My ultimate take-away from this collection of stories is that there's nothing new to say about power armor. All you can hope for is really good writin...moreMy ultimate take-away from this collection of stories is that there's nothing new to say about power armor. All you can hope for is really good writing of tales we've seen before. If you've never read stories about this sort of thing, this might be a decent introduction, but this is well-trod ground for long-time readers of SF.
Of course, the problem is that I'm measuring these stories against the best the field has come up with. Haldeman's The Forever War, heinlein's Starship Troopers and especially Gordon R. Dickson's novella "In the Bone", which deconstructs the powered armor story figuratively and, within the tale itself, literally.
That said, let's parse this sucker.
Foreword by Orson Scott Card. He says a bunch of obvious stuff, to the point where I thought, "Oh shut up, you idiot."
The Johnson Maneuver by Ian Douglas. This is a by-the numbers Military SF story with an interesting alien culture sweetening the pot of the typical "competent Marine versus incompetent paper-pusher". Well-written and a decent way to ease into the collection.
Hel's Half-Acre by Jack Campbell. Another by-the-book armor story by another veteran MilSF writer, this is predictable but well-written.
Jungle Walkers by David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell. A near-future story that is informed by the realities of what actual conflicts are about. This is one of the better stories in this collection. The good news is that you can read it for free here at io9.
The Last Run of the Coppelia by Genevieve Valentine. This story is different from most in that the powered armor is semi-sentient pseudo-biological suits designed for aquatic work. It's hampered by some unclear action scenes, but the characters are nicely done.
Death Reported of Last Surviving Veteran of the Great War by Dan Abnett. This was just a lazy pseudo-obituary and should have been rejected.
The Cat's Pajamas by Jack McDevitt. One of my favorite stories of the bunch, this one feels like a classic Larry Niven story where the characters are presented with a problem that requires some out-of-the-box creative thinking. The power armor in this case isn't for military use but rather to protect against the beyond-extreme environment near a pulsar. Cats are cliche in sci-fi, but this one I really liked.
Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest Things by Simon R. Green. A character study more than anything else that offends my sense of justice. It feels very much in the vein of 60s New Wave stuff, but the unfair denouement aggravates me.
Power Armor: A Love Story by David Barr Kirtley. Despite the terrible title, this is actually a pretty decent character sketch about opening yourself up to love. The metaphor is a bit obvious in that the main character has sealed himself into his power armor because he is justifiably frightened of assassination and only true love can get him to "open up"... his armor. But the writing is good and dialogue is nice.
The Last Days of the Kelly Gang by David D. Levine. A true rarity: a science fictional steampunk story. This is one of two of these here and this is the good one, with excellent writing and terrific characters. It didn't hurt that I read this the week after returning from Australia, so the setting was fresh in my mind, but this could be set in the American West, too.
Field Test by Michael Stackpole. I'm not sure if this qualifies as Alternate History or Secret History, but the story takes place during the recent uprising in Libya, with a soldier using an experimental battlesuit to wreak havoc during Ghaddafi's fall from power. Great action scenes, fun characters, superb dialogue. This should be used to teach SF writers how to do infodumps that aren't annoying. You get everything you need to know about the situation while also learning about the characters and it flows together seamlessly.
Trauma Pod by Alastair Reynolds. A decent story that we've seen before (and will again in this collection) but the pieces fall into place readily enough. (view spoiler)[The titular pod is a robotic medic working to save a soldier's life, and eventually his consciousness merges with the pod's AI... or perhaps the pod becomes delusional that has happened. Reynolds leaves it somewhat open to interpretation. (hide spoiler)]
Contained Vacuum by David Sherman. This was a boring action bit that felt like a level in a mediocre space combat video game. It was probably inspired by Dead Space or something similar and it feels like it.
You Do What You Do by Tanya Huff. This is similar to Trauma Pod in that it explores what happens to people who interface too closely and too intensely with machines. Unlike trauma Pod, it is unambiguous about what happens, but is ambiguous about whether it's a good thing or not.
Nomad by Karin Lowachee. This is a cracking-good story about betrayal and death and moving on from losing the one great love of your life, using a post-apocalyptic powered armor gang warfare story as the framing device. This is the kind of story that would look good as a movie but wouldn't translate well.
Human Error by John Jackson Miller. Like The Cat's Pajamas this is a Nivenesque tale of being forced to find solutions to apparently insurmountable problems. In this case problems caused by a shipping error, where someone sent human soldiers power armor meant for starfish-like aliens... and it just so happens that they are facing a mindless glob of goo that eats everything in its wake, including entire planets. It's the good ol' "adapt, improvise. overcome" story that's so much fun in sci-fi.
Transfer of Ownership by Christie Yant. This story was particularly satisfying for me because it combines the outside-the-box thinking I like in stories as well as the sentient power armor tale with a genuinely satisfying ending that wasn't a "happy ending" but appealed to my sense of justice. It's almost as if Yant has perfectly (and intentionally) synthesized a number of the other stories in this collection.
Heuristic Algorithmic and Reasoning Response Engine by Ethan Skarstedt & Brandon Sanderson. I don't have anything good to say about this story. The aliens are uninteresting, the action is tedious, the dialogue some of the worst I've ever seen and it just stops. There's no ending. It's as if they got to the number of words they contracted to write and quit. This is an example of how not to write a story.
Don Quixote by Carrie Vaughn. This is the opposite of The Last Says of the Kelly gang. Really lifeless steampunk that just didn't work on any level.
The Poacher by Wendy Wagner & Jack Wagner. After two really terrible stories in a row, this one bounced back with a well-told story of a park ranger on a future Earth that's protected as a heritage site. The recent story of poachers poisoning over 300 elephants as well as other animals like lions in Zimbabwe with the aid of government officials really underscores how important this sort of thing is, and I'm all about rangers trying to protect fragile ecosystems from greedy little bastards.
The Green by Lauren Beukes. This is a horror story, plain and simple. It's depressing and sad, but also terrifically written. The ending is horrific but feels inevitable. Sadly, despite its removal from anything familiar by placing it far in the future on a distant planet, it speaks directly to the actions of so many heartless corporations today, which is what the best science fiction does.
Sticks and Stones by Robert Buettner. This story has a lighter tone than the one surrounding it which makes it feel almost like a comedy, but it, too, is a really well-done throwback to stories from the golden age of sci-fi. A little push-pull of Imperialism as well as Star Trek's Prime Directive is always good for a tidy little story. Again, it suits my sense of justice to give the good guys a fighting chance.
Helmet by Daniel H. Wilson. This is powerful stuff, of heroism and horror, human decency struggling to survive amongst brutal inhumanity. it works on both levels as science fiction and as commentary on current events in war-torn Anywhere. This story surprised me the most, because I totally hated Wilson's novel Robopaclypse, which I felt was a lazy version of World War Z.
The N-Body Solution by Sean Williams. This story was good in that it gives us a glimpse of how alien things can be, but the underlying "twist" is one that's been done before. (view spoiler)[The wormhole transfer station appears broken but actually works fine. What usually happens, though, is that the person on the transmitting end is killed by the machine and a duplicate is created on the receiving end. It's an old idea that has been explored quite a few times before. (hide spoiler)] It's a decent enough tale, but the familiarity of the pieces works against it, and the power armor aspect of it is rather incidental. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
There are some really great stories here about life aboard interstellar starships. The hook for this collection is that they're all scientifically pos...moreThere are some really great stories here about life aboard interstellar starships. The hook for this collection is that they're all scientifically possible. Which isn't as heavy as you might think, since the focus really isn't on the science. Plus the last two stories really don't have much to do with it.
The last story is by Mike Resnick and it doesn't belong here. It's a fanciful tale about a race through the solar system and the "real story" about how one ship disappeared. It really should have been rejected; I suspect he's here for name recognition.
That said, many of the other stories are so good that I wish they were full novels. It reminds me why I like short stories so much: cracking good tales that leave you wanting more. It's a shame the book ends with a whimper.
There are a few science essays which detail some of the ways we can travel interstellar distances. A few decades ago I would have found them to be value-added, but there wasn't a lot of new information contained in them. Which is really a commentary on the sad state of cutting-edge scientific inquiry in America more than anything else. However, if this is your first exposure to these ideas then they are well worth your time.
Edit to add:
CHOICES by Les Johnson - A very good beginning to the collection, setting the tone that sometimes things break while in deep space, and frequently those broken things are people.
A COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Ben Bova - I really enjoyed this old school story about a stubborn man who knows what the right choice is and is determined to make it, no matter the cost. To win big you have to bet big, and the protagonist is just that kind of guy.
LUCY by Jack McDevitt - I loved this story. This is the flipside of the Bova story where the AI has a chance to go on one last adventure and metaphorically leaps at it.
LESSER BEINGS by Dr. Charles Gannon - This story really feels epic, with an interstellar spaceship used as an escape valve for a warring society. Every time someone loses a war, they take the ship to the next available system. The implication is that they are multiple generations -- and star systems -- removed from Earth, and as a result their society has mutated and stratified. Creating a completely new culture with backstory is something incredibly difficult to pull off, so I'm always impressed when an author does it in a short story. Excellent.
DESIGN FLAW by Louise Marley - This is a solid nuts-and-bolts working-class-spaceman story about a woman whose job is to inspect hard-to-get-to crawlspaces in spaceships because of her tiny size. Her diminutive stature comes partially from being naturally small and from growing up starvingly poor, which made her small. But small or not, she doesn't take guff from roughneck bullies, which causes her to make some tough choices. I discovered I'm slightly claustrophobic while having an MRI, so parts of this story were skin-crawlingly tense.
TWENTY LIGHTS TO THE "LAND OF SNOW": Excerpts from the Computer Logs of Our Reluctant Dalai Lama by Michael Bishop - A Buddhist colony ship funded by the Chinese eager to solve their Tibetan problem heads out for another solar system and the Dalai Lama dies en route. It is claimed he reincarnates in the body of a 7-year-old girl, who wants nothing to do with the responsibility. It's a nice tale of how she ages from 7 to 31 during the journey, with all the politics and dangers one might imagine in any group. I can't say much about the plot without spoiling it, but it's quite good.
THE BIG SHIP AND THE WISE OLD OWL by Sarah A. Hoyt - Another female protagonist, which is a nice trend, but this story felt a little too pat. Some of the things which happen do so just in time, the kind of coincidence which do stretch my willing suspension of disbelief. It's not a bad story, but when compared to some of the really good stories here it's a bit of the B team taking the field.
SIREN SONG by Mike Resnick - This story doesn't belong here either in terms of theme (going interstellar) or quality. This is the sort of disappointing trifle Resnick can do in his sleep, and I'm at a loss as to why it's included. This was a lame way to end an otherwise excellent collection.
Various essays - As mentioned above, the essays are almost certainly value-added to someone new to the game, with excellent summations of current thoughts, theories and designs. I didn't find they added much for me, but then I've been reading this stuff for 40 years now. that said, they are quite good.(less)
Patton Oswalt is probably most famous for voicing the rat chef in Pixar's Ratatouille or maybe the sitcom King of Queens, but the first time I saw him...morePatton Oswalt is probably most famous for voicing the rat chef in Pixar's Ratatouille or maybe the sitcom King of Queens, but the first time I saw him was at some dumpy little comedy club back in the late 80s or early 90s and I felt like I was the only one in the crowd who understood what he was doing.
This book is a lot like his stage show in that it's sometimes incredibly funny and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable yet always incisive and just a wee bit twisted. It's impossible to tell which stories are true and which are made up (although I'm pretty sure the one about the vampires turfing over a street corner is absolutely not false), but ultimately it doesn't really matter, because either way you're going to be entertained.
The title essay sorts geeks into their respective niches: are you a zombie, spaceship or wasteland? I can't describe it without giving it away. I guess ultimately I'm a spaceship searching for a zombie wasteland. I just want to start over, control my little part of the world and go for some sweet headshots.(less)
This excellent collection of short stories are basically variations on the theme of alternate timelines, framed as dreams Albert Einstein has while wo...moreThis excellent collection of short stories are basically variations on the theme of alternate timelines, framed as dreams Albert Einstein has while working as a patent clerk. The sheer variety is impressive, and they are each thought-provoking in their own way.(less)
The Man-Kzin Wars series has been my favorite escapist literature since the first one debuted 25 years ago. Some of the books in the series have been...moreThe Man-Kzin Wars series has been my favorite escapist literature since the first one debuted 25 years ago. Some of the books in the series have been brilliant, some terrible, but overall they've been quite entertaining. This volume is decidedly on the "really good" end of the spectrum. there are some annoying things, such as the witless dolt who proofread the thing, changing the multiple instances of "hangar" into "hanger" and the flash of "lightning" to "lightening." That sort of intern-level laziness aggravates me. Overlooking those lapses, though, shows a really fine collection overall.
One of the things I've always enjoyed about Larry Niven's Known Space books is that they generally don't take themselves too seriously. There's always the wry viewpoint which underscores everything. The best of the Man-Kzin stories capture that. The most brilliant example occurs in the very first volume with Dean Ing's story "Cathouse." That really set the tone for everyone following. However, here we have the Alex Hernandez tale "At the Gates" which fits right in with that same style. It's a fine line to walk and many authors aren't as successful at it, but when they hit it, everything is golden. Known Space is a lot like Star Trek: lots of fun, but short on continuity of scientific believability.
Misunderstanding by Hal Colebatch & Jessica Q. Fox -- Colebatch is probably the most-active veteran of the M-K Wars. His stories have been all over the place for me, and this is one of the weaker ones. It's a bit *too* silly for my tastes... well, more than a bit. It's downright goofy. I don't know Fox's work, so I have no idea how much influence she had on the story. This is the weakest tale of the bunch.
Two Types of Teeth by Jane Lindskold -- I quite liked this story, primarily because of the pay-off of the title. It's about a Kzin POW and the woman tasked with studying him. There's some stuff about Helsinki Syndrome and politics, but this is one of those tales which feels somewhat canonical. (Many of the M-K stories aren't canon, according to Niven, but he's only talked about a couple.) Even without knowing about the larger aspects of Known Space a reader can easily follow this straight-forward story.
Pick of the Litter by Charles E. Gannon -- This novella is the longest of the bunch and the heart of the book. A special taskforce captures a bunch of Kzin kits who are then raised in captivity during the early years of the Wars so humans can study them. they 9and we) learn a lot about Kzin biology and psychology, as well as the recent history of Earth and the internal conflicts caused by shifting from a neutered Golden Age of peace to a war footing against a ferocious enemy. It's interesting in and of itself, but I also like how it fills in gaps in the M-K backstory about how humans learned to exploit Kzin emotional tendencies and physiological responses.
Tomcat Tactics by Charles E. Gannon -- This is pretty much a sequel to the previous story. Much of it is the pay-off to the various bits of knowledge gleaned over the 25 year span in "Pick of the Litter." It's also a cracking-good war story. These two stories really feel like Gannon has done his homework from previous volumes and has slotted his tales expertly into them, obliquely referencing things which happened in other volumes concerning the planet Wunderland. Plus all of his dates feel right. If they ever update the Wunderland War volume, these need to go with it.
At the Gates by Alex Hernandez -- As I mentioned, this is the stand-out tale of the bunch. It truly captures the flavor of the classic tales of Known Space as written by Niven: it's a cool adventure with daring, smart protagonists who have a sort of amused viewpoint of the world. The only thing I didn't care for was that the main Kzin character, Healer-of-Hunters, refers to having eaten a pet Pug as a young kit. That was just unnecessary. Pugs are such pleasant, happy-to-meet-you dogs. Now, Chihuahuas on the other hand... (And I mean "the other hand" literally: looking at my left hand as I type this, I can see the deep gouges left from my Chihuahua as he mauled me while I attempted to remove a tick. My Pugs wouldn't have done that.)
Anyway, we finally get to find out what happened to Angel's Pencil, the human spaceship which first encountered the Kzin way back in 1966. (1966 our time, not Known Space time. That's how old this universe is that Niven has created.)
Zeno's Roulette by David Bartell -- I'm not sure what to make of this story. It's really good and feels quite a bit like the previous one, but it really amps up the stakes by evoking many of the heavy hitters in the Known Space universe: the Puppeteers, the Slavers and the stasis boxes. In mercenary Flex Bothme (a pseudonym) Bartell has created a character the equal to the likes of Louis Wu, the hero of the Ringworld books, but there's something sinister about him and not quite complete. It's a good story, but again it went to a dark place more than once. I'm not against that but... maybe it was just jarring after the Hernandez story.
Bound for Paradise by Alex Hernandez -- This ties in with "At the Gates", pointing to bigger things to come with the descendants of Angel's Pencil and a new direction for the Known Space universe. Providing Niven lets it stand as canon, of course. This is brief and direct, almost a coda for everything that's gone before.
One of the things I've always liked about Niven's universe is the names of his spaceships. Instead of boring names like "Intrepid" and "Endeavour," he's always given them fanciful names: Angel's Pencil and Hot Needle of Inquiry. We've got some good ones in this volume, too.
Human ships: Catscratch Fever Euclid's Lasso I Love Lucy Pick of the Litter Alaric Sun Wukong