Reviews, January 2016


Jupiter — Carol Pohl & Frederik Pohl

The 1960s and 1970s were an exciting time for science and SF. Robotic probes had given humanity its first close up look at the worlds of our solar system: Lunar farside in 1959, Venus in 1962, Mars in 1965, Jupiter in 1973, Mercury in 1974 and Saturn in 1979 (the other worlds would have to wait until the 1980s). The flood of increasingly detailed information about the worlds of our solar system gave rise to a short-lived genre, one that it existed in the tension between how SF had imagined the neighbour worlds to be and what our space probes were revealing.

Carol and Frederik Pohl’s 1973 anthology, Jupiter, is perhaps my favourite exemplar of that mayfly genre. It is filled with classic SF stories, most of which had been published between the 1930s and the 1950s (1971’s “A Meeting with Medusa” is the outlier). All these stories doomed to obsolescence thanks to human ingenuity [1]. However, they still make good reading, for the most part.

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Adult fairy tales

Red as Blood — Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee’s 1983 collection of re-imagined fairy tales, Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, is by far my favourite Tanith Lee book. It’s not just that the stories in it are wonderful. I picked it up on a whim when I was a lowly security guard at a particularly unpleasant post1. The mass-market edition of Red as Blood had a very convenient property from my perspective: it fit into the inside breast pocket of a uniform without leaving a telltale bulge. I read and reread it a lot in late 1983, early 1984.

I have not reread it in years and years. As my Because My Tears Are Delicious to You series has shown, not all old favourites stand up to a reread. So how did Red as Blood stand up?

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“Back to your caves and your dust!”

The Star Fox — Poul Anderson
Gunnar Heim, book 1

Poul Anderson’s 1964 fix-up The Star Fox has been on my to-review list ever since I started the Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck series. And it took me less than a year to get to it!

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Meetcute gunbattle!

Agent of Change — Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Agent of Change, book 1

Agent of Change is the first volume of Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liaden series.

Terrans bitterly resent their lowly position in the galactic status hierarchy. The off-world humans are richer and look down on their hick cousins; aliens possess advanced technology that Terra cannot match. Off-worlders, human and alien alike, sneer at Terrans and violate their laws with impunity. As a result, Terrans tend to overreact to provocation. Terra is a dangerous place.

Miri is an ex-mercenary. Val Con, of the clannish Liaden, is a spy. Neither should have come to Terra at this moment in time. Both of them did.

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My to-be-read pile grows again

The Wizard Hunters — Martha Wells
The Fall of Ile-Rien, book 1

2003’s The Wizard Hunters is the first book in Martha Wells’ The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy.

Tremaine is poring over a book on poisons, seeking a way to commit suicide without her death looking like suicide … or worse yet, murder. She is interrupted by a knock at her door. It is her guardian, Guilliame Gerard, with bad news. A test at the Viller Institute has gone horribly wrong. The Institute’s lead sorcerer is dead and lost with him is the last of the Institute’s magical spheres. This is more than a research tragedy. It is a crippling blow to Ile-Rien’s efforts to defend itself.

Ile-Rien is at war, or least it is being attacked.

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“Someone ought to try and be sorry in a way that counts…. in a way that means something.”

Carrie — Stephen King

There’s a process that TV Tropes called “adaptation displacement”:

Adaptation displacement is the phenomenon by which a derivative work becomes successful enough to overshadow the original work completely.

Jaws, for example. Anyone mentioning Jaws probably means the movie, not the novel. They may not even know there was a novel or if they do, they may think that the novel is a novelization of the film.

Now, it’s possible that Stephen King is immune to this process, being a sales behemoth, but I think not. And I am not the only person to think even King is victim to adaptation displacement. Take King’s 1974’s debut novel Carrie: mention it and people are likely to think you mean the 1976 Brian De Palma film or maybe the 2002 Bryan Fuller adaptation (which I have not seen) or the 2013 Kimberly Pierce adaptation (which I have also not seen). Or even the Broadway musical (!!!).

I read the novel first and so for me, Carrie will always be the Signet mass market paperback about an unpopular girl: her first date, how she was transformed from outcast to queen of the ball, and how in the end she finally embraced her inner potential.

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The Return of James’ Sad Face

Anackire — Tanith Lee
Wars of Vis, book 2

1983’s Anackire, second in the Wars of Vis series, picks up a generation or so after the events of The Storm Lord. The cover of the book bills it as “an epic companion novel,” suggesting that this takes place in a shared world and that it is not a direct sequel. Not so! This is as sequelly a sequel as ever sequelled a melodramatic fantasy novel.

I disliked The Storm Lord and I disliked this book even more.

Raldnor has vanished into legend—or possibly into another time or place. None can say with certainty. He seems to have left peace of a sort behind him. Peace is an unlikely thing in the tumultuous lands of Vis. Indeed, as the events of this novel will show, it has only been a pause between wars. As the book opens, that pause is drawing to an end.

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I still have not read Kim

7th Sigma — Steven Gould

Sometimes, an author’s early work is so popular that the reader and publisher demand for sequels dominates the rest of their career. Examples include Asimov and Foundation, Card and Ender, and Bujold and Miles. This list also includes Steven Gould, whose ongoing Jumper series comprises five novels to date, as well as an unfortunate movie adaptation. Indeed, of the five novels Gould has published in the 21st century, four of them have been Jumper novels.

But only four. One of them was not a Jumper novel. That novel was 2011’s 7th Sigma.

Fifty years earlier, the bugs, insectile von Neumann devices, appeared in America’s Southwest. Ravenous for metal, fecund, easily provoked, extraordinarily dangerous, the bugs quickly claimed a swath of the United States for their own. Then they halted their advance—for reasons unknown.

Within the bug-dominated Territory, any form of technology involving metal or electromagnetic radiation soon attracts bugs. Life within the zone means abandoning advanced technology (unless it involves plastics, ceramics, and composites).

That does not mean life in the zone is impossible: humans lived in that region long before radios and metal technology were available. In the era of 7th Sigma,they still do.

One such inhabitant is a seemingly unremarkable boy named Kimble, a boy living parentless by choice.

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Death is the beginning

Harbinger of the Storm — Aliette de Bodard
Obsidian and Blood, book 2

2011’s Harbinger of the Storm is the second volume in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood Trilogy.

Acatl, Tenochtitlan’s High Priest of the Dead, knows immediately when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, dies. The Emperor was vital to the maintenance of the wards that protect his empire from star demons, and his death has weakened the wards. A new emperor must be installed … quickly!

The new emperor will be chosen by the council, but the council finds itself under attack. A star demon has invaded the imperial palace and dismembered one of the councillors. Since the wards are only weakened, not gone, the star demon could not have entered without inside help. Some human sorcerer is meddling. It is up to Acatl to discover the identity and motives of the culprit, then frustrate the plot.

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Jobe’s Choice

Moonstar: Jobe Book One — David Gerrold
Jobe, book 1

Moonstar: Jobe Book One, is, as far as I can tell, David Gerrold’s 1977 Moonstar Odyssey under a new title. I own a first edition of the older book1; I compared it to the later ebook; they seem substantially the same.

This book was an obvious candidate for an ebook re-issue. The 1977 original earned a Nebula nomination and I expect it would have been mentioned by the Tiptree Award people—if the Tiptree Award had existed then.

I don’t think this book quite works, but at least it’s an ambitious book. Where it fails, it fails in interesting ways.

Satlik is an unusual world; its origin is unclear and it orbits an atypical main sequence star. It was a lifeless world until human starfarers arrived, as colonists who terraformed the world. That was centuries ago. Satlik is now a fragile paradise.

The human inhabitants of Satlik are nearly as unusual as their world.

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The adventurer-detective

Cyrion — Tanith Lee

Cyrion, Tanith Lee’s 1982 collection, gathers all of the stories featuring the eponymous hero. In addition to the previously published material, Lee includes one work original to this volume, Cyrion in Stone, as well as extensive linking material.

In a secondary world much like the Medieval Middle East, a clumsy, ginger-haired man stumbles into the Honey Garden, an unremarkable inn. The man is Roilant and he comes in search of the legendary Cyrion, Man of Mystery! Cyrion is not present but some of the patrons have heard of him and are happy to share what they know of the renowned adventurer.

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The Director is God

The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya — Nagaru Tanigawa
Haruhi Suzumiya, book 2

2003’s The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is the second in Nagaru Tanigawa’s Haruhi Suzumiya manga series.

Audaciously self-centered Haruhi is determined to provide her school’s upcoming cultural festival with a movie of unparalleled quality. The fact that nobody asked her to do this isn’t going to slow her down at all. Haruhi didn’t get where she is by caring one jot about other people’s preferences!

At least the project will distract Haruhi from her failure to find the time travelers, aliens, and ESPers she is convinced must be concealed within the general population. And anyway, what could go wrong with a simple film project?

Quite a lot, if the auteur behind the film is an unwitting god. Which Haruhi is.

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Every Step You Take

The Trials — Linda Nagata
The Red, book 2

2015’s near-future MilSF novel The Trials, the second volume in Linda Nagata’s The Red trilogy, picks up where First Light left off.

SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t read the first book yet, this review may reveal too much. You may want to minimize this browser window, buy and read the first book, and then return to the review. Just saying.

In First Light, James Shelley’s Apocalypse Squad, a unit of elite, enhanced soldiers, acted resolutely to punish the highly connected billionaire who orchestrated Coma Day, a series of tactical nuclear strikes on the US. Heroes all! It’s kind of a shame that soldiers taking it on themselves to kidnap an American and transport her to a foreign court so that she can be tried for crimes against humanity is what the army calls “highly illegal,” The surviving members of the LCS are be rewarded with what the army calls “a court martial.”

And the penalty for conviction is death.

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In the heart of the Nebula

The Crucible of Time — John Brunner

John Brunner’s 1983 The Crucible of Time is a fine example of science fiction inspired by the science of the time. As Brunner explains in his foreword

It is becoming more and more widely accepted that Ice Ages coincide with the passage of the Solar System through the spiral arms of our galaxy. It therefore occurred to me to wonder what would become of a species that had evolved intelligence just before their planet’s transit of a gas cloud far denser than the one in Orion which the Earth has recently—in cosmic terms—traversed.

I will leave it to my commentariat to discuss to what degree the above represents current scientific consensus. The basic idea, that an inhabited world has the misfortune to traverse a region like this,

is certainly enough of a hook from which to hang an SF novel.

In this case, a highly episodic novel. Really, more a collection of linked novellas.

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One classic and three others

The Martian Way and Other Stories — Isaac Asimov

1955’s The Martian Way and Other Stories is a collection of four short works by Isaac Asimov, one of which is, I think, rather well known. The three others? Not so much. Still, this was one of my go-to books as a teen. I just didn’t (and still don’t) think the other three stories had the same oomph as The Martian Way.

So how well did this classic stand up, you ask?

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None so pure as Dunizel

Delusion’s Master — Tanith Lee
Tales of the Flat Earth, book 3

1981’s Delusion’s Master is the third volume in Tanith Lee’s five volume series, Tales of the Flat Earth.

A mile from the walls of the great city of Baybhelu, the mad queen Jasrin waits for her husband Nemdur. Her wait is futile. Nemdur will never come; he will never forgive Jasrin for her role in their infant son’s violent death. But Jasrin’s insanity shields her from that unpleasant truth.

One night she finally receives a visitor. It is not Nemdur (who is amusing himself with other women). It is the demon lord Prince Chuz, whom mortals also call Madness. Jasrin is already his; soon, the entire city of Baybhelu will be his as well.

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As full of hope as Greenland is full of green

Our Lady of the Ice — Cassandra Rose Clarke

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s 2015’s Our Lady of the Ice takes us to an alternate history, one in which Argentinean entrepreneurs have built an amusement park in Antarctica. Hope City was once profitable, but that golden age is long gone. These days the city ekes out a living selling power from their atomic reactor. Life in a marginally viable city in a polar wasteland is desperate. The only thing keeping the community from vanishing in a puff of economic logic is that most of the poor saps in Hope City cannot afford the cost of a visa and a ticket back to the mainland.

The current state of affairs suits Mr. Cabrera just fine. The gangster legitimate businessman’s entire business model is based on exploiting a trapped population. Marianella Luna’s scheme to supplement imported food with produce from local agricultural domes threatens his bottom line. She is keeping the domes secret, but Cabrera suspects that something is going on. Luna is at the top of his personal enemies list.

But covert agricultural domes are not Luna’s only secret, and that’s where private detective Eliana Gomez comes in.

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who was once handsome and tall as you

Consider Phlebas — Iain M. Banks
Culture, book 1

What better novel to inaugurate Space Opera That Doesn’t Suck than Consider Phlebas? This 1987 novel by the (sadly) late Iain M. Banks wasn’t Banks’ debut novel, but it was the first novel to feature his star-spanning, anarchistic utopia, the Culture.

Banks chooses to introduce the Culture not from the perspective of a sympathetic observer, but rather from the point of view of an enemy. The Changer Horza sees Minds, the artificial intelligences that dominate the Culture, as anti-life and the culture of the Culture as an anti-evolutionary dead end. Accordingly, when the Idiran-Culture War breaks out, Horza casts his lot with the Idirans. The Idirans might be violent, repressive, bigoted religious fanatics but at least they are on the side of life. Or so Horza sees it. And a shapeshifter like Horza is a valuable asset….

His cover blown, shackled to a cell wall, waiting for a rising tide of waste to drown him …

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It takes a thief

The Thief — Megan Whalen Turner
Queen's Thief, book 1

I admit I approached The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner’s 1996 novel, with trepidation. Not only was it a Newbery Honor Book (with all that implies), but I had previously read and disliked its sequel The Queen of Attolia. Having read and enjoyed The Thief, I am forced to consider that perhaps I misjudged The Queen of Attolia.

By his own testimony, Gen is the greatest thief the city-state of Sounis has ever seen. That same testimony appears to mark him as somewhat less than the most astute thief in Sounis, because Gen made that boast to a client who turns out to be a government agent.

By the time the book opens, Gen has spent a fair time in a dank prison, contemplating escape options. Gen can steal anything but not, it seems, his own self from a secure dungeon.

An opening to freedom appears in the form of the King’s magus, who needs a talented thief.

Someone who can steal a magical icon straight out of a fairy tale.

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Blinded by nostalgia

Mission to Universe — Gordon R. Dickson

Mission to Universe is a comparatively obscure Gordon R. Dickson novel. I chose it over more famous alternatives like the Dorsai series1 or the Dragon Knight series, both available in many installments. I chose 1965’s Mission to Universe because sentiment. It wasn’t my first Dickson2, but the 1977 edition was in the first stack of Del Rey books I ever bought. In the 1970s I was a huge fan of Del Rey books.

I may have chosen poorly….

Four! Billion! People! share an overcrowded Earth. More than fifty nations have armed themselves with nuclear weapons of stupendous power. Nobody wants a nuclear war, but nobody can see a way to safely disarm. All they can do is watch each other nervously while waiting for some crisis to trigger the final war.

Benjamin Shore thinks America’s newly developed phase ship, able to bridge interstellar distances in an instant, could be humanity’s salvation. Habitable worlds around other stars could provide a much needed release valve for Earth’s population. Shore’s superiors disagree; they worry that the phase ship could itself be the spark needed to set off World War Three.

Following the delivery of covert orders from Washington, Shore hastily assembles a crew and takes the Phase Ship Mark III into deepest space. Once there, he reveals a heavily redacted copy of their orders: to boldly go search the sky until the Phase Ship Mark III finds a new home for humanity!

What Shore’s crew cannot know is that Shore’s redactions conceal the truth; the President never ordered the ship into space. The mission is a fraud.

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Beginning 2016 on a high note

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — N.K. Jemisin
Inheritance Trilogy, book 1

2010’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first volume in N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

You’d think that being recognized as a member of the family that rules the world would be an occasion for celebration. Not for Yeine. She distrusts her grandfather, whom she believes to have sent the assassins who killed her mother (his own daughter!). Taking her place in the Arameri court in the great city of Sky means that she is effectively exiled from her beloved homeland of Darr, forced to live among cruel overlords whose ways are both alien and abhorrent. Poor Yeine will suffer for her unwanted elevation.

Her grandfather Dekarta already had two heirs: the cruel and malevolent Scimina and her drunken brother Relad. Having acknowledged Yeine as an Arameri, Dekarta takes the additional step of designating her as his third heir. This is in no way a favour to Yeine. Years ago there were four heirs but two have died; Arameri see politics as a full contact sport. As a rival heir to Scimina and Relad, Yeine is now a target for her more powerful and dangerous kin.

And then there’s the matter of the gods.

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A Girl and Her Robot

The Silver Metal Lover — Tanith Lee
Silver Metal Lover, book 1

1981’s The Silver Metal Lover is the first volume in Tanith Lee’s Silver Metal Lover duology; in fact, until 2005 it was the only volume in that series.

This novel, in which we learn that sixteen-year-old girls are not cold engines of pure logic, reminded me quite a lot of the two Four-BEE novels; like the nameless narrator of those two novels, Jane is a child of privilege. It’s true that a third of the world’s human population died when the Asteroid grazed Earth, but that was before Jane was born. It is also true that many have no hope of employment, but thanks to her mother’s vast fortune this does not seem likely to be relevant to Jane.

But there are also quite a few differences between Jane and the unnamed narrator of the Four-BEE novels….

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