Friday, December 29, 2006

The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven

Today's review is of The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven, newly out in paperback. The book is comprised of connected short stories written from 1977 to 2006. They are presented here ordered by internal chronology, creating a sort of episodic novel. Most of the individual stories are quite short; some are only a few pages.

Thirty years before the book began, and not too long from now, Earth is discovered by the Chirpsithra, a race of eleven-foot tall lobster-like aliens with a galaxy-spanning trading empire billions of years old. The Chirpsithra don't want our real estate; they prefer to live around red dwarf stars. They're here to do business. The main character is Rick Schumann, owner and bartender of the the Draco Tavern, Earth's only multispecies bar, serving the Chirpsithra (they don't drink, but they like to get high on electrical current) and the many strange aliens who come to Earth on the Chirpsithra's slower-than-light trading ships.

With exception of the story “Folk Tale,”you're not going to get much action and adventure here; many of the stories never leave the confines of the bar, and some are basically just conversations. Despite their sedentary nature, however, these stories are a lot of fun. Using this setup as a way to bring a wide variety of aliens into contact with (almost) present-day humans in a hard science fiction setting, Niven then precedes to examine all sorts of interesting topics with it, usually through the device of discussions in the Tavern. The tone varies from story to story, from the lighthearted (“Playhouse,” “The Heights”) to the wondrous (“The Convergence of the Old Mind” ) to the horrifying (“Assimilating Our Culture, That's What they're Doing!”). The topics Niven examines likewise varies widely, ranging from religion to artificial intelligence to cosmogony to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

I recommend The Draco Tavern very highly for anyone who likes Niven's style, and for anyone interested in idea-focused science fiction. It's an odd book, but a very rewarding one.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Stephen Baxter on Games Workshop

Here's an interesting article by Stephen Baxter about the history of Games Workshop and Warhammer fiction. I had been dimly aware that Baxter had once written something for Warhammer (turns out it was actually two stories), so it was interesting to see this account by one of my favorite authors. Warhammer's not my thing (I can barely draw stickmen, so I shudder to think what would result if I tried to paint miniatures), but I still found the article to be pretty informative.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, December 22, 2006

Orbit Unlimited by Poul Anderson

Orbit Unlimited is a book by Poul Anderson, published in 1961; I'm not sure whether to call it a connected short story collection or a fix-up novel. In either case, it is a hard science fiction story that tells the tale of the colonization of the distant Earthlike world of Rustum by a band of exiles.

The futuristic Earth portrayed is grim, with an authoritarian hereditary ruling class of “Guardians”, a small middle class of “Citizens”, and a vast underclass living in ignorance and squalor. Twenty years before the story begins, the last armed resistance to the world government ended when a revolt in the former United States was brutally put down. Humanity's ambitions in space have all but died, and the government's fleet of interstellar spacecraft sits unused, awaiting the scrap heap.

The government is plagued by a small group called the Constitutionalists, political and philosophical dissidents opposed to the Guardians. When the government decides to stamp out the Constitutionalist menace by shutting down their private schools and instituting compulsory public education in order to indoctrinate their children, the Constitutionalists threaten revolt. Though few in number, their overrepresentation in technical fields makes them a serious problem. With a showdown inevitable, a compromise is reached: the leading Constitutionalists will leave, using Earth's space fleet to colonize Rustum, a newly discovered habitable world orbiting e Eridani. With no hope for freedom remaining on Earth, a few daring souls accept and flee to the stars. The main characters of the story are:

Joshua Coffin- A member of Earth's interstellar explorer corps and co-discoverer of Rustum, he has newly returned to Earth after 87 years of relativistic travel to discover that the society he knew is gone forever. With nothing worth staying for on Earth, he departs again to command the fleet to Rustum.

Jan Svoboda-Son of a high-ranking Commissioner among the Guardians but a leader among the Constitutionalists, driven to radicalism when he sees the state trying to take his children from him. He helps lead the colonization of Rustum.

The bulk of the book tells the story of the journey to and colonization of Rustum itself, focusing on Coffin and Svoboda. As is sometimes the case with Poul Anderson's protagonists, the main characters are interesting, even sympathetic, without being very likable.

Rustum is an interesting environment, an Earthlike world with considerably higher gravity and atmospheric pressure. Falls are deadlier, and the air at sea level is too dense to breathe; all the human settlements have to be on mountains and plateaus.

There are some interesting glimpses at the development of early Rustum society: tensions between farmers and manufacturers, the role of mutual aide, and the challenge of maintaining a culture of liberty while struggling to survive. Anderson also has an interesting solution to the question of how to create a large and diverse gene pool when you can only physically transport three thousand people to your new settlement, and any new immigrants are a forty-year trip away.

Orbit Unlimitedis well worth reading for the Poul Anderson fan, for those who like fiction with libertarian themes, or anyone interested in a hard science fiction exploration/colonization story. I also recommend the follow-up, the story collection New America.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Upcoming stuff

I'm starting what will be a regular feature on this blog, book reviews and commentary. There's no particular rhyme or reason to what I'll put up for review; whatever I feel like talking about that day, basically. You'll see far more good reviews than bad ones on this site; not because I like everything, but because I'd rather spend my time drawing attention to good books than to bad ones. They won't just be straight evaluation of the book's quality; I'll also talk about any themes, ideas, or neat concepts that happen to catch my interest as well. Feedback and discussion in the comments is always welcome.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, December 15, 2006

Science fiction books at the movies

Inspired this post at John C. Wright's livejournal from a little while back, I'm taking a look at what science fiction books and stories would (or wouldn't) make good movies, and how they might fare in that medium. I am evaluating on the basis of not only the quality of the book, but how well it would translate to the medium of the feature film, as well as the likelihood of achieving commercial success in that format. As much as I love John C. Wright's Golden Age trilogy, for instance, I can't see it being made as a movie without it being mutilated beyond recognition.

Since I'm mentioning John C. Wright, I think his "War of the Dreaming" books would be great, as two or perhaps three movies. It's got likable characters, exciting and often over-the-top (in a good way) action, evil conspiracies, and all sorts of fantastic creatures and locations that would look awesome with modern movie-making technology. I would love to see the city of Acheron rising from the sea in modern CGI.

There are a couple of David Drake stories that might work. Rolling Hot would be a good choice: lots of action, a lot of emotional power, and a good audience identification figure in the form of the young journalist who gets dragged along with the mercenaries. It also has the advantage of not requiring a lot of setting background exposition to fully understand, which is a big advantage if you're translating a science fiction novel into a two-hour movie. Commercially, though, such a movie might be hampered by the sheer darkness of its source. The novel was utterly heartbreaking; faithfully putting it on screen would probably not make for a rousing action blockbuster.

Drake's Cross the Stars would be cool to see on screen, though its episodic nature might not really work for a feature film.

I would love to see Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama as a movie. The interior of Rama realized with modern effects would be stunning to see. Morgan Freeman has apparently expressed an interest in making this, so there's a chance.

John Steakly's Armor would be awesome, but there's a serious problem: it would be hard to conceal the big surprise near the end if you're using live actors. If you've read the book, you know what I mean.

I can't leave Poul Anderson out, of course. "No Truce With Kings" has everything: big battles, family conflict, secret manipulative aliens, and crazy mind powers that would look great in CGI. I'm not sure Hollywood would be likely to leave in the pro-localist, anti-collectivist themes, though. People of the Wind would probably work pretty well as a movie, but the amount of background exposition needed might be too much.

There's a lot of stuff by William C. Dietz that would work pretty well, with the McCade stories probably being the best choice. Lots of action, and the story would remain readily understandable without a lot of setting exposition.

I often hear David Weber's "Honor Harrington" series suggested, but I think there would be too much explanation needed. Specifically, the way space combat works in the Harrington universe is fairly atypical, and would require some awkward explaining, not to mention the political setup. For Weber, Mutineer's Moon would probably be a better choice. Very fun story, and the way the story is set up (human from present day discovers ancient artificial intelligence that explains what's going on to him) makes it easier to relate to, as well as making it easier to explain the setting without resorting to narration or "As you know, Bob" dialogue.

The problem, I think, is that a lot of great science fiction would either be too short or too long for a typical movie. The miniseries would probably be a better medium; I can think of science fiction that would work in that medium much more readily than I can think of books that would make good two-hour movies.

Well, I'd like to hear what anyone reading this has to say. What do you think would translate well to film?

Stumble Upon Toolbar