addictive: The Stone Boatmen

The Stone Boatmen — Sarah Tolmie

It is a sad truth that a life spent reviewing books, particularly genre fiction, particularly fantasy, involves reading a lot of terrible books. Worse, reading variations of the same terrible book, over and over. There is a benefit, which is that a gem of the first water like Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen stands out against the rest that much more.

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A Disco-era View of Atomic Terrorism

The Curve of Binding Energy — John McPhee

John McPhee is one of America’s great writers, a master of “creative non-fiction” whose eye has fallen on subjects as diverse as tennis (1969’s Levels of the Game), citrus farming (1967’s Oranges) and the chimera of commercial lighter than air vehicles (1973’s The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed). In 1974’s The Curve of Binding Energy, McPhee turned his attention to nuclear terrorism as seen from the point of view of Ted Taylor, a talented nuclear weapons designer.

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Between Planets

Robert A. Heinlein

1951’s Between Planets continues the evolution in Heinlein’s fiction of Earth’s government away from the optimistic portrayal in Rocket Ship Galileo. This Federation is overtly oppressive, and while the atomic bombs of Circum Terra keep any terrestrial nation from rising up, there is no such brake on the colonists of Venus.

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The Russians Came Knocking

K.B. Spangler

Set in the same universe as Digital Divide and Maker Space (and A Girl and Her Fed, which I have still not read), this novella offers a change of pace, eschewing the procedurals of the two Rachel Peng novels for the very sexy adventures of Josh Glassman, Deputy Director of the Office of Adaptive and Complementary Technologies, hunky cyborg media relations expert and self-declared man-whore.

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Math Girls

Hiroshi Yuki (Translated by Tony Gonzalez)

So the thing about me and math is I took a lot of math classes in high school despite a near complete lack of aptitude and interest in the subject and except for calculus, which for some reason clicked1, I generally had mediocre marks. Some people find math beautiful for itself, perverts good for them, but I was generally only ever interested in it to the extent I could use math as a tool to examine subjects I did care about, which is why I can rattle off mass ratios (as long as Vdelta/Vexhaust is an exponent of e I’ve memorized) or but am crap at most other applications. Which is a long way of saying I was probably the wrong person to review this book.

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There and Back Again by Max Merriwell

Pat Murphy

This is a bit unusual for the Rediscovery series in that while I opened my copy knowing I would ultimately recommend the book, I also went into this knowing that aside from used copies there’s pretty much no way for any of you folks to acquire a copy. I had fun rereading it, though, and isn’t that the important thing?

Centuries in the future, the Solar System has been settled by humans and their derivative varieties and thanks to a combination of hibernation and implausibly (but carefully never explained) Nearly as Fast as Light Hoshi drives, so have the nearer stars. Even better, an alien network of wormholes provides access to the greater galaxy.

There is a catch with the wormhole network, or rather a number of catches:

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Maker Space

K.B. Spangler
Rachel Peng, book 2

Sequel to Digital Divide, this opens with the destruction of Gayle Street in a series of explosions. The careful timing of the explosions, calculated to maximize casualties, shows that this is no Lac-Mégantic-style infrastructural misadventure but rather an act of deliberate willful malice aimed at Americans, one carried out on a spectacular scale.

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“Because my tears are delicious to you” earns its title

Satan’s World — Poul Anderson
Polesotechnic League

Poul Anderson was a prolific science fiction and fantasy author whose career ran from the 1940s to the opening years of the 21st century. Awards include the Hugo and the Nebula, and he was named a “A Grand Master” by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America shortly before his death. Unlike many prolific authors, his work was generally of a consistent quality, although I think it’s safe to say he never produced the masterpiece people might have expected from him. In science fiction, one of his fortes was world-building, about which I say more later. The combination of dependability, verisimilitude and prodigious output made him an almost ideal author for me and between the time I purchased this, my first Anderson, and when his various quirks and tics alienated me, I read the better part of a hundred of his works. I think it is safe to say that between 1977 and 1980, he was my favourite SF author. 

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Panicky Malthusianism meets bad physics in the least of the classic Heinlein juveniles

Farmer in the Sky — Robert A. Heinlein

I think Heinlein worked on his technique all through the juveniles but to my eye 1950’s Farmer in the Sky, while introducing themes that would persist through the rest of his career, is a half step back, filled with pacing issues and the decision to highlight aspects of his world-building that he probably should have tried very hard to distract people from.

[spoiler warnings]

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Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo

Miyuki Miyabe (Translated by Daniel Huddleston)

I’ve read this author’s Brave Story and The Book of Heroes and what I noticed then was that I preferred the shorter book of the two, because it was more focused and had fewer unnecessary digressions. Logically I should prefer a collection of short stories to the novels and indeed that is the case.

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Golden Witchbreed

Mary Gentle

The Earth of the near-future has faster-than-light travel of a particularly powerful sort; the entire Milky Way is just 90 days from Earth. Habitable worlds are common enough1 and much to the Dominion of Earth ‘s surprise generally inhabited. How to adapt when there are millions of alien civilizations on the Dominion’s doorstep?

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