Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers – Larry Niven

Arguably Niven’s best solo novels, as well as the ultimate BDO (Big Dumb Object) story. Great adventure in an incredible setting with trademark Niven “quirky characters”. They’re not perfect but the sense of wonder created is second to none.

Interestingly, the premise of The Ringworld Engineers, that the Ringworld is unstable, was figured out by physicists after the first novel was published. At the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, MIT students were chanting “The Ringword is unstable!” Hence why our heroes need to fix the problem.

Market Forces – Richard Morgan

After several deep recessions, the rift between rich and poor has widened dramatically. Corporations pretty much run the world, and the only game in town is to work for one, if you have the guts for it. Tenders and positions are battled for on the road with car duels, often to the death. It’s all very cutthroat and cool, but Morgan has somehow kept it just this side of believable. Our hero, Chris Faulkner, works for the Shorn Corporation in the Conflict Investment department. His job is, in simple terms, to support some third world revolutionary with weapons and support. When said revolutionary is settled in as ruler, a percentage of the GDP of his country will go to Shorn.

Mr. Morgan has written a story of corporate warfare in the near future. Not too unexpectedly for this author, this book is full of cool prose, has an anti-hero, and contains some pretty extreme violence. As Morgan himself admits in the foreword, it is unashamedly inspired by films such as Rollerball and Mad Max.Cruel, but not really that far removed from some situations seen today. The difference is that the corporations in this future do not bother to disguise their naked ambition.

The book also contains the absolute best description of a long, slow break up I have ever read. Chris’ transformation from vague idealist to the ultimate antihero is brilliantly portrayed, and the end may surprise you, although in hindsight it was inevitable.

Marvelous and very very cool.

Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

This book blew me away. After five or six pages I was hooked. Very cool cyberpunk/noir in a future where bodies can used (as “sleeves”) almost like clothes (albeit very expensive ones; a normal person can only afford one “extra” body and thus double his lifespan). This naturally raises some rather intriguing philosophical questions about mortality (or the lack of it), but also about how the legal system would work under the circumstances. All this is but a backdrop for a fabulous crime thriller told in the first person. It is clear that Morgan was very much inspired by Blade Runner (down to the robotic voice saying “Cross now. Cross Now. Cross Now” at a zebra crossing). The gloomy, indifferent outlook of our hero is similar, and it is answered by a similar outlook from his surroundings. The onlyshortcoming with this book is that the plot becomes a bit convoluted at times. All in all, a very very nice read.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore & David Lloyd

A dystopian graphic novel about a post nuclear war fascist England by the same writer as the incredible Watchmen. The art is very different from that work, however. To go with the setting, it is unusual for a comic strip. No thought bubbles, no sound effects, just a washed out gray style that is purposefully unnerving.

The main character, V, is a larger than life anti-hero who fights back against the fascist regime in traditional terrorist fashion, or so it seems. But this terrorist understands the people, and really serves as a catalyst for the change brewing under the surface anyway. A great story on many levels.

Beyond the cool factor of this graphic novel is the hard-hitting social commentary, the deep understanding of human nature, and the interesting conclusion. It is a scary thing how true the setting rings.

V for Vendetta was adapted into a movie with Natalie Portman, which I found very much captured the themes of the novel. While using film imagery to great effect, it didn’t hollywoodize the story into a washed down puddle of great visuals without substance, but dared to be stark and shocking like the novel.

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This graphic novel is one of the classics for good reason. Well drawn and masterfully written, it is a tale of a disillusioned world and its disillusioned heroes. The heroes are well into middle age as they must unite again to save the world. Even if you are skeptical to the format, you should give Watchmen a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

The Exiles Saga, Intervention and The Galactic Milieu Trilogy – Julian May

The scope of this saga spanning eight novels is staggering. A gate is opened to the past, specifically the Pliocene era. But it is a one-way trip. Adventurous souls travel back, and find a world unlike any they could imagine. Epic conflict rages between ancient races, and the future destiny of man is decided. The initial four books make up The Saga of Pliocene Exile.

  • The Many-Coloured Land
  • The Golden Torc
  • The Nonborn King
  • The Adversary

These can be read as a standalone series, but who would want to stop there?

The “bridge” book deals with first contact and the emergence of humans with “supernatural” powers such as telekinesis.

  • Intervention. In the US edition this was divided into “Intervention: Surveillance” and “Intervention: Metaconcert”.

The Galactic Milieu Trilogy deals with events after humanity has entered the galactic community.

  • Jack the Bodiless
  • Diamond Mask
  • Magnificat

What surprised me as I finally finished the whole thing was how May had meticulously planned the entire arc from the very beginning, with elements important to the last novels referenced in the first. This lends the whole series a sense of completion rare in such works. Considering the fact that it took over 12 years to write, the achievement is even more impressive.

The characters are amazing, with rich depths and particular quirks that blend in well with the evolving destiny of humankind. The settings, especially in Exiles are fabulous.

Unfortunately, the US covers are beyond awful, but don’t be put off by that. Also unfortunately, the books are out of print, but can be easily found second hand.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants & Microbes” omnibus.

Winterfair Gifts – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story forms an epilogue of sorts to Komarr and A Civil Campaign. It is told from the viewpoint of armsman Roic. A few days before Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding guests in the form of Miles’ friends from the Dendarii Free Mercenaries arrive. Taura in particular is focused on in a brief tale leading up to the wedding.

The story is cute, but would not be worth much if it hadn’t been tacked on to the end of the Miles in Love omnibus. It is certainly worth reading, and it forms a nice bookend to the macrostory of Miles and Ekaterin’s courtship, but it is not a good standalone.

This short story is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

A Civil Campaign – Lois McMaster Bujold

After the events of Komarr, Ekaterin returns to Barrayar to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Miles is more infatuated than ever. In the mist of the preparations for the Emperor’s wedding, he embarks on a campaign to win her heart. And screws up badly. Meanwhile, political intrigue lands him in trouble, and his brother Mark starts a bizarre business venture in the basement of Vorkosigan House. Much hilarity ensues.

McMaster Bujold herself describes Komarr as the romantic drama, while A Civil Campaign is the romantic comedy. It is definitely the funnies Vorkosigan book. The author was inspired by authors like Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen for this comedy of manners. It is definitely a melding of Science Fiction with those romantic styles, and brilliantly done. The infamous dinner party scene is one of the most inspired and funniest passages I have ever read. McMaster Bujold has a talent for putting her characters in the deepest trouble. She seems to revel in it, never protecting them from embarassment or injury. This makes for greatly engaging stories.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold

Now a permanent Imperial Auditor, Miles is sent to Barrayar’s subject planet of Komarr to investigate an “accident” on a solar mirror. The mirror is part of a centuries long projecto to terraform Komarr. Currently, Komarrans live in domed cities. Through a fellow auditor, he makes the acquaintance of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of a Barrayaran terraforming administrator. Miles is smitten. He must now solve the mystery of the accident, while sorting out his feelings for Ekaterin. Unfortunately, she is used as a pawn the by the sinister conspirators behind the accident when these move to enact their terrorist

I found Komarr absolutely stellar. Confident Miles is stepped back from the action a bit to make room for the conflicted character of Ekaterin. She seems everything he could wish for, but she is married and suspicious of men in general. A challenge worthy of our hero. McMaster Bujold manages to make her vulnerable and angry without making her weak and abrasive. By delving deep into the source of her unhappiness, McMaster Bujold lays out a character one cannot help but like despite her flaws. It is made clear how Ekaterin dug herself this hole. The sense of duty which noble Barrayarans so treasure has trapped her in a loveless marriage to a loser. The resolution, while bringing forth the “true” Ekaterin, does not end with “happily ever after”. The author acknowledges that life is not so simple, but without depriving us of a satisfying triumph.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

Memory – Lois McMaster Bujold

Somewhat oddly, this is the only Vorkosigan novel not collected in an omnibus. It forms a pivotal point in Miles’s character development. In it, Miles continues feeling the effects of the injuries from Mirror Dance. This, and his own fear of losing the pursuits he loves, leads to his dismissal from Imperial Security. In an odd turn of events, he finds himself a depressed bachelor with not much to do. Luckily, trouble is afoot at the ImpSec he had to leave. Emperor Gregor appoints him an Imperial Auditor, a sort of all-powerful troubleshooter, and sets him to investigating the mysterious circumstances of ImpSec head Illyan’s disablement.

Memory is a wonderful book. As is her wont, McMaster Bujold figures out the worst thing she can do to her hero, and skewers him with it. Miles’ dual identity as Admiral Naismith is completely destroyed. This was his safety valve, his way to escape the pressures of being a cripple in Barrayar’s militaristic society. The sections that deal with coping are insightful and excellently written, but still sprinkled with McMaster Bujold trademark humor. The last part of the book, with Miles as Imperial Auditor, is a pure pleasure to read. The role suits Miles’ personality perfectly, and I found myself frequently chortling at his antics. The author deserves admiration for daring to kill off her hero’s raison d’être. She could surely have milked a few more books out of Admiral Naismith, but probably felt that there was more interesting character development to be found this way. This reader is truly grateful.

Citadel – John Ringo

The sequel to Live Free or Die continues more or less where the previous book leaves off. Much of it deals with the continuing construction of the Troy battlestation and its first consort. As is typical with Ringo second books in series, the “three stories combined” model of the first book is abandoned and new main characters are introduced, in this case a Navy assault shuttle pilot and a civilian “space welder”. This being Ringo, there is no shortage of battle scenes in the last third of the book.

Even more than usual, Mr. Ringo has managed to produce a real page-turner. The logistics of designing and constructing the defenses of The Solar System are great reading since it is all interspersed with trademark Ringo humor, well written characters, fun character interactions and lots of just plain cool stuff. I don’t know where the guy gets his ideas but he certainly has never been timid. Arthur C. Clarke, a master of massively huge stuff, would have been humbled. While I mostly “got it”, a schematic or two would have been nice, namely the Troy and a Myrmidon shuttle. Also, while I am up on quite a few military acronyms, a list or at least a spelled out version the first time one is mentioned would have been nice. All in all, another page turner from Ringo. Can’t wait for the next book, “The Hot Gate”.