Thursday, July 25, 2013

City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss

When I was much younger and slightly less foolish than I am now, I had read the Republic Commando series by Karen Traviss. This series followed a brotherhood of clone troopers and their search for identity during the Clone Wars and I thought it was pretty good. Granted, I haven't gone back and read it for forever, but I remembered it being very good. So I decided to give City of Pearl, one of Traviss's completely original novels, a read and sadly I ended up dissatisfied with the result. Before I start the review proper I just want to mention that City of Pearl is actually the first book in a series so a lot of plot points don't get resolved in this novel but I expect they do get resolved in future novels. However, due to my overall disappointment with this novel I shall definitely not be pursuing this series in the future.

To provide a very basic plot overview Environmental Police Officer Shan Frankland has been selected to lead a one-way mission to a human colony twenty-five light years away. It will be a one-way mission for her because by the time she returns a hundred and fifty years shall have passed on earth, making it a different world. However, the mission becomes far more complicated when it turns out there are three alien species interested in the planet of Bezer'ej with the human colony on it, and there is a chance that a renewed human presence may spark an interstellar war.

WARNING! To adequately discuss this novel I shall have to delve into spoilers. If you have any interest in reading it spoiler-free run away now!

The first issue I want to talk about, and this kind of ties into the book being part of a series, is that a lot of plot threads get introduced in this novel but a lot of them go nowhere and are severely underdeveloped. Just for sake of example, it turns out the commander of the marine detachment sent along with the investigative team is pregnant. So she decides to carry the baby to term and then he's born premature and dies because they don't have adequate medical facilities. ....That's it. It's an attempt to develop Lindsay Neville's character but it just doesn't go anywhere and ends as quietly as it was introduced, remaining forever on the sidelines. Don't get me wrong, it's tragic to lose a baby like that, but there was so little development of Lindsay's character that I didn't feel any sort of emotional connection. It was just a thing that happened in the background. Another subplot was Shan's real mission to Bezer'ej, which was given to her in a Suppressed Briefing so she knows it subconsciously but it will only be revealed to her when a proper trigger is met. I actually thought this was a really nifty device to gradually introduce exposition across the book, which can be a challenge for authors, but again Shan's real mission goes nowhere. She's actually sent to find the human colony's gene bank and bring back samples of unmodified, unpatented crops for use on Earth because all crops currently in existence are patented by large agri-corporations. Again, the patenting of genetically modified crops is a serious issue in the modern day and deserved a lot more development than it got in the book, because Shan ultimately isn't going back to Earth and so the crop samples are staying there with her. Also, I think it was implied that the government had gotten fully bought out by the corporations but it wasn't explicitly stated. Either way, there was no point because the crops aren't coming back to Earth since Shannon has decided to stay behind. It was just really irritating for me because both of these topics were really serious issues that could have been explored in depth but they were effectively tied up with little to no chance of future development in later novels.

Another issue, and this will be minor compared to the big one coming up, was the inconsistency in the story about a number of things. Again, as an example, the book couldn't seem to decide what state Earth was in when Shan left. It's mentioned that the colony's gene bank is supposed to one day help bring biodiversity back to Earth, but at the same time there are plenty of people still living on Earth and obviously growing crops and able to establish colonies within the solar system and launch interstellar missions so clearly it isn't a blasted hellhole. Or, in another example, the society back on Earth is described as highly secular and rampantly consumerist with a disregard for the environment. Yet at the same time Shan works as an Environmental police officer and all of the equipment issued to the Marines is described as biodegradable, sustainable, or recyclable. Would a rampantly consumerist economy really issue their military biodegradable bullet casings? Finally, and this is a REALLY BIG SPOILER, Shan gets shot in the head and is saved by an alien, Aras, who has taken a liking to her. Basically Aras is infected with a parasite that makes him immortal. As a result he's seen everyone he cares about die and is an exile among his own community of aliens due to his nature. Furthermore when Shan finds out she explicitly tells him that if she ever gets infected with his parasite be sure to kill her because she couldn't deal with being immortal. (Yes, there is a way to kill them, it's just really, really hard to do, so I guess they're effectively immortal.) Again, dealing with immortality and being forever alone is another major issue that deserves its own book. However, when Shan takes a bullet to the head Aras decides protocol and promises be damned, and infects her with the immortality parasite. Initially Shan is mad about this but then is just, "Eh, whatever, I'll deal with it." I probably haven't given this inconsistency the full justice of its effect but it's fairly rage-inducing on my end. I can almost sense that the immortality issue is going to get dragged out in future installments of this series and to be honest I really don't want to deal with it so I'm not going to. It's all these little inconsistencies that make me utterly frustrated with the book and its inability to remain consistent on a number of issues.

The really big issue, and this is what really frustrated me with this book, was that all of these inconsistencies and abandoned plot threads were buried under some of the most rampantly offensive pro-vegan propaganda I have ever encountered. Now, I personally have nothing against vegans. If you wish to make that lifestyle choice then you are free to do so and may you be happy doing it. At the same time, however, I ask that you respect my lifestyle choice to go ahead and eat meat in conjunction with fruits and vegetables because I think it's delicious. The trouble I have with the depiction of vegans in fiction is that generally they're portrayed as sanctimonious, holier-than-thou assholes who are in the moral right because they don't abuse animals like you do, which is a very unfair portrayal of veganism. Furthermore, this vegan lifestyle is not only promoted but enforced by the wess'har, aliens with much, much bigger guns than us, and apparently it's okay to enforce veganism and a lifestyle "in balance with nature" at the barrel of a gun. Granted, the humans were on their land and it's good manners to obey the rules of the host, but I got the feeling that they wanted to enforce their particular views beyond just their own backyard, where I take issue. Furthermore, I thought it was rather hypocritical of them to make the humans live in underground houses that didn't despoil the landscape while they were allowed to build a giant city that dominated the landscape rather than being in harmony with it. Finally, the whole pro-vegan language went to far when the wess'har advised against treading too hard on the grass because you might hurt it. Really? We have to worry about offending the plants now? I admit that animal cruelty is, again, a major and serious issue and there are plenty of problems with our current farming process. However, once you start saying that we need to worry about what the plants might think makes me lose any and all respect for your opinion.

I would recommend my readers just avoid this book entirely. There are subplots that get wrapped up and have little to no influence on the larger plot so they just waste your time and much of the world is inconsistent to a maddening degree. Drown the whole thing in poorly rationalized pro-vegan ideology and you get a frustrating and disappointing novel with a lot of wasted potential.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bolos Book III: The Triumphant, by Linda Evans & David Weber

This week I have decided to again return to the Bolo series with "book three", The Triumphant with three short stories by Linda Evans and one longer short story by David Weber. I thought that these stories were very well done and reaffirm my faith in the Bolo series which was established with book one, Honor of the Regiment, with the utter mind-blowing awesomeness of tanks the size of houses fighting for their human creators. However, Triumphant has a great deal in common with Unconquerable as well because while all four Bolos featured in this novel are (as the title suggests) ultimately triumphant, these victories are bittersweet as well. It really attests to Evans's and Weber's writing ability to characterize giant tanks and make them so relateable that I could personally mourn their loss in service to humanity. I was glad to meet Digger, Red, Gawain, and Nike and I was rooting for them until the very end. And as the book says, "Bolos might fail. They might die and be destroyed. But they did not surrender, and they never - ever - quit."

I definitely feel that in the first novel, Honor of the Regiment, it was an exploration of the capabilities of the Bolo universe and the sheer amount of awesome potential with huge tanks. I definitely enjoyed riding along with Sir Kendrick, Das Afrika Korps, and Rommel as they fought alien invaders and the galactic scum that preyed on unsuspecting colonists. Unconquerable, on the other hand, felt more like a deconstruction of the Bolo universe and the sheer amount of carnage these huge war machines are capable of producing, ending with the Final War where humanity and their enemies are driven back to a pre-space existence because of the devastation. Triumphant, in turn, is a further exploration of the human qualities of the mighty Bolos and learning how they can be so much more than just bloodthirsty killers. I will admit that Digger gets the least characterization since his is the shortest story, but he proves that even a decommissioned and retrofitted Bolo is a threat not to be taken lightly.

Perhaps it's because I'm drawn to these honorable and tenacious metal behemoths, but I really enjoyed seeing the different personalities manifest in the different Bolos. I adored Red's motherly love for her crew and dedication to ensuring their safety, and I understood Gawain's frustrations over his perceived failure and state of continued disrepair. And while Nike's self-exploration as a sentient AI trying to understand its place in the world was fairly typical sci-fi fare, the fact that it was in a several thousand ton war machine trying to figure this out satisfied me immensely. I must admit that I'm not entirely sure where the rest of the series will be going beyond this novel, but I'm looking forward to meeting more of the heroic members of the Dinochrome Brigade.

What I really enjoyed the most about this particular book was the bonus material contained in the back of the book, which listed all thirty-three models of Bolos and their tactical capabilities and years of construction. I was just pleased that someone sat down and calculated what weapons, armor, and road speeds each Bolo would be capable of, which probably made it a lot easier for later writers working within this shared universe. Granted, it was a little surprising that a several thousand ton war machine could "sprint" for speeds of roughly five hundred kilometers per hour, but are you going to argue with the sheer awesome? I certainly am not going to. I also really liked the bit slipped in at the end about how humanity and the Bolos end up surviving the Final War, despite its devastation, which gave me a small sense of optimism despite the bleak outlook.

Definitely a must-read if you're a fan of the Bolos already, and probably a good introduction novel for newcomers because of the supplemental material.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Man Who Walked in Darkness, by Chris Strange

Recently my friend Chris Strange sent me a copy of his newest book available on Kindle, The Man Who Walked in Darkness, which is a sequel to his first Miles Franco story, The Man Who Crossed Worlds. As I rather enjoyed the first story I was eager to get into this new novel and see what sort of shenanigans Miles got up to in this installment. I must admit that this book has a far darker overall tone than the previous book, but it does a good job of developing Franco as a character and further developing the universe he inhabits. At the end of the book I can very explicitly see how Miles has grown as a character across the arc. Hopefully the series will continue to grow from this point and we will see continued development of both the characters and the setting.

The Man Who Walked in Darkness takes place about six months after the last novel and Miles has begun a long slide into the gutter. After some time in jail and a massive court case for the events of the last book, Miles is trying to find solace in the bottom of a bottle. However, when one of his friends shows up in the morgue with a mysterious illness, Miles is determined to find out who killed her and why. Mile's adventure will once again take him into the deadly underworld of Bluegate but as the intrigue thickens and the corpses pile up, it looks like Miles has bit off more than he can chew.

This novel definitely was a very dark character piece exploring the mostly shattered psyche of Miles during the events of the book. Miles constantly refuses help from his friends Desmond, Tania, and Vivian to try and keep them out of danger while he uncovers another dangerous Tunneling conspiracy. Eventually Miles's friends come to his aid in spite of his attempts to block them out and he comes to realize that he needs to let himself rely on other people and they're willing to take the same risks as him. I think this was a very important phase of character development for Miles and Chris did a very good job of taking us through it. The novel also introduces us to Limbus and Tartarus, two new dimensions accessible to Tunnelers with their own unique personalities. I definitely hope that future novels in the series will further expand the universe and we'll get to explore more of these infinitely varied realities.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel also has a much darker tone than the first one. Yes, there was some serious stuff that went down in the first book, but I was honestly a little surprised at the body count. Bluegate erupted into a full-scale gang war and the casualties and collateral damage left me quite surprised. This isn't to say that the change from the original book was bad, but it was in no way what I was expecting in this new novel. Once again I also felt that Miles had a secret healing factor like Deadpool because he seemed to take a lot of damage from a lot of different people and yet is still going when even the Terminator would probably take a week in intensive care. The characters even lampshade this at one point saying that Miles seems to recover quickly from such horrific injuries. Granted, the story would be a lot less interesting from a hospital bed, but it personally stretches my suspension of disbelief.

You're definitely going to have to read the first Franco book to really appreciate the second one but if you're already a fan be aware this second book has a very different tone. Still, I'm very pleased both the universe and the characters have grown and I hope to see more good work from Chris Strange in the future.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Other Teddy Roosevelts, by Mike Resnick

In celebration of America's birthday, today I have decided to write about America's greatest president, Theodore Roosevelt. As most people who know me are no doubt aware, I have an incredible amount of adoration for our twenty-sixth president and especially his domestic reform policies which sought to get corporate interests out of the business of government and return the power to the people. Obviously there were varying degrees of success with such reforms, but I think the Pure Food and Drug Act was a noteworthy accomplishment. And even beyond TR's tenure as president he was simply a larger than life figure that packed more adventure and accomplishment into his lifetime than most people would in five. As Resnick himself says the motivation to write stories about TR was because some of what he actually did, like track three killers down in a Dakota blizzard or chart the River of Doubt in Brazil, strains our belief that he could have actually done all those things. So it's not a terribly large jump to have him hunt vampires while serving as New York City's police commissioner or to fight HG Wells's Martian invaders during the Spanish-American War. And besides, that sounds like it'd be some pretty cool adventures, why the hell not?

 The Other Teddy Roosevelts contains seven short stories written by Mike Resnick which are little what-if adventures in the life of TR ranging from what if TR tangled with Jack the Ripper in Victorian London to what if TR had won the 1912 election as a Bull Moose Candidate. Or perhaps, most poignantly, what if TR's beloved first wife Alice hadn't died on Valentine's Day in 1884? All of these potential what-ifs raise some interesting questions, but unfortunately this book is not without flaws.

Some of the short stories are actually quite good and I enjoyed following TR hunt down Jack the Ripper, vampires, and Martian invaders but there were a couple of issues that started to surface as I continued with the novel. For example, I noticed that in every story Resnick wrote that Teddy jutted out his jaw pugnaciously at some point and flashes his toothy trademark Roosevelt grin. Certainly I would expect TR to do such things, but when the same thing happens in story after story I start getting the feeling he's just recycling due to lack of better ideas.

A story which I took particular issue with was The Bull Moose at Bay, which explores the idea that TR won the 1912 election and served a third term as president. The biggest problem is that the story takes place in 1916, at the end of his third term and when he's running for a fourth term. Basically the story is an entire argument for show, don't tell. We get told that TR was able to end the Great War in a year, but we're not told how he was able to do so. The economy is stronger than it ever was before and the trusts have been busted, but we're not shown how it's been done. And, most importantly to the story, TR has taken up the cause of women's suffrage but we don't get to see his fights with Republican leadership over the issue. We're just told that they fought over the issue and it may cost TR the election. If any of these stories deserved their own full-length book it would have been TR's third term as president and an in-depth exploration of what he could have done in those four years. Instead we jump to him running for a fourth term and potentially losing because of his support for women's suffrage. The other thing that irritated me was that throughout the entire story Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor are also there, but we're not explicitly told who they are until the very end of the story. I feel like that's supposed to be a big surprise to the reader, a sort of, "No way! FDR and Eleanor were there too?!" But the surprise doesn't work. If you know anything about American history, you're going to know right away who they are so the reveal comes as a, "Well duh." But if you know nothing about American history then the reveal's going to come as a, "Who?" It just doesn't work and makes a disappointing end to an already lackluster story.

The final real kicker for me was The Light that Blinds, the Claws that Catch which went into an absolute idolization of TR. Don't get me wrong, I like me some TR myself, but at the same time I always try to recognize that he was a human with flaws, just like the rest of us, and was not some perfect demigod that strode the earth with us mortals. In that particular story it asks what would happen if TR's first wife, Alice, hadn't died. The result is that TR passes up every opportunity for greatness that comes his way and becomes a quiet, humble man who focuses entirely on taking care of his fragile wife. It concludes with TR dying peacefully in his sleep and history weeping at the lost opportunity. Aside from the elevation of our TR to practically deity-status, I feel like this story relies too much on the Great Man theory of history. Basically, for many years people interpreted history as being influenced by powerful and great men who shape the entire course of events through willpower. Figures like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Hitler, influence the entire world through their actions. The problem with the Great Man theory is that it fails to account for the larger conditions which enable such men to rise to positions of power. Certainly individuals and groups of individuals play a part in the role of events, but there are larger social, political, and economic forces that enable such people to have influence. Quite simply, you cannot prevent World War II by going back in time and killing Hitler because while you've removed Hitler, you have not removed the conditions that allowed the Nazi party to take power in Germany and the creation of a dictator. Certainly you can remove TR from the equation of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, but that does not remove the conditions that would allow a person, or several people, to step into the roles that TR filled during this time. TR was certainly a remarkable man, but he certainly wasn't the only man.

The final issue, and this is sort of quibbling over details, was the list of facts about TR that are placed at the very end of the book. My problem was that some of them were distortions of the truth which seem to serve no purpose other than to make TR look greater. For example, Resnick asserts that TR busted more trusts as president than anyone else, ignoring the fact that William Howard Taft actually busted more trusts during his one term than TR ever did in his two. In addition Resnick claimed that TR managed to end the Russo-Japanese War before it turned into a real shooting war, which is simply not true. While TR managed to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War, it definitely resulted in over 100,000 casualties, as well as 20,000 civilian casualties, and several dramatic battles in which the Japanese utterly trounced the Russians. I definitely think that would qualify for the definition of a shooting war rather than a charming little disagreement. In addition, the Russians were in no condition to continue with the war effort, facing severe unrest at home in response to the military setbacks and the war would have ended anyway without TR's involvement. As much as I like TR I refuse to stand for the distortion of information in his favor.

Despite the initial promise of this book, I ended up frustrated with it more than anything else. I would honestly recommend my readers just pass this book up and go read Tales From the Bully Pulpit instead.

- Kalpar