Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Currents of Space, by Isaac Asimov

Today I'm looking at the middle book of the Empire series by Isaac Asimov, The Currents of Space. This is another one of Asimov's serialized novels that was published chapter by chapter in the sci-fi pulp magazines of the mid-century and later collected into a single book. As I've said with Pebble in the Sky and The Stars Like Dust, this book is okay, but I don't think it's necessarily something to write home about.

This book is set after the rise of Trantor and its empire, but before Trantor has become a truly galactic empire, with significant portions of the outer rim still independent. The action of this book focuses on the worlds of Florinia and Sark. Florinia has been thoroughly colonized by Sark and the source of Sark's tremendous wealth, wealth which is only exceeded by Trantor. This is because Florinia is the only planet in the world capable of producing kyrt, a fabric stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight, impossibly glamourous, and the unrivaled king of textiles. The demand for kyrt throughout the galaxy is so high that the squires of Sark are able to live in absolute luxury, while keeping the half a billion people of Florinia in almost abject poverty.

In some ways, this book is a lot like Pebble in the Sky. There's a male character who ends up in a completely unfamiliar situation. Instead of a twentieth-century tailor transported to the distant future, however, we have Rik, a deep-space explorer whose mind has been subjected to a psychic probe which has left him unable to even walk or feed himself. However Rik's memories slowly return and he finds himself at the center of a plot of interplanetary intrigue which promises to affect the future of Trantor and the rest of the galaxy.

As I've said with the other books in the Empire series, plus the Robot novels, I think I'm just not very good at detective novels because I found myself pretty darn confused by the twists and turns and the ultimate ending I didn't really see coming. Granted, I could kind of see parts of it in hindsight, but it seemed a jumbled mess to me. And it may be that I'm just not used to picking apart a thrilling detective novel for clues to find and help me figure out the ending. I'm certainly willing to say that before I say that it's poorly written.

Otherwise, it's very much a pulp mid-century sci-fi adventure. I do wish we could have seen more of the political intrigue aspects and seen more about the rise of Trantor and its growth into a galactic empire, but you can't have everything. And if you like mysteries and pulp sci-fi, this is definitely worth a read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Slant, by Greg Bear

Today I'm looking at another book which was foisted upon me by a friend, Slant by Greg Bear. And as much as I hate to say it, I felt confused more than anything else by this book. I'm aware it may have been a product of my reading this book over the course of a month, along with several other books, but there are definitely several plot threads that start off independent of each other and end up being wound together into the climax of the book. In some ways, this feels a lot like a Philip K. Dick novel, and not just because of the cyberpunk themes and setting. There are a lot of different plot threads and references to a richly complex world Bear has created, any one of which could have consumed an entire novel on its own. However Bear, much like Dick, includes some of these complex ideas merely as window dressing which has the benefit of making the world feel deep and realistic, while also making the book a little confusing to read.

There are three main plots within the book, which I call main because they're important enough to get mentioned on the plot blurb of the book jacket. First there's Jack Giffey, who is attempting to break into the Omphalos, an enormous pyramid constructed in the semi-autonomous state of Green Idaho which is said to house the incredibly wealthy near-dead, waiting for revivification while entombed with their treasures.Second we have Public Defender Mary Choy who is called into Seattle for the investigation of some particularly heinous and terrifying crimes which eventually lead to a reclusive billionaire. And third there's Jill, the very first true Artificial Intelligence created by Mind Design and the template for all thinkers currently in existence. However, Jill receives communication from another AI calling himself Roddy, who is completely unfamiliar to her and not based on her own patterns. In theory, Roddy shouldn't exist.

On top of that we have Dr. Martin Burke, the psychologist who created implants used by a significant number of the population to treat an entire spectrum of mental disorders. But when these implants start mysteriously failing it could mean the collapse of modern society. Then there is Alice Grale, a sex-care industry worker who is finding her career on the downslope and suddenly gets much more complicated after a call-in with a mysterious gentleman. And finally there's Chloe and Jonathan, an upper-middle-class family whose domestic life is beginning to creak under the strain.

All of these plotlines, eventually being connected together, would be ambitious for a doorstopper novel. For an average-length 350 page novel? It feels almost like Bear is trying to accomplish too much in too little space and the result is the story suffers. This could have easily, easily been a longer-burning plotline-driven narrative and I think with more space to write Bear could have developed this book a lot more. I don't know why that decision was made, but I think it leaves the book lacking.

As I said, there are a lot of elements with this book that make the world feel much more complex but don't get as developed as I might have hoped. Some of these may have been dealt with in more detail in earlier books. (I found out after starting this, and much to my friend's surprise as well, that this was actually the fourth in a series.) A significant portion of the American population is undergoing or has gone through some form of therapy, making society far more ''normal'' than in previous eras. In addition, there are portions of the population called the disAffected, who live entirely on a government stipend and do nothing but consume entertainment, unable or unwilling to participate in the larger system. Plus there's the aforementioned Green Idaho, an enclave which is semi-autonomous within the United States and fought a war over this point. Any one of these could be the subject of a book alone, but Bear seems to use them merely as background for the narrative he chooses to tell.

Overall, I think I was left befuddled by this book more than anything else. I don't think there was anything bad about this book, I just think it may have been a little too ambitious. It's not a bad read, and maybe it gets better if you read it again or if you've read the other books preceding this one, but I honestly found myself confused.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

About a year and a half ago a friend got me to watch the Dreamworks movie Home on Netflix. Based on the trailers for this movie, it was not something I would normally choose to watch. Obviously there are people who enjoy that sort of humor but I'm just not one of them. But silly jokes aside, I noticed a critique of colonialism and racism sort of barely touched upon within the movie. Which I thought was rather subtle for a movie with jokes about aliens drinking out of the toilet. Doing a modicum of research I found out the movie was based on a book, The True Meaning of Smekday and the description I got off the internet made it sound intriguing. So when I got an opportunity to borrow this book from the library I decided it was worth taking a listen.

The result is that I am impressed and disappointed with The True
Meaning of Smekday
. The book has glimmers of real intelligence and looking at some serious issues which can be difficult to talk about. But I also feel like there's just a lot of squandered potential with the story as well when it falls into the fairly well-worn tread of alien invasion codified by War of the Worlds and has been used up to Independence Day and beyond.

The story is written from the perspective of Gratuity Tucci, an eleven year old girl living in Pennsylvania with her mom. On Christmas Eve, Gratuity's mom is kidnapped by the alien Boov as part of the run-ups to their full-blown invasion on Christmas Day, which they rename Smekday in honor of their Captain Smek. The Boov then begin pushing humans around and, at least in the United States, decide all humans should be sent to live in Florida as a ''human preserve''. Instead of taking the Boov-provided rockets, Gratuity decides to drive down to Florida by herself with her cat, Pig. Along the way she runs into an errant Boov who goes by the name J-Lo, and they soon team up, somewhat reluctantly.

Now, there are a lot of things I really like about this book. Gratuity is an excellent character, who manages to sound like an incredibly smart, independent, and yet to me fairly believable adolescent girl. She is absolutely fantastic and I loved following her around the United States as she tried to find her mom and figure out what the Boov invasion means for her. I also appreciated Bahni Turpin's narration, especially her voices for Boov characters such as J-Lo. In the book it definitely felt more like the Boov didn't fully understand English syntax and grammar so their language was a little stilted and accented, opposed to in the movie where it seemed to be a silly thing the Boov did because they were silly. So I appreciated that immensely. And overall, I think this book was very well written.

On the downside, as I mentioned I feel like there was a lot of squandered potential in this book. There are hints at talking about colonialism, with the Boov easily conquering earth and telling the humans that they're an inferior species to the Boov. The Boov also decide humans can never be integrated into society so humans are forced onto human preserves which, in theory, the Boov are giving to the humans for perpetuity but when the Boov realize they want that land, the humans are forced off of it and moved once again. On top of this, there's a Native American character Frank, aka Chief Shouting Bear, who makes it a hobby to shout at white people for stealing his land. This feels like it would be a great opportunity in a book, which seems to be geared towards children, to talk about complex issues such as colonialism and relations between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

I say this because colonialism and Indian relations is a difficult subject, if only because of the incredible embarrassment most white people feel at the atrocities committed by other white people against native peoples in the Americas. So it can be hard for adults to explain to children why this sort of thing happened and how it still affects American Indians today. By creating a fictional narrative, in which aliens invade Earth and treat humans in general much like how white people treated indigenous populations across the globe, we can create a more comfortable parallel to help people at least get children introduced to the ideas about colonialism and how it's a destructive force.

Unfortunately, the book kind of veers into the well-worn path of an alien invasion when yet another alien species shows up to take Earth away from both the humans and the Boov. So I'm left with the feeling that an opportunity to talk about a pretty serious subject like colonialism gets lost in a far more cookie-cutter plot.

I also feel like there were some important questions raised towards the end of the book which didn't really get satisfactory answers and which I felt were fairly important to the story. For example how is it that Lucy, Gratuity's mother, goes from being a barely responsible adult in the beginning of the book to being a key figure in the ad hoc government in the human preserve? Was Gratuity just an unreliable narrator? Did the events of the Boov invasion bring deep change to Lucy? Cosmic radiation? Also who is Dan Landry? Where does he come from? Why does he have so much power in the preserve? We know a little bit of what he's trying to accomplish but I feel like he could have used just the teensiest bit fleshing out.

Overall I don't think it's a bad book. I actually think it's pretty good and I enjoyed quite a few parts of it. I just feel like there was an opportunity to create something which Rex just barely, barely missed and could have achieved with a little more fleshing out. But I think it's definitely worth a look.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

Today I'm looking at another mid-century pulp sci-fi classic, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. This is a collection of short stories written by Bradbury in the 1940's which all, or almost all, deal with Mars and human colonization of Mars. Bradbury added some material to help stitch the stories together into a cohesive whole so on the one hand it feels like a short story anthology, but on the other hand it feels like an overarching narrative as well which gives it a very unique flavor.

As much as I hate to say it, this book does feel pretty dated, in ways both large and small. First there's the presence of aliens, cities, and canals on Mars, which is pretty standard in a lot of the pulp sci-fi from this time period but it certainly designates it as from a time when we knew far less about Mars and the larger solar system than we do now. And then there are the smaller things, such as a novelist using a typewriter on Mars or the vaguely, casually sexist tone of some of the stories. Even though the books are set in the distant future of the 2030's and later, the technology and culture of the people on Mars definitely feels very 1940's America. Of course, there is no helping this because of the time it was written, but it does date the book considerably.

Those issues aside, this is a pretty good short story collection. There are a lot of these stories that made me feel something. Whether it was frustration, anger, sadness, or a wry chuckle a lot of these stories managed to evoke some sort of emotional response which I think indicates they're very well written. A lot of these stories also have a dramatically ironic twist at the end which made me think of a lot of Twilight Zone episodes. I almost suspect some episodes of that show may have been loosely based off of stories from this book because of certain similarities. And as readers of this blog already know, I am a huge, huge fan of The Twilight Zone so anything that's like The Twilight Zone where there's a twist at the end which I can usually guess, for whatever reason I enjoy it, even if I can predict the ending. In fact, sometimes that's some of the fun.

So I think if you, like me, have a fondness for the older, pulpy sci-fi and especially stories like The Twilight Zone I think you'd enjoy reading The Martian Chronicles. If that isn't what you like, you're probably not going to get a lot out of this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

Today I'm looking at the third book in the Lady Trent Memoirs, The Voyage of the Basilisk, in which Isabella Camhurst undertakes an expedition around the world to study a variety of dragon species, including sea serpents, feathered serpents, and fire lizards. Isabella's goal is to learn more about dragon species in general and try to create a definitive taxonomy of dragon species, which the series has been heavily implying she does by the end of the (as of yet unwritten) fifth and final book. In this case Isabella's mission is very much like Charles Darwin's own expedition around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle which provided him with a variety of data to help him write On the Origin of Species.

Because this book does cover a two-year expedition around the globe it feels a lot more rushed than the earlier books, which is sort of odd considering A Natural History of Dragons covers all of Isabella's early life up to about the age of twenty. But in both of the previous books Isabella was studying dragons in more concentrated locales, and considerably fewer species of dragons as well. It definitely felt like Isabella and her compatriots were getting a ton of data on the subjects they were researching. Because she's studying far more species of dragon over greater areas we don't get quite as much detail about the different species of dragons as we might think. And when the main political non-dragon research plot of the book gets resolved, the rest of the expedition which presumably contained lots of tedious dragon research and little else because it's only briefly mentioned.

I am also a little concerned that the book is raising questions which I'm not entirely sure I can answer with the skillset that I have, and considering there's only two books left in the series I'm wondering of Brennan is leaving herself sufficient time to adequately answer the questions as well. The big ones that get brought up in this book, which have been kind of hiding in previous books, are the Draconian civilization and questions about how dragons evolved. Isabella's biggest and most pressing question is the taxonomy of dragons, which is currently limited to one resource and she is uncertain if it is accurate. And like most good science, the more research Isabella does, she ends up with more questions than answers. However, as a reader I am extremely curious about what the answers are.

The Draconian civilization is also taking on greater and greater proportions. As I said in my review of Tropic of Serpents, Isabella finds what I was subsequently proven correct in assuming was the Rosetta Stone for the Draconian civilization. So hopefully we'll find out what some of these mysterious inscriptions are throughout the world. But we're also presented with the fact the Draconians had settlements truly across the globe as Isabella travels not only to her world's equivalent of China, but also to their equivalent of the Pacific islands, which also have Draconian ruins. The audio book that I listened to contained a brief interview with Brennan at the end where she hinted that the Draconians are going to be super-important, but I'm worried that she's simply not giving herself enough space to give her plots the space they deserve.

Other than my concerns, I did enjoy this book and thought it was interesting. Brennan's universe manages to be very realistic and I appreciate that Isabella approaches dragon taxonomy with all due scientific rigor. I am curious how everything turns out in the last two books so that means she's doing something right.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Stars, Like Dust, by Isaac Asimov

Today I'm looking at the first, chronologically speaking, book in the Empire novels by Isaac Asimov, which bridge the gap between the Robot novels and the Foundation novels, both of which I've talked about previously on the blog. This book is actually set some time before the Galactic Empire based on Trantor is formed, and deals with politics within the kingdoms beyond the Horsehead Nebula, ruled by the Tyrannian (subtle!) khanate which threatens to impoverish not only the conquered, but the conquerors.

The story focuses upon Biron Farrell, the son of the the Rancher of Widemos who has been studying a variety of subjects at the University of Earth. Biron is about to graduate when he discovers a bomb placed in his dorm room, placed by Tyrannian agents. Biron then learns that the Tyrannians have executed his father for treason and threaten to seize his planetary estate. Farrell must rush back to the Nebular kingdoms and gets involved in a conspiracy of rebellion against the tyrannical Oppresons. I mean, the Tyrannian oppressors. (Okay, last joke about that I promise.)

I have to say this book is very, very silly fifties sci-fi pulp that was serialized in a magazine chapter by chapter before it was collected in a single book. As I mentioned with Pebble in the Sky, the plotting is not the best, which is a shame but this is an early work from Asimov so I can't say I'm entirely surprised. There's one plot twist towards the end which doesn't make terribly much sense and there's a plotline with an ancient document which I'm pretty sure original Star Trek just stole outright and recycled. Honestly, I suspect on some level if this wasn't a work by one of the giants of science-fiction then I don't know if this would be particularly memorable today.

That being said, I still liked this book. As anyone who reads my blog will know, I am an absolute sucker when it comes to old-fashioned space opera and sci-fi pulp. There was a part where the characters seemed to just stand around arguing a lot which I didn't like, but overall, it was a fun space adventure for me. If you like the crazy space pulp adventures, then this is definitely worth reading or listening to. If you're not a fan of crazy space pulp adventures, then this book just doesn't have anything for you, and that's okay.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Brothers Cabal, by Jonathan L. Howard

Today I'm looking at the fourth book in the Johannes Cabal series, The Brothers Cabal. As I've mentioned in my previous reviews, I haven't been quite sure what to make of these books because on the one hand they're very witty and entertaining, on the other hand Johannes is kind of a jerk. I think that's really a good sign that Howard is an excellent writer because I legitimately enjoy his books and keep coming back for more. Which tells me he's doing something right.

This book, as you may have guessed from the title, deals with Johannes and his older brother Horst, last seen in the first novel. Much to his frustration, Horst is still a vampire, but an incredibly kind and decent person in spite of his condition. And personally I think that's what makes this book in particular so interesting because Horst is a much, much better person than Johannes. Not that being better than Johannes is a terribly high bar to cross, but considering Horst needs to feed on human blood it's a real accomplishment considering how moral a person he is.

Horst really is the main character for the first part of the book because it's mostly Horst recounting to Johannes his adventures after his resurrection but before his being reunited with Johannes. So while Johannes was off investigating the Dreamlands, Horst had been resurrected and recruited by a group known as the Ministerium that seeks to unite armies of werewolves, vampires, zombies, and eldritch horrors to establish an independent state in Eastern Europe where vampires, werewolves, and necromancers can live free of persecution. Unfortunately for the Ministerium, Horst just isn't the sort of vampire interested in raising an army of vampires to help conquer his own petty kingdom.

So in a way it's a refreshing change to get to learn more about Horst, who we didn't know terribly much about in the first book, who seems to be somebody I'd actually enjoy meeting. Hands down, Horst Cabal is my favorite vampire. And Horst is dealing as well with the desire to become the monster he is inside and give in to the urges to kill and drink his fill. It's interesting to see him struggle with that, something that Johannes probably wouldn't have lost terribly much sleep over himself.

Overall, I'm finding myself really enjoying these books. There's a good blend of serious action and clever humor that makes these books both memorable and enjoyable. I think I can say, four books into the series, that I can strongly recommend them.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

Today I'm looking at the second in the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, Tropic of Serpents, where Lady Trent (Still just Isabella Camherst) finally gets to go on her next expedition to study dragons in their natural habitats in a Scirling colony in Egria. Lady Trent gets to examine not only the dragon species inhabiting the savanna, but eventually gets to explore the dangerous jungle known as the Green Hell and study Mulish swamp wyrms. Despite her desire to stick just to science, Isabella soon finds herself embroiled in politics and the fate of Scirling influence in Egria ends up, much to her dismay, in her hands.

Overall I thought this book was really good. One of the things Brennan does that  I like is the use of real-world cultures to populate her universe. Granted, it's fairly transparent if you know what to look for, but it's definitely an easy way for her to make a universe that feels real and grounded, despite the fact that it has dragons in it. And her study of dragons feels like a realistic, natural science approach to studying dragons and classifying them as species. Furthermore, Isabella is by no means a perfect person. By her own admission she's not a very good parent and she feels emotions like anger, frustration, and jealousy so it makes her feel more three-dimensional as a character than if she was just the consummate biologist.

There are some hints that make me a little concerned about Isabella being just a little too perfect. She keeps saying she has this bad habit of saying the wrong thing to the wrong people which makes her a terrible diplomat, but it always seems to work out for her in the end. Also I think she managed to find the universe's version of the Rosetta stone entirely by accident which feels a little bit too convenient for her. Granted our Rosetta Stone was also found by accident, but it seems just a tad fortunate that Isabella manages to stumble across it. I'm assuming it's the Rosetta stone because it's got at least two languages on it and one of them is unknown and apparently it's now in a museum and is quite famous. Hopefully later books will show us.

But overall, I think this book is pretty good and I look forward to listening to the other books in the series. It feels like a very genuine Victorian-era expedition to study the biology of dragons and I quite enjoy it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara W. Tuchman

Today I'm looking at a book about The Zimmermann Telegram, the event which finally forced the United States and Woodrow Wilson out of neutrality and firmly into the allied camp. In some ways the story of the Zimmermann Telegram is too preposterous to believe. German ministers, using the Americans' own telegraph cables, attempted to create an alliance with Mexico and Japan against the United States to keep the U.S. from being able to help the Allied Powers in Europe. And when confronted, Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, admitted the telegram was genuine, precipitating a maelstrom of anti-German rhetoric in American public life that made support of the Allied cause all but inevitable. Rather than keeping the U.S. out of the war, the Zimmermann Telegram brought about the exact situation it tried to prevent.

This book doesn't deal terribly much with the aftermath of the Zimmermann Telegram, which is fairly well known. Instead, Tuchman puts the Zimmermann Telegram within the larger context of politics in the early twentieth century and how Germany trying to get Japan and Mexico to fight the United States wasn't quite as far-fetched an idea as it may seem to us. Tuchman chronicles how Germany sought to expand their influence within Central and South America as a counter-balance to American and European power. This was during an era when Americans frequently intervened in Mexican affairs, to the point of sending most of the army under General Pershing in an ill-starred attempt to capture Pancho Villa. So the Mexican population, resentful of Yankee interference, was willing to accept German help. In addition, Wilhelm II's continual harping on the Yellow Peril and the spreading of rumors that the Japanese were already in Mexico with plans to attack the Panama Canal further made a collaboration between Germany, Japan, and Mexico all that much more likely.

I did find out this book was published half a century ago, first in 1958, which gives me some cause for concern, especially when Tuchman tends to stereotype the Germans as blindly arrogant, jealous of their English cousins, but ultimately bungling buffoons whose own arrogance exposes their stupidity. On the one hand, there is some cause to be concerned by this assessment because Tuchman seems to cast everyone, from the Kaiser on down, into the same mold. To be fair I have read other historical texts such as Absolute Destruction by Isabel Hull which delved deeply into the German military and political apparatus which was definitely blindingly overconfident of its own abilities and assumed things would work exactly as planned. Which caused considerable problems for Germany when almost nothing went as planned during World War I. How deeply this ran within the military and political establishments is a little harder to tell but there does seem to be evidence it was strong enough to seriously hamper German strategic ability.

Overall I think this book is interesting but I feel it deals a lot more with the background to the telegram rather than the message and its aftereffects. We get very detailed explanations as to how the Zimmermann Telegram could seem even halfway plausible to the German government and how the British intercepted and decoded German communications before we finally get to the telegram being revealed to Woodrow Wilson and later the American public. Tuchman does give a good sense of how it galvanized American support for intervention in the war, a prospect that most of the population previously was very lukewarm on. But I feel like we didn't get to see the aftermath which was just as important.

I also worry a little bit that Tuchman falls into the fallacy of assuming historical figures had the same knowledge and perspective as we have now and blaming them for not acting differently. In some, or even most cases, people cannot be certain how their actions will turn out in the future so we cannot always blame people for engaging in what seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be a terrible, terrible idea. But it definitely provided some additional information that I didn't already know about the First World War.

- Kalpar