Reviews, June 2015

Not Exactly Queen of the Undead

My Life as a White Trash Zombie — Diana Rowland
White Trash Zombie, book 1

2011’s My Life as a White Trash Zombie begins with a scene with which readers will be familiar from scores of movies and books: protagonist Angel Crawford wakes in a hospital bed with no idea how she got there. The news that she barely survived an OD is believable given her drug habit. What is inexplicable, thanks to the giant hole in Angel’s memory, is why she was found wandering naked on a back road miles from anywhere. More mysteries: is her appearance on that back road related to a murder that had taken place nearby? Which mysterious benefactor left her a supply of unfamiliar tasting but nummy slushies, along with a letter explaining how to conduct herself over the next month in order to avoid jail and inevitable death?

Angel’s amnesia erased hours from her life [1] but at least (unlike many characters in her position) she knows who she is. What she doesn’t know is what she is.


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Canadian Content

Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril — Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary

2002’s Hugo-nominated Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril is the posthumous autobiography of noted writer/editor Judith Merril. Merril having passed away in 1997, the work of turning Merril’s notes into a book fell to her granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary. Better to Have Loved is also a forthright and frank reply to a few sanitized histories of science fiction published in recent years.


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Quakers in Space

Still Forms on Foxfield — Joan Slonczewski

Joan Slonczewski’s 1980 debut Still Forms on Foxfield shows us a distant world and an interesting conundrum: how can a tiny community resist assimilation into a greater society with incompatible values when violence is not an option and their isolation has been breached?


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“Together—one and great—apart far less!”

Three Against the Witch World — Andre Norton
Estcarp, book 3

1965’s Three Against the Witch World returns to Andre Norton’s Witch World, a generation after the events of Witch World and Web of the Witch World. This sequel sees Simon Tregarth and his witchy wife Lady Jaelithe relegated to off-stage status. The novel focuses on their triplets: Kyllan the fighty one, Kemoc the smart one, and Kaththea the witchy one.

All three children were born to do great things, as predicted by a fell portent, but only Kaththea is of interest to the Women of Power of Estcarp. Only Kaththea is female and therefore a potential witch. When Kaththea reaches a certain age, the witches bear her off to be educated according to their ways. Dread supernatural protections prevent her brothers from rescuing her. Kaththea is lost.

For the moment.


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And now for some hard science fiction

Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues — Diana Rowland
White Trash Zombie, book 2

I picked Diana Rowland’s 2012 novel Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues o read after a painstaking selective process: I needed something to read and it was the first book I saw at eye level in the library. Why more authors don’t arrange for their books to be in the sweet zone [1] I don’t know.

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Whatever Happened to Robert Frezza?

A Small Colonial War — Robert Frezza
Small Colonial War, book 1

1989’s A Small Colonial War is Robert Frezza’s debut novel [1]. It is also the first volume of Frezza’s short lived Small Colonial War sequence, a military science fiction series that would bookend Frezza’s career as an SF novelist.

All the world’s problems finally came to a head in the great calamity known as the break up. Four billion corpses later, Japan emerged as the remaining dominant power on Earth. Not especially humanitarian in purpose, the empire seems no better and no worse than the empires that came before it.

By the 22nd Century, Japan’s empire reaches to the stars. But there’s a catch: their ships may be faster than light, but they’re still slow. A combination of time dilation and time spent in hibernation means that travellers return home to Earth to find that decades have passed while they have only aged months or years themselves. As a result, the Japanese Diet has only the vaguest ideas as to what its imperial tendrils are doing, way out in the stars. A second consequence is that interstellar travel is exile, something that those in power avoid if they can.

Which brings us to Lieutenant-Colonel Anton “the Veriag” Vereshchagin and his command, the 1st Battalion, 35th Imperial Infantry.


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Everything you know is wrong!

H. Beam Piper: A Biography — John F. Carr

You may remember that I was recently sent a Big Box of Books. I was elated to discover John F. Carr’s 2008 H. Beam Piper: A Biography in the box. I had been wanting to read the book ever since I discovered it existed. It was inevitable that at some point I would review this book. Even if nobody paid me to do so! I am just that dedicated!

Anyone who (as I did) discovered Piper thanks to the late 1970s reprints learned certain facts about Piper from book introductions, magazine and review articles, and (eventually) online discussions about Piper. We learned that he had killed himself believing his career was over, unaware the check was literally in the mail. We learned that he had been a detective for a train company and that he had been victimized by a selfish ex-wife. We read speculations that the H in his name stood for Horace…

Piper did kill himself, but (as Carr discovered) a surprising amount of what is supposedly known about Piper is flat-out untrue. Not entirely because people got their facts wrong: Piper himself went out of his way to obfuscate the facts. In this short biography, Carr sets out to put the facts right, even when they do not reflect well on Piper.


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She’s a cop! So is he! They fight crime!

The Doppelgänger Gambit — Lee Killough
Brill and Maxwell, book 1

1979’s The Doppelgänger Gambit, first book in the Brill and Maxwell series, was Lee Killough’s second novel [1]. A futuristic police procedural, it explores the question “how do you get away with murder in a world where the movements of every citizen are tracked?” It’s a cousin to novels like The Demolished Man. Killough isn’t as stylistically innovative as Bester, but her book held my interest. I have a small (and sadly, almost complete) collection of her works.


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Against irrational exuberance the fans themselves contend in vain

The Gods Themselves — Isaac Asimov

Following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, Russian-born American author Isaac Asimov turned his energies to educating the American public. By the time of his death he had produced non-fiction books in every category of the Dewey Decimal system save the 100s. This came at the expense of his science fiction. Between 1959 and 1972, he published only one novel (a movie tie-in) and a comparative handful of short stories.

Asimov’s 1972 novel The Gods Themselves, his first in thirteen years, must therefore have seemed to many science fiction fans as the return of a giant. But not to me, because I was an eleven-year-old still reading through his entire back list to date; from my point of view there was no hiatus at all. Given the context, I can see why Asimov’s fans went gaga over this novel. I am not entirely certain what I was thinking beyond “yay, another Asimov!”

Asimov’s return to novel-length SF was an ambitious one….


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Back to Blake Walker

Quest Crosstime — Andre Norton
Crosstime, book 2

Andre Norton’s 1965 novel Quest Crosstime returns to Blake Walker, last seen being adopted by the people of Vroom, a timeline-spanning civilization. Although Vroom’s central timeline depends on contact and trade with alternate Earths, recently a faction calling itself the Limiters, led by demagogue To’Kekrops, have been calling for more stringent restrictions on cross-time travel. To’Kekrops and his followers may claim they are motivated by safety concerns … but of course the truth is darker than that.

What Walker doesn’t know is how far the Limiters will go to get their way.


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Return to a world of ancient magic: or, so about those potatoes…

A Succession of Bad Days — Graydon Saunders
Commonweal, book 2

Graydon Saunders’ 2015 novel A Succession of Bad Days returns to the world of his earlier book, The March North. It takes place shortly after the events in that novel.

The Commonweal has struggled for centuries to achieve and defend a prosperous, stable, defensible and democratic state, one in which everyone is dealt with equitably, regardless of magical potential. Just say no to wizardly autocracies. The usual magical
training technique is aimed at preventing such misuse of magical powers by detecting potential mages young and steering them into appropriate courses. However … it may not be the only way to shape young wizards. Some of the Commonweal’s magical heavy-hitters have come up with an alternative, and the Commonweal is allowing them to experiment. If the experiment works, the Commonweal will be in much better shape to resist its enemies. If it doesn’t … well, the only thing at stake if Parliament gets it wrong is the fate of freedom on this magic-plagued world.


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The Girl in the Seven Trillion Tonne Refrigerator

Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey
Expanse, book 1

I remember 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the currently ongoing Expanse series by pseudonymous author James S. A. Corey, as a welcome breath of fresh air and a refreshingly upbeat novel. (I will return to the “upbeat” thing later.)

While Jim Holden’s job is suitably SFnal, the XO of the interplanetary ice transport vessel Canterbury, Detective Miller languishes in a far more mundane position, as a cop on the beat in Ceres. He’s that detective on the force with whom nobody wants to partner. This is not because he’s the kinda can-do guy who doesn’t let the rules get in way of justice, but because he’s long past his best days. He’s on the fast-track to career oblivion and obscurity.

Then Miller is handed the seemingly low-priority job of finding the vanished heiress and political idealist, Julie Mao. It is a case that will ensure that everyone in the Solar System knows Detective Miller.


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Murder in the White House!

State Machine — K. B. Spangler
Rachel Peng, book 3

2015’s State Machine is the third book in the Rachel Peng series [1]. The protagonist, Peng, is among the survivors of an ill-conceived experiment in neural prosthesis. Having struggled back to sanity, the surviving cyborgs have banded together under the banner of the Office of Adaptive and Complementary Enhancement Technologies for mutual support and protection. They offer their services to the government in an attempt to convince society in general [2] that the cyborgs are more useful than dangerous.

Rachel Peng’s personal contribution to the cause is serving as OACET’s liaison to the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police. She uses her unique array of senses to crack baffling cases. Her latest case, a murder, is notable because it took place in a heavily secured section of the White House and because the only apparent motive for the murder is theft. But theft of what?


(light spoilers)


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Cry Havoc!

The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction — Justine Larbalestier

Australia is geographically isolated from the Americas and the western marches of the Old World; a certain level of cultural isolation results. This can sometimes be an asset. In the case of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, comparative isolation from the transatlantic mainstream allows author Justine Larbalestier (someone who in the early 1990s when she began the research that became this book had heard of but not read figures like Heinlein and Asimov) to take an outsider’s perspective in her 2002 study, The Battle Between the Sexes in Science Fiction.

One thing I will say up front: Eric Leif Daven was very lucky I read this after his book and not before. On its own, his book was flawed. Next to the Larbalestier, it’s crap.


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The Child is Father to the Man

Capitol — Orson Scott Card
Worthing Cycle, book 1

Good old Wordsworth’s poem is certainly apropos to this collection of stories, but it’s my second choice. My first choice was “Before Ender’s Game.” However, that had the drawback of being somewhat inaccurate: while Ender’s Game the Novel didn’t come out until 1985, Ender’s Game the Novelette came out in 1977, to great acclaim. (It definitely held my interest when I read it in 1977, despite the fairly notable distraction that, midway through my reading of that issue of Analog, someone inadvertently set me on fire.) Between 1977 and the 1985 founding of the great sausage factory that is the Ender’s Game Extruded MilSF Franchise, Card and his editors didn’t seem to realize Ender’s Game was where Card should be focusing his efforts. Instead, he spent a lot of time playing with the Worthing Cycle, a much less successful body of work that, if it is remembered at all, is remembered because it was done by the same guy who did Ender’s Game, the Alvin Maker series, and that ebulliently hilarious parody of right wing anxieties, Empire.

It’s not uncommon for authors to spend some time struggling before they find their voice. It’s somewhat unfortunate for Card that so much of his material from that period of his career saw print (although he did get paid, so there’s that), It’s even more unfortunate for him that I happen to still have my copy of this … ah … illuminating sample of Card juvenilia.


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Znidd suddabit!

Uller Uprising — H. Beam Piper
Federation, book 1

1952’s Uller Uprising may be one of H. Beam Piper’s minor works but it’s not without its points of interest. It is a relic of a fascinating failed experiment in science fiction publishing; it is the first novel where he played with the basic ideas of his Terro-Human Future History; and it is almost certainly his most problematic work, even counting Space Viking.


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Return to Warlock

Ordeal in Otherwhere — Andre Norton
Warlock, book 2

1964’s Ordeal in Otherwhere starts off at a sprint. When we first encounter young Charis Nordholm, a cult leader and his idiot followers1 have staged a coup and murdered her father in the process. Charis is on the run and faces an unpleasant choice: surrender to the cultists and accept whatever horrible fate they deem suitable for a heretic OR try to hide in the local jungle, where she will almost certainly be eaten.

It turns out there is a third option, which is to be captured by the rebels and then sold to an off-world trader2.


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C. J. Cherryh for SFWA Grandmaster

The Pride of Chanur — C. J. Cherryh
Chanur, book 1

One of the many ways in which the SF norm and I diverge is that I have an antipathy for fictional cats. This may sound odd, given the number of cats I have owned, from poor Othello [1] back in the 1960s to intellectually uncomplicated Ibid now. I think what bothers me is that SF authors seem to fetishize their fictional cats, painting them as little humans in fursuits, rather than as gleefully predatory obligate carnivores [2].To quote Pratchett:

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

(Although I think he is being unfair; there’s also the question whether cat-owners are just meat-puppets dancing on T. gondii’s strings [link])

C. J. Cherryh’s 1981 (1982 for the expanded version) Pride of Chanur might therefore seem to be an odd choice for me to review, since the hani are very clearly modeled on terrestrial lions and lions are, as we know, big cuddly cats who just to hug us all. Or ingest us. It’s one of those.

The Compact occupies a region far enough from Union/Alliance space to have been hithertofore overlooked by humans, but close enough for an unwary and unarmed merchant ship to blunder into it. The Compact comprises seven technologically sophisticated species, each shaped by its own evolutionary history. Despite significant communication challenges and behavioral differences, the seven have managed to coexist, if not always peacefully.

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The Sleepers Wake

Slow Bullets — Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds may be best known for his series, such as the Revelation Space novels or the Poseidon’s Children books. However, he can also work in less expansive formats. 2015’s Slow Bullets is a standalone novella, one that fits nicely into my MilSF review series.


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Some days I wake up wanting to read a Zen Cho work

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo — Zen Cho

This review came about because Romantic Times editor Regina Small very considerately assigned me Zen Cho’s upcoming novel Sorcerer to the Crown (of which more later, over at Romantic Times, which if you are not reading you should be). The wheels of reviewing grind slow but sure. Today I woke up thinking “I am really in the mood to read an unfamiliar to me Zen Cho work!” but … alas, the book is still on its way to me.

Then I remembered: the author has a website and on that website she has links to works of hers one can buy in ebook form. While I have read and reviewed Spirits Abroad], I had not yet read her 2012 novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo! Which, to be honest, is an epistolary historical romance, a genre in which I am not well read and with whose conventions I am unfamiliar. There are many pitfalls for reviewers dabbling in new genres, but, in the same bold spirit that led Napoleon to Moscow and Vercingetorix to Rome, I forge onwards!


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A curate’s egg

Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965 — Eric Leif Davin

Gary Farber occasionally cites 2006’s Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965, a text by Eric Leif Davin on the history of women in science fiction. This is a topic that interests me, but I’d never gotten around to tracking down a copy of the book. Then one of the Sadly Rabid Puppy fans, cited it favourably in File770’s comment threads on the current unpleasantness. That made me go “hmmm” while stroking my beard in a way that I hope makes me look thoughtful and not as though I have a flea infestation. It occurred to me that my collection of library cards includes one for the local academic libraries and that this is exactly the sort of book on SF such libraries might have.

What I found was a curate’s egg, a text ranging from useful to dire and often genuinely interesting—as long as you ignore the loud sound of ax-grinding in the background.

A warning: I treat non-fiction as a collection of linked essays. This is one of my longer reviews.

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Continuing this week’s theme of travelling entertainers

Born to Exile — Phyllis Eisenstein
The Tales of Alaric the Minstrel , book 1

Phyllis Eisenstein’s award-winning 1978 Born to Exile takes us to a secondary world not unlike Medieval Europe, at least as perceived from the US. It’s a world with all the dangers and prejudices of old Europe minus (as far I can tell) anything like the Church. It is a region divided into pocket feudalisms, without any grand unifying authority. Although someone is working on that last detail….

It’s also a world with magic or at least something that will do until genuine magic comes along. Alaric the Minstrel has a fine voice but he also has a special talent, a talent so very special that if any of the people listening to him sing had the faintest inkling he had such an odd talent, they would build a special commemorative bonfire with Alaric as the centerpiece.


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Apparently, this was “SF novels about nomadic actors” week

Nail Down the Stars — John Morressy
Del Whitby, book 2

John Morressy (1930–2006) was a prolific author, publishing more than two dozen novels over the course of a two-generation career. Nevertheless, 1973’s Nail Down the Stars is the first novel by Morressy I’ve ever read. Despite the fact that local used bookstores are oddly well stocked with mass market SF of the 1970s and 1980s [1], I had to resort to ordering this book from AbeBooks via the interwebs. Obviously I am guiltless of authorial neglect, as he seems to be one of those authors whose books didn’t make it to the hinterland of Waterloo Country [2].

Career criminal and conman Kynon Gallamor wasn’t the kind of man to hide from heavy hitters like Orcull and his henchmen. That is why this book is not about Kynon, but about his orphan son Jolon. To save his grandson from the excessively diligent Orcull, Faxon Gallamor arranges to apprentice Jolon to an off-world merchant. It’s a pity that Orcull is determined enough to ensure that the merchant’s ship explodes soon after launch.

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A disappointing sequel

Web of the Witch World — Andre Norton
Estcarp, book 2

1964’s Web of the Witch World is a direct sequel to Witch World, in which Simon Tregarth transformed himself from fugitive to hero when he fled from the world of post-war Europe to the strange realm of the Witch World. Simon, Jaelithe (now Simon’s wife), and their allies stymie an invasion by the otherworldly, malevolent Kolder and save Estcarp, the witch stronghold … for the moment.

Simon and his allies are painfully aware that even though the initial Kolder invasion failed, the Kolder still lurk in their island stronghold. There is no reason to believe that the bad guys have abandoned their designs on Estcarp and the other polities of the mainland. It is likely that they are even now plotting to strike again.

Our protagonists will find that the Kolder have already begun their next campaign, this time with the aid of willing quislings.


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Buy this book

Station Eleven — Emily St. John Mandel

Among my many charming quirks is a general dislike of “back-swing” novels. That’s Andrew Wheeler’s term for novels where the author kills off billions of humans to make room for the protagonist’s sword’s back-swing: your Dies the Fireses, your Directive 51s, and so on. I am also not keen on most modern dystopias; I find most of them shallow and trite, with hilari-bad world-building. Station Eleven looked exactly like the sort of book I would hate.

Sometimes my expectations are totally wrong.


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The Peter Principle as an Adventure Novel

The Big Black Mark — A. Bertram Chandler
John Grimes, book 10

John Grimes, star of a long-running series of novels and shorter works by A. Bertram Chandler (1912–1984), has worked his way up through the ranks of the Federation Survey Service despite the enmity of various senior officers. He has a quality few others can match: he has been extraordinarily lucky. Every error in judgment or failure to follow the precise wording of regulations has been balanced by successes so noteworthy that his superiors have had no choice but to (grudgingly) promote him.

Eventually every run of luck ends. Which gets us to 1975’s Big Black Mark.


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My own fault

Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World — Mamare Touno
Log Horizon, book 1

Sloth is its own punishment. I could have gone across the room to the large box of books Resonant sent me [1] to select something to read. I could even have picked up either of the two books at the bottom of the stack of unread books nearest me [2] … but instead I picked up the 2015 English-language translation of Mamare Touno’s 2011 light novel Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World. It was the book on the top of the nearest stack and it looked short.

~oOo~

The tale begins with a promised upgrade to a (fictional) MMORPG called Elder Tales, a popular online game, with 30,000 players in Japan alone and more world-wide. The developers promise to make an already interesting game even more fascinating. They live up to that promise in an unexpected way: everyone who was logged on when the upgrade went live suddenly finds themselves transported to the world of Elder Tales, trapped in bodies just like those of their player characters (which is to say hot, fit, and tingling with very special abilities).


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Same tree, bigger rocks

Treachery’s Harbor — L. Shelby
Across a Jade Sea, book 2

2014’s Treachery’s Harbor continues the Across a Jade Sea series, picking up where Serendipity’s Tide left off: the completely unexpected revelation by Chunru Dachahl Pralahnru to his new bride Batiya that he is not a burgie [1], that is, someone whose family is somewhat more well-to-do than her working-class clan. Rather, he is the sole unequivocally legitimate heir to the Emperor of Changali. “I am the heir to a vast and powerful empire” seems like the sort of personal detail that should have come up at some point during Chunru and Batiya’s courtship, but in his defense, it was a lightning romance and also people were trying to kill the two of them at the time.

Domestic crises aside, Chunru still has to find his way across a foreign, balkanized continent to Changali’s embassy in Xercalis, in the hope that he can repair the inexplicable rift between Changali and Xercalis. Batiya has too much potential hostage value to be left behind, so she will have to come as well.


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