Category Archives: Sci-Fi & Fantasy

The Shepherd’s Backstory

This is a very brief review of Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale. There are no major spoilers but maybe a hint so if you don’t want any hints you might want to stop reading this now.

I don’t read “graphic novels” (I think I might have more respect for them if they would just call them comic books.) but when I found out that there was a “graphic novel” By Joss and Zack Whedon that reveals the secrets of Shepherd Book’s past I had to get it.

I am a little bit disappointed. It all makes sense. It’s perfectly logical. There’s no, “Oh wow! So that’s who he really is!” It’s more like, “Oh. Okay. That makes sense.” This was really just a brief overview of the pivotal moments in Book’s life and I’m not entirely satisfied that everything has been explained. If Firefly had lasted a few seasons and this had all been revealed bit by bit throughout the course of those seasons I’m sure it would have been more interesting. But still, I’m not sorry I bought the book.

My Kind of Sci-Fi

Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson is good old-fashioned science fiction. It has many of the familiar sci-fi tropes: FTL, an evil empire, a spoiled and out of touch nobility, wild frontier planets with disgruntled colonists, weird, serene aliens with impressive mental powers, and a secret plan to win independence. If you are into cutting edge “SF” you might consider this book “predictable” but it’s the writing and the details that make it worth reading.

A defeated General Adolphus is exiled to a “Deep Zone” planet with environmental conditions so bad it has been nicknamed “Hellhole”. The interstellar government, called The Constellation, controls the “stringline” system, an even faster FTL, which depends on a natural substance called iperion, of which there is only one known source. But another source is discovered on one of the Deep Zone worlds and about a dozen Deep Zone leaders, led by General Adolphus secretly plan to build their own stringline system and declare independence from the Constellation. Meanwhile, a few survivors of Hellhole’s original civilization are discovered and re-awakened. Complicating matters even more, there are political plots, murders, betrayals, and an illicit romance.

I wish I was better at writing reviews because Hellhole is much better than I’m making it sound. It’s a fast moving story that’s more about people, politics and adventure than it is about science. If that’s your sort of thing, as it is mine, I’m sure you’ll love it.

Hellhole is the first in a trilogy and the story does not conclude in this book so you might as well go ahead and buy all three. I highly recommend it.

Signs of the Future

I hate when I have to sign something. My signature never looks the same twice so I’m always a little worried that someone is going to have a problem with it. Like, “We can’t accept this. This isn’t really your signature.” Using signatures seems rather primitive but I guess there’s no secure and practical alternative yet. The Mythbusters showed how easy it is to defeat a fingerprint lock.

But anyway, I was thinking about this and since I was watching Through the Wormhole yesterday (and because this is just how my mind works) I thought of this. Suppose something like this happened:

We finally meet extraterrestrials and they’re friendly and want to do business with us. But they think our habit of signing everything is primitive and hilarious. They have devices that can instantly scan and identify DNA in saliva so they “sign” documents by spitting on them. Humans being the way we are, some people find this amusing, some people think it’s unsanitary, gross, and offensive, some people consider anything involving DNA a violation of their privacy, but about 80% of the people are just like, “Alright, whatever.”

As usual, the people who are offended make the most noise. There are protests, people carrying signs and writing blog posts and the mainstream media “analyze” it from every possible angle and continue to find new ways to say things they’ve already said so as to keep stirring the pot. Our alien friends had been willing to give us all the time we needed to catch up but, seeing all this uproar, they decide that we are a weird, primitive culture and that it would be in their best interest to limit contact with us.

The Earth is devastated. In the short time since first contact we have already become used to their advanced products. Everyone blames the U.S. government. Congress, missing the point as usual, quickly passes a law making spit signing the standard way of signing documents. This sets off a fresh round of protests. Meanwhile the EU is going through a similar process but the media spin the story to make Europe seem more civilized and sophisticated. The exact same Americans who were outraged about spit signing because they thought it was unsanitary and offensive ask, “Why can’t we be more like Europe.” Japan makes the switch to spit signing with little fuss. China refuses to even talk about it. North Korea threatens to launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S.

Congress passes an emergency amendment to the spit signing law making it legal to use old fashioned signatures in all dealings with China and other nations that find spit signing incompatible with their cultures. There is outrage across the U.S. “Why should we make concessions for China?!” Boycotts of all products from China are called for but most people find it impossible because almost everything is made in China.

The aliens are even more convinced that they don’t want to have anything to do with us. After a cooling off period of several months they open secret talks with Japan.

Yeah… I think that’s pretty much how it would go.

Neal Asher, Briefly

I recently finished two short books by Neal Asher. The Parasite is apparently out of print and used copies of it start at well over $100 at Amazon.com. You don’t want to know what new copies of it cost. Fortunately there’s a Kindle version. It’s a must read for fans of Asher’s Polity universe, though it is not a Polity story. It seems to be pre-Polity. At least it has some of the same elements you see in the Polity stories. And I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that I loved the ending.

Africa Zero contains two related stories about a future Africa filled with all sorts of genetically engineered creatures. It was a fun, quick read with a lot of interesting ideas. Of course, “fun” and “a lot of interesting ideas” pretty much describes every Neal Asher book I’ve ever read.

If anyone reading this is considering reading Asher on my recommendation, because everyone has different tastes in entertainment I feel I must warn you that Neal Asher’s stories have extraordinarily high body counts. Lots of humans and aliens die quite messily. If they made movies of these books and aired them on TV they would start with the familiar warning: “Some images may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.” If you’re interested I would recommend starting with either Gridlinked (which is the one I started with) or The Skinner.

Reading Miscellany

I finished reading book one of The Mongoliad. It’s okay but not great and as I was reading it I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t bother to continue with books two and three but then I get to the end and there’s no kind of conclusion nor even a logical break. It just ends in the middle of the action. So I don’t know. At first I thought I really wanted to see what happens next but after a couple of days I’m already starting to think, “Eh… I don’t care.”

I found Mongoliad when I was searching for books by Neal Stephenson but I wasn’t paying much attention because I didn’t realize until I received the book and actually had it in my hands that it was written by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E. D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, and Cooper Moo. A seven way collaboration! I generally tend to prefer single author books though I have read a few good two author collaborations and one really good three author collaboration.

Before Mongoliad I was reading Don Quixote but stopped in the middle of it. I started it again and read a couple of chapters. I’m almost halfway through it now. Picking it up again after a break was no trouble at all. It seems to be a good book to do that with. I think I will eventually finish it but the way I’m going it could take years.

I really wanted to get back to science fiction for a while so I ordered a few more books. I just started The Parasite by Neal Asher. I usually buy science fiction in paperback so I can share but used copies of this book start at over $100! Thank goodness for Kindle. So far I’m liking it. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m in the mood for. (Yes, I know. Shut up.) Paperbacks on the way: Africa Zero, also by Neal Asher, and The Peace War by Vernor Vinge.

Book Quote

I was going to do one of these every week but it hasn’t worked out that way. Anyway, today’s quote is from Excession by Iain M. Banks.

I think a little explanation might be required for those not familiar with Banks’ Culture novels or especially for those not very familiar with science fiction in general. In this series of novels space ships, space stations, and a lot of other technological things are intelligent, sentient, and have feelings. The following paragraph describes some of the thoughts and feelings of one of the ships in the story. (Italics in original)

It was a warship, after all. It was built, designed to glory in destruction, when it was considered appropriate. It found, as it was rightly and properly supposed to, an awful beauty in both the weaponry of war and the violence and devastation which that weaponry was capable of inflicting, and yet it knew that attractiveness stemmed from a kind of insecurity, a sort of childishness. It could see that – by some criteria – a warship, just by the perfectly articulated purity of its purpose, was the most beautiful single artifact the Culture was capable of producing, and at the same time understand the paucity of moral vision such a judgement implied. To fully appreciate the beauty of the weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy.

Book Quote

I finished my second reading of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. The first time I read this book I was blown away by its uniqueness and the beauty of Mieville’s prose. The second time, in addition to enjoying the beauty and the weirdness of it, I was struck by what a really good story it is.

It was really hard to decide what to quote. I finally decided on the first description of the structure that gives the book its name.

It was not a purer realm that loomed vastly over the city. Smokestacks punctured the membrane between the land and the air and disgorged tons of poisonous smog into that upper world as if out of spite. In a thicker, stinking haze just above the rooftops, the detritus from a million low chimneys eddied together. Crematoria vented into the airborne ashes of wills burnt by jealous executors, which mixed with coaldust burnt to keep dying lovers warm. Thousands of sordid smoke-ghosts wrapped New Crobuzon in a stench that suffocated like guilt.

The clouds swirled in the city’s filthy microclimate. It seemed as if all of New Crobuzon’s weather was formed by a massive, gradual crawling hurricane that centred around the city’s heart, the enormous mongrel building that squatted at the core of the commercial zone known as The Crow, the coagulate of miles of railway line and years of architectural styles and violations: Perdido Street Station.

An industrial castle, bristling with random parapets. The westernmost tower of the station was the militia’s Spike, that loomed over the other turrets, dwarfing them, tugged in seven directions by taut skyrails. But for all its height the Spike was only an annex of the enormous station.

The architect had been incarcerated, quite mad, seven years after Perdido Street Station was completed. He was a heretic, it was said, intent on building his own god.

Five enormous brick mouths gaped to swallow each of the city’s trainlines. The tracks unrolled on the arches like huge tongues. Shops and torture chambers and workshops and offices and empty spaces all stuffed the fat belly of the building, which seemed, from a certain angle, in a certain light, to be bracing itself, taking its weight on the Spike, preparing to leap into the enormous sky it so casually invaded.

Of course that doesn’t even begin to give you a clue as to what the story is about. It is dark urban fantasy, full of monsters, adventure, romance, a little steampunk, in a culture of several weird races in addition to humans. If I have convinced you to buy Perdido Street Station please click on the link above.

Wanting to be Darth Vader

I love this! This is Ryan Cartwright of the SyFy series Alphas. I was searching for interviews and stumbled upon this. And that’s the great thing about the Internet, you know – the things you find that you’re not looking for.

Possibly a little bit NSFW.

Why Pretend? Read!

Andrea has found a list of 10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read. (I’m glad he said “sci-fi”. “SF” is so pretentious.) I do not pretend to have read books. First, I have actually read enough classic, highly acclaimed, really big books to impress almost anyone I might want to impress. Second, most of the people I run into in “real life” (i.e. not on the Internet) are impressed (or sometimes puzzled) that I read any books at all, especially science fiction. And third, I would hate to get caught pretending.

It seems like an odd list. Why these 10 books. I have read some of them and I want to read others but not all of them.

1. Cryptonomicon – Yes, I’ve read it. It was an interesting and fun book.

2. Dune – Yes! (I include the first three books in the series) I read these several times before the movie came out. There’s nothing like reading Dune for the first time. Really blew me away.

3. Gravity’s Rainbow – No. I might or might not read this someday. To be honest, I generally find WWII era Germans to be dull and tedious but curiosity will likely lead me to read it eventually.

4. Foundation – No. Don’t know if I’ll ever read it or not. I know this is practically heresy but I haven’t liked any of Asimov’s fiction that I’ve read so far.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell – No. Never heard of it before but I am somewhat interested. I’ll put this one in the “definitely maybe” category.

6. 1984 – Yes. I feel that a lot of people don’t really get this book but I won’t comment because I’m sure someone would think I don’t get it either.

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker – No. Never heard of these either but they sound sort of interesting and they’re old enough to be available for free on Project Gutenberg so I will definitely read them.

8. The Long Tomorrow – No. The title sounds slightly familiar. I doubt I’ll ever read this one. Doesn’t sound like my cup o’ tea.

9. Dhalgren – No. Another slightly familiar title. Although I’m not a huge fan of Samuel R. Delany this sounds just interesting enough that I might give it a try.

10. Infinite Jest – No. Another one that doesn’t sound like my cup o’ tea.

Identity Theft?

This week’s episode of Eureka was fun. They did the old body swapping thing, with the swapping happening randomly and at hilariously inconvenient moments.

This trope* has been around a long time. The earliest I remember is the famous Captain Kirk/Dr. Janice Lester switch in Star Trek: TOS but I’m sure that is not the earliest example. (*Beware of that link. If you’re not careful you could be trapped for hours upon hours.)

The thing I find interesting about body swapping or snatching is watching how well (or how poorly) the actors portray someone else. My favorite was in Fringe earlier this season (or was it last season) when Olivia (Anna Torv) was invaded by William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) It was downright uncanny! Of course it’s easier when the swap or snatch involves characters with really distinctive speech mannerisms but Torv is brilliant at this sort of thing. She also gets to play two subtly different versions of her character.

So anyway, let’s discuss this. Do you have any favorite examples of body swapping or snatching? Or do you just find the whole thing silly, lame, tiresome and done way too often?

Writing a Better Future

Neal Stephenson wants science fiction writers to stop being pessimistic. Apparently he’s just reading the wrong books. There is still a lot of positive, hopeful science fiction. What is needed is more optimistic sci-fi in the movies and on TV where more kids will see it and be inspired. And we need more gadget driven science fiction. Writers do not predict the future; they say to the young audience, “This is what we need you to invent when you grow up.” Right now practically everyone is telling kids that the future is going to be bad, bad, bad. What are kids going to grow up to be if they have nothing hopeful to fuel their dreams?

One thing I have a problem with is the “no hyperspace” rule. I don’t think science fiction necessarily needs to be 100 percent plausible. Was Star Trek 100 percent plausible? Hardly. But it inspired a generation to support space exploration and invent things like cell phones. FTL ships are vehicles for the imagination and it saddens me that many writers have abandoned them and consider themselves smarter for doing so. To me that’s just another brand of pessimism.

But there is hope in print out there. For example, Neal Asher. His Polity books are violent, bloody and often gross but they also have intelligent machines, cool gadgets, weird body modification, and fascinating aliens and as long as you stayed out of the central action in the stories it would be a great universe in which to live. And there’s Iain M. Banks’ Culture – an entire society living exclusively in space. Someone needs to make blockbuster movies of those or even TV series. Yes, I would rather everyone would just read the books but everyone is not going to. Seeing the impossible come to life on the screen is what is most likely to inspire people, especially the young.

Is the world today really more scary and gloomy than it was in the 60’s when we watched scenes from the Vietnam war and race riots on the news every night and we all feared that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union could happen at any time? And yet, in that environment we managed to find hope that the future would be better. That hope, as well as a few of the gadgets we actually use today, were inspired by a silly little TV show called Star Trek.

Reading

I finished Player of Games last night. (What I said about the three sexes… a little more detail was revealed later in the book so that’s no longer really a valid post.) This is the second Iain M. Banks novel that I’ve read and the second in the Culture series. I am hooked in a big way. It’s one of the more appealing fictional universes that I’ve encountered.

In Player of Games, Gurgeh, famous for his skill at all kinds of games, travels to the Empire of Azad to be the first person from the Culture to compete in the extremely complex game that everyone in the Empire is obsessed with and believes that no outsider can play well. I found this book highly unputdownable and I was both satisfied and sorry when I read the last page.

If there were three

I’m in the middle of Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games. I might post more about the book in general after I’ve finished it but there’s something in it that started me thinking and I wanted to go ahead and throw it out there for (hopefully) discussion.

There is a race of humanoids in this book that has three sexes. In every story I’ve read in which there is a three-sexed race one of the sexes is merely an incubator and makes no genetic contribution of their own. My question for science fiction fans: Have you noticed this and have you ever read (or seen) a science fiction story about a three-sexed race in which each of the three makes a genetic contribution? Also, either way, how scientifically plausible is this arrangement?

Reading

I finished reading China Mieville’s Embassytown yesterday. This one is science fiction but it’s only slightly less weird than his fantasy novels. It’s a very fascinating story that deals with the connection between language and thought. Embassytown is a human community inside a bubble of Earth-type atmosphere, surrounded by the natives’ city. The natives, the Ariekei, have two mouths and their language consists of pairs of sounds spoken simultaneously. And they are incapable of saying anything that is not the literal truth. They cannot even use metaphors. The only humans who can speak to them are pairs of linked clones. Things get really interesting when the human government sends an ambassador pair who are not clones and their imperfectly linked speech has a strange effect on the Ariekei.

I’m not telling this very well but, trust me, it’s a unique and fascinating story.

I have started Player of Games by Iain M. Banks. It’s starting out very good. I want to go live on an orbital. I also recently downloaded two Kindle books: The Giant Book of Poetry by William Roetzheim and Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings by Gary Wenk. I’ve already read some of the poetry. It starts with a poem from around 4000 BC! And I’m very interested in getting into Your Brain on Food. Brains are such fascinating things.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that China Mieville has a new book coming out this summer, titled Railsea. I might not be able to wait for the paperback.

More Reading

I’ve been downloading books and stories from Project Gutenberg (Which probably would disappoint Amazon because I know when they sold me my Kindle they were hoping to make a lot more money off of me than they have.) including some very old science fiction. The interesting thing you discover from reading old sci-fi is that, as with any other genre, a good story will always be a good story and will never really become out-dated.

You won’t only find good stories at Project Gutenberg. They do not judge. The collection includes not only great classics but also a lot of obscure, forgotten stuff that probably should remain forgotten. A prime example of such a work is A Journey in Other Worlds by John Jacob Astor. Yes, that John Jacob Astor. In this book three men, two scientists and a businessman if I remember correctly, decide to start a project to “correct” the Earth’s tilt, thinking that a world without seasons would be a much more pleasant and convenient place to live. After talking about this project a for a little bit they take off on a journey to Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter is a warm, jungle planet full of huge, dinosaur-like beasts which the travelers shoot indiscriminately. In addition to the gleeful killing spree they talk a lot about exploiting the resources of Jupiter. Saturn is Heaven. Literally. It’s where our spirits go after we die and here the story goes into a lot of religious and emotional stuff. The story never does do anything with the “correcting the Earth’s tilt” thing and one wonders what was the point of even mentioning it in the first place. The writing style does not help the book any either. Much of it, especially in the first half, feels more like reading a report than a novel. Yes, I read the whole thing. I’m just stubborn that way.

After that I read Heart of Darkness, which I’ve already mentioned. More recently I read two short stories by Philip K. Dick (Did you know that the “K” is for Kindred?) The Variable Man and The Crystal Crypt, the first things I have ever read by Dick, and yes I will be reading more of his work. The Variable Man is about a man from the early 20th century who is accidentally brought into the future where he is a “variable” that the prediction computers of that era cannot calculate. The Crystal Crypt is about an incident on Mars. I love early Mars stories.

I just started The Picture of Dorian Gray a couple of days ago. It’s easy to see why Oscar Wilde is so often quoted. As I read I keep wanting to highlight and save quotables, but then, often, I will think, “Wait, I don’t even agree with that.” It makes one wonder – what is it about a sentence that makes it feel quotable?

There is also a non-fiction document that I’ve been reading off and on for months: Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years With the Indian Tribes on the American Frontier by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. It is quite long. I’m only 14 percent of the way into it. So far almost nothing has been said about the Indian tribes, which is disappointing, but it is still just a little bit interesting – sort of like reading a blog. The author touches on details of everyday life of the era while traveling, gives opinions and observations, and shares some of his correspondence. A lot of it is tedious but I’m curious enough to keep going back to it once in awhile.

Reading

Two books I read recently:

Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain M. Banks “Culture” novels. The story is told from the the point of view of an outsider – someone working for the enemies of the Culture. He is a “Changer”, what we more commonly call a “shape-shifter”. His mission is to find a missing AI or “Mind” before the Culture finds it and he has adventures with pirates and various other interesting characters along the way. I was delighted when I realized that Banks has borrowed Larry Niven’s grandest idea, the Ringworld. Banks’ “orbitals” are smaller than the Ringworld but still huge and I want to go on a nice long vacation on one.

It’s a very interesting book and I will definitely read more in this series. At first it’s tempting to try to find political parallels in the real world. You have a technological society in which freedom is very important versus a theocracy. But after reading the whole thing I feel that to look at it this way is to greatly reduce a broadly interesting fictional universe. Here is the author’s long essay about the Culture, which I confess I have not read in its entirety.

I finished Vernor Vinge’s The Witling this morning. I bought both of these books in paperback to facilitate sharing. I love my Kindle but real paper books are much easier to share with the other members of my family who are all science fiction fans. I was disappointed that The Witling is very short – only 220 pages – but for this story it is an appropriate length. It is a simple, old-fashioned planetary adventure/romance. The author could have drawn it out more, added more detail, and I would have enjoyed it at least as much but as it is it’s a quick very enjoyable read that is missing nothing.

Two people, an archeologist and a space pilot are stranded on Giri, a planet with a feudal society in which most people have the ability to teleport. Those few people who do not have this ability are called “witlings” and are considered seriously handicapped and are generally looked down upon. Pelio, the crown prince of one of the nations on Giri is a witling, an embarrassment to his family and his country. The pilot, Yoninne, is described as having a “squat, slab-like body” but to the short, thick Girians she is tall and exotic. Pelio falls in love with her and helps the two reach a distant telemetry station where they can call for help. Of course there are many complications to make things interesting, including enemies who want to kill them and food that is poisonous to the stranded pair.

This book is fun and satisfying. If you’ve ever complained that “they don’t write ’em like they used to,” you need to read it.

Reading

A few weeks ago Jaquandor recommended to me (via email) Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. It’s space opera so I immediately decided to give it a try.

I often find scientifically plausible science fiction tiresome. I want warp drive, artificial gravity and all that other cool, made-up stuff. Come on people, it’s fiction. But Leviathan Wakes, which takes place entirely within our solar system, mostly in the asteroid belt, is a great story that doesn’t make an issue of the science or lecture the reader on scientific concepts.

The story is told from the viewpoints of two very different men. One is young, idealistic and righteous. The other is older, perhaps wiser in some ways but also something of a loser. He is given the mission of finding the missing daughter of a wealthy couple but soon learns that some people do not want her found and he was only given the assignment because his superiors thought he would not be able to do it.

The younger man is the leader of four survivors of a space ship disaster. This odd pair team up to try to find out who or what is destroying spacecraft and what happened to the missing girl and why nobody wants her found. This is a mystery and a war story with just a bit of romance.

“James S. A. Corey” is the pseudonym of two collaborating authors. This bothers me a bit. I don’t have a problem with either pseudonyms or collaborations but if there are two authors I expect to see two names on the cover.

Living in the ‘verse

Jaquandor of Byzantium’s Shores asks for reader questions a couple of times a year and this time I asked two science fiction questions. As soon as I submitted the second one I thought, “Hey! That would have been fun to discuss over here.” So I’ve been waiting patiently (okay a bit impatiently) for Jaquandor’s answers before I brought it up but now, I’ve just gotta do this.

The question was, “If you could live on any of the Firefly worlds for the rest of your life, which would you choose? Wikipedia has a list of Firefly planets and moons. Only a few of these were featured in Firefly’s tragically short run and a few others were mentioned. So there’s not much to go on for making the important decision of where one wants to spend the rest of one’s life. Good thing this is only a game.

I have to admit, Alliance or no, I like civilization. That is, I like living in a rural area but I want real civilization not too far away. For some reason I am attracted to Persephone. Maybe it’s the name. Or this poster, which I have hanging over my computer desk. The “heavily stratified societal structure” bothers me a bit though. Ariel does seem like it might be a nice place to live – museums, restaurants, a bioluminescent lake, excellent medical facilities. (only not boring like she made it sound) We don’t know much about Londinium but according to the Wikipedia list it is “inhabited primarily by colonists from the western continents of Earth-that-was” which interests me because that’s where I’m from (the western continents of Earth, that is) and its the location of Parliament which could be a good thing or a bad thing. So I don’t know… At my age I guess I’d better pick Ariel.

What about you, Firefly fans? Where in the ‘verse do you want to live?