Category Archives: Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Finally Getting Around to Scalzi

It has been in my mind for years that I want to read something by John Scalzi. I used to read his blog occasionally. As to why only “occasionally” and why “used to” I have no idea other than the fact that there are just too many blogs. Perhaps someday I will try to analyze the reasons why I read or don’t read particular blogs. Anyway, I also don’t know why I never got around to reading one of his books other than the fact that there are so many good books, but recently I saw Agent to the Stars in the Kindle $3.99 or less books (either that or my Recommendations; I can’t remember which) and I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally read Scalzi.

Agent to the Stars is different, weird, and amusing. Not what I generally consider “my thing” but I’m glad I read it. It was a fun little diversion and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys humorous science fiction. I was a little surprised when I got to the end and read the author’s afterword and found that this was what he considered a “practice novel”. How appropriate that the first book I read by John Scalzi was the first one he wrote. I will definitely read more. Any suggestions as to where I should go next?

Lots of Books

Oh, it’s been such a long time since I blogged about what I’m reading so I’ll just do one massive (or maybe not so massive) post about the last five or six. I feel that I’m not very good at reviewing books so I procrastinate.

I did mention A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Bryson is one of my favorite non-fiction authors. In this book “everything” means the universe in general and the history of scientific discovery. A large portion of it is devoted to the mostly unknown discoverers of things that were later discovered by the more famous scientists we have all heard of. The history of scientific discovery is not as neat as we were taught in school. It is much messier and more interesting.

I have read the first four books in the Scrapyard Ship series by Mark Wayne McGuinnis. These books were a fun read – an old-fashioned space adventure that starts, of all places, in a scrapyard where the protagonist, Jason Reynolds, finds a small alien sneaking around who leads him to a space ship that has been hidden underground for many years. Soon after this he is captain of a ship and in a fight to save Earth and other planets from invasion by an alien species that has already conquered a number of worlds.

I’ll be honest, by the time I got to the 4th book in the series I was getting a little burned out and almost quit in the middle. I did finish it but I decided to take a break before I finish the rest of the series, which continues from book to book. But it is good and I will read the remaining books.

Next, I read something completely different, Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey From the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games. It is the story of Lopez Lomong who was kidnapped by rebels in Sudan when he was six years old, escaped and ran to a refugee camp in Kenya with three older boys, and eventually came to the United States, became a citizen and ran in the Olympic Games. It is an amazing story and is well worth reading. Part of the profits from the book go to Lomong’s charitable foundation which provides clean water, medicine, and education to villages in South Sudan.

Currently, I am about halfway through a book by John Scalzi, my first by this author and it is great fun. More about this later. I’ll try not to wait six months before I blog about books again.

Summer TV

These are a few of the shows I’ve been watching lately.

Non-Fiction

Of course I’m still watching Mythbusters. Cari, Grant, and Tory, whose segments were my favorite part of the show, are gone and the show is really not the same without them but it’s still interesting.

I often, but not really regularly, watch Mysteries at the Museum. Very interesting short histories surrounding objects in museums. It’s on the Travel Channel.

Reality (or something remotely resembling it)

I generally do not watch competition/elimination type “reality” shows but Number Two Son started watching Face Off (SyFy) and got me hooked too. The contestants are special effects make-up artists, creating various kinds of original creatures, employing live models. All of the contestants have at least some experience doing this kind of make-up, though not in Hollywood. Who gets eliminated is decided by a panel of professional Hollywood make-up artists. The winner gets a job, as well as some other prizes. The thing I really appreciate about this show, compared to others of its type is the lack of interpersonal drama. Even though they are in competition with each other, the contestants are always friendly and sometimes even help the people they are competing against. In past seasons there have been a few contestants who were rather too whiny for my taste but there’s none of the sniping and cattiness you see on some of these types of shows and, at the end, I always feel like the person who won really deserved to win. I have never been disappointed.

I suppose I could have put Cuban Chrome in my “Non-Fiction” category but I think of it as a reality show along the lines of Swamp People, Mountain Men or Ice Road Truckers. We’ve all heard of the classic American cars in Cuba. This show is about mechanics who try to keep them going in spite of a lack of parts. We have only watched one episode so far. I found it interesting and I will watch at least a few more episodes but I’m not sure if we will keep watching long term or not.

Police or Detective Shows

Criminal Minds will be starting its eleventh season this fall but we have only been watching it for the last four or five seasons and, of those, we have missed up to half a season some years because of scheduling conflicts. (Even with DVR you can’t watch everything.) Several networks now show re-runs of it several nights a week so we have been watching a lot of Criminal Minds. I love this show. Considering that the crimes you see on it are of the creepiest and most disturbing kind, I can’t help wondering, just a little bit, if there’s something wrong with me for being so attracted to such a show, but what I really like about it are the characters and seeing them figure out the who and the why. I have to confess that at least 50% of the reason I watch is to see what Garcia will be wearing and the things she will say.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is another show that is re-run a lot. We started watching it this summer because, “There’s nothing else on; let’s try this.” So far I can take or leave it. It’s okay but I’m not a huge fan.

We started watching The Mentalist for the same reason: nothing else on; let’s try it. I have only watched three or four episodes but so far I am liking this one. The main character is cute and funny in a “no way would I put up with that in real life” way and the stories are interesting if not exactly plausible.

I have watched even less of the The Closer – two episodes, maybe three. Something about the main character grates on me a little bit but overall it’s not bad.

Science Fiction

And now, finally, we get to the best stuff on TV!

A couple of weeks ago there was a mini-marathon (four episodes) of Humans so I thought it might be a good opportunity to start watching it. It took me no time at all to get totally into it. In this near future or alternate present show people can buy realistically human-looking androids (called synths) to do housework and such. The problem with this is that a few of these synths are self-aware. One is murdering humans and the others just want to be free and to avoid being recycled. There is a poignant side plot about an old man who has an old, worn out and defective synth (not one of the self-aware ones) that he is trying to protect from mandatory recycling because it contains many of his memories and helps him to remember his past.

Zoo – Just started watching this one two weeks ago. Interesting so far. None of the characters have really clicked for me yet and that’s a pretty big deal to me but I’ll give it time because, as I said, it is interesting.

We have been watching Under the Dome since its beginning. I think it’s in its third season? Very interesting and realistic characters, intriguing story, complex but not so crazy complicated that it’s difficult to follow. Marg Helgenberger, formerly of CSI, has joined the cast this season and I’m liking her much better as the alien bitch than I ever liked her part in CSI.

This will come as no surprise, since I’ve mentioned it several times recently but my absolute favorite show on TV right now, and possibly number two favorite of all time, second only to Firefly, is Defiance.* I LOVE this show! It has fascinating characters and an extremely interesting long-term story arc. About 20 years (?) before the time the series begins aliens invaded and devastated Earth. Now (mid-21st century) humans share Earth with eight alien races in a very uneasy peace. Defiance is a town built in the ruins of St. Louis. If you haven’t seen this show before, start watching at the beginning and give it plenty of time. I didn’t really start to get into it until late in the first season.

*Actually, I feel a little guilty for not saying it’s third after Star Trek because I’ve loved ST for so long, and still do, but this is really a great show.

How Did We Ever Watch TV Without IMBd.com?

Last night we were watching re-runs of The Mentalist. (a series we just recently started watching) I saw a face I recognized so, as I normally do in such situations I went to IMBd on my smartphone. Turned out, the familiar face belonged to Jamie Murray, who plays Stahma Tarr in Defiance. Ah ha! That would explain my failure to immediately realize in what other show I had seen her. Sci-fi make up is always a good excuse for not recognizing someone on TV.

But wait! I kept scrolling to see what else she had been in and I saw it: Warehouse 13, H.G. Wells. (If you don’t understand an actress playing H.G. Wells, then you’re perfectly normal and probably not a science fiction fan.) How could I have not realized that this is the same actress? Frankly, it’s a little bit disturbing.

Of the two roles I much prefer Stahma. I never really liked the “H.G. Wells” character. I didn’t greatly dislike her either but I always sort of groaned a little bit when I realized she was going to be in an episode. I was annoyed with the “H.G. Wells was really a woman,” thing but I think the main thing that turned me off was that they always turned up the drama in the episodes she was in. I always thought of Warehouse 13 as a silly, fun show. The attempts to turn it into a serious drama never worked for me.

I love Defiance and Stahma Tarr is quite an interesting character. Extremely entertaining. I am constantly wondering what she’s going to do next and it’s great fun finding out. Murray plays her brilliantly.

Laziness and a New Obsession

Yesterday was a total waste of time, which is exactly what was great about it. We watched Top Gear (BBC America) for a little while and I thought I might get bored with it after a while and go do something else. I did go out to get milk and bread because we were completely out of the former and almost out of the latter. Came back and Number Two Son was watching The Fifth Element (still BBC A) which we’ve seen at least twice before but I sat down and watched the rest of it anyway because it’s fun. After that there were three (or was it four) episodes of Humans, (still BBC A) which I had not seen before so we watched all of those, and later the new episode on AMC, and now we’re hooked.

Humans is about an alternate present in which there are android servants. (called “synths”) They perform household tasks and can respond when spoken to but they are not sentient. Except, at least some of them are. A human and one of the sentient synths are trying to find two of their synth companions who have been kidnapped. One was bought by a family and the other by a bordello. The latter has escaped and is killing humans. There is a touching sub-plot about an elderly scientist who has a defective android that he loves and is trying to protect from the company that wants to take and recycle it.

So… a lazy Sunday and a new science fiction obsession. Life can’t get much better.

Reading

Yay! Back to space opera for a while! I very much enjoyed Starhold by J. Alan Field. There is a brief description of what the story is about at that link so I will just say that this book has well-developed characters, adventure, mystery, space battles, political intrigue, and a touch of romance – everything I expect in good space opera. I am looking forward to the next book in this series.

(Sorry for such a short post. I guess I’m just not into this whole blogging thing right now.)

All About That Base

So, have you had enough of All About That Bass to last you for the rest of your life? Well, too bad because here’s one more version that you absolutely, positively MUST listen to. I didn’t see it in time for May the Fouth (be with you) but I don’t care. Star Wars isn’t just a one day a year thing.

Thanks

Star Wars Art

Looking at these Star Wars concept paintings you realize that a man whose name most of us don’t remember was hugely responsible for the look of Star Wars. At the same time, they have an almost “retro sci-fi feel”.

There is a book, which, sadly, I will never own. Not that it’s not worth it but the price is way beyond the limits of my considerable self-indulgence. Or maybe I’m just too practical. When I see something like that I tend to think in terms of “How many other books could I buy for that price?” or how many CDs or how many yards of fabric.

Embedded

I am generally not a fan of military science fiction but Embedded by Dan Abnett was a Kindle monthly special a while back and that’s really all the incentive I need. Science fiction novel? $3.99 or less? Why not?

This book, however, aside from the shooting, the bleeding, and heads being blown off, actually is a pretty interesting story and is very well-written. An aging, cynical journalist investigates a conflict that the government is trying to cover up or downplay. It’s not a war or a conflict; it’s merely a “dispute” and no one will say what it is really about. Unable to get any straight answers, he gets himself “embedded” into the mind of a soldier.

The ending, though it resolves most of the major questions, leaves things wide open for a sequel, which I will definitely read. I was disappointed to find that it is not out yet.

Aliens and Spaceships and Bombs! Oh My!

The 5th book I have read this year is My Other Car Is a Spaceship by Mark Terence Chapman.* Present Day retired U.S. Air Force pilot Hal Nellis is kidnapped by aliens and offered the choice of either returning home to a peaceful retirement or training to pilot a starship and fighting pirates. No points for guessing which option he chooses. This book is full of action from beginning to end – lots of shooting and bombs and destruction but also an interesting plot with surprises and intrigue. Pure fun and escapism. I highly recommend it to any space opera fans out there.

* I read the Kindle edition.

Different and Interesting

I finished reading the Extinction Point trilogy by Paul Antony Jones. I’m having a hard time getting started on this “review”. It was definitely good, definitely interesting. I read it in what was, for me, record time. But the ending was a disappointment. So what can I say about the ending without it being a spoiler? Perhaps, nothing? It wasn’t terrible, I suppose. Perhaps someone else would think it is the perfect ending?

So, let’s start at the beginning. A mysterious red rain falls, destroying almost all life on Earth. Emily Baxter, a journalist for a NYC newspaper heads off on a cross-country trip to find other survivors. (And I have another small quibble. Emily is from Iowa. Is it just me or does it seem like young women who move to New York are always from Iowa? More bothersome is the fact that she does not know how to drive. If she was from Iowa and moved to New York City as an adult she would at least know how to drive. She might not own a car and might not have got a license in NY but she would know how to drive.)

Anyway… I don’t want to be too negative. Overall it was a very interesting story and I do recommend it to anyone who reads science fiction. The characters were well developed and interesting. The alien life was original – different from anything I’ve ever come across in other books or in movies. The story itself, the action, was compelling and made all three of the books unputdownable.

Mr. Jones says that there will be at least one more book in the series and there is a short story about one of the characters in the series and, yes, I will read those and likely other books by this author.

In a Reading Mood

Since I finished reading Railsea I have already finished another book and I’m more than halfway through another. Wow, must be the weather. At this rate I could read over 200 books this year but I can’t keep this up. I have to come back to the real world and do other things, like sewing. I haven’t really done any sewing since before Christmas and I really need to get back to it. The stash is feeling abandoned. I haven’t even so much as fondled it in weeks. Not to mention that all the online fabric retailers keep having sales. (Shhh. Go away; I don’t need you.)

The books I’m reading now are the Extinction Point series by Paul Antony Jones. I’ll have more to say about them later on. I probably won’t review every book I read but I have decided to try to keep track of the total number of books I read this year. I’ve been doing that on Google+ but I might start some kind of list here too. Feel free to add me to your Circles if you like and I will add you to one of mine. (unless you’re a spammer) I’m not trying to be as exclusive on Google+ as I am on Facebook.

Trains!

I got China Mieville’s Railsea for Christmas. It’s one of those books that I have been wanting for a while but never got around to buying. I started it a few days after Christmas and finished it Saturday night. (which is really fast for me) I don’t know how to review this book because about all I can think of to say is, “Wow!” Which is usually the first thing I have to say about any of Mieville’s novels.

Railsea isn’t as totally freak-out weird as Perdido Street Station or Iron Council but it’s weird enough. It is not set on the same world as those two novels. It has elements of Moby Dick but it would be unfair to call it “Moby Dick on rails” as I did when I first started it, as that aspect of it turns out not to be the most important part of the story. And there are surprises.

I used to say that if you’ve never read China Mieville start with Perdido Street Station but now I’m thinking Railsea might be the better one to start with. But it doesn’t matter all that much. If you like weird fantasy and science fiction you should definitely read both. PSS is fantasy; Railsea is science fiction. I think. With Mieville, sometimes it’s hard to tell.

More Reading

I finished reading Stardancer yesterday morning. About two weeks to read it, I think. That’s actually pretty fast for me. It usually takes me at least a month to get through an average sized book. (Though I am getting better about that since I’ve been trying to spend more time reading books.) It’s sort of a weird experience for me to write about a book knowing that the author is going to read this, because he’s not some distant celebrity but someone I have known online for more than 10 years. But in this case it’s easy because this is a really great book. Seriously.

I read a wide variety of science fiction (as well as other genres, mostly classics and history) but this is the kind of story that got me hooked on science fiction in the first place – full of space ships and adventure. Stardancer is unique in a number of ways too. The main character is a teenage girl who, though she is a princess who discovers that she has a strange ability, is fairly typical of girls that age. There is also an ethnic minority character who is a minority of one on the planet they are visiting. Girls and minorities are two seriously neglected groups in science fiction. There is a hint of environmentalism – what happens when you rely on just one power source and that source starts running out – but the reader is not beat over the head with it. The story keeps moving, uninterrupted by either preaching or science lectures.

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, not in any way a cliffhanger, but enough questions are left open to make me really impatient to read the next book.

Speech! Speech!

What’s the Greatest Speech in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

That’s a tough one. On Facebook, where I first saw this, a lot of people liked Malcolm Reynold’s “I aim to misbehave” speech in Serenity. Someone mentioned the V speech. I do agree that both of those are great. When I was a little kid I loved Captain Kirk’s speeches. (It seemed like he was always speechifying) They seemed so moving and profound. (Like I said I was a little kid.) But which one?

I always hate to declare one of anything to be The Best because I know that I will almost certainly remember something even better later, but I’m going out on a limb and saying that surely one of Captain Picard’s speeches must be the best. But again, which one? Well… this certainly must be a top contender.

What are your favorites? (From any science fiction or fantasy movie or TV show)

Reading

300 Suns by Allan J. Ferrenberg is one of the more unputdownable books I have read recently. In the near future a huge alien starship arrives. The aliens refuse to show themselves or to communicate in any way. Soon they begin putting satellites into orbit around Earth. Scientists, the military, and politicians are divided over whether or not the aliens are hostile and what, if anything, to do about them.

I don’t want to post any spoilers but I do want to say, “Hello, Hollywood? This would make an epic disaster movie.” Also, I was able to figure out what the aliens were up to one chapter before it was revealed in the story. I do like surprises but I also like being able to figure things out. I was not entirely pleased with the ending but it wasn’t a bad ending. My quibble is just over details, I suppose. Overall it was a very entertaining and worthwhile read.

Infinite Directions

A week or three ago there was a brief conversation on Facebook about fantasy and science fiction. Someone said something about not liking the direction that a lot of modern fantasy is going. I responded, saying that I don’t read a lot of fantasy but that the same was true of me and science fiction. But then, later, I thought, “Why did I say that? Is that really true?” I was thinking of some of the near future sci-fi and “hard” sci-fi (No FTL) that I’ve seen in recent years and which critics seem to be saying is “the future of science fiction,” the direction it’s going, and some of that is really good, but more often I’d rather just read some good old fashioned space opera. Damn the scientific plausibility and just entertain me!

If you ignore the critics and the hard “SF” nerds and really look at what’s out there, you see that there are books to take you in any direction you want to go. One of the first authors I thought of when I was rethinking my comment on Facebook was Neal Asher. Definitely original, what you could call “a new direction”, and yet, at their heart, his stories are good, old fashioned space opera, with strange planets, weird aliens, and FTL to get you there in less than one lifetime.

Independent and self published books are becoming more common. I have mentioned a few of these before: A Door to Truth by J.S. Johnson and The Last Revolution by R.T. Carpenter, to name just two. These authors have been inspired by the same books, movies and TV shows many of us have loved and they have their own original ideas so you get some really good stories (in spite of the fact that some of these authors really need to improve their proofreading skills) that might never have made it into print if they had been stuck trying to get past the traditional gatekeepers.

But what I really wanted to talk about is the book I just finished reading and one that I am eagerly anticipating. Let’s start with the one I just finished: Space Chronicles: The Last Human War by Dean Sault. The story begins some 300(?) years after Earth was completely destroyed in a war between several interstellar empires. The surviving few thousand humans are living in benevolent slavery on the planet Tanarac. The Heptari, a reptilian race, have apparently just discovered that there are still a few humans left alive and want to kill them all. Or at least they’re using that as an excuse to attack Tanarac. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot so I’ll just say, if you like space ships and especially epic battles between space ships you must read this book.

I have two more sci-fi novels and a non-fiction book (no wait… two of those also) in the queue, plus all those classics that I’m going to read someday, and I’m not sure what I will read next. But the big important one that I’m waiting on – and I have to wait until November for it – is Stardancer. I have been reading Kelly Sedinger’s blog, Byzantium’s Shores, since 2002, I think, and I have read some of the short stories he has posted there, and I think I know something of his taste in fiction, so I know this will be good. I’m going to try to time my reading to be done and ready for Stardancer when it comes out but if I’m in the middle of something at that time I will likely drop it to read Stardancer immediately. I don’t seem to be very good at reading two books at once. I usually end up dropping one even if I don’t intend to.