Friday, May 27, 2011

Blackout, by Connie Wills

Blackout is the first volume of a two-volume set nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.  It is followed by All Clear.  The story is from her time traveler environment, set in 2060 Oxford.  Historians have discovered time travel and use it to investigate the past, but they can't get close to the big stories--"laws of time travel" prevent them from changing big events, they think.  I am going to go ahead and review Blackout, though I've started on All Clear, just to stay in touch.

The book jacket promises some big-picture time travel ideas, but the story so far is pretty deeply enmeshed in day to day events.  There's a vast amount of words and space spent on conveying the utter confusion and scrambling involved in getting historians to the past.  One would think they wouldn't have to rush around so, after all it is time travel and they can appear when they want to.  But assignments change and instructions are given at the last minute, and the chaos persists into their past assigments.  Such is the setup for our three heroes' investigations into WWII.  They get shifted in time and stranded, continuing their frantic scramble into survival in war.  It's picking up and possibly I will like it better as events come together, but I dunno, the relentless urgency just doesn't seem to fit the depicted events so well.  We shall see.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Continuing my reading of award winners, I have just finished Shades of Milk and Honey.  Also available at a public library near you.  Makes me glad for some compulsive tendencies on reading, as it is not something normally in my comfort zone.  Kowal sets out to write a novel in the style of Jane Austen.  I have never read Jane Austen, at least not more than paragraphs, so I get an echo here.  It's a shortish and easy read.  The speculative part is only one power, that of "glamour", which closely associates with femininity though it is a form of illusion.  Like beauty, some men work in it particularly well.  It's a standard plot, fitting for a style novel, wherein our "plain Jane" heroine, though smart and skilled, is not thought of as wife material and is resigned to spinsterhood.  And yet she is the one who must save her family honor.  The action is satisfying, if a bit long delayed.  And the novel actually closes off, so there's not a lot of room for a sequel.  Unlikely she'll revisit the space, though it is possible.  There is a somewhat weak attempt to age the spelling--"shewed" for "showed" is about the only instance, but it's used a lot--and it wasn't necessary.  The style is carried in the choice of words, the spelling was not important.  Not quite four stars, but I will give it a comfortable three.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Midwinter's Tale, by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is quite the stylist in SF literature, and he really seemed to dominate the '80s.  A Midwinter's Tale is a Hugo nominee for best novelette from 1984.  It's written in a jumpy voice, so that it's hard to tell who or what is speaking.  But at the core of it is hard SF speculation on a species that learns from its prey by eating their brains.  When they first eat a human, they get sucked in, though no one seems to have made this connection.  It's a fun story because the protagonist species is basically a big cat, and I'm a cat fan.  There's lots of other stuff kind of stirred in there, and it's mostly entertaining if jarring.  A good example of Swanwick, you will like it if you like him, or just for itself.  3 stars

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kirinyaga, by Mike Resnick

Kirinyaga is a fine story, one I believe I have read before but was worth a reread.  It was a Hugo winner in 1989, and is the first story in the series by the same name.  Resnick has important lessons to teach in this story and series.  The protagonist through them all is Koriba, a mundumugu, or Kikuyu witch doctor.  He keeps the traditions of the Kikuyu in their home on an orbiting environment, preserving what was lost on Earth.  The opening story has trouble starting when their tradition of killing feet-first babies clashes with the sensibilities of Maintenance, who runs the ship. 

Koriba's point to them and to his tribe is that the Kikuyu traditions are a whole, and cannot be taken apart.  Give on one point, and they will become Kenyans.  So they won't give. 

But such traditional societies, as we know now, are brittle.  They might be hard, but the breaking is a shattering.  We are ready to relearn that lesson today.  3 stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold has a new entry in the Vorkosigan series out, called Cryoburn.  It's the twelfth in the series, I believe.  I have not read much of the series--just Falling Free, set in the same universe but much earlier and not really connected.  I always have this dilemma with award winners--read the latest entry, or go back to the beginning?  This series has won a lot of awards and I've always wanted to read it.  What's more, the whole thing is now available for free through the Cryoburn link above.  So I started with Shards of Honor, from the Cordelia's Honor omnibus.

The series crosses several types of writing within SF.  The first novels are romances, stories of Miles Vorkosigan's mother and his Barrayaran father Aral.  I have to say that romances are not nomally my style, and don't do much better for me in the SF format.  This one is well-written and won't deter me from the series, but it didn't cure me of the dislike.  Cordelia swoons for her opponent in war and sometime captor, the honorable Aral Vorkosigan--seems like pretty standard romance stuff.  She is a strong and vivacious, beautiful woman, drawn to honorable, capable, strong, homely Aral.  Yep.  We even get a bondage scene thrown in.  It did keep me interested, though, and I'm planning to go on to Barrayar and get into the rest.  I'll go ahead and give this one 3 stars.

Read this one on my new Nook Color.  The Nook is a fine reader, a very reliable interface and no fumbling for where you are in the book, just like the Kindle.  I wouldn't miss print for it, though I'll continue to support reading free SF through libraries while they are still committed to dead trees.  The Nook is better as a general purpose device, and will get better yet when I'm able to root the latest version of the firmware.  But I like the reading experience on the Kindle just a bit better, I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Things, by Peter Watts

SF gets a fair bit of mileage from revisiting a classic and telling it from a different point of view.  Peter Watts does this brilliantly in The Things.  It's a retelling of John W. Campbell's Who Goes There?, told from the point of view of the alien taking over the bodies.  In the story it was easy to believe in the mindless evil of the assimilator, a story told many times over in SF.  But assimilators can have their own point of view--in this case the Things have accumulated the wisdom of the universe, and are wanting to add to the store, improving Man in the process.  We might not want it to happen, but the creature certainly believes it is doing good.  Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series has a similar point of view.  This has to be the short story front runner for Hugo 2011.  4 stars

Amaryllis, by Carrie Vaughn

Amaryllis is a nice Green tale, the unwanted child making good.  In this case it's pretty serious, as we are in the severely resource-constrained future and extra children are considered deadly.  But it's not the kid's fault.  It's a fairly vanilla picture of that future--the seas still produce, and there is general agreement on how to live, so as dystopias go it's not too bad.  Authorities are even reasonable and fair, which could make it qualify for a utopia.  It's a sweet thing.  3 stars.

For Want of a Nail, by Mary Robinette Kowal

For Want of a Nail gives a good lesson in both the development of artificial intelligence, and in single points of failure.  Cordelia is the ship's AI, a beloved figure because she does all kinds of handy things for the ship.  But an accident exposes the fact that she's been covering for her last "wrangler", who should have been "recycled".  It's well told with sympathetic characters.  A strong Hugo contender.  Though I don't quite get the title, it is quoted in the story but still doesn't quite fit.

Kowal has a novel nominated as well, which I hope to read once I make my way up the library queue.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Emperor of Mars, by Allen Steele

Some still have optimism that we will get to the planets someday.  I think they are right, but someday may be further off than they think.  Allen Steele's The Emperor of Mars is set in "'48", but I think that might be 2148 rather than 2048 as implied here.  This is basically a sweet and sentimental tale, about a man coping with loss from very far away where he can do nothing about it.  Kind of reminds me of the King of Hearts somehow, not sure why really.  But it reads nicely and leaves one in a good frame of mind, which is not a bad thing.  A good read for a time when you don't really want a challenge, just something to mentally ingest like a good pudding, as oppposed to a thick steak.  3 stars.

I really like reading these web articles on the Kindle.  It strips off all the adware and formatting, giving you a nice consistent print-like page to look at.  Did some browsing on the Nook, but it doesn't look good at all there.  Am looking forward to rooting the Nook to see if I can get a better-behaved browser on there.  As well as a Kindle reader!

Eight Miles, by Sean McMullen

It was a fine thing to read Sean McMullen again.  I read his GreatWinter Trilogy (beginning with Eyes of the Calculor) on a total whim after seeing it on display at a Barnes & Noble bookstore for what seemed like a year or more.  His short story Eight Miles is a fine one as well.  He ventures into steampunk territory here, telling of an early balloonist.  The balloonist is engaged by a rich baron to take an unusual specimen to a great height--she was found high in the mountains and is obviously not human.  The story revolves around just how sharp she gets as she is restored to her native atmosphere.

The story has the authentic steampunk 19th century voice, and it is a good adventure tale.  Not particularly groundbreaking, but the opening few sentences set the story so well it meets expectations.  Read it for some fun.  3 stars.

I read this one on the Kindle--it is an HTML page on McMullen's website, but the Kindle has an experimental browser that got to it competently.  It has an "article mode" for websites that made reading text on it a very good experience.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

SF and Ebook Readers

SF has an interesting relationship with words in print.  Some don't seem to think there will be any print, most seem to presume we read our text digitally.  I only know of one book, Ben Bova's Cyberbooks, that focuses on digital readers.  It's a very minor work of his. It's an insider story on the publishing industry, with an e-reader business conflict as the driver.  It was written in the late '80s, and there were some early tries at CD-based ebook readers on the market, so one couldn't say it was super-speculative.  But I read it with interest, because 1) I was a practicing librarian at the time, so SF about books was really different, and 2) I figured that's where we were going someday.

The day pretty much arrived with the advent of the Kindle a few years ago, and now we have the Nook, Sony's ereader, and many other entries.  Our family has just dove in with both feet, purchasing both a Nook (color version) and a Kindle (base model).  I'll be trying both out in my future reads, and will include some comments on the reading experiences in this space.

Would I miss paper, if it passed?  I like to think not.  I've never had trouble with screen reading, and the Kindle's e-ink display pretty much bypasses that problem.  The modern readers provide a fine reading experience.  Most important is that I've never been that attached to having books.  Having access to the books is sufficient, and digital access is much more convenient than the library, as important as I think that space is today.  Books as physical objects are mostly clumsy and inconvenient to own, as far as I'm concerned.  To the extent they survive, it will be as art--goodbye mass-market paperbacks, and good riddance.

Echo, by Jack McDevitt

Whenever I decide to pick up a series, especially in trying to cover award nominees, I am faced with the dilemma of where to start it.  Do I choose the award nominated book at the end, or go to the beginning, or what?  Echo is the fifth book in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series.  In this case, I decided to pick up the latest one and see how it went.

Well, it went OK I guess.  The cover of the library book I borrowed has Stephen King saying he is the "logical successor" to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  Lofty company.  I have enjoyed some McDevitt stories, but that's a lot to put on.  I can see the analogy, though, since McDevitt is a matter-of-fact writer who lets the science and the storyline drive the book.

Not so sure it worked well this time, and it may have to do with the point of view.  This installment in the series is written from the perspective of Chase Kolpath, his young, attractive and talented assistant.  He is at some pains to depict her in a non-exploitative way, which ends up making her a somewhat cardboard character.  And since we see Alex only through her eyes, he ends up that way too.

The plot matches these somewhat thin characters pretty well.  Benedict is an antique dealer, and they get a line on a tablet with some inscriptions in an unknown language on them.  Sunset Tuttle, the one-time owner, was on a quest to find intelligent life in the universe--in all man's travels there has been only one other race.  They pursue the mystery doggedly and in places miserably.  The ending could be rather spectacular, but ends up rather understated.  This kind of old-fashioned work has its place, but I think I'd want the science to be edgier and more forward to carry this book.  It's just FTL ships and far-flung colonies, and the personalities are supposed to move the load.  They are not quite up to it.  3 stars, but only just.