The Star Wars Expanded Universe has grown immensely since the early days when George Lucas gave the go-ahead to Timothy Zahn and a few others to begin...moreThe Star Wars Expanded Universe has grown immensely since the early days when George Lucas gave the go-ahead to Timothy Zahn and a few others to begin writing stories that went beyond the original trilogy. There were the comic books too, of course. Then the prequels occurred – and things went the way of an enraged wookie. Things went well beyond the original trilogy and even the main cast.
Martha Wells though has returned to those heady days when the Star Wars universe was ripe for exploration in Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge. The title may be unwieldy but the book is a concise escapade of rip-roaring, daring-do and classic Star Wars adventure with Princess Leia taking the lead. Set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Razor’s Edge is a great return to form for the Expanded Universe.
Gone is the ever-increasing ante, the galaxy is no longer at stake, it’s just the Empire versus the Rebellion. Instead, Princess Leia along with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca are young and relatively unknown. In Razor’s Edge they’re dealing with the fallout of Alderaan’s destruction and their victory over the Death Star. In the four years between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back things are far from rosy, as Leia sets out with Han in tow to aid in the construction of Echo Base, the Rebellion’s future headquarters on Hoth. In the process they get attacked by the Empire and hijacked by pirates and have to outwit and escape all, whilst saving some slaves and redeeming said pirates. Leia, as always, is more than capable of handling anything the galaxy throws at her. With Han Solo at her side she’s downright unstoppable.
Their relationship hasn’t moved beyond the frustrating jibes Han and Leia throw at one another, but the idea is there which provides a good lead up to the events in a certain asteroid belt in the Hoth system. Han’s assistance could be categorized as reckless and unplanned. Next to Leia’s methodical and cerebral approach, Han’s appears more childish and brash – perfectly in line with his character.
The number of female characters far out numbers the male, which works perfectly in the Star Wars universe. Strong women have been the norm since the series inception and include: the aforementioned Princess Leia, Mara Jade, Mon Mothma, Jaina Solo, Ysanne Isard and Padme Amidala. The problem is that the most memorable female characters are all white humans. For a series full of an infinite number of beings there’s very little diversity. To be fair to Martha Wells in Razor’s Edge, she uses very little in the way of character descriptions, leaving them open to the reader’s imagination. The only downside of this is that secondary characters become pretty interchangeable with no discerning features to differentiate them by.
The concentration on the original set of characters in a time period where little beyond the comic books has been written is a great way to introduce new readers to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Hopes and worries about what Disney will do with Star Wars and the Expanded Universe, Razor’s Edge makes for a great read that returns to the heyday of what Star Wars was – a fight for each star system by a beleaguered, embattled and ragtag bunch of rebels. The return to scale keeps the story believable and prevents Leia, Han, Luke and Chewbacca from being the demi-gods they become later, keeping them relatable. For those wondering what the heroes of the Rebellion were up to between the movies Razor’s Edge is a worthy read.
All mutants, zombies, monsters, aliens and other semi-sentient beings aside, the end of the world leaves behind a surprising number of survivors – hum...moreAll mutants, zombies, monsters, aliens and other semi-sentient beings aside, the end of the world leaves behind a surprising number of survivors – human survivors. That human detritus makes a surprising recovery regardless of whatever dystopian wasteland they inhabit. In Three, by Jay Posey, it’s the world before its fall that draws the reader in but the remnants of humanity that keeps the pages turning.
Don’t take that to mean the characters are horrible anti-heroes that are practically impossible to relate to for all their flaws and dyspeptic actions. If anything, they are doing the very best they can to survive the wastelands and the horrors found within on a daily basis. Such situations just don’t allow for a world of dichotomies. But when you’re being chased across the ruins of the world like Cass and Wren are in Three, things get a lot more simple.
Survival is the key to success in Three and the main character, also called Three, is a master at doing just that. Three is the classic loner with a mysterious past and an even more mysterious complement of skills – not to mention a plethora of weapons at his disposal – who becomes involved with Cass and Wren for no good reason. If ever there were anyone to play Three in a film it would be a toss-up between a young Clint Eastwood, Blade-era Wesley Snipes, or Karl Urban simply for the gravely stoicism and restrained violence they could bring to the role.
Cass is a different matter altogether. She’s a mother who’s trying to do her best to live with her flaws and her past literally trailing her through the wastelands of Three. Maintaining the moment to keep out of reach of danger while protecting her son, Wren, makes Cass one of the strongest female characters to grace dystopian literature in a while. She isn’t apologetic about her past nor does she regret having a child, instead Cass does everything for her son she can. Cass is never a helpless damsel in distress, but a cornered lioness who is far more ferocious and dangerous than any other person in the story.
What makes Cass more dangerous than Three and the antagonists of Three, the gang RushRuin, is her motivation. Wren, son of Cass, is blessed or potentially cursed with some unique abilities that the leader of RushRuin, Asher, wants and Cass is dedicated to keeping Asher from obtaining. Cass’ maternal drive gives her an edge that Three and Asher don’t have. Each of the men have differing abilities marking them as hazards for others, but without that desperation, that yearning, that need to see Wren safe neither of them could expect to be successful.
Asher and his gang’s, RushRuin, motivation is at best childish. They want something they can’t have – Wren. Yes, Asher may have a better understanding of what Wren is capable of, but the drive for it is never clearly established. Just as the incentive behind Three’s decision to help Wren and his mother is never determined, he simply decides to help. The danger posed to others by these characters is ultimately mitigated by the question – what drives them? Whereas for the Weir, the techno-zombies – think the Husks from Mass Effect – who inhabit the wastelands and wildernesses of the world, are ceaseless killing machines that only come out at night.
The Weir and their unknown origin; the abilities of Wren, Asher, Cass and Three; not to mention the fall of civilization and the ruins left behind, all give Three a post-cyberpunk weird-west vibe. Combining this genre mash-up with the story of escape, Three is an excellent one-off adventure that leaves the reader wanting more of this world and its original characters. Three is the West’s equivalent to a Trigun novel full of tropes and homages to westerns, science fiction, cyberpunk, dystopian fiction and more, wrapped in a tightly written 300+ pages.
The zombie apocalypse will be televised, but it will not be the rising of the undead according to Mira Grant, author of Feed, Blackout & Deadline....moreThe zombie apocalypse will be televised, but it will not be the rising of the undead according to Mira Grant, author of Feed, Blackout & Deadline. In her latest book, Parasite, and the first of the new Parasitology trilogy, zombies are the result of a reasonable scientific explanation and not magic. The problem is the main character Sally Mitchell is never interesting enough to make the book worth finishing. Nor are the zombies ever explicitly called by the z-word.
Suffering from amnesia, Sally is a cliché of the video game generation. Exposition abounds as the reader and Sally both get to learn about the numerous differences between the real world and that of the novel. It’s an unreasonable conceit for the payout, given that very early on the reader can see the third act twist coming. It also doesn’t help that the book is clearly written with a series in mind, ending on a cliffhanger without anything being resolved. Those that were in danger are still in danger, and the only time spent in a mall was to shop for bras.
Grant has approached zombies in manner that I’ve been seeking for quite some time. After all, conventional zombies don’t make much scientific sense. Her books are based on the hygiene hypothesis, that states humans have become too clean for their own good and are thus falling ill. A tapeworm, which in this case is designed to be a symbiotic parasite, provides the immune system boosts required to negate the hygiene hypothesis. And, as expected, is the cause of much of the drama in Grant’s book.
The cast of supporting characters is nothing to be surprised at. They’re all extremely convenient for the sake of the story. Sally Micthell’s family and boyfriend all work on parasites or epidemiology (the study of epidemics). Then there’s the mad scientist and the not-so-mad scientist who wants to get rich quick. In fact, all scientists in the book come across surprisingly incapable of dealing with an outbreak and implementing decent quarantine procedures, including the US military, which may leave the reader feeling like this book is aiming to hit all the clichés of a zombie movie.
There are only two characters of any note that Grant has written extremely well – Beverly the black Labrador and Tansy. Tansy is a special case that truly verges on the creepy, but even she struggles to be believable given her martial prowess without any previous training. And Beverly, well she’s a dog, so how hard can it be to get such a loveable and protective creature wrong.
The plot does not develop a great deal throughout the 300-some pages. Instead, Grant has Sally return time and again to the same locales where she is ineffectual in driving change. She is never the catalyst she needs to become, but rather an inert element surrounded by more volatile components. Everything from the cause of Sally’s amnesia, to the zombies and the machinations of various scientists is beyond Sally and she is simply caught up in the events. She neither tries to remedy them or remove herself from them, making the only relatable aspect of Sally her drive for independence.
The parasites in Grant’s book do make for a gruesome and thrilling read as the tapeworms are entities that are neither evil nor benign. The science to a greater extent is sound, which is a pleasure to read and it’s apparent that Grant has been thorough in her research, which is the only part of the book that kept my interest. Coming in at 300-some pages, too little happened to justify the length or the lack of an ending. Hopefully the second in the series will improve upon Parasite’s faults and keep pushing the boundaries of creepy that Grant has shown she’s extremely capable of.
Madeline Ashby’s The Machine Dynasty series takes place in a world where Christian leaders have created robots (called vN) to provide for those left b...moreMadeline Ashby’s The Machine Dynasty series takes place in a world where Christian leaders have created robots (called vN) to provide for those left behind in the event of the biblical Rapture. This has not happened, and the aftermath of their preparation is neither utopia or dystopia. What we do have is a compelling story of a person seeking retribution and redemption, who just happens to have a few more abilities than your modern man. That in a nutshell is the story of iD.
The second book in The Machine Dynasty, iD is the tale of a Javier. In the first book, vN, he was the accomplice of Amy Peterson, and cause for much of the ruckus that drives the developments of the story. The shift in focus is understandable given the developments of the first book where Amy became, for intents and purposes, the most powerful being on the planet. The shift in point of view is necessary because, like Paul Atreides in Dune, Amy became too powerful to be relatable.
Javier, on the other hand, lacks such power, which is frustrating given that he is a purpose-built robot. Javier and his model were designed to work in the wild and aid in reforestation efforts, thus their feature set includes the ability to jump and climb better than most other vN, as well as being able to recharge by collecting solar energy. But Ashby’s been smart in her conceptualization of robots. No one vN has every feature set, much like smartphones or laptops, and it’s those restrictions that aid in the sense of tension. The biggest restriction faced by most vN is that the sight of blood will cause them to shut down, which is a means of ensuring that vN never harm humans – a more practical version of Asimov’s three laws of robotics. All vN must also consume plastic and metal, which gives them the same basic animal drive readers can understand. That lack of superhuman ability helps to give an additional element of humanity to Javier and his kind.
The frustration of this weakness, which can become anger and desperation, allows Javier to struggle for his goals in the most human of manners. He experiences a range of emotions, which previous iterations of robots, such as those by Isaac Asimov and Rudy Rucker, never did. And Ashby is well aware of this, even going so far as to state that vN are made in the image of their creators, who themselves are imperfect. This imperfection is key to making Javier a likeable and understandable protagonist.
Javier’s impotent nature can be distracting though. Just about the only things he’s capable of are jumping and having sex – two features of robots that, beyond the movie AI, are rarely highlighted – because of his model’s feature set. Time and again Javier appears active, making decisions with forethought and purpose, only for his apparent actions to become shown for the reactions they are as other characters have already pre-empted. Antagonists, love interests and side characters all herd him down a gauntlet of trials and tribulations that result in a more learned and self-aware Javier at the end. At the same time it may leave the reader feeling that Javier was ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.
The larger picture is actually what’s at stake in iD. Ashby’s robots are changing the world. By concentrating on one character she has brilliantly humanized an artificial person. That helps the story as a whole as the reader is never left overwhelmed by the political and cultural developments. Focusing on the story of one vN provides a narrow, understandable narrative that’s all the more interesting because it’s about the role of one robot in the grand scheme of things. The impact of robots going rogue and all the competing agendas and philosophies between humans and vN creates a dynamic world that few other authors actualize. The Machine Dynasty is not a world of dichotomies but shades of gray with vibrant flashes of color that offset the horror humans and creations are so intent on causing to their own kind, with the kindness and heart of a love story.
Madeline Ashby is asking a lot of interesting questions with her books, which is what you hope for in good speculative fiction. And while she isn’t breaking new ground, her reimagining of robots and how they could be anthropomorphized makes for excellent reading. iD has pushed The Machine Dynasty farther towards an uncertain yet entertaining future where robots rebel, but to what end we won’t know until the next book. In the meantime, if iD is where you where you want to start then you should have no problem understanding and enjoying the world that Ashby has created.