Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop (aka Starship) is a landmark novel in generation starship stories.  Featuring a broken down ship hurtling through the blackness of space to destinations unknown, the humanity on board has reverted to various levels of primitivism, the corridors and rooms of the massive ship almost unrecognizable in an overgrowth of weeds and bushes.  The novel about one man’s journey through the layers of civilization (for lack of a better term), and ultimately the enlightenment awaiting at the end, Aldiss wrote an engaging story imbued with enough profundity to make the novel worth some merit.  In 2010 Greg Bear returned to the theme of a broken down generation starship to tell his own story, the dynamic Hull Zero Three the result.

Awaking from a dreamtime infused with visions of life on Earth, a man, dubbed Teacher by the little girl who frees him from his sac, emerges into the chaos of a ship filled with floating debris.  Gravity coming and going in erratic ship spin-ups and spin-downs, he and the girl try to survive the various dangers hidden in the debris, as well as the strange creatures, not all of which are entirely malevolent.  Losing and gaining knowledge in the form of books, their survival quest takes them slowly toward Hull Zero Three, and the bizarreness that awaits them there.

Review of Halcyon Drift by Brian Stableford

Shorter review: Vanilla sf, i.e. story matches cover image.

Longer review: Halcyon Drift (1972) is the story of Grainger, a man stranded on a distant planet after his spacecraft has crashed and his partner died.  Eventually rescued, he’s not without debt: firstly in money to the group that rescued him, and secondly to the mind parasite that took up residence in his brain while he was stranded.  Back among civilized systems, he must find a way to repay the people he owes.  A chance encounter, however, changes his fortunes: a pilot is needed to fly a very new, highly experimental spaceship.  And where to?  None other than the Halycon Drift, an uncharted nebuli where a treasure awaits to be recovered.

While Stableford’s on-point prose makes this story readable, overall it has serious trouble distinguishing itself from the myriad of other space operas.  If you are a fan of such works, then for sure Halcyon Drift will scratch your itch.  Otherwise, nothing special here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review of Precursor by C. J. Cherryh

The following review is of the fourth book in a series of n books. (Cherryh just keeps pumping them out, the latest count seventeen.)  Therefore, I will skip the series intro and assume if you’re reading this, you are familiar with the first three Foreigner books, Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor, and will jump into the review of Precursor (1999).

Three years have passed since the events of Inheritor.  Bren still lives among the atevi as chief human ambassador, with Jace working closely at his side as translator and linguistics expert.  The atevi have made huge strides in the three years to develop technology, including a functioning space ship.  With things going smoothly in the intervening time, and violence with the Mospheirans and orbiting station essentially non-existent, it comes as a major surprise to Bren when in short order he’s informed by Tabini of three things: Jace is being pulled from his staff and sent back to live with other humans in the orbiting station, secondly that Bren too is in for a space ride, his presence also required in the space station to find out why Jace was recalled, and thirdly Bren needs to take advantage of the trip to broker key trade agreements so that the personnel aboard the station get the resources they need and the atevi get access to the technology they desire.  Negotiations initially going smoothly, when an appointed meeting doesn’t take place, and no word is sent about a re-schedule, Bren starts to get suspicious.  But with rumors floating around that hostile aliens have been found in a nearby star system, things start to get tense.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review of The Grain Kings by Keith Roberts

Certainly one of the names of science fiction from not so long ago that the current glut (aka Age of e-pulp) is quickly eliding, Keith Roberts was once one of the most formidable forces in British sf. Style dense and evocative, his inclination to the visual arts came out strongly in his work, almost as much as his dark, wary visions of humanity and civilization paved the way thematically. Bringing together seven stories from a spectrum of Roberts’ styles and settings, The Grain Kings (1976) is a solid collection worth the reader’s time—certainly more than the majority of science fiction appearing today. (I can’t even write ‘published today’ as much of it is self-generated, independently put out…)

Opening the collection is an alternate history wherein the UK made peace rather than carry on WWII with the Nazis. “Weihnachtsabend” tells of the ‘glitter and glamour’ of Europe after the Nazi’s triumph. A vividly etched story, the imagery has sharp edges even as the storyline dissolves into pure, purposeful bizarreness made all the more surreal by being Christmas Eve. The story bookending the other side of the collection likewise containing strongly surreal material, “I Lose Medea” tells of a man and his girlfriend who, attempting to go camping near a beach one day, encounter an army of old. Cannons set up and fired, the story shifts in and out of transparency, all as tragedy looms for the man and his girlfriend.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review of Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955 Earthlight is a Silver Age classic. A light spy thriller plot draped over descriptions of what life on the moon might be like, for as subtle (save the fireworks of the conclusion) as the storytelling is, the novel builds most of its bulk in describing monorails, sports in light gravity, underground mining operations, and other potential aspects of life on the moon. Taking the lunar baton and running with it a half century later is Ian McDonald’s 2015 Luna: New Moon. Oh, and plot comes a lot more enhanced…

McDonald himself dubbing the novel “Game of Domes“, I must admit Luna: New Moon is the best space opera I’ve read since Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (30 years later!!), not to mention a perfect three-word elevator pitch. Starks, Greyjoys, and Lannisters set aside, McDonald populates his moon with Cortas, Mackenzies, Suns, Asamoahs, and Vrontsovs—five families which have industrialized Earth’s largest satellite and settled into their own pitch and heave of feuds and competition. Called the five dragons, the novel is told largely from the perspective of the Cortas family, as their main rivals, the Mackenzies, try to stay one step ahead in the game of resource control, technology, and naturally (this is space opera), power.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Reads of 2016

Regardless of year published, the following are the books I read in 2016 that stuck out for one reason or another.  (The best of only books published in 2016 can be found here.) The gods know I am horrendous at doing my 21st century duty and reading as many female writers as male, homosexual as hetero, three-eyed as two.  My ratios are bad.  But when looking through the reviews I posted, this might have been one of my better years for diversity.  In no particular those that lingered are:

Breathmoss & Other Exhalations by Ian Macleod – Containing some of the best short fiction of Macleod’s career, this is a collection that can be read several times to discover the details of setting and character, in a wide variety of sub-genres, and all the while drooling over Macleod’s glorious prose.

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Not for the faint of heart, Ballard's collage—sorry, collection—sorry, tableaux—sorry, mosaic—sorry, I don’t know wtf to call it—tests the limits of what precisely fiction is.  A visual/ideological experience in the least, Ballard combines and recombines imagery of the 70s into a vision both political and artistic that will not be to everyone’s liking, but it is very much mine.

Distraction by Bruce Sterling – Quite possibly Sterling's best novel, Distraction is the purest distillation of his unique brand of satire.  Politicized, Sterling takes more than one crack at American politics, effortlessly cutting it off at the knees all the while asking humorously posed questions in scenarios having one foot in comedy and the other all too reality.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review of The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

The gods know there is a surfeit of serial killer novels in existence.  It is one of the most known tropes of fiction, let alone television, film, etc.  How then, to distinguish yourself in the field?  Accuracy of detail?  Vividness of character depiction?  Organic nature of mystery building?  A properly disguised surprise or two?  Well, yes or no to these questions, they can’t hurt—at least that seems Joe R. Lansdale’s approach in his 2000 The Bottoms.

Young Harry Crane lives in the rural bottoms of Depression-era East Texas.  His father the local township’s barber and constable, when Harry and his sister Tom discover a mutilated body in the woods late one night, he gets involved.  The townsfolk discovering the body is a black woman’s, nobody wants to get involved.  The local doctor dismisses the case as none of his business and the sheriff directly states it’s none of anybody’s business, except the blacks’.  Harry’s father doing a little poking around in his free time, he inadvertently pokes the hornet’s nest, and more bodies begin appearing.  Trouble is, not all are the result of the serial killer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review of The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

There are innumerable good writers who struggle to gain wider recognition.  Their style or content too non-formulaic for the average mainstream reader to latch on, they hover around the fringes, writing quality fiction, and occasionally attempt to write more familiar material in the hopes of gaining a readership that might be willing to check out their back catalogue.  Paul Kearney has walked this road.  Those who know his work are aware of the talent—the will to write something different in the face of popular trends, but eventually giving in and attempting to write something more familiar.  His Macht trilogy of pseudo-Spartan-Persian novels gaining him some relative recognition, for the follow up effort Kearney decided to test his readers by returning to his roots.  2016’s The Wolf in the Attic is a return to more literary fantasy—and a welcome return, at that.

We are introduced to young Anna several years after her family emigrated from Greece to the UK in the wake of WWI violence.  Only she and her father arriving on foreign shores, they live a life of poverty in the backstreets of Oxford, her father attempting to convert his political leanings into a means.  Out late one night walking in the local fens, Anna is witness to a murder, and in her rush home, is confronted by the assailant.  The young man just watching her, she eventually finds her way back, and things return to normal.  The memories of the evening troubling, however, they are also alluring, and some time later Anna decides to revisit the fens.  Further incidents occurring, it isn’t long after Anna begins to hear strange noises in their home’s attic, even as family tragedy looms ever closer.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Best of 2016's Books

2016 is come to an end, and it’s time to take a look back and offer some first impressions (more solid impressions, of course, requiring time for the books to filter and settle where they will). 

Overall, I would say 2016 was a good year.  Not great, not average, good.  That bland pronouncement can be spiced up by the fact China Mieville made a strong return, releasing two of the best books he’s ever written.  Tim Powers likewise published two novels/novellas in 2016, one of which at least proved he is still one of the most pure storytellers on the market.  (I have yet to read the other.)  A debut novella by Haris A. Durrani made an impression for the strong interplay of the fantastical and personal).  Paul Kearney abandoned epic fantasy to return to his roots of literary fantasy—and made it a welcome return.  Don Delillo dipped into science fiction in glacial, existential form.  The ever-unpredictable Bruce Sterling brought us retro-Futurism in contemporary, politically relevant form.  And Kij Johnson revised Lovecraft in solid fashion that goes against some of the grains of contemporary gender discussion, while going with others (natch).  In the short fiction arena, I got my hands on several quality anthologies and collections, which as a whole had a bit more shine than those I read from 2015.  The curated effort by Jacob Weisman Invaders, Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell, Neil Williamson’s Secret Language, Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, and Michael Swanwick’s Not So Much, Said the Cat—all made for a refreshing break from the gushing wealth of vanilla available on the market these days.