Sunday, 30 December 2018

Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like its subjects (famous science-fiction editor John W. Campbell and his sometime proteges Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard), this book is riven with contradictions and exhibits both strengths and flaws.

It's carefully researched - almost half the book consists of bibliography and notes, drawing extensively on both private and public writings and interviews with living people who remember the subjects. At the same time, it unapologetically editorializes about the men's many faults, and is something of a hatchet job on them, choosing mostly incidents that place them in a bad light.

It's mostly well copyedited, except for the use of "prophesized" for "prophesied" and some highly questionable apostrophe placement, mostly in quotations from Campbell (even though the author notes that he has corrected and standardized the spelling and punctuation in his quotations).

It's hard to say who comes out looking worst. Campbell, the champion of science who was so frequently taken in by, and obsessed with, pseudoscience (including dianetics), who grew more and more openly racist as he got older, and who would lecture people condescendingly on topics that they understood far better than he did? Heinlein, embraced by the counterculture for his portrayal of free love (reflective of his own promiscuous youth), at the same time that he was becoming more and more rigidly reactionary? Asimov, who (reversing Heinlein's trend) became promiscuous in middle age, around the time his first child was born, and called himself a feminist while unrepentantly groping every woman he met? No, it's probably Hubbard, the malevolent, abusive narcissist who constantly inflated his own achievements and manipulated those around him in order to obtain money and power.

All of them were married at least twice (Hubbard three times), and treated their first wives poorly, often minimizing their contributions to their work, though Campbell, at least, doesn't seem to have been a constant adulterer like the others. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that at least some of their marital problems stemmed from not making much effort to understand women or give their perspective weight and importance equal to men's, which was a fault of the times in general. These were men who weren't, in many ways, very good at people, who were somewhat broken as people themselves. Campbell, Hubbard, and Heinlein, at least, believed they needed to strive to improve humanity, but they retained a tremendous blindness or indifference to their own greatest faults and an inability to correct them. Sadly, they have many spiritual descendants among current SF fandom, some of whom admire in them exactly what this book deplores.

I read Asimov's fiction and nonfiction, and Heinlein's fiction, extensively as a teenager, and although I wouldn't return to it (even separating the artist from the art), I found it powerful at the time. In fact, I read Heinlein even though I didn't like most of his ideas, because of the strength of the writing.

It's inarguable that these men (and other men and women mentioned and unmentioned in the book) laid much of the foundation for the science fiction we have today. I believe we need to grapple with their faults as well as celebrating their achievements, particularly the faults that became embedded in their work and in the field itself. In order to do so, we need to look at those faults, and their context, with open eyes, and this book is an important resource to help us do so, even though - or perhaps because - it comes down so strongly on one side.

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Friday, 28 December 2018

Review: Fog Season: A Tale of Port Saint Frey

Fog Season: A Tale of Port Saint Frey Fog Season: A Tale of Port Saint Frey by Patrice Sarath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I surprised myself slightly by enjoying the first of these (as I noted in my review, "wealthy merchant house has a great fall, daughters seek revenge" isn't, to me, the most instantly promising premise). I was happy to seek out the sequel, though, and wasn't disappointed in the least.

The characters have a bit of depth and heft; they're not just cardboard cutouts. The various intrigues and struggles at several different social levels and on several different playing fields are well handled. There's plenty of tension, conflict, alliance, dramatic irony, and action. The protagonists often have to rely on the unreliable while attempting to achieve the unachievable.

The sisters' parents are moved offstage, which was a good move in that we were able to see the elder sister running the household with only her uncle (ineffectually) opposing her, and this gave a much clearer indication of her potential than if she'd had to continually contend with the parents.

Overall, at a good level of complexity, and enjoyable. I will watch for the next in the series.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Review: One Bronze Knuckle

One Bronze Knuckle One Bronze Knuckle by Kenneth Hunter Gordon
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

A book unfortunately very much in love with the sound of its own voice.

It is a smooth and competent voice, I have to say; I found only one error in the first third (which was as far as I read). It's rich prose; full of itself. It's an old-fashioned voice, because while it is ostensibly the voice of a character who sometimes appears in the book, its effect is that of an omniscient narrator - the bombastic kind of omniscient narrator who judges all the characters and occasionally addresses the reader directly.

It reminded me of Tristram Shandy, not only because of the voice, but also because it wanders and jumps about, seemingly randomly, in space and time and details the lives and backgrounds of every character in an extended family.

Unfortunately, unlike Shandy's eccentric relatives, this is for the most part a very dull family, and we're shown an external view of them that doesn't give us access to much of their inner life (if they have any). They live in a small, dull town where nothing much happens, and if there is a plot at all, it's deeply buried under a mass of discursive verbiage. We get long descriptions of everything and everyone with even the most passing connection to whatever the story is supposed to be. I have limited patience with an excess of exposition at the best of times, but when there's no discernible plot, and the people and places are not inherently very interesting, I quickly lose what patience I have. I did give it more time than the traditional 25% to stop introducing things and start developing them, but when nothing much had happened yet at 32%, I jumped to the end to see if it seemed to come to any kind of conclusion. As far as I could tell, it did not.

The setting is a timeless time and a placeless place; somewhere in Europe, sometime after California exists, but the town feels like an American small town: settled by a living person's great-grandfather, and with inhabitants whose names include Sullivan (Irish), Berger (Germanic), and several other names of diverse ethnic origin.

There's a self-proclaimed witch, and a prophecy, but (as far as I read) not very much else that justifies classifying it as SFF.

Some people, I know, are OK with masses of exposition and very little plot, although I believe they usually demand more character development than this book appears to offer.

Not for me, and perhaps not for many people. It's a pity, because the sentence-level writing is far above average; it's just that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Review: Navigating the Stars

Navigating the Stars Navigating the Stars by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this is decent sci-fi.

I very much enjoyed the author's first fantasy series (the Poison books), largely because of the viewpoint character, a determined, capable young woman who had to overcome considerable challenges and did so with bravery and determination. I enjoyed the Glass books less, largely also because of the viewpoint character; I remember her as whiny. Here, we're back to a snarky, imperfect, but ultimately admirable young woman with a delightful voice.

Lyra has a bit of a problem with authority (and vice versa), but she's fundamentally a good person, chaotic good though it may be. She wants to help people, not harm them; she just doesn't see how following the rules is relevant to that exactly. She's a natural, intuitive "wormer" (as hackers of the quantum computer net are called), and nobody is going to stop her worming.

There's a strong conflict built into the setting, which is good use of worldbuilding. Ships can warp through space between stars, but doing so involves a time dilation effect, so that even though it takes a short subjective time for the passengers, many years pass in the wider universe during their transit. This means that if someone leaves for another planet, particularly someone young, to their friends they might as well be dead; when they're next heard from it will be decades later, and they'll still be a teenager while their friends are middle-aged. Lyra's brother has left in just such a way after turning 18, and is gone from the family's life; Lyra, who's not yet quite of age, has to accompany her archaeologist parents when they move planets (again) to investigate another find of ancient terracotta warriors, apparently transported there from China by aliens. The aliens, for reasons not yet understood, did this a lot. (So much so that I did wonder how that amount of clay went missing from China without leaving enduring evidence or historical accounts. If the clay wasn't from Earth, that wouldn't be hard to detect scientifically.)

Leaving aside such minor niggles, this is something different from the common space opera fare, which is what I'd expect from this author; she doesn't just write to the usual bland default template, but puts some thought into the setting and how it interacts with the story and characters. Setting detail isn't just background, it's central to the plot. A good many hard-SF authors could take a lesson.

It's not without its cliches. The moment I read that the young man Lyra hates had blue-green eyes, I muttered, "Houston, we have a love interest." Why do all important characters in YA have to have green, violet, or at best grey eyes? Where's the love for brown eyes? Brown eyes are great, and most humans have them. Maybe that's the point; YA characters have to be special. And Lyra is, though she isn't over-the-top special; at one point she notes that she isn't suddenly going to be a crack shot with a weapon she's never used before, which won the author points from me.

It may have the occasional cliche, but it's not the usual assemblage of tired tropes laid end-to-end on a well-worn pattern, which for me made it much more enjoyable than the many books that don't attempt any more than mediocre sameness. I would happily read more in the series; although there's no cliffhanger, there are plenty of open threads left at the end, and I found this first book entertaining.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: String City

String City String City by Graham Edwards
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although the main character of this book is a noir detective, it avoids the hopeless alienation of true noir in favour of something more noblebright.

It's very high-concept. A city at the intersection of a number of cosmic strings (as in string theory), inhabited by gods, near-gods, and monsters from various pantheons, plus ordinary people (who don't fare particularly well). This sets the scene for a story full of wonder, conflict, people punching above their weight, loss, destruction, and ultimate triumph.

If there was one thing that irritated me about it, it was that the detective had a near-endless set of devices to use to solve his problems, very few of which were foreshadowed, so it ended up being a little bit Felix the Cat. (In fact, his coat, which he turns inside out a varying number of times to transform it into whatever will be the most appropriate or useful garment for the situation, is strongly reminiscent of Felix's magic bag.) However, at least one of them had a limited number of uses, and it was hinted that the use of them carried a price, though the price never quite seemed to eventuate.

I was pleased that the detective's secretary got to be a character, rather than just a functionary, with a backstory and an arc, though she did fall into the Damsel in Distress trope at one point. There were several other female characters who had agency and weight, though I wasn't a big fan of the femme fatale or of the detective's interaction with her.

All in all, more enjoyable than not, and it ended better than I'd feared, though I'd have to be in the right mood to read a sequel.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Review: Scales

Scales Scales by Nicole Conway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A decent YA supers story which manages to avoid the heavy reliance on cliche that can plague both those genres.

The protagonist, while explicitly mediocre (or is he?) is not a mediocre white guy. The pacing and tension are well managed (good chapter-ending points that make you want to read on). The love interest has blue-green eyes, but don't they all? That's the YA equivalent of a muscular bare chest on a romance cover: cheesy, but so much expected now that it almost can't be dispensed with.

The superhero side of things plays out pretty Spider-Manish (New York nebbish gets superpowers, is regarded as a threat by the media), but not so much so that it's just a clone. And although the protag, and most of the people around him, think he's mediocre, he's kind and courageous and deserves his superpower; he doesn't just luck into it.

The identity of the villain amused me. It just seems such an obvious play to the prejudices of the teenage audience. But it's handled well, and so are the characters in general and their interactions, motivations, and development.

The pre-release review copy I got via Netgalley was still a little scruffy, but nothing a good copy editor couldn't tidy up in short order.

I will be watching for a sequel.

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Review: The Dragon Machine

The Dragon Machine The Dragon Machine by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm enjoying this series, though so far the first has been the best for my money. The city populated by multiple fantasy races, with an original magic system, makes an enjoyable setting, and the two detective partners have what, in a movie, would be described as "good on-screen chemistry". There's a strong noblebright tone of fighting against the privileged who consider that ordinary people don't matter, and although there are clearly plenty of corrupt villains around, there's also an adequate supply of heroes and people of good will (and maybe one or two who straddle the line).

The action is strong and well-paced, but not so constant as to leave no time for reflection. The two viewpoints are well distinguished, and once again the verve and zest for life of the half-orc character make it enjoyable to be in her viewpoint.

A few unfortunate typos kept it off the "Well-Edited" shelf, but it was generally OK as far as the copy editing went.

I'll definitely continue following this series (I've gone so far as to subscribe to the author's newsletter so as not to miss the next one).

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Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Review: A Handful of Hexes

A Handful of Hexes A Handful of Hexes by Sarina Dorie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came into this series at book 3, which doesn't seem to have done any harm; there's a good, but not excessive, amount of catch-up provided.

I found the first book entertaining, and felt that this one rose a little higher, showed a stronger grasp of the author's craft in general.

Having said that, there's not, unfortunately, a really strong central plot. The protagonist is trying to achieve a lot of different things: find out more about her mother (who's reviled as a wicked witch even among people who don't have the strongest moral compass); get her fellow teachers to like her; help her students in general, and several of them in particular, to gain the skills and knowledge they need to (literally) survive in the magical world; find out what happened to her vanished ex-boyfriend Derrick; learn magic; and there are a couple of other subsidiary goals, mostly to do with relationships. This does muddy the story, since while she's always pursuing some goal (and not achieving it, though she does make progress sometimes), the goals are so many and various that it almost feels like she doesn't have a clear agenda.

This is how real life is, but fiction sometimes benefits from simplification. Perhaps if the goals meshed more closely, if there were more instances where she was progressing several of them at the same time, it would help.

Setting this aside, the character grows, her tribulations are tense and entertaining, and overall the book worked for me.

(Content warning for a scene in which Clarissa has a sensual interaction with a number of disembodied hands.)

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: Hexes and Exes

Hexes and Exes Hexes and Exes by Sarina Dorie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this straight after the previous book (I got them both from Netgalley at the same time for review), and so the two blend together a little in my mind. This one, however, takes the slightly squicky sexual elements present in the previous book (notably an encounter with a pit full of disembodied hands) and turns them up to 11. We have a siren student who can't help drawing boys to her and struggles not to kill them; a weird push-pull dynamic with a fellow teacher who the protagonist is both drawn to and repelled by, who does and doesn't want a relationship with her; various dreams; a unicorn who acts as a minor antagonist while representing the kind of sexist jerk who can't take a hint, and who the protagonist... obliges in a particular way for reasons that seem good to her at the time; and finally, something that would be a spoiler if I detailed it at all. The sexual elements are so numerous, so varied, and so on the edge of just plain wrong that I personally found this an uncomfortable book to read.

Apart from that, it progresses the protagonist's attempts to solve several mysteries, learn more magic, and help her students, though she's still pursuing so many competing goals that the plot's momentum is diminished by rushing in too many different directions at once.

I'm going to have to think about whether I want to continue with the series. They're good, and they've managed to move beyond Harry Potter pastiche to become their own thing, but I generally look for protagonists who have a much stronger sense of who they are, what they're pursuing, and what they are (and more importantly, are not) prepared to do to get it. Perhaps I'll give it one more chance.

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