Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of "The Miracle Workers" by Jack Vance

The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are Jack Vance’s most famous novellas.  Falling short by just a hair, The Miracle Workers is also a well thought out piece of short fiction from the grandmaster of sci-fi, fantasy, and everything between.  So similar in quality in fact, the editors of the Vance Integral Edition (VIE) thought fit to group this story with Vance’s two award winning novellas in a single edition—a shout in support of its quality.

The Miracle Workers is the story of Keep Faide, its wars, its attacks to establish position, and sometimes its need to just plain survive on the strange planet they inhabit.  The other Keeps attacking in overt fashion, Keep Faide also faces inroads from the devious First Fols, a group native to the planet who seek to obstruct all of mankind’s efforts at domination.  Beyond their foam billowing, wasp spitting ways, the Fols erect forests filled with traps and snares where none exited before, and if not careful, may just be plotting to take back over the world they once called their own.  Lord Faide and the men under his control must go to wits’ end defending what they believe is their own.  Lord Faide’s problem is, his wits have a short road.

Review of "Legend" by David Gemmell

In 1976, David Gemmell was undergoing testing for cancer, and in an effort to take his mind from the process, began putting on paper some of his ideas for a fantasy story crawling around in his head.  A friend later suggested he develop the idea in to a full novel, and Legend was born.  Depicting sacrifice and heroism in the face of overwhelming adversity like perhaps no epic fantasy author before, the novel introduced The Legend—Druss the Deathwalker—and his mighty battleaxe, Snaga. The plot devices may be Dungeons & Dragons derivative and the characterization immature, but the novel’s cult following indicates there may be something more to the story, 10 sequels, prequels, etc. published since.

Faceless hordes of enemies, albino sorcerer telepaths, a castle siege in a mountain pass, a fearless female warrior with fur boots, bow, and breastplate, a young man searching for his destiny, and enough knights, bloodshed, and battle scenes to compete with any fantasy novel, such are the clich├ęs redolent throughout Legend.  What makes the story readable, however, is the descriptive setting and the sense of suspense Gemmell builds as each unpredictable event in the storyline unfolds. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review of "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson

Mars has been a subject of science fiction since before the genre became a fixture:  Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Philip K. Dick’s The Martian Time-slip, Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Princess of Mars series, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, C.S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, Ben Bova's Mars, and many others have in one way or another imagined what life might be like on our neighboring globe.  Representing more than a decade of research and reading on the subject, Kim Stanley Robinson's 1994 Red Mars is an elaborate work that just may set the bar Mars colonization novels.

As is to be expected, Red Mars begins with the planet as a wasteland and moves toward colonization—a very human version, at that.  The main characters are introduced on the nine-month space flight from Earth, inter-group tensions set, and then turned loose on the cold, arid desert. The book divided into eight sections, a main character is the focus of each, making the novel a surprisingly character-centered work despite the large amount of technical and scientific information included and developed.  John Boone is an experienced astronaut—the first to land on Mars, in fact—and is the expedition’s leader.  Frank Howard is the second in command and secretly harbors feelings of jealousy regarding not only John’s position of power, but also his charisma and people skills.  Nadia is a tough female engineer, doing her best with the tools at her disposal to build the infrastructure and facilities they need to live.  Hiroko is an intelligent but unique-minded biologist with ideas of her own (to say the least) regarding how society should function socially.  Not the only rebel, Arkady is an architect and planner with ideas even more radical regarding the structure and interaction of people, science, and government on the planet.  Through these and a handful of other main characters Robinson weaves his highly scientific yet intriguingly human tale.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review of "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester’s 1951 The Demolished Man is a landmark sci-fi novel in more ways than one.  Prominent enough to have been awarded the inaugural Hugo, it likewise presents motifs of science fiction that would later become the mainstays of writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and many others interested in the future and the mind.  Telepathy, psychology mixed with technology, and big metaphysical questions are the main devices at work.  Though several elements of the story are antiquated, for as much as Bester’s first novel is a product of its times, it is likewise ahead of its time, the rudiments of cyberpunk and modern sci-fi at play in its heart.  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review Philosophy

I recently came across a blogger slagging a book because they didn’t understand it.  The narrative was complex and fragmented, and therefore it was a “bad book”.  Not but a few minutes later while perusing another post on a different blog, I came across the same perspective, only more directly stated.  The commenter Dina had the following to say:  “And the whole point is that in your review - meaning: in the actual text - you explain what you liked and disliked about a book.”

I couldn’t disagree more, and as a result, decided to spell out the review philosophy for Speculiction.

Review of "Stand on Zanzibar" by John Brunner

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were two writers who initially established themselves not only in the world of realist fiction, but also in the hearts and minds of readers as effective observers on society.  As a result, their later novels Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are heralded as two of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, literary purists even willing to make allowances despite the sci-fi leanings.  Depending on perspective, it is John Brunner’s misfortune that his career was established in the world of science fiction.  When in 1968 Stand on Zanzibar was published, only those within the genre took notice of its qualities.  Poignant literature that transcends genre, it too comments with profound relevance on the human condition.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review of "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" by Terry Pratchett

Given the light-hearted yet poignant nature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, it is surprising to learn that only one of the XX books is YA oriented.  (I write “XX” because the number seemingly increases every few months, at last count at thirty-nine.)  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents that book, it should not be surprising to learn that it can readily be enjoyed by adults, as well.  

Playing with the legend of the Pied Piper, The Amazing Maurice is the story of Maurice the cat, his band of talking rats, and the teenager Keith whom with they travel city to city.  Running a scam, the preening, egotistical Maurice works as a middle man for Keith and the rats, the former earning money by playing the pipe to eliminate the rats who have made themselves a nuisance under Maurice’s guidance, the group sharing in the spoils. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review of "The Rise of Endymion" by Dan Simmons

After busting through the door with a whole new Hyperion story in Endymion, Simmons returns with The Rise of Endymion to close it.  Answering all of the questions and satisfying all the plot build up of the first half, Rise concludes the story in grand fashion, living up to the expectation created.  It does, however, leave a little wanting thematically. But to the review!

The Rise of Endymion opens where Endymion left off.  Aenea, Endymion, and the others are in the American West recovering from the attack by the church and learning architecture from a cybrid of Frank Lloyd Wright.  They are quickly separated, however, and Endymion goes on a perilous mission of which he knows not the end.  Simmons upping the ante imaginatively, the dangerous and exotic events of Endymion’s life prepare him in every way for the life he finds at the end, including how he ends up in the Schroedinger’s Box.

Review of "Endymion" by Dan Simmons

The original Hyperion duology was a great success for Dan Simmons.  It won him numerous awards and accolades, not to mention rave reviews and huge sales figures.  The setting so fertile, Simmons indulged further, producing additional books typically called the Endymion duology.  No less imaginative and visual, the pair, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, nevertheless take Simmons’ universe in a new direction: where Hyperion focused on mythological quests for power from a base of Keats' poetry, Endymion is honed to spirituality from a personal view.  The following review is for the first half of the duology.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review of "Red Star over China" by Edgar Snow

There is a famous communist image of a young Mao Zedong wearing a “flat cap” featuring a red star on its front.  As legend has it, the cap was a gift from the American journalist Edgar Snow, one of the few Westerners allowed behind communist lines in the ‘30s as China was caught in the grip of civil war and war with Japan.  Regardless of the veracity of the story, the cap would go on to feature prominently in communist propaganda, as would Snow’s resulting documentary, Red Star over China, in the West.

Though written at the time as a journalist piece, Snow’s appraisal of the communist movement in China in the ‘30s has since become a work of history.  The narrative predominantly relates the movement’s history, starting with the beginning of the 20th century to the date the book was published (1937).  From its early days in the southeast, the Long March, to its hiding out in caves of the north fighting against Nationalist and Japanese forces, Snow uses both Chinese and external sources in detailing the movement.  Each of these phases is given its political and dramatic due, though in the time since, better books have been published detailing the varying aspects.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review of "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 The Hobbit is simply as much fun as any fantasy adventure can be and, along with its ‘sequel’ The Lord of the Rings, is one of the genre’s modern cornerstones. Filled with warm, light-hearted imagination and tropes that have since become standard—trolls, wizards, elves, dwarves, and the like, the book is a delight for the young and the old, all brought to life with the author’s classic storytelling voice.

The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to recover the treasure of Lonely Mountain.  Though smaller (and fuzzier) in stature than the thirteen dwarves he goes adventuring with, Mr. Baggins proves himself useful time and again escaping goblins, thwarting giant spiders, riling up dragons, and brokering peace among the various humans, elves, trolls, and otherwise the band meet along the way.  It doesn't hurt that he finds a most peculiar ring along the way.  This is all most peculiar because, such adventures are the last thing on Bilbo’s to-do list at the beginning of the book.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review of "Earthlight" by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most influential writers of science fiction.  His quiet optimism, faith in science, and ability to tell straightforward but intriguing tales endeared him to a generation of fans that continues to this day.  Earthlight, his sixth published novel, follows directly on the heels of his successful Childhood’s End, and though rather simplistic in presentation, adheres to the author’s style in perfect fashion. 

Earthlight is the story of Bertram Sadler, an undercover agent for the CIA sent to the moon to ferret out a suspected spy.  Though dependent on Earth for all of their metals, several of the solar system’s planets have been inhabited and are united under the banner of The Federation.  Tungsten, uranium, and the like all in short supply, prices on Earth determine much of the solar system’s economics.  A rebellion fomenting in the face of price hikes on Earth, the CIA believes a Federation agent is at the moon’s observatory leaking information.  It is up to Sadler to discover who and stop them before war breaks out.

Told simply but subtly, Earthlight is not complex space opera.  Set entirely on the moon, the book is largely a vehicle for Clarke to describe what inhabited life might be like on our orbiting globe.  Featuring monorails, sports in light gravity, underground mining operations, and a telescope larger than any on Earth, the imagery is vintage Clarke.  So too are the characters.  The starched collar and thin tie wearing scientist filling most of the main roles, the story is rooted as much in ideas as it is visuals, a current of hard science flowing through everything.

Showing his usual insight into humanity’s vices, Clarke likewise seeks to promote its virtues. Fights for resources an unquestionable aspect of real life, it remains so in Earthlight.  The climactic scene revolving around this is spectacularly depicted and will have sci-fi junkies drooling.  This scene occurring about 80% of the way through the book, soft science fiction fans will likewise find something to enjoy about the remaining 20%.  Clarke betting on mankind’s empathy, the manner in which the Earth and the Federation’s interests are resolved nicely balance the fireworks of the climax.  Whether it’s believable or not, is up to the reader.

Problems with the novel?  Well, there are no technical issues, per se. Clarke’s writing is smooth, but not complex.  The super nova a nice literary touch, characters and scenes are related in efficient aplomb.  And it is a short story.  The book only 150 pages, scope is kept tight, the Federation and Earth’s war related in news bites rather than first hand action.  In other words, those looking for whopping space opera should look elsewhere.  Likewise, those looking for intense, never-ending scenes of action should look elsewhere.  Earthlight does have a jaw dropping climax, but this is a bright light in a story of earthlight, i.e., the indirect variety.

In the end, Earthlight is not the greatest sci-fi novel ever written, but it doesn't have any flaws; simplicity is its only potential drawback.  Readers who approach the short book with expectations for a story highlighting mankind’s need for resources, imaginative descriptions of life on the moon, and a typical Clarke denouement (i.e. optimistic) will walk away satisfied.  Those looking for dark and gritty sci-fi with complex amounts of characters, settings, and scenes had best look elsewhere.  It wouldn't hurt this type of writer today, however, to borrow a page from Clarke’s book and first master the straightforward before tackling the over-complex…