Weir's hard science approach and pacing are to be commended. Both are sorely missing from many popular SF titles, which too frequently drift toward spWeir's hard science approach and pacing are to be commended. Both are sorely missing from many popular SF titles, which too frequently drift toward space opera pacing with only 300 pages and no sense of time or plot. However, his characters are a bit flat at times and his secondary characters are woefully underdeveloped. It comes as no surprise that The Martian was adapted to the film. The pacing and prose read like a script, and the film may resolve some of the book's less than stellar qualities....more
The opportunity to experience Banks outside the excellent Culture universe made me eager to pick up The Algebraist. However, the book quickly wore awaThe opportunity to experience Banks outside the excellent Culture universe made me eager to pick up The Algebraist. However, the book quickly wore away that eagerness. Banks frequently leads with a slow start and pulls together diverse stories and sub-plots. It is clear both were attempted in The Algebraist, but Banks did not carry it off as well in this instance. The antagonist was over the top and cartoonish (worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Cobra Commander or Dr. Claw without the whimsy); the subplots (especially the strange love-triangle/youthful rebellion saga explored through Sal and Taince) were truncated, incoherent, and almost entirely divorced from the main narrative; and the allegorical exploration of those struggling against authoritarianism and near-fundamentalist segregation (targeted on AIs) was shallow. It is altogether fortunate the primary narrative (focusing on Fassin and the Dwellers) spends so much time away from these as it is impossible to imagine additional exposure to the flat industrialist/soldier pair of Sal and Taince or the baroque (to borrow Banks' adjective), monolithic Mercatoria would've left a better impression.
Ultimately, it is the Dwellers and their society that make the entire experience endurable. Their reality of a civilization so post-scarcity it has ceased to be any sort of conventional socio-political structure is fascinating, and I admit taking a guilty pleasure in reading about a society of ne'er-do-welling librarians, amateur scholars, influence peddlers, and hedonists. If they were not the focus of so much of the book, I can't imagine I would've finished it. They are certainly the only way this book could be pulled into the three start range....more
Three-Body Problem sets off to explore many different areas of science fiction in a single volume, including the place of humanity in the universe, huThree-Body Problem sets off to explore many different areas of science fiction in a single volume, including the place of humanity in the universe, humanity's interaction with its own technology, and socio-political constructs, across a more than 50 year expanse. This does not entirely qualify it as being a literary work parallel with Herbert's Dune. Even making allowances for translation, this is much closer to Asimov's Foundation series with an even closer focus on philosophy and the role of self-determination. The characters are not flat, or even boring, but they are not the primary engine for the plot. It will be a welcome read for fans of Asimov or Peter F. Hamilton, but it will fall short of captivating a wide audience and may disappoint many a fan of Dune's higher, operatic drama....more
This was the first of Niven's novels I read other than his contributions to the Man-Kzin War anthology series. These previous experiences pushed my exThis was the first of Niven's novels I read other than his contributions to the Man-Kzin War anthology series. These previous experiences pushed my expectations a bit too high. I enjoyed Niven's excellent world-building and found the book to be entertaining. However, the Ringworld seemed to steal the book away from cast of characters--especially the fallen survivors of the Engineers' civilization. I was also disappointed with how Niven seemed to rush the last part of his book, making little more than a suburban drive back to the Fist-of-God. Ringworld was filled with promise, but some considerable flaws in execution make it pale in comparison to Niven's short fiction....more
Peter Heller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world is vivid and stunning in The Dog Stars. Heller captures a post-time state with his flowing prose thaPeter Heller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world is vivid and stunning in The Dog Stars. Heller captures a post-time state with his flowing prose that encompasses the struggle of Hig, a fever-plague survivor with an old Cessna airplane, to find peace of mind and a purpose in an American landscape depopulated and fluctuating due to the on-going progress of climate change.
The Dog Stars simultaneously examines mankind’s stubborn persistence to endure and the depths of debased depravity and primordial violence that individuals can sink to when hopes for the future are lost. Heller’s novel is easily compared to McCarthy’s The Road, with the contrast of still allowing for some possibility beyond a gray descent into oblivion.
Other than the stark relief provided by the bulk of humanity’s departure, there is little in the way of two-dimensional good and evil in The Dog Stars. The relatively limited cast of characters is as contextualized and vivacious as the novel’s sprawling landscape. Heller’s first novel is a tour de force and well worth the read. I hope it is one of more novels to come....more
Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space is among the best epic science fiction I’ve come into contact with in the last 11 years. He holds a place close toAlastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space is among the best epic science fiction I’ve come into contact with in the last 11 years. He holds a place close to Peter F. Hamilton and Iain Banks, and I am glad the story of Revelation Space was expanded upon. The density of the book made it clear that even 500 pages was little more than a shallow stab into this universes potential. I also approve of Reynold’s dedication to preserving his self-imposed hard SF guidelines. There are few examples of such an expansive story arc being conducted effectively under the tyranny of the speed of light.
I re-read Revelation Space to reacquaint myself with the beginning of the series before reading the later sequels (Absolution Gap and The Prefect). It allowed me to fall in love with the book’s universe all over again and brush up on some pieces of action that I’d forgotten. I think I appreciated Reynold’s writing style and handling of the complicated mechanics of time through a story divided by characters moving at relativistic speeds more during this second reading. However, a revisit did little with my attitudes toward some of Reynold’s characters.
There are several bright spots in Revelation Space’s cast. Sun Stealer is one of the more interesting - and sinister - alien AIs I’ve read about, and I enjoyed the complications and developed motivations Reynolds’ worked out for the small ‘colony’ of Resurgam. The mind-melding, semi-sentient Pattern Jugglers were also a refreshing new alien species. While I am enthralled by Ilia Volyova, Reynolds delighted in transforming the rest of the Nostalgia for Infinity’s crew into little more than shallow set-pieces that were out of place on the ailing lighthugger described as a ‘Gothic monstrosity’. Dan Sylveste was another problem for me. Reynolds went out of his way to establish the younger Sylveste’s intellectual credentials, but the genius spends the majority of the book as a dumb, unadaptive tool at the mercy of forces beyond him in a way that Lovecraft could find dull. Finally, I could never decide what to make of Ana Khouri. I am not sure Reynolds knew what to make of her either. Her character was strong throughout the first half of the book; then she increasingly acted in ways that contradicted her established persona. I am more positive this was through an intervention of plot than the intervention of a certain alien AI running around her skull.
Despite my conundrums with the cast, I highly recommend Revelation Space. Reynolds addressed most of my qualms with the book in its sequels and expanded the Revelation Space universe with a series of short stories. It is plausible some of the awkward fits at the end were brought on by the book being conceived as a stand-alone volume before its later expansion....more
**spoiler alert** The last installment in The Hunger Games trilogy seems to be the part its readers either love or hate, and the number of those disap**spoiler alert** The last installment in The Hunger Games trilogy seems to be the part its readers either love or hate, and the number of those disappointed by Collins' finale is pronounced. Overall, I was quite pleased with Collins' efforts to add a considerable amount of depth to her characters in Mockingjay. She does an admirable job of portraying the fallout from the Capitol's repression by showing how the psyche of children and young adults are broken or severely warped even if they do make it out of the arena alive. Katniss descends into a state of depression and mental anguish I never anticipated and is certainly uncommon within the general canon of young adult literature.
In keeping with this realism, Panem and its civil war are a tragic arena that is to be expected from a society so long ruled by a self-indulgent elite wholly unconcerned with the marginal existence confronting the majority of the populace in a post-apocalyptic world. Collins demonstrates a willingness to consider the majority of her cast fair game in whether they make it through the conflict alive, bringing back a thrill I felt was missing from Catching Fire. She also captures a political complexity in the story of District 13's President Coin by showing that just because a leader claims to be a liberator does not make the claim true.
Mockingjay makes it clear that purchase of liberation and a better future can come at a price that is demoralizing to bear. She complicates a story that was painted in more black-and-white tones by Catching Fire, and restores the shades of gray I found interesting in The Hunger Games. ...more
**spoiler alert** Catching Fire was part of Collins' trilogy that was most recommended to me, with several saying it was better than the trilogy's fir**spoiler alert** Catching Fire was part of Collins' trilogy that was most recommended to me, with several saying it was better than the trilogy's first installment. It is not an assessment that I can agree with after reading the novel. Collins' excellent pacing and tight writing style that I loved in The Hunger Games are missing from at least the first half of Catching Fire. The action fluctuates between moments of well-written tension to a torpid examination of Panem through the eyes of District 12's touring Victors that only highlights that Collins' excellence at staying in the limiting first-person viewpoint are slipping. Katniss Everdeen's internal dialogue slipped dangerously close to meandering plot exposition too many times for my comfort, and it was disappointing after The Hunger Games.
The focus and quality of Catching Fire improves after the announcement of the Quarter Quell and the move toward the next Hunger Games, but it is a bit too late to pull the novel up to the standards of its prequel. The actual Game feels rushed and the intriguing setting of Plutarch Heavensbee's arena is wasted by the short-shrift it is given. Collins' decision to leave the explanation of the conspiracy--presumably orchestrated by Haymitch--among the majority of the past Victors to save both Katniss and Peeta until Mockingjay comes off as a cumbersome plot device used to throw down the escape rope in the last few chapters. The book moves the story of Panem along, but there is strong evidence it could have been handled much better....more
The Hunger Games was a more pleasant surprise than I expect from popular literature that is put on a fast train bound for the cinema. It is not a revoThe Hunger Games was a more pleasant surprise than I expect from popular literature that is put on a fast train bound for the cinema. It is not a revolution in modern literature, but Collins shows admirable skill with the first-person narrative (a form many authors think they can write and most cannot) and an appreciation for pacing that is reminiscent of pulp action thrillers from the 1930s and 1940s.
I can understand why The Hunger Games draws comparisons to Takami's Battle Royale and its assortment of adaptations, but the comparisons are harmless. It is an example of a different approach to a common set of social concerns and issues. Collins plagiarizes Takami no more than Orwell did when he wrote 1984 after Huxley's Brave New World. There is a willingness to throw out claims of plagiarism too easily and quickly now. What is needed is a realization of the sheer area and volume mankind has covered after writing and easily disseminated publishing achieved a synthesis several centuries ago. Wholly original works are rare and to be treasured, even more so now. However, it may be easier to tolerate different authors approaching similar ideas in different books if most people bothered to read more than a half dozen books every dozen years. It may acquaint them better with the concept of everyone stealing some ideas without really meaning to. ...more
Iain Banks continues to amaze me with his Culture series. I was glad that Use of Weapons returned to the level of sophistication and depth I first enjIain Banks continues to amaze me with his Culture series. I was glad that Use of Weapons returned to the level of sophistication and depth I first enjoyed with Player of Games but found somewhat absent from Consider Phlebas.
The use of a fractured narrative--effectively making Use of Weapons a prequel and a sequel in a single volume--was both a challenge and a pleasure to read. My bookshelf is littered with books that tried to circumvent or manipulate the established linear progression common to the novel. Most of them fall firmly into the stunning failures category, but Banks uses his disjointed narrative to both build suspense and play with the audience's established assumptions in the last quarter of the novel. It reminded me of Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space and the universe it established. I will shamelessly cross-recommend both authors to friends I know who enjoy either Banks or Reynolds.
I am intrigued by the growing complexity being demonstrated by the Minds and Drones of the Culture. Their capacity for eccentricity and a certain modicum of darker tendencies I thought reserved for the Culture's biological citizenry demonstrated in this book leaves me expectant for what horizons Banks will be opening up in the sequels. I am in a desperate race with several friends who discovered Banks earlier than me to prevent my pleasure at brushing against Banks' novels for the first time being marred by spoilers. I think the continuing annals of the Cluster stand ready to fill a void recently opened by the completion of Peter F. Hamilton's two story arcs in the Commonwealth universe....more
The Dispossessed is among the best works of science fiction I read in the past five years. While the style of the book reminded me of Cherryh's AllianThe Dispossessed is among the best works of science fiction I read in the past five years. While the style of the book reminded me of Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe (especially Downbelow Station and Cyteen), Le Guin's prose is far different and in many ways more accessible in terms of its density. However, the different styles did not lessen the complexity and detail Le Guin lavished on both Anarres and Urras, or even the more brief glimpses of Terra and the ancient society of Hain. All the planets visited or described in The Dispossessed are superbly well-conceived and formed, which is quite an accomplishment in a novel that barely exceeds 300 pages. The world-building expertise Le Guin demonstrated in her Earthsea trilogy are ever-present in her science fiction, made all the more compelling with her dedication to precision and concision.
I was initially concerned with the parallels between Urras and the contemporary geo-politics of the Cold War. Science fiction that revisits the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union does little for me, and I frequently consider it to be a lazy form of storytelling that is easy to set aside and even easier to forget completely. A-Io and Thu, the leading powers of Urras, were obvious stand-ins for the Cold War bloc, albeit with some localized differences, but it was the nature of Anarres that captured my attention. I was wholly surprised when the anarchist/socialist society of Urras' moon was shown to not be an idealized utopia. The self-professed free lunar community was plagued with the early stages of a bureaucratic regime obsessed with preserving a majority-sanctioned tyranny of unoriginality at the expense of the tenants of its revolutionary foundations. Le Guin's portrayal of the next-generation revolutionaries recognizing this problem and striving to force their society to correct this fatal flaw was compelling, all the more because of its lack of glamor and its periods of near-complete failure. The human drama of The Dispossessed is the book's strongest asset and makes it enjoyable and edifying to revisit.
The Dispossessed joins the Earthsea series in the ranks of books I freely recommend to those wishing to explore the broad horizons of science fiction and fantasy. I look forward to seeing what other depths await in the rest of Le Guin's Hainish Cycle....more
I started reading the Culture series based on a friend's recommendation, and I am glad I followed his advice to start with Player of Games instead ofI started reading the Culture series based on a friend's recommendation, and I am glad I followed his advice to start with Player of Games instead of diving in with Consider Phelbas. I did like the first book in the Culture series, but Player of Games is a better introduction to Banks' well-developed post-scarcity society.
Phelbas' strongest point is that it's a first-hand account of the Culture-Idiran War, which is discussed several times in other Culture books but in an off-hand way. Banks does an excellent job in portraying how interstellar post-scarcity societies can engage in a conflict based on principles that is more frightening than many more primitive conflicts. The destruction visited on planetary scales with such demonstrated ease is awe-inspiring as the scale of the war Banks describes.
I was particularly enthralled by how much of the war Banks was able to describe while remaining dedicated to the relatively narrow viewpoints of his characters. The mission described in Phelbas is important, but it is only a tiny grain in the war's proverbial beach. However, I did think this became a bit problematic in the book's conclusion. The last third of Phelbas is almost painful to read as it drags on in comparison to the well-paced--almost thriller-esque--action of the first two parts of the Changer Horza's adventure. My frustration with how elongated the end was ultimately undermined my appreciation for the rather touching tragedy Banks constructed for several of the protagonists.
Phelbas is also a bit of science fiction that wears the time it was written in on its sleeves. Banks' conclusion is an overt product of the Cold War's final zenith during the early 1980s--taking place in the massive fallout shelter of a civilization that destroyed itself. It's a ham-handed bit of scenery and contrast that does not appeal to my personal aesthetic. The allusions to the decades-long struggle is sometimes a bit too prevalent in the annals of science fiction, and I did not like how it became a means for Banks to undercut the otherwise complicated Idirans into some sneering, psuedo-Soviet villains to conclude the book.
The Culture series is definitely one to be read in its entirety, but I will concur with my friend that Consider Phelbas is a book best saved for later. It allows you to appreciate how far Banks has come with his creation, but in the end its other values are suspect. ...more