Stupid White Men… and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation – Michael Moore

Written by the director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, it is a very funny series of essays pretending to be a complete book. If you don’t feel much sympathy for President George W. Bush (denominated “son-of-a-Bush” in this book) and the American political/societal system in general, you will probably enjoy this. It takes some tragically fun true facts about America and just plain tells it the way it is. I found myself nodding a lot, and being sad a lot. Despite the humorous language, the subject matter is deadly serious. America is in bad shape, tells us Michael Moore.

The book has a big left-wing bias, but it is thought-provoking and a fun read. Satire becomes Mr. Moore.

Victory Conditions (Vatta’s War V) – Elizabeth Moon

This book concludes the Vatta’s War series. Moon rather predictably ties up the loose threads and (not really a spoiler) the good guys win.

I enjoyed reading it, but nothing really surprising jumped up at me. While the series is worthwhile entertainment, it will never be remembered as groundbreaking or fantastic. The universe Moon has crafted is a bit too cute, a bit too orderly. The idiosyncrasies of the various cultures are a bit too manufactured and corny and the series suffers from it. There is little real societal tension. All of a sudden the great big enemy pops up, seemingly out of nowhere without any real reason for doing so (apart from stereotypical lust for power) and bam! Big fight. Good guys win. The crowd goes wild. It’s a fun adventure series, but it is lacking in depth.

Command Decision (Vatta’s War IV) – Elizabeth Moon

In the fourth book of Vatta’s War, Ky proves her worth as a commander, defeating a pirate flotilla with the helper of newly developed tactics made possible by shipboard ansibles. As a consequence, the Slotter Key government decides to put its large fleet of privateers under her direct command. Cousin Stella successfully gets the Vatta trading concern back up on its feet, and is able to start producing hardware vital to the war effort

After the somewhat disappointing “Engaging the Enemy“, this book sees a resurgence in action. The story starts moving decisively forward at a decent pace, leading up towards the conclusion.

Engaging the Enemy (Vatta’s War III) – Elizabeth Moon

The third book in the Vatta’s War series suffers from a bit of “middle-book-itis”. There is no decisive action, just a skirmish tacked on at the end. Ky’s cousin Stella is angry with her. Then they reconcile. The possible romance with roguish Rafe goes nowhere. A least by the end Ky is set up as a privateer.

It’s not a bad novel. It’s just a bit more dull than it’s predecessors. Trading in Danger could stand on its own. Engaging the Enemy cannot.

Marque and Reprisal (Vatta’s War II) – Elizabeth Moon

The second book in the “Vatta’s War” series starts off exactly where Trading in Danger ends. After the initial tentative volley, the war on the interstellar status quo begins in earnest. Ansibles, used to communicate instantly between stars, are sabotaged and destroyed in a successful attempt to destabilize and weaken trade. Vatta Transport becomes the target of a concerted attack, and most of Ky’s family is killed. Ky herself encounters the black sheep of the family, and (as borne out in the title) becomes a privateer.

The tone of this novel is quite similar to the first. In fact, the books feel not so much like a series as volumes of the same narrative. The characters, especially Ky, continue to develop in both expected and unexpected ways, as Moon builds an intricate web of relationships backed by skillfully described internal thought processes. The action contained in this installment ensures it doesn’t really feel like an interim book.

Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War I) – Elizabeth Moon

This is the first book in the “Vatta’s War” series. Kylara Vatta is a scion of the Vatta shipping dynasty. Despite this, she decides to make a career in the military. The book sstarts with her being thrown out of the academy after ill-advisedly helping a fellow cadet with a personal matter. Her father and uncle then send her off as Captain of an old ship on its last journey, to the scrapheap. But of course she can’t just do that. She decides to prove that she can be a successful trader. Exciting adventures ensue.

This is pure space opera. While the the fictional physics are mostly adhered to, they are there purely to support the story. Thankfully, Kylara Vatta is a very engaging and intriguing character. She is very young but very capable; her father’s girl but with a mind of her own; a trader needing to prove herself but also a captain for a great shipping line. While not quite a page turner, the book does keep serving up surprises until the end. However without Kylara the book would be nothing. She makes the story. Moon has been writing this stuff for a while now so it’s all nicely polished. I recommend this if you are into adventure SciFi with complex protagonists.

End in Fire – Syne Mitchell

This is a rather neat and tidy near future thriller about the crew of a space station and how they survive a limited nuclear war. Left to fend for themselves, they must make their way back to Earth before their station fails around them.

The story has few characters but a lot of plot twists. It is certainly engaging although sometimes you have to squint hard in order not to see the gaping holes in the plot. For example, I had a hard time believing that all the spacecraft reconfigurations and trajectory calculations were as easy as described. Mitchell’s prose is a bit stilted (this is an early work by the author) but the novel does have a certain ability to keep the reader hooked. Vaguely enjoyable but definitely not memorable.

Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

This critically acclaimed steampunk novel about is a man and his forbidden love, and lots and lots and lots of other things. A very big novel, in many senses. Apart from its heft, it carries a heavy baggage of stylized themes and has a lovely style to its prose. It was definitely worth a read, but I still felt that by the end I just wanted to get it over with. In other words, good stuff but it a bit too long.


Space – James A. Michener

The king of the one word title (Mexico! Hawaii! Centennial! Iberia!) tries his hand at the space program, and does it well. This dramatization of the (mainly US) space program from its origins in Peenemunde in 1944 to post Apollo era, with some fictional tangents, is extremely well researched. If you are even vaguely interested in the space program, you will enjoy it.

The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The story starts small, with an enigmatic wanderer, namely our hero Cazaril, making his way to a former employer’s household. It turns out that Cazaril is actually a nobleman, who through betrayal from his own side became a galley slave. His former employer, grandmother of the heir and heiress to the throne, tasks him with the education of said heiress, Iselle. Soon, the heirs and Cazaril must make their way to the royal capital, there to attend on the king, ostensibly for him to officially name his successor. But intrigue, dark magics and old enemies abound in the cut-throat enviroment of courtiers and politicians. A curse hangs over the kingdom of Chalion.

I love McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. This book  has a very different subject matter and setting, but Ms. McMaster Bujold’s supreme skills at characterization and dialogue remain. The plot is intriguing but the pacing is somewhat weak. Most of the book is set at the royal palace, The Zangre. While the story moves on, often with fascinating twists and turns, it feels a bit as if the first three quarters of the book merely set up the last quarter, in which the action truly picks up. Reading a slow paced story written by McMaster Bujold is still a pleasure, but I did spend a large part of the book waiting for something to actually happen.

Tendeléo’s Story – Ian McDonald

Novelette about how biological packages from outer space infest the Earth. The story is told through the eyes of Tendeléo and her lover. Tendeléo is a Kenyan girl who grows up under the shadow of the alien threat, and manages to build her life despite all the odds stacked against her. I was initially a bit put off by the naif tone, but the story grew quickly on me. Good stuff.

This book has a double cover and is paired with Watching Trees Grow by Peter F. Hamilton.

Slow Train to Arcturus – Eric Flint & David Freer

Howard is a farmer in a deeply religious, backward society. One day an alien lands in his tomato plants. This starts his journey to discover that his world is actually one of several enormous spherical colony habitats strung like beads on a string. Each habitat contains a different society, all seemingly extreme in some way. Howard is more or less forced to help the alien, who is an explorer from a nearby star that this slowtrain of habitats is passing.

This combination adventure and pilgrimage tale reminded me a lot of early Niven. There’s the Big Dumb Object, the little explorer in a world he cannot control, the unexpectedly cosmic scale of the whole thing. The novel has some issues, for example many events are a bit too good to be true. Also the middle part seems a bit rudderless, but the ending explains things. Much can be forgiven, however, when there is good adventure to be had and lots of humor to go with it. Not to mention a rather unexpected ending and a valuable message about modern “nanny society” delivered with at least a little subtlety.

Never Enough – Joe McGinnis

This is the true story of the famous “milkshake murder” in Hong Kong in 2003. A rich, bitchy and spoiled expat wife kills her rich and boorish expat husband. The book tells the story all the way back to their parents, but mainly focuses on their life in Hong Kong. The whole thing is quite disturbing, and truly shows that money can’t buy happiness. Most of the characters seem mostly interested in money and power, and will do anything to have them.

As an expat in Hong Kong myself, I found it very interesting. Unfortunately, some things are written for dramatic effect. For example, Hong Kong International School, while a good school, is not “the most prestigious private school in Hong Kong”. And Parkview is certainly not “the most exclusive Hong Kong housing estate”. Still, a riveting read about some rather disturbed people, and the shocking events surrounding this notorious murder.

A Talent for War – Jack McDevitt

One of the earliest McDevitt novels, about investigating the truth behind a historical legend. The premise is interesting. A chance death leaves behind an inheritance and clues to a mystery.

Unfortunately it is really really boring. The characters and the locales are forgettable, and the thrust of the story is dull. I gave up after about a hundred pages.

The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt

Humanity has achieved starflight. Expeditions have found mysterious monuments from several civilizations. Most intriguing is the evidence of extinction events which have occured repeatedly and independently on various worlds. We follow pilot Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins and various archeologists and linguists as they try to solve the puzzle.

The plot is certainly engaging, and well laid out. The characters are well described, although some felt two dimensional. McDevitt takes a good stab at sense of wonder, but falls a bit short. I enjoyed Engines of God, and wanted to find out what happened, but I kept feeling as if it was lacking a certain something. The pivotal events were toned down to the level of the individual protagonists. This seemed to be intentional, but it detracted from the sense of awe that should have been engendered. The ambiance is also flawed. The book is set in a 2202 that seems awfully similar to 2002. Starships are flying, but everything else is either pretty much unchanged, science fiction boilerplate, or just plain undescribed. And could someone please explain why there just happen to be a couple of bottles of Chablis on board the shuttle at the end? Deux ex Pantry…

As a whole, this book disappoints because it is so frustratingly close to greatness. I shall perhaps look for McDevitt again, but not with any frantic sense of urgency.

The Collapsium – Will McCarthy

Humanity has discovered Collapsium and Wellstone, substances that have made possible immensely powerful computers, teleportation and even immortality. “Faxes” allow the creation of any conceivable thing, from food to servitor robots to spaceship components. “Fax gates” allow teleportation and even duplication of people. The inventor of said substances, Bruno de Tovaji, is now living in self-imposed exile on his own asteroid in the Oort Cloud. Here he conducts experiments aimed at “seeing” the end of time. One day he receives a visitor, the Queen of the Solar System, who is also his former lover. Apparently there is trouble in paradise. A grandiose ring around the sun, aimed at reducing communication lag among disparate locations, is under construction. But it is slowly falling into the sun. This starts a long series of adventures aimed at putting an end to what turns out to be the scheming of a mad saboteur.

I had high hopes for this book after the first fifty or a hundred pages. Interesting universe, grand designs, all the stuff you could find in a good Larry Niven yarn. Unfortunately it all became very tedious as the story went on. And on. And on. I kept waiting for the really interesting stuff to start but it was all a bit petty and small. Yawn.

This is hard science fiction. Very hard. The science content is all in there. And yet I often felt as if the author was plucking solutions to his problems out of thin air. One of the basic principles of science fiction is that and author must stay within constraints that he creates within his universe. Unfortunately, McCarthy keeps coming up with new ideas that neatly solved the posed problems. McCarthy also completely misses the opportunity to explain his society or give a decent guided tour of something apart from deep space structures. What is London like nowadays anyway? Surely a page or two exploring these things would have served the story well, and made it a bit less sterile. And that’s the main gripe I have with this book. It is all a bit sterile and bland. Mankind’s achievements are falling apart around him and de Towaji is pondering his love life. Seriously…

Mission of Honor (Honor Harrington XII) – David Weber

Book 12 in the “main” Honor Harrington series finds Manticore finally confronting the Solarian League. As Weber has been hinting at for years, Manticore (and to a lesser degree, Haven) have both achieved very significant technological superiority compared to the league with regards to military hardware. The Solarian League is huge and powerful, but also complacent, arrogant, and full of self-delusion. Added to the mix is the growing threat from Mesa/Manpower. The main action in this book is divided between Michelle Henke’s trouncing of a Solarian Navy task force, an attack on Manticore by Mesa, and most importantly Honor’s mission to Haven to broker peace. After the Battle of Manticore, Haven does not have much choice but to accept Manticore’s terms.

What with the two spin-off series (Saganami and Wages of Sin) and the increasingly complex macro plot, the series is spinning out of control a bit, in the sense that it is becoming almost too intricate for the action to shine through. Like most people, I started reading the series because it combined strong action with strong characters and an interesting but not too complicated macro story. While I do enjoy the additional facets to the Honorverse that are being uncovered, the whole thing does make for rather ponderous novels at this point. Long gone are the days of “On Basilisk Station” or “Honor Among Enemies”, where the mission was relatively simple and there was only one main plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I can live with the complications. Unfortunately Weber’s writing style has also become almost insufferably ponderous. There’s internal dialog after internal dialog, and endless conference scenes. The first third of the book is pretty much one meeting after another, with long breaks for internal dialog. To add insult to injury, about two thirds could have been cut. Every character seems to exhaust every option of every single train of thought or statement. “Oh I know this is not a perfect plan, but on the other hand this and that.” Ad nauseam. Mr. Weber, your readers are smart enough to draw those conclusions without needing them spelled out. There’s also endless summarizing of events from previous books. I did a lot of skimming at this point.

And don’t get me started on the conference scenes that start by introducing ten or twelve new characters with a paragraph or two each. How are we, as readers, supposed to keep track of all those? And why should we, given that most are never seen again?

The middle of the book mostly gets back to old form, with some nice action scenes. Weber really is a master of these. It’s a shame he still feels the need to pause the action for a page or two of internal dialog every so often.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book is back to conferences, though it is not as bad as the first third since by now the characters have something to actually talk about.

The real shame here is that the story and characters are really great. A good editor could have cut the fat and made this book half as long, at the same time transforming it into a gripping page turner like the early books in the series. Nevertheless, I suppose I shall have to continue reading. After twelve books I am pretty invested in this epic story.