SF Academy 08 – Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

I’ve been a reader of John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, since long before I had read any of his work. The first thing of his I encountered was his installment in the five-author collection Metatropolis, where I found Scalzi’s humorous, breezy blogging style carried over to his narrative fiction. Old Man’s War is similar, despite mostly focusing on a more serious subjects such as war and colonialist expansion.

scalzi-oldmanwar

John Scalzi – Old Man’s War

I don’t think I’ve seen a single mention of this book that didn’t refer to Robert Heinlein’s work, most often Starship Troopers, and after reading this, it’s not hard to see why. It really is fairly straightforward in its influence, but that similarity never makes Old Man’s War seem derivative in any negative sense. The setup is simple: on Earth a couple of centuries from now, 65 year olds have the option of signing a contract to join the Colonial Defense Force, so that when they turn 75 they undergo some kind of mysterious physical transformation process to become fighting machines, and leave Earth forever to bounce around the galaxy, fighting various weird aliens for control of habitable planets.

The CDF initiates discover the nature of the process that allows them to go from elderly to fighting form, and as in Starship Troopers, we follow the new recruits from training to initial skirmishes, and watch them lose friends to the inevitable effects of war. We also learn more about various interesting elements of the CDF, including the “Ghost Brigades” (title and subject of the first sequel to Old Man’s War).

Scalzi is a stronger storyteller than a stylist, but the characters and dialogue are entertaining and likable. I find myself ready to follow along in this series and learn more about the CDF and their various interesting technologies (a “Skip Drive” for example, which is more a quantum reality-shift device than a true drive), especially the “ghost brigades.” Scalzi has created a great premise, and even if I hadn’t come to this book so late that multiple sequels had already appeared, it would have been plain enough to me that subsequent development could definitely be done in this story’s world.

Overall, an enjoyable, well-executed work, and one that makes me want to read more by Scalzi, both in and out of this series.

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SF Academy 07 – Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I briefly mentioned a few days ago my excitement at this wonderful new book, Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first of four books in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun Tetrology.

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’

This is my first “Science Fiction Academy” entry in a while, partly because I’ve been reading a bit less this past couple of months (spending more time writing, which is fine in the short run, but in the long run I’ll have to stoke the fire by reading more), partly because I’ve been reading less science fiction stuff, and partly because I’ve finished a few books that I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet.

Shadow of the Torturer is a great way to start this blog feature rolling again, because this is an incredible book. I feel like I’ve just stumbled onto one of my new, favorite writers in Gene Wolfe. This past few years I’ve sorted back through various science fiction of the sixties, seventies and eighties (and to a lesser extent those “classics” in decades before and after that range), and I’ve been struck more than anything else by the generally very poor quality of the writing in the genre. There are notable exceptions, like the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, and the breezy, masculine confidence of Heinlein, but far more sf writers create prose at a much lower level than the quality of the ideas. It’s such a relief to come across someone like Joe Haldeman, who writes in a clear, straightforward way that never interferes with the story or makes me roll my eyes.

Gene Wolfe, though, may be the best pure writer ever to work in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

This book applies elegant, poetic language to the compelling story of a torturer expelled from his guild for taking pity on a “client” (torture victim) with whom he’d fallen in love. The story is expressed with great sensitivity, and delves into metaphysical and ontological questions along the way.

If there is one drawback, it’s that this first book in the series ends rather abruptly. This is remedied by the recent release of Shadow of the Torturer together in a single volume with Claw of the Conciliator, the second New Sun book, so the reader may continue on without too much frustration. I can imagine readers being frustrated with this one when it came out, though, with no sequel at hand until a year or two later.

This work is so accomplished, so compelling and overall so successful that I find I have less to say about it than I would most novels. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who claims to love science fiction or fantasy, as it somewhat straddles the line between the genres. It feels like a fantasy novel, with swords and armor, horses and witches, and dark towers. Yet the story is based on a far-future Earth, where much has changed, and virtually everything we now know has been forgotten. I’ve seen this series referred to as “science fantasy” and though that’s not a term I normally like, here it fits.

The clearest recommendation I can make is that I not only intend to finish the series, but the related “Long Sun” and “Short Sun” series, and possibly everything else I can get my hands on by Wolfe. Truly one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

SF Academy 06 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

As I’ve discussed here previously, I believe some science fiction writers are more about the “big idea,” the concept that would be just as interesting in summary as in story form, and others are more about story and character, narration and philosophy, that is to say, the writing. My favorite science fiction writers are good at both, and one of my overall favorites is Greg Bear. His work can be uneven (avoid Dead Lines for example, which can’t decide whether it’s a ghost story of a muddled, supernatural-tinged attempt at sci-fi), but when it’s good, it’s really good. My favorites of his books include Blood Music (which seems to be out of print in the US, which is strange), and Moving Mars (which won Bear his first Nebula for Best Novel). I’ve been working my way gradually through his bibliography.

Darwin’s Radio came out in 1999 and won Bear the Nebula award. The book develops at a modest pace, with the discovery of mummified human remains which may suggest something unusual about human evolution. Coincidental to the very old remains being found, a virus that infects these mummies also begins to manifest itself among modern humans.

Bear’s strength is believable characters (especially scientists) and relationships that seem real, and run the gamut from love affairs to career betrayals. He’s also one of the few SF authors that attempts to write fairly explicit sex scenes in style that’s serious and unexaggerated.

By the end, Darwin’s Radio ends up being about a strange genetic trick that combines qualities of a pathogenic virus, and a mechanism for triggering a new stage in human evolution. The great majority of the book, though, is spent on political wrangling, and the formation and breaking-up of alliances between major characters including scientists, archologists, and political functionaries at the Centers for Disease Control.

The scientific ideas under exploration here are fascinating, but the book is much more about the struggle to understand, and scientific detective work thwarted by the need to compromise, all aspects of the process. The ending builds slowly but once crucial events occur the conclusion happens too quickly. Given that Bear wrote a sequel,
Darwin’s Children, I had to wonder whether he said to himself “Shit, this one’s getting way too long… better chop it off here, and finish it up in a sequel.” Then I looked up the sequel’s publication date and saw that it came 5 years later, so maybe not.

Maybe I’m the only one, but by the time the epilogue arrived, I thought we were just getting to the meat of the action. I’d recommend this one, but with reservations, and I wonder how I’ll feel after I read the sequel, which was not as well-reviewed as this book.

Overall, not dissatisfying exactly, but imperfect. At times, Greg Bear writes science fiction as well as anyone alive, and I’ll continue taking a chance on his books so long as there are more like this Blood Music or this one (successful, or almost), and not too many like Dead Lines.

SF Academy 05 – Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Just recently finished The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson, which I liked quite a bit. It reminded me of Spin in a superficial way, as if drafted from the same rough outline, with different details. You can always tell when an author has traveled in a certain part of the world because they start making all their characters visit that area so they have an excuse to sprinkle in details learned in their travels. In Wilson’s case, without knowing for sure, I’d wager he’s visited SE Asia.

In this one, the protagonist is a sort of hippie slacker living in very poor conditions in Bangkok, when a giant artifact from the future materializes nearby. This monument, the Chronolith of the title, announces a future victory by the conqueror Kuin, a name note yet known at the time of the story. This sudden “visitation,” constituting proof of a looming, threatening force, spreads fear throughout the world and causes societies to virtually all at once close up shop. In other words, most people become so fearful of something bad happening in the future they essentially give up twenty years before any conquering has even happened.

Because this is a Robert Charles Wilson book, the relationships are all haunted and broken (not saying that’s how Wilson’s own relationships are, but in the books I’ve read, his characters are all in that boat), and the parent-child relationships are especially tortured. It’s an engrossing story, though, as our protagonist gets caught up into an effort to understand the Chronoliths (because the one in Thailand is not the last to appear) and realizes his proximity to the first appearance gives him a sort of unavoidable connection to the entire drama of Kuin, attempts to prevent more monoliths, and those who worship Kuin (who doesn’t even exist yet) as all-powerful.

My first experience with reading Wilson’s work was Spin, probably his best book. While the others I’ve read have also been quite good, they’ve been at least a notch below that high point. I’d recommend this book if you’ve already read Spin and enjoyed it, but if you haven’t, then just read that one!

I love this writer, though, and plan to keep working through his books. Canadian sci-fi is strong these days! Next up, Blind Lake.

SF Academy 04 – Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas is the first novel in Iain M. Banks’s highly-regarded “Culture” series. I’ve been meaning to jump into these books for a while but when you look at them all stacked up next to each other the book store, all those thousands of pages, it can be daunting. Banks is known not only for his science fiction but for some edgy-but-mainstream books (which he differentiates by going as Iain Banks, without the middle initial), and the writing here is at a high level. This is definitely not a case of a “literary” writer slumming in sci-fi and just throwing a few spaceships and alien planets into the mix. There are sections that seem less adeptly written than others, which makes sense given that this is an earlier work by Banks re-written into publishable form after his first novel was released. Most of the book exhibits the confidence and polish of Bank’s more recent work, and overall the story keeps the reader swept along.

The story has quite a bit of action and violence, and covers a very broad swath of space. In the “Culture” series, at least at the beginning, there’s a war between The Culture (a very advanced race, or collective of races, who rely on powerful artificial minds to make live in the Culture one of utopic leisure) and the Idirans, which are a strange race of very large, shell-covered, three-legged beings who don’t age (but can be killed). The war arose due to the Idirans expansion or empire-building (driven by religious fanatacism), which the Culture determined to stop. Banks leaves no question which side he considers morally justified, and his dislike for religion comes through pretty clearly as well. Interestingly, though, the main character (a member of a shape-changing race) is actually working for the Idirans on an agent in their efforts against the Culture.

Consider Phlebas at Amazon.com

The novel has a few flat spots, and there were times I set it down and didn’t pick it back up for several weeks. Overall, though, the story’s world is compelling and its scope is truly impressive. I look forward to taking the next several steps in this series, especially as I understand the second Culture book, Use of Weapons, to be considered the best installment. The whole concept of the Culture spread across vast areas of space, creating utopic living environments free from poverty and disease, is intriguing and well-executed. I look forward to reading future Culture novels that focus more on the Culture and less on the Changers and Idirans.

Avid readers always hope every time they pick up a book by a writer new to them, they’ll be discovering a voice and a creative mind that will grab hold of them and make them want to read through everything the writer’s ever written. Consider Phlebas worked exactly that way for me, and I look forward to reading the entire “Culture” series (I’ve already purchased the next four books), as well as other works by Banks.

SF Academy 03 – The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein

Often I plan out which books I’ll read next well in advance, like a Netflix queue, but with a tangle stack of actual objects lined-up to read. This time at the last minute I grabbed this one rather than the Robert Charles Wilson book I’d planned on.

The Door Into Summer was originally released in 1957. Hey, check out this old paperback cover. Remember when books used to look like that? If you’re old like me, you probably do. This was somewhere near the author’s peak, and this novel is one of Heinlein’s best-regarded works.

It’s a story of a clever engineer named Daniel Boone Davis (though he goes by Dan or DB most of the time), and Heinlein certainly gave him the name “Daniel Boone” in reference to the American folk hero & pioneer. DB possesses a good, confident nature and seems mostly unrattled by the screwing-over dealt him by his fiancee and his business partner. He’s unhappy enough about things, though, that he decides to go in for “the long sleep,” a hibernation newly offered in the 1970 in which the novel begins.

I don’t want to reveal the convolutions of the aforementioned screwing-over, or the jumps forward and backward in time between 1970 and 2000 involved in DB’s efforts to set things right. But this is a cracking good tale, old fashioned in some details and yet fresh and futuristic even a half-century after it was written. Many of the other characters are better-drawn than the protagonist, and some of the more interesting parts of the novel are told in summary, such as Dan’s quick recap of all he learned after coming out of the sleep. This is a book packed with ideas, and it’s a great example of why Heinlein was so influential over the science fiction field for such a long period of time.

One aspect of the story that “feels” a bit strange is Dan’s very close relationship with a girl of eleven or so. They start off as buddies, though young Ricky clearly has a crush on Dan. At some point, after a bit of time-shifting to adjust the relative ages, Dan sets his sights on her as a sort of romantic partner. Without spoiling anything, there’s at least one fairly queasy sequence in which Dan fixates on the little girl as a potential future partner while she’s still a little girl. I wonder if this part raised many eyebrows back in the fifties?

Another surprising element is Heinlein’s inclusion of a nudist couple who become Dan’s friends. The manner in which Heinlein portrays the members of this nudist colony is somewhere between affectionate and admiring, and the only really “good” characters in the book, other than Dan and Ricky, are the two nudists who befriend Dan. There’s nothing too racy in the nudist colony part of the book, but it’s surprising that an author as plainly conservative as Heinlein would be so cool about an edgy issue so long ago. Then again, conservative meant something different in those days, and Heinlein might better be called libertarian. And of course I haven’t read Stranger in a Strange Land yet (scandal!) so maybe I’m the last to discover Heinlein was actually a swinging wildman.

I recommend this book highly, and it’s probably one of the top two or three dozen favorite science fiction books I’ve read. Really a lot of fun, and as I mentioned in an earlier post here, it made me grin quite a few times at one turn or another. That quality, fun, is something I value very highly in a story, and this one’s got it.

The Door into Summer, on amazon.com

SF Academy 02 – Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Last week I wrote about a very well-known, arguably classic, work of science fiction based on a big idea. In case you didn’t read my last post, SF Academy 01 – Ringworld by Larry Niven, I was disappointed with how that big idea was executed.

Today I’m going to focus on a more recently piece of “big idea” science fiction, one that was wonderfully effective by all measures. I’m talking about Spin, a novel from 2005 by Robert Charles Wilson.

Spin
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

In Spin, we observe three young friends, the protagonist Tyler Dupree and his friends, Diane and Jason Lawton, who are brother and sister and whose father is a powerful and wealthy businessman. Soon there is a major event affecting the entire world: the stars disappear, and it is determined that Earth has been sealed off from everything outside by a sort of shield. The sun still appears to rise according to the same schedule, and give warmth and light to the Earth, but it’s not the “real” sun, more of a virtual projection.

Humanity scrambles to figure out what happened, who might have caused this, and there’s an apocalyptic feel as fear and hopelessness take hold. Many aspects of this change are considered, and we see how such a thing might affect religion, business, the focus of scientists, interpersonal relationships. All this wide-angle stuff is seen from the perspective of Tyler, who remains intimately connected to Diane and Jason even as their lives diverge. Eventually humanity gains a better sense of what’s happening and why, and Jason is at the center of these efforts, and this brings Diane and Tyler into closer proximity with the mystery of the “spin.” Tyler has always been infatuated with Diane, and he struggles to find a way to connect with her, and he also has difficulty relating with Jason, who is obsessed with the spin mystery to an unhealthy degree. The matter of the “spin,” what it means, who caused it, and how this unfolds is of course the heart of the novel and I won’t include spoilers here.

What’s interesting and unusual here is the degree to which Wilson keeps this an intimate, human story despite the grand scale of space and time covered by the events in the book. As wide as the scope becomes, everything is always filtered through the perceptions and responses of a small group of people we feel close to, and care about. Tyler himself is not drawn as clearly as Diane and Jason, but we understand Tyler’s feelings for his friends, and it makes the events of the plot more dramatic.

Spin won the Hugo award in 2006 and Wilson has indicated it’s the first book in a trilogy. The sequel, Axis, came out two years later, and it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor. I’ll review that one here soon.

This is a book that delivers on what I consider the ideal of science fiction literature, which is to explore big ideas, convey a sense of wonder, and do so on a human scale so that the story packs emotional impact. Wilson is a mature and sensitive writer, and delivers fantastic events on a massive scale, in a way that feels natural, human and real. It’s very possibly the best science fiction novel of the past decade, and I’d say Wilson is my favorite recent discovery as well.

SF Academy 01 – Ringworld by Larry Niven

I thought about structuring this whole Science Fiction Academy series of posts in some organized way, like laying out the books in chronological order, or in the order I read them, but decided it was more fun to discuss whatever I have the strongest opinion about at the time. And right now, I have a strong opinion about Ringworld, the best-known novel by Larry Niven.

Ringworld Cover

Back in the 1970s, before I had read much science fiction myself (at that time preferring Tolkien and comic books and more Tolkien) I remember seeing a friend reading Ringworld, carrying it with him on the school bus every day for several months. He had such enthusiasm for it, and talked a lot about the cool concept at the book’s center, the Ringworld itself. It’s a giant alien construction far from Earth, encircling its own sun, and with land and gravity and atmosphere very much like a planet. Every edition of the book I’ve ever seen includes a picture of the Ringworld on the cover, which makes sense because the book is about the Ringworld itself much more than it’s about the people or events in the book. If it sounds to you like that might be a problem, that the setting (interesting though this piece of alien construction may be) has precedence in this book over character and plot, you’d be correct. It is a problem.

The book does have a few interesting details aside from the Ringworld itself, weird bits of alien life and technology and lore that apparently appear elsewhere in Niven’s “Known Space” series of stories, of which this novel is part. There’s a fertile inventiveness underlying this novel which make all the more frustrating the problems I’ve hinted at.

Ringworld Alternate Cover

The problems, then. The main character Louis Wu, a 200 year old Earth man who remains physically youthful and vital through futuristic biotech advances, is relatively interesting in concept. As for the sort of identifying traits that make a character, though, I have a hard time of thinking of anything interesting about Louis Wu. He’s sort of a bon vivant, and fancies himself some kind of a lover. I don’t really object to Louis Wu, and if the rest of the characters were as unobjectionable as Louis, this would be a better book.

The book’s premise, stated simply, is that an alien member of a race called the Puppeteers (previously known to Earthlings, but long absent from our planet for unknown reasons) has appeared and introduced himself to Louis, stating that he intends to put together a small team to travel across the galaxy using fancy faster-than-light technology way beyond what the humans possess, to check out some anomaly observed by other Puppeteers who are on a migration across the galaxy (which explains why they suddenly left Earth). This Puppeteer, Nessus, is a strangely-shaped two-headed alien, not the usual Star Trek “human with funny shaped ears or forehead” variety, and supposedly the Puppeteers’ defining trait as a race is their cowardliness. This trait is portrayed without the least subtlety, with a clownish idiocy that reminded me at times of Jar Jar Binks.

Before I get to the remaining characters, this raises my biggest objection to this book, which is the tin ear demonstrated especially by the dialogue, but also the clumsy and awkward writing throughout. Niven writes like a scientist with some neat ideas who decided he could write a novel and had never practiced before or even taken a writing class. I know plenty of readers are more interested in the ideas, especially in science fiction, and if you’re one of those readers, maybe you’re one of those who have made this a “classic” of the genre.

The other characters, then. There’s Teela Brown, a young and beautiful Earth female who is in love with Louis despite barely knowing him, and their 180 year difference in age. Nessus wants to recruit her to the team not due to her skill or experience, but because he believes her to be lucky, asserting that luck is an inheritable genetic trait and that she will be a good luck charm for the group. The way Teela’s dialogue and motivations are written made me wonder if maybe Niven had never actually talked to a real live pretty girl before, and the character felt less real to me than even the aliens.

Ringworld New Cover

The last main character is another alien, a member of a race of catlike warriors called the Kzin whose defining traits seems to be inability to control their tempers. The Kzin and humans have been fighting a series of Man-Kzin wars over the years (more stuff from the other “Known Space” stories, mostly just mentioned as backstory here) and though they fancy themselves fierce warriors, their brashness, impatience and stupidity have doomed them in these previous wars. The Kzin guy in this story is named Speaker-to-Animals and apparently he’s been bred to, well, speak to animals, and be a sort of diplomat rather than a warrior. You’d never know this by his actions, though, as he’s boastful and bullying, cartoonishly prone to violence.

Halo

The concept of the Ringworld itself is intriguing and cool enough to inspire similar ideas such as the Halo video game series, and the Orbital structures in Iain M. Banks series of Culture novels. Some of Niven’s other concepts and general ideas here are interesting as well. I’d love to have read this great big cool idea carried within a more interesting plot, with better characters.

The sentence-level quality of the writing is so poor, especially the excruciating dialogue, I find it difficult to understand the high reputation enjoyed by this book and its author. I began this overview with a memory of my friend reading the book on the schoolbus, at age 14 or so, and I’ve thought of that often as I read this. Science fiction as a genre has often been dismissed as unserious or aimed at adolescent boys, and while that’s generally both unfair and inaccurate, this book specifically seems written for an audience of young boys who’ve just moved up from comic books, but have never had a girlfriend yet. For that matter, the sex scenes here read as if Niven himself had never had a girlfriend when he wrote this.

I’ve re-read some of my other adolescent favorites, which I’ll get to in time, and the problem here is definitely not that I’ve lost the ability to enjoy something like Starship Troopers or Rocketship Galileo. Those were geared toward teens, but written in a way an adult can enjoy.

Unless someone whose taste I trust can argue me out of it, Larry Niven goes on my “never read again” list after this. It’s an A-plus idea with D-minus execution. I realize this book has won many awards and is considered a favorite of many fans, but really I’m guessing there are a lot of readers my age who read this in junior high school and just haven’t revisited it recently enough to discover how flawed it is.