Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review: Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction

Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction
Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction by Ian Whates

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"These stories are guaranteed to surprise, thrill and delight," says the blurb, which also has a couple of other errors in it. I was surprised a number of times, but neither thrilled nor delighted. These are excellent stories, varied, original and well-written, but most of them are not a kind of story I particularly like, as a matter of personal taste. Hence the three stars; it's a subjective three rather than a more objective four, because I give four stars only to books I enjoy.

It isn't just that they're often dark, or tragic, or even pessimistic. It's more that I feel they set out to be shocking and disturbing, rather than just following their premises into shocking and disturbing places. Also, some of them just stop abruptly, rather than coming to a conclusion.

I spotted few errors. The introduction has "principal" for "principle", the last story has "wretched" for "retched", there are a couple of typos, and one of the stories refers to Sir Bolivar Walczak as "Sir Walczak," which is never correct under any circumstances. On the whole, though, it's well-edited, and the writers are competent at all aspects of their craft.

A number of the earlier stories, in particular, deal with colonialism and post-colonialism, and people's resistance to being ruled by outsiders (to the extent of taking actions that will harm themselves and their people rather than accept such rule). Several of the other stories have a parallel theme of sticking it to The Man or resisting authority. My lack of identification with those viewpoints (I'm a New Zealander of British descent, who's used to living in a colonised country nominally ruled from overseas but in practice independent) may have something to do with my lack of overall enjoyment of the stories.

In brief: I didn't like them, but lots of other people will.

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Review: Feyland: The First Adventure

Feyland: The First Adventure
Feyland: The First Adventure by Anthea Sharp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was nothing actually bad about this book, but there was also nothing fresh, hence the three-star rating.

The premise (a virtual-reality game gives access to the Faerie Realms) has been done before, notably by Clive Barker. The prose is mostly competent - I only spotted a couple of minor errors - and the descriptions are multisensory, but to me it seemed conventional and predictable in its imagery.

The heroine is a rich girl whose worst problem (outside being targeted by the Fairy Queen) is that she might have to leave her expensive private school and go to an ordinary high school with no choir, because her father is being transferred for work. (Her father is obviously extraordinarily well-paid for an IT project manager, or else has inherited money; they have at least three staff.)

The real-world part of the setting is generic, with made-up cities in an unnamed country, which served, for me, to diminish the story's grounding in reality and thus the contrast between the real world and the virtual/fey world.

The plot is linear and unsurprising, and, in this short prequel story, ends up introducing a lot and developing very little. There's one moment of forced character development as the main character realises a very obvious parallel between the two worlds and her actions in both, but otherwise, she doesn't grow or change.

Finally, characters named Jennet, Thomas Rimer, and Tam Lin are just a bit unsubtle.

If you love this kind of thing and want more of the same, or if you've never read anything like it before, it's a perfectly OK book, though the plot is nothing special. But if you're looking for something fresh and original, I wouldn't look for it here.

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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review: Deathmaker

Deathmaker by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lindsay Buroker is incredibly prolific at the moment, and since she's almost an autobuy for me I find myself reading her stuff fairly frequently. I'm in some danger of eventually burning out on her brand of entertaining, amusing but somewhat coincidence-ridden adventure, but this will not be the book that proves the tipping point.

I enjoyed the previous book in the series more than this one, but that's not to say that I didn't enjoy this. There's only one convenient coincidence (the one that puts the heroine in the pilot's seat of a pirate craft), and it isn't so big as to be overwhelming. There's plenty of adventure and a reasonable amount of romance, and a Buroker romance is less silly than average. I did find the ending a bit too neat and easy, but take it for all in all, this is an enjoyable book and I hope she keeps them coming.

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Review: Skin Game

Skin Game
Skin Game by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jim Butcher is at the top of his game at the moment, and he's the only author I still buy in hardback (having switched almost completely to ebooks otherwise).

This is a fine continuation of the Dresden Files series, with all the classic elements. Harry Dresden starts out in trouble and gets deeper and deeper as the book progresses. Before we even get to the heist (I love heists!), he's broken his arm and is in generally bad shape, he's been forced to work with one of his greatest enemies, and one of his allies has been so badly injured that he has to go to the bench. Fortunately, by this point he has a deeply impressive bench.

Things go boom and catch on fire, extremely powerful supernaturals find it amusing when Harry is tricksy, dark deeds are done and then avenged. It's classic Dresden all the way around, and I look forward to rereading it multiple times.

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Review: Brave New World

Brave New World
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't usually read post-apocalyptic, dystopian, pessimistic or "literary" books, and this is all four. It's very well done, though, and a classic, and I'm glad I read it.

The post-apocalyptic: a terrible war full of anthrax terrorist bombs has been fought, and in order to recover...
The dystopian: the world has been heavily regulated. Humans are now grown in bottles, and raised in conditioning centres, where they are relentlessly conditioned to be mindlessly happy and contribute to a stable society.
The pessimistic: in such a world, there's no place for "high art" or pure science, only for science as a tool, and meaningless entertainment. "You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art... Every discovery in science is potentially subversive... truth's a menace, science is a public danger." The author sees no third way between the squalid primitivism of the "savage reservation" and a sterile, totalitarian modernism. John, the character who is caught between these worlds - having grown up on the reservation, the son of two people from the modernist world, but, unlike almost anyone else alive, with access to an old copy of Shakespeare - is unable to adapt to the modernist world when he is taken there.

Although several of the characters have names alluding to Communism - the female lead's name is Lenina, for example - that seems to be mainly to invoke totalitarianism. In 1931, when the book was written, the Nazis were not yet in power in Germany, and Russia had the only modernist totalitarian government. However, the society depicted in the book is based more on the consumerist modernism of America. References to "Our Ford" have replaced religion - Henry Ford being the ultimate modernist symbol at the time - along with "community sings" ending in orgies.

I was surprised, by the way, at how much sex there is in the book. It's not explicit, but it is pervasive. The members of the society are heavily sexualised from a young age, and social attitudes to monogamy and promiscuity have been reversed (by hypnopaedic conditioning) because family life creates destabilising passions. Nobody knows who their parents are, and "mother" is considered a dirty word. Oddly, given that women's ovaries are removed to be cultured and create the next generation, some (though not all) women are still fertile, and they are all well drilled in contraceptive use. The author does slip up, however, and refers to a "gorillas' wedding" near the end of the book from the viewpoint of a member of the society who doesn't, presumably, know what a wedding is.

When John comes along, with his Shakespearean ideas of love, this causes predictable instability. He's attracted to Lenina, but her sexual behaviour is incomprehensible (and reprehensible) to him, as is her society.

The sexism of the 1930s is baked in. Only the male characters rise above or question their conditioning (for what good it does them); Lenina remains conventional and largely passive, and the other female characters are minor. All the people at the top of society seem to be men.

From the point of view of literary technique, there's a masterful set-piece early in the book. Several conversations are going on at once in different places, and the topics and the voices are so clear and distinct that by the end, the author is cutting rapidly between them with no speaker attribution. It's not only completely possible to follow them and tell who is speaking, but the aggregate effect is greater than the sum of the parts. Even if the book did nothing else, it deserves to be celebrated for this - and it does a great deal more.

The important questions of Brave New World still remain with us. How do we keep society stable, especially in a world where technology is becoming more and more powerful and potentially dangerous? What cost are we prepared to pay for stability? What is "human nature," and what are the implications of attempting to change it? Is it possible to be happy without sinking into mindlessness? What is lost when society pursues happiness as its highest goal?

Deservedly a classic, Brave New World was the first of the great dystopias, influencing all that came after (notably 1984, by Huxley's contemporary George Orwell). It continues to have resonance and power.

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Monday, 7 July 2014

Review: Memoirs of a Time Traveler

Memoirs of a Time Traveler
Memoirs of a Time Traveler by Doug Molitor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining, well-plotted action piece that would film well, not surprising considering the author's background in movies and TV. To its credit, the female character is the brawn (though she's also shallow and ignorant). You have to suspend some disbelief and just go along for the ride, but it's a time travel story, so you were already suspending some disbelief going in.

The author gives a convincing impression of having done his research - not having done the same research, I can't say more than that. I didn't catch any obvious wrong notes in the historical scenes, apart from using the horns of a gold statue to cut bonds (gold doesn't take a good edge; it's too soft). The plot is mostly consistent, though I did pick up what seemed to be a contradiction over whether the Time Crystal would or would not respond to instructions from the hero, and it weaves together well.

There's plenty of action, with the genetic superwoman from the future flinging around Nazi goons, as per the cover, and various other antagonists, and the narrator, a former competitive fencer, getting to use his sword skills multiple times. I do question whether someone used to fencing with a light competition saber would be able to adapt so quickly to a shorter and heavier sword, though I accept that he would be better than someone with no training.

It was clear from early on that the two main characters would get together. Considering that the woman comes off initially as a vapid airhead, with her appearance being the main thing going for her, I wasn't enthused about that development, and although her heroic desire to do the right thing did come out in the course of the book, she doesn't really develop enough for me to applaud the hero's taste. I find it believable that he would end up with her, but don't predict it working out in the long term.

The book as a whole has more depth than the heroine, and a degree of originality, and I do enjoy a time-travel story. It's fun, action-packed and generally well written, though there are some odd mangled sentences with words missing or in the wrong order which haven't been caught, despite the author's acknowledgements to a long list of people for reading over the text. It needs someone to read it upside down, backwards or aloud to pick up these errors.


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Review: The Second Fredric Brown Megapack: 27 Classic Science Fiction Stories

The Second Fredric Brown Megapack: 27 Classic Science Fiction Stories
The Second Fredric Brown Megapack: 27 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Fredric Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fine collection of Brown's stories, including what was, I think, the first one of his I read, "Placet is a Crazy Place". I have fond memories of reading it in some collection or other while on holiday with my parents as a teenager.

Some of the stories are short gags, others more extended and, sometimes, more serious. There's a good mystery ("Daymare"), too. They're steeped in the feel of the 1950s, particularly in the frequency of reference to the Cold War, fear of nuclear war, and fear of invasion (usually framed as alien invasion).

Fans of Murray Leinster will recognise the decent heroes, and Robert Sheckley fans will recognise the political and social situation, though Leinster places more emphasis on the clever engineer finding the solution (and gives his female characters more important roles), and Sheckley is more cynical about human nature and inclines more to satire than comedy. The comedy here is often that of a classic New Yorker cartoon, but occasionally (as in "Placet") approaches the more bizarre style of an R.A. Lafferty.

Something that struck me about Brown is that, for a science fiction writer, he's sometimes shaky on science. He doesn't appear to know, for instance, that the removal of lightning would also remove thunder, and writes that a Martian day is about two Earth days without, apparently, having looked it up (it's barely longer than an Earth day).

He also shares in the ignorance of his time, making a remark that suggests that Australian "bushmen" are of low intelligence.

Don't go into this collection looking for modern storytelling sensibilities or accurate science. It's a period piece, and needs to be appreciated as such.

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Review: The Aunt Paradox

The Aunt Paradox
The Aunt Paradox by Chris Dolley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went into this having read the two previous books, and expecting something light and amusing. I got that, but it was perhaps a bit too light, and not as amusing as I'd hoped. It's very short, and even then the last 10% consists of advertisements for the author's other books and the small press that put it out, so the $2.99 price comes out looking a little high. (I know that's the lowest price that gives 70% royalty. However, I'd normally expect more content, and more substance, for $2.99.)

I mentioned in my review for the previous book that there's an inherent problem with protagonism in these stories. Worcester, the narrator, is completely incompetent, while Reeves is competent. This is inherited, of course, from the model, but Wodehouse managed to make it not matter - I think by putting his hero through suffering and humiliation, mainly. Here, especially where the plots require the heroes to actually do things that matter (unlike Wodehouse), the fact that the problem is resolved by Reeves being competent off-screen doesn't work quite as well. It feels like a letdown.

I was distracted, also, by a few typos, despite two editors being credited. There were half a dozen or so in this very short book, which to me is too many. Mostly missing words, but sometimes missing apostrophes, too.

Is this an enjoyable book, though? Yes, in exactly the same way as the previous two, no more and no less. It's written to the same formula, in other words. I'd advise waiting for a collected edition of all three, unless you're already a big fan of that formula.

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