Friday, November 9, 2012

A chilling vision of things to come

A few days ago saw a grim date in American history, one that will long be remembered as an ominous turning point for America- nay, the entire world- and looked upon with horror by future generations cursed to live in its cold, bleak shadow...

'Cause it was my birthday on Wednesday! And it was a pretty nice birthday, in spite of some sad events that have marred the past year for me and my family and played no small part in the rather meager output of the blog in 2012. If you're one of the people who likes Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic, I apologize for that, and I hope to make 2013 a much more interesting year.

If you're reading this, thank you; being able to write things that people actually read means a lot to me, even if I haven't been able to do so here as much lately, and I hope you'll keep reading here for a long time to come.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Review:Transcendent by Stephen Baxter

Transcendent is a science fiction novel in Stephen Baxter's expansive “Xeelee Sequence” (Raft, Ring, Timelike Infinity, Vacuum Diagrams, etc.) and the third book in the “Destiny's Children” subseries, following Exultant and Coalescent. Like most of those books it has a more-or-less standalone story, but you'll get a lot more out of it if you're familiar with its universe; I'd recommend at least reading Exultant and Coalescent first, and the short story collection Vacuum Diagrams wouldn't hurt. (I recommend Vacuum Diagrams as the best entrance point for new readers to the Xeelee Sequence a whole, actually.)

Earth in the 2040s is a world drastically diminished. Global warming has raised sea levels drastically shifted climates around the world, devastating the biosphere and displacing entire nations. The cost of fossil fuels and desperate efforts to contain further environmental damage has made the average person dramatically less mobile, with automobiles a memory, air travel a luxury of the ultra-privileged. 

Michael Poole is a middle-aged engineer who has never recovered from the death of his wife Morag over a decade ago. He's plagued by ghostly visions of his dead wife- except that these visions began not only before she died, but long before Michael had even met her. His life is thrown into turmoil when his son Tom is nearly killed by the sudden eruption of methane gas from the thawing ground of Siberia. Michael comes to a disturbing realization- the colder regions of the world are filled with such deposits, frozen into ground that is now unfreezing, and the release of enough in a sufficiently short period of time could further increase the greenhouse effect, releasing more gas and driving the temperature still higher in a vicious cycle that could render the world uninhabitable.

Michael sets out trying to find a way to prevent this catastrophe, struggling with his grief over his dead wife, his strained relationship with his son, and the challenge off mustering support for a geoengineering project of massive scale in a world that has grown increasingly decayed and fatalistic. And, meanwhile, the ghostly image of his dead wife is appearing more frequently.

500,000 years in the future, the human race is united across the galaxy in a vast Commonwealth ruled by a collective consciousness of immortal post-humans called the Transcendence. Their technology is so advanced that they can peer into the distant, and each of the Commonwealth's countless trillions of inhabitants is required to Witness the life of a single human who lived and died long ago. Michael Poole's Witness is a girl named Alia who is unexpectedly pulled from the life she knows when she is chosen for the rare honor of becoming a transcendent herself. An agent of the transcendence takes her on a journey across the galaxy, teaching her the lessons each of its members must learn.

Along the way, she starts to learn more about the origins and nature of the Transcendence, and about its goal of “redeeming” the suffering-filled history of the human race before its continuing evolution puts it beyond humanity forever- but doubt starts to set in as Alia starts learning what this “redemption” will entail. The Transcendence, on the cusp of godhood, can do more than just look into the past...

I greatly enjoyed Transcendence. It's filled with the imagination and awe-inspiring sense of scale commonly seen in Baxter's work and the Xeelee Sequence in particular. The speculative elements are interesting, and the dual setting lets Baxter incorporate an unusually diverse set of ideas, from the social and economic effects of life without automobiles to human evolution after hundreds of thousands of years and alien environments and the cosmological theories that form the basis for the Transcendence's ability to see into the past.

The two plot threads alternate chapters, and Baxter does a good job of balancing them and keeping both interesting. I repeatedly had the experience of wishing a chapter would go on longer because I didn't want to leave that plot behind yet, only to get drawn into the other thread in the next chapter strongly enough that by the end of it I didn't want to return to the thread I had just regretted leaving. That's always a good sign.

Both the near-future and far-future settings for the story are interesting. Technology in Michael Poole's era has continued to advance, with developments including sophisticated virtual reality interfaces and holographic projections, a new source of power based on Higgs fields, and true artificial intelligence that has become so ubiquitous that people who specialize in working with computers have more in common with psychologists than programmers.

But much has been lost. The automobile has been abandoned and air travel is too expensive for anyone but the most privileged, making the accessible world much smaller for the average citizens of industrialized countries. The disruption of the ecosystem brought by rapid global warming has led to mass extinctions on a scale never seen in human history, while declining birth rates in many countries have turned formerly bustling cities into near-ghost towns. The world of the 2040's has an eerily quiet, empty atmosphere- not unlike outer space in a lot of hard science fiction, actually- that Baxter uses to good effect.

Meanwhile, Alia's thread fills in an era that has been largely blank in the Xeelee Sequence until now. The tens of thousands of years of bloody turmoil that raged as humanity waged war for domination of the entire galaxy are over, and the nightmarish totalitarian government called the Coalition that drove those conflicts is long gone. (See Exultant and the short story collection Resplendent for more on this era.) Hundreds of thousands of years of both natural evolution and genetic engineering in a vast diversity of environments has given rise to myriad sub species of humans and post-humans, at peace under the rule of the Transcendence.
We see a number of different environments- Earth, still bearing the scars of an alien occupation nearly half a million years in the past, an ancient generational starship converted into a mobile space-going city, and planets with environments that have radically reshaped humanity.

My favorite element is the Transcendence itself, a group intellect of godlike power and intelligence that is nevertheless as burdened by its evolutionary history as a human being, even if that inheritance is intellectual and psychological rather than genetic. The result is something not only interesting but quite poignant, which is not usually a word I use to describe far-future post-human superintelligences, but it really works well here.

I definitely recommend Transcendent to anyone who's a fan of Stephen Baxter and the Xeelee Sequence. I also recommended it to fans of far-future science fiction in general, though as said above it's not the Baxter book to start with.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams

Armored is a new collection of stories from Baen Books edited by John Joseph Adams, all based around the idea of powered armor. The idea of powered exoskeletons as weapons of war is a venerable one in the science fiction genre, figuring prominently in books such as Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and one of my personal favorite novels, John Steakly's Armor.

This collection contains 23 stories by authors including Alastair Reynolds, Jack McDevitt, Sean Williams, Tanya Huff, and Michael Stackpole, and Dan Abnett, plus a foreword by Orson Scott Card and an introduction by John Joseph Adams

I really like this collection. It's got lots of action, some interesting speculative ideas, a few lighthearted stories that are quite fun, and some effective emotional moments, including one of the more shudder-inducing climaxes I've encountered recently (No points for guessing that it's the Alastair Reynolds story.)

Many of the stories in Armored are in the military science fiction subgenre, naturally enough, such as “The Johnson Maneuver” by Ian Douglas, “Jungle Walkers” by David Klecha and Tobias Buckell, and “Contained Vacuum” by David Sherman. However, there's quite a variety of other genres represented as well, along with settings that range from extremely near-future Earth to more distant futures among the stars to fanciful alternate histories. Beyond the common element they all share, they're also enjoyably diverse in subject matter. Aside from the obvious subject of exploring the battlefield implications of powered armor, there's also quite a bit about relationships between humans and artificial intelligences, the blurring of man and machine, and the struggle for survival in alien and inhospitable environments, among other things.

Standout stories for me include:

“Death Reported of Last Surviving Veteran of Great War” by Dan Abnett- One of the shortest entries in the collection, told in first person by the eponymous veteran as he recounts his life. He gave up his chance for a normal life and much of his human body to become part of an elite corp of supersodliers physically merged with powered armor “shells”- only to rapidly become obsolete as the technology marched onward and then left cruelly diminished in both body and mind when his worn-out shell- including the electronic storage containing much of his memory of his years joined to the shell- had to be removed.

This story has an excellent premise, and Abnett uses it very well. The story's description of the pitilessly rapid obsolescence and irrelevance of men who had been at the apex of human capability and given up everything to achieve it is both powerful and quite plausible. The sense of loss and sadness is palpable, and made all the more poignant by the stoically matter-of-fact way the narrator tells his story.

“Hel’s Half-Acre” by Jack Campbell- Darkly humorous story of a front-line infantry unit whose soldiers each have their own personal AI riding along in their powered armor, mostly to threaten them into line.

"Jungle Walkers" by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell- American Marines in a fairly near-future South America find themselves caught unprepared and facing down a column of powered-armored invaders when conflict erupts on the Colombian-Venezulean border.

What I found interesting is how much of it involves things going wrong. The Americans have their own armor, but are forced to fight without it because their superiors didn't anticipate the maneuverability and maintenance problems the armor faced in the Colombian jungle, and the Marines consequently resorted to doing routine patrols unarmored. The Venezuelan invaders, meanwhile, are using new military technology bought from the Chinese that they have little familiarity or experience with. It's a good action story, and it was interesting to see a story where the protagonists aren't the guys with the fearsome new technology.

“The Last Days of the Kelly Gang" by David D. Levine- Outlaws force a reclusive inventor to build a steam-powered 3,000 pound suit of powered armor in 19th century Australia. Lots of fun.

“Trauma Pod” by Alastair Reynolds- A human officer on a battlefield dominated by autonomous bipedal war machines called Mechs is badly wounded, kept alive in a survival pod that protects him and allows a military surgeon far from the battlefield to treat him remotely until he can be extracted. Frustrated as that extraction is repeatedly delayed while he sits helpless and unable to do his job while the battle rages around him, he orders the Mech sent to watch over his pod to bring him aboard.

I won't say what happens next, except that it's chillingly horrifying in a similar vein to Reynolds' other horror-oriented science fiction like “Diamond Dogs”- cold, creepy, with the more viscerally (literally or figuratively) horrifying elements being less disturbing than the minds that bring them about. Despite being a horror story, it remains science fiction in the purest sense- the scientific underpinnings of the premise are inextricable from the events, and the story could not be translated to a different genre and remain intact

“Power Armor: A Love Story” by David Barr Kirtley- Present-day (more or less) story about a time-traveling inventor from a totalitarian future who fled into our era. He's encased himself in an invulnerable suit of powered armor that he never, ever takes off, for fear of the assassins he knows the rulers of his original era have sent after him- one of whom has found him, and seeking a way to get at him through defenses no weapon can penetrate.

The premise is interesting, there's a lot of humor, and despite the light tone the story and main character also had considerable emotional power. The central metaphor of a man who's walled himself off behind a protective shell is sort of obvious, but it works, and in some ways is more subtle than it initially seems in ways that give it more emotional punch. (The protagonist comes from a particular background, the armor was built in a context related to that background and is worn because of a specific type of threat- if you stop at “this guy wears armor all the time” you're missing most of it.

“Helmet” by Daniel H. Wilson- Dark, rather chilling story where the protagonist lives with his little brother in a devastated city periodically terrorized by the central government's marauding powered-armored troop- until he finds himself carried off to be made one himself. It's very creepy, has a compelling main character, and has one of those moments that I love in science fiction where a setting element that doesn't seem to make sense suddenly fits perfectly.

I definitely recommend Armored. It will be of particular interest to military science fiction fans, but there's plenty of good stories beyond that subgenre as well that made it worthwhile for fans of science fiction in general. Also, in light of how common powered armor is in modern gaming- Warhammer 40,000, Halo, Crysis, Fallout, etc.- it might also make a good gift/gateway drug for someone who likes videogames or media franchises with science fiction settings but hasn't had much exposure to written SF.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Firebird by Jack McDevitt

Firebird by Jack McDevitt is the sixth book in McDevitt's ongoing science fiction series about far future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant/partner/pilot Chase Kolpath. Ideally, I'd recommend reading the Alex Benedict series in order (A Talent for War, Polaris, Seeker, The Devil's Eye, Firebird) but like the other books in the series Firebird works quite well as a stand-alone book and should be fairly easy to understand whether you've read its predecessors or not.

40 years ago on Alex and Chase's home, the colony world Rimway, the famous and controversial physicist Dr. Christopher Robin mysteriously vanished from the planet, never to be seen again. When his widow dies 40 years later, Alex is commissioned to find buyers for the renowned scientist's personal items. Seeking information that could help them build interest in the items among potential buyers, Alex and Chase delve into the history of Dr. Robin, an enigmatic man whose theories on the existence and nature of alternate universes made him a figure of intense controversy, shunned by some and idolized by others, whose mysterious disappearance has made him the subject of wild speculation ever since.

The trail leads them to encounter two of Robin's other interests. One is records, some recent and others going back thousands of years, of unidentified ships appearing near human worlds and then fading into nothingness a few minutes later. The other is human interstellar ships that depart on routine faster-than-light trips and are never seen again, a rare but troubling phenomenon that has claimed numerous victims throughout humanity's thousands of years of interstellar travel- including Gabriel Benedict, Alex's uncle and Chase' former employer. They also begin to discover clues that Robin was up to something strange in the final years before his disappearance- and may have been on the verge of a discovery with implications far beyond the mystery of his own fate.

Firebird is another solid entry in the Alex Benedict series. The main story is interesting and goes in some unexpected directions, and Chase Kolpath is once again an enjoyable character and first-person narrator. Much of the story is fairly sedentary and not too far removed from a conventional mystery story, with Chase and Alex investigating Robin's past by fairly prosaic means- interviewing people who knew him, searching for records, visiting places he been- but the mystery is interesting and made these scenes satisfying for me. It also segues well into the more specifically science fictional aspects of the story that become predominant as it progresses. There are also some more fast-paced or tense bits that work well.

I especially enjoyed the part of the story where the investigation takes Benedict and Chase to the planet Villanueva, a formerly populous and advanced world that was cut off from humanity for centuries by an interstellar dust cloud that extinguished the human population but left the infrastructure and the AIs charged with running and maintaining it intact. Left to themselves, they've continued to do exactly that, keeping Villanueva's dead cities intact and running for thousands of years- and making new human settlement impossible by attacking any who land. It's quite creepy, as Alex and Chase search for clues in clean, well-maintained, still-powered cities completely devoid of human life. The way the story deals with the AIs of Villaneuva is interesting, and leads to some interesting scenes later when Alex Benedict becomes the center of a political debate on the nature of AIs and human responsibility for those left behind by the death of Villaneuva's human population.

McDevitt is good at using rather mundane elements in ways that complement the science fiction/space opera aspects of the story- the implications of AI sentience are argued about on evening talk shows, Villaneuva is dangerous to human life not because its AIs are either interested in or capable of attacking humanity but because of the hordes of pro-AI activists and amateur treasure hunters descending on the planet and getting themselves killed after it becomes a subject of media attention, and the search for the truth about Dr. Christopher Robin is at least as much about old-fashioned investigative skills as it is dangerous journeys on hostile planets or in deep space. This could be dull if it were handled poorly, but in Firebird it's effective at giving the setting a greater feeling of solidity than it would have had otherwise.

The relatively familiar, recognizable future presented in the Alex Benedict books has often been the subject of criticism, for reasons I can appreciate but don't share. It fits the larger context of the setting, where human interstellar civilization has undergone multiple dark ages in the time between the present day and the stories, so thousands of years in the future doesn't equal thousands of years of technological progress. I also think the similarity of McDevitt's setting to our own world tends to be overstated by some people, probably because of what does and doesn't get attention in the stories. For instance, there are allusions to the fact that on many human worlds one can simply forgo employment and live- and apparently live fairly well- on some sort of government stipend every citizen gets, and that this is not a rare or stigmatized choice. That implies economic productivity far beyond what we have now, as well as a profound cultural difference, but the technological underpinnings of that don't come up because there's no reason for them to..

A lot of it boils down to one's own beliefs about the future and the extent to which a setting deviating from those beliefs impairs your enjoyment of the story. (I'm not of the “life in the future will necessarily be unrecognizable to us today” school of thought. It wouldn't surprise me, but I don't consider it so self-evidently true that the contrary assumption attacks my suspension of disbelief.) Both of these things vary widely from individual to individual, so while I like it myself I can certainly understand why it's a sticking point for some.

I would definitely recommend Firebird for fans of Jack McDevitt, and for fans of science fiction with a mystery/investigative bent. If you didn't care for McDevitt style before it's not going to wow you into changing your mind, but if you've enjoyed his work in the past it's well worth reading.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Book Review: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont is the most recent book set in the same universe of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, which Erikson and Esslemont created together, and Esslemont's fourth book in that universe. It is set chronologically after the eighth book in Erikson's series, Toll the Hounds, and picks up on many plot threads from that book and other earlier books, so I would strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with the series before reading this one. Reading Esslemont's previous three books before Orb Sceptre Throne would also be a good idea, but isn't as essential.

As usual, the book is split into a number of different plot threads. The story is set on the continent of Genabackis, focusing on the city-state of Darujhistan and its environs. The region has been wracked by conflict, with much of the continent devastated by war and its northern areas brought under the rule of the Malazan Empire. Moon's Spawn, an ancient flying fortress that recently plummeted into the sea, has become a hot spot for treasure hunters seeking to make their fortunes-including Antsy, one of the deserters from the armies of the Malazan Empire who settled in Darujhistan- and for those who would prey upon them.

On an island to the south, the army of the Seguleh- a mysterious, isolated people whose warriors are swordsmen without compare- set out for the mainland and Darujhistan, in response to a prophecy that they believe is now being fulfilled. They are led by Jan, the Second, who is eager to lead them to what he believes is their destiny and purpose as a people after millennia of exile from their original homeland- not realizing just what has summoned them back and what that destiny is.

Meanwhile, the situation around Darujhistan remains precarious, with many of the formerly independent cities of northern Genabackis and the nomadic tribes of the continent's plains chafing against the continued presence of the Malazans. Torvald Nom has been newly elevated to a seat on Darujhistan's ruling council, and finds himself faced with something far worse than the city's Byzantine and already frequently deadly politics. The region will soon be thrown into turmoil by a discovery made in the ruins outside Darujhistan, remnants of an ancient era when the city was the seat of a great empire. Now the evil that ruled over that empire thousands of years ago is returning, seeking to regain its power, starting with Darujhistan itself.

Orb Sceptre Throne is an enjoyable book that is worth reading for Malazan fans, though I wouldn't place it in the top tier of that series. The main story is quite interesting, though some of the secondary plot threads drag early on.. There's some quite exciting action sequences, including our first look at the Seguleh fighting as an army- previously they've only appeared one or two at a time- and some scenes involving the fully u unleashed power of the Malazan Empire's mysterious allies, the Moranth. The story also ties up some plot threads and answers some questions left by previous Malazan, in what I thought was a very satisfactory way. Parts of the ending were too abrupt and something of an anticlimax, though it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the journey there, and there were also aspects of the conclusion that I quite liked.

I liked the characters, and especially Jan of the Seguleh- the ruler and greatest warrior of an army of the deadliest swordsmen on the planet, and yet trapped and paralyzed by what he believes his duty and the duty of his people to be. The reborn Tyrant of Darujhistan is suitably creepy and ominous, utterly silent behind a blank mask as he holds court while another man speaks as his “voice.” The book also sees the return of some old favorites including Antsy and the other former Bridgeburners settled in Darujhistan, Torvald and Rallick Nom, the mysterious Kruppe, and - my other personal favorite- Traveler, AKA Dassem Ultor, trying to withdraw into quiet anonymity now that his decades-long quest for revenge against Hood, god of death, was made pointless after he was cheated of his chance for vengeance during the events of toll the hounds.

As with his previous book, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne shows a marked improvement in Esslemont's writing style compared to his first two books, Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, moving the story smoothly and confidently along without the occasional awkwardness seen in his earlier work. Esslemont's writing style is once again more straightforward less prone to digression than Steven Erikson's; whether that's good or bad is a matter of taste, but for the most part I thought the story benefited from Esslemont's approach.

While it's not at the same level as his previous book, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne is a solid effort by Ian C. Esslemont that I would definitely recommend it for fans of the Malazan series.  

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: In the Lion's Mouth by Michael Flynn

In the Lion's Mouth is the third book in Michael Flynn's science fiction series that began with The January Dancer and was followed by Up Jim River. I'd recommend reading those before reading this one; it's not strictly necessary in order to understand what's going on during In the Lion's Mouth, but it certainly helps.

In the far future, humanity is spread across countless worlds dominated by two great powers in a centuries-long cold war, the despotic Confederation of central worlds and loose alliance that opposes it called the United league of the periphery. Donovan buigh was once a Shadow, an agent of the confederation's elite intelligence service- before he was subjected to experimental mind altering-procedure that was supposed to create a single man with the skills and expertise of an entire team of experts but instead left him with huge gaps in his memory and a fragmented mind split between multiple quarreling personalities. He ended up in the Periphery, a broken man quietly drinking himself into his grave until he found himself drawn back into the long struggle between the and Confederation and league, now defending his new home from the machinations of the Confederation and it's rulers, the mysterious oligarchs known only as Those of Name.

He has finally started to gain a measure of peace and purpose in his new life when he finds himself forced back into the old one by a Confederate agent he met decades before (during The Januaryy Dancer), Ravn Olafsdottr. She abducts Donovan and smuggles him back into the Confederation- but not on behalf of Those of Name. The Shadows are wracked by an internal struggle between those loyal to Those of Name and those who now seek to overthrow them, and the latter want Donovan- less for who he is than for who he used to be, in the long empty gaps of his memory. Donovan eventually agrees to join them, putting him on a collision course with some of the deadliest killers in the galaxy, the truth about his own identity, and Those of Name themselves.

In the Lion's Mouth is a highly enjoyable book and a fine continuation of the series that started with The January Dancer. I loved the central characters Donovan buigh and Ravn Olafsdottr, and the plot is interesting and exciting. There are a number of well-done action scenes, and Flynn's talent for description in general is again in evidence.

The framing device of the book is that the story is being told by Ravn Olafsdottr, who has snuck back into the League after the main events of the book to bring Donovan's story to Bridget ban, a long-time veteran of the League's own intelligence service, who has spent her life on the opposite side of the long cold war between the two great powers, and her daughter with Donovan, Mearana. This proves to very effective, both because it provides a different viewpoint from the previous books in the series and because of the atmosphere it creates when the book occasionally shifts from the main narrative back to the frame story. The tension of the interactions between two lifelong enemies sharing a brief truce and the stress and anxiety of Bridget ban and her daughter as Ravn tells herstory - and mockingly refuses to reveal ahead of time if Donovan will be alive or dead at the end of it- are palpable, and this adds a lot.

My one initial disappointment with In the Lion's Mouth was that it is relatively constrained in scope, focusing on just a few worlds. Consequently, it doesn't have the same variety and epic sense of scale as its predecessors, which took the reader all the periphery and beyond. In the Lion's Mouth, by contrast, is relatively modest in scope, concentrating on a few planets. I say “initial” because once I had adjusted to it I thought it worked quite well for the sort of story the author is telling here, and Flynn shows that he can still do a good story in this setting while working on a more constrained scale. The narrower scope of the main story also fits well thematically with the setting, adding to the contrast between the despotic Confederation and the freewheeling diversity of the League, and complements the claustrophobic anxiety of the frame story.

I highly recommend In the Lion's Mouth for space opera fans, though I would encourage people who haven't read The January Dancer and Up Jim River to do so first. The entire series is well-worth getting into.

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Star Dragon by Mike Brotherton

Star Dragon is the debut novel of Mike Brotherton, who works as a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming. You can visit his website here.

Centuries from now, in a world where biotechnology is ubiquitous in the human race has begun to spread outwards to other stars, a corporation called Biolathe receives a centuries-old radio transmission from an interstellar probe transmitting from SS Cygni. SS Cygni a variable binary star system comprised of a main-sequence star and a white dwarf, notable for the dramatic novae it periodically undergoes as hydrogen from the larger star is drawn off by the gravity of its smaller but much denser companion, accumulating and eventually undergoing nuclear fusion on the surface of the dwarf. The probe's engine signal, however, contain something even more interesting- in the accretion disc of stellar plasma spiraling towards the dwarf there is something alive, somehow able to survive at temperatures and pressures that are nearly enough to ignite nuclear fusion.

Eager to learn more about this unprecedented- and potentially very lucrative, if they can figure out it works- form of life, which Biolathe has dubbed a “star dragon,” the company decides to send a manned expedition to SS Cygni to study on one of their ships, the Karamojo. Their mission will be to study, and if possible capture, this newly discovered form of life. The relativistic speeds human spacecraft can achieve have made regular interstellar flights to nearby solar systems feasible- but SS Cygni is so distant that, while the voyage there and back will take only a few subjective years for the crew of five, 500 years will have passed back on Earth by the time they return.

Interstellar flight is a technology humans have mastered and the risks involved in actually traveling to SS Cygni are modest, but the trip is still potentially perilous. SS Cygni's variable cycle lasts seven to eight weeks, but it still isn't possible to determine in advance just when its next outburst will come, and when it does the binary's luminosity jumps to many times its normal level in less than a day and becomes more than enough to fry a ship nearby. Aside form its existence and habitat, virtually nothing about the dragon is known- its behavior, its origins, its abilities, how many fellow members of its species it might be accompanied by, or just how it will react to an attempt to capture it. All five members of the crew have their own reasons for essentially saying goodbye to virtually everything they've ever known to go a journey that will end with them half a millennium out of their own time. For shipboard xenobiologist Samuel Fisher it's his fascination, and then growing obsession, with the dragon itself- an obsession that threatens to bring into conflict with other members of the crew in the midst of what is already a potentially very dangerous situation filled with unknowns.

I liked Star Dragon. Brotherton makes good use of his background in astrophysics to make SS Cygni a compelling environment, and the story of the character's journey there and exploration of it is well-done and does a good job of combining human drama with the dangers and wonders of SS Cygni and the mysterious dragon.

I enjoyed the characterization, which was both nicely done and more integral to the story than is often the case in hard science fiction stories focused on an unusual environment (e.g. Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, etc.) The crew is interesting, and Brotherton does a good job of something I particularly like to see done well- portraying a character being a jerk without being a villain, and without either making him seem one-dimensionally, pointlessly, or irredeemably bad, or going too far in the opposite direction and making him so reasonable or sympathetic that his faults seem trivial. I also liked the Karamojo's AI, Papa, who is an interesting character in his own right as a being with a personality that is in many ways human-like, but is often bound by the inescapable imperatives programmed into him by his creator- he has enough freedom to wish he could give a crew member he doesn't like a piece of his mind, or resent it when a crew member's emotional distress sets off a program that compels him to start asking questions designed to probe their psyche when he wishes he could just express sympathy, but not enough to actually do what he wants. The parts of the book with him as the viewpoint character were especially effective.

The setting is nicely realized, but inside and outside the Karamojo. Brotherton's portrayal of SS Cygni was quite effective at evoking an alien, dangerous, almost apocalyptic environment, and the book's examination of how the binary, its accretion disk, it's a recurring nova cycle is interesting and incorporated into the story well. The Karamojo itself is rather unusual, the product of a society where biological technology is ubiquitous and so advanced that people can radically change their entire bodies almost casually and entire live organisms can manufactured as readily as mechanical parts. While we are shown very little of human society at large what we get from the ship and crew does a very good job of giving a sense of a future that seems quite alien in many ways.

My only complaint is that I wish there had been more on the star dragon itself, and how it functioned in an environment as hostile as an accretion disc around a nova-prone white dwarf. What we learn is interesting, but I feel there was something of a missed opportunity here.

That's a fairly minor complaint, however, and all in all Star Dragon is a fine book that I'd recommend to any hard science fiction fan, especially if you want a story with more emphasis than usual on the characters or like science fiction about possible forms of life in exotic and extreme environments in the vein of authors like Hal Clement or Stephen Baxter. It's a very solid debut for Mike Brotherton.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: Gilded Latin Bones by Glen Cook

Gilded Latten Bones is the 13th book in Glen Cook's Garrett, P.I. fantasy/detective series. Like all Garrett books, Gilded Latten Bones' primary plot stands alone, but I very strongly recommend reading the previous Garrett books before reading this one; the story is enjoyable on its own, but there's a lot about the book that is more effective if you've spent time with Garrett and company before.

As the story begins, Garrett has finally started to settle down. He and his longtime on-again off-again girlfriend Tinnie Tate are engaged, and Garrett has left his uncertain and often dangerous life  as private investigator for secure employment in his home city of TunFaire, capital of the kingdom of Karenta, as a security specialist for the wealthy Tate family's thriving manufacturing empire. This new-found peace is shattered by the late-night arrival of several armed thugs who had been hired by an unknown party to abduct Tinnie, followed by the news that Garrett's long-time friend Morley Dotes, elven assassin and underworld figure turned mostly-legitimate entrepreneur, is comatose after being brutally attacked and left for dead in a late-night ambush on the streets of TunFaire. Despite Tinnie's disapproval, protests, and volcanic temper, along with Garrett's own desire to leave the danger and economic insecurity of his old career as a private eye behind him, he now delves back into TunFaire' s criminal underworld to find out who is responsible for the attacks on his fiancĂ©e and his best friend- and whether or not they're related.

TunFaire has settled down, too. Karenta's decades' long war with its rival Venegeta, a devastating conflict over silver mines (fuel for the magic of the sorcerer-aristocrats who rule Karenta) that consumed whole generations of young men, is over. The omnipresent racial tensions that threatened to boil over into large-scale violence with the war's end, when thousands of newly unemployed conscript soldiers were thrust into a civilian society where many trades were dominated by nonhumans after decades of economic adjustment to the lengthy and often permanent absences of virtually all of its young human men, have cooled a bit. The establishment of a more professional and less corrupt police force by Deal Relway, the recently appointed commander of the city watch, has brought an end to much of the overt criminality that plagued the city and created an era of (comparative) law and order.

To resolve the mystery, he'll have to seek out the aid of his old ally the Dead Man, the 500-year old corpse of a member of a powerful nonhuman race called the Loghyr whose original occupant hasn't departed yet, and some other acquaintances from his less reputable past. His investigation will required him to face a cabal of corpse-stealing sorcerers and their grotesque creations, mysterious political interference with his investigation, corruption at high levels of TunFaire society, and, hardest of all to confront, the knowledge that his duty to his old friend may cost him the love of his life.

I greatly enjoyed Golden Latten Bones and think it's an excellent addition to the Garrett series. As always, Garrett's first-person narration and jaded sense of humor is highly entertaining and is a huge part of what makes the story so enjoyable. I liked the central mystery, though to a great extent it's a backdrop- this book is, probably more than any other entry in the series, about Garrett rather than the case he's working on. The book is somewhat more sedentary than usual, with Garrett doing less of the legwork for the case himself- his circle of allies, sources, and friends has grown greatly since the beginning of the series, and that comes into play here. The story remains interesting, however, and there are some nice action sequences as well.

The book is more character-focused than its predecessors, and the book has a particular focus on how Garrett and the people in his life have grown and changed- or how they haven't- since we first met them. Barrett is noticeably off his game when he first begins investigating after spending over a year in his less demanding job working for the Tate family, and begins to wonder if he's no longer cut out for the demands of his old career and lifestyle. When he first moves back into his old residence- which his assistant Pular Singe and long-time housekeeper Dean have continued to use in his absence- so that he can keep an eye on the wounded Morley, he's startled by just how much frailer the elderly Dean has become. Singe, meanwhile, has grown remarkably since first meeting Garrett. A member of a despised race called ratpeople, an unnatural hybrid species created a few centuries ago in some sorcerer's bizarre experiments, she has gone from living in desperate poverty under the yoke of her thuggish elder brother and working as a tracker due to her preternaturally sensitive sense of smell to working as the manager of Garrett's office and financial affairs, has learned to read and write (an uncommon skill in general and unheard of among ratpeople), and speaks to Garrett as an equal.

I especially liked the portrayal of Tinnie Tate. Tinnie has generally been portrayed as a short-tempered, possessive, and frequently unreasonable person. And she still is, but we see her in greater and more sympathetic depth here as someone whose driving emotion is not anger or jealousy but fear, who knows that her behavior is frequently unreasonable, self-destructive, and threatens to drive away the very people she loves and is so afraid of losing, but feels like she is so locked into that pattern of thought and behavior that she can't stop. Cook's portrayal of this is very effective, and rather poignant if you've known somebody like that yourself.

The city of TunFaire remains one of my favorite fantasy settings, taking many of the typical conventions of fantasy- fairly widespread magic, a roughly medieval level of technology, races like elves and dwarves- and creating something that feels quite different from the typical fantasy world. It's interesting to see how it, too, is changing, as society adjusts to the end of the war, new inventions make large-scale manufacturing more economically significant than it has ever been before, and Relway's reformed city watch brings a previously unknown level of law and order to the city- and is becoming a political force in its own right. TunFaire is more peaceful than it used to be- though that's a relative measure.

The overall tone of the story is more upbeat than many of the previous Garrett books. The Garrett, P.I. series has never been as dark as Glen Cook's Black Company series, and Garrett himself is a fun character and narrator, but nevertheless a number of the previous Garrett books have had a strong sense of sadness or melancholy about them. There's some of that here, too, but all in all the world seems brighter here than it often has in the past.

Gilded Latten Bones is is very strongly recommended for fans of the Garrett series, and I strongly recommend the series as a whole (starting with Sweet Silver Blues) for anyone who likes fantasy and is interested in something different from the norm.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everybody!

All in all, while Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic was not as active as many other science fiction blogs in 2011, I'm quite pleased with how things have turned out and hope to increase my output in 2012. I hope you've enjoyed reading it, and will continue coming back here in the year to come. I wanted to start this year off on a positive note by thanking some people who have helped this blog in one way or another. Some names have been truncated to protect the innocent:

My friends JT, Kevin, Dave, Peter, Lecester, Cheryl, and Catherine.

Midnight and Toshi.

All of my other friends, who know who they are.

My family.

Dr. B and the other Kevin.

T and F.

Damon, Jay, and Elena at Boomtron, Dan, Corey, and Nick at Robot Geek, and Sam and Matt at Kuribo's Shoes.

People online who have helped me in one way or another: Jacob, Danny, Jim, Daran, TB, Jeremy, Alfonso, Keisha, the other Peter, and everybody else.

Everyone who has linked to me.

The folks at Tor Books, Night Shade Books, and everyone else who's sent me something to review.

The good people at Pyr Books for using not one but two quotes from (separate) things I've written as back cover blurbs on one of their books.. Hell of a cool surprise to run into at Barnes and Noble.

The authors I've had some sort of contact with: John Meaney, Michael Z. Williamson, Tom Lloyd, Amy Sterling Casil, and especially Neal Asher and Victor Milan. And anyone I may have left out.

My beloved Unattainable Bar Chick, for her unfailing friendliness, kindness, waitressing and bartending professionalism, willingness to laugh at my stupid jokes, and Velma Dinkley/Lisa Loeb-esque hotness. You were always far nicer to me than you had to be, and were the brightest spot of my week whenever we spoke. I always knew that I would never tell you how I felt about you, but you made me wish I could have. Thank you, and best of luck with everything

And, of course, everyone who takes the time to read Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic. I tend to be pretty useless trying to express myself with spoken words when I'm face-to-face with people unless it's with people I already know well, so being able to do so through writing online is very precious to me, and so is knowing that someone is actually reading it.

Thank you all. I'm going to make 2012 Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic's best year yet.

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