Rude Astronauts – Allen Steele

This is a collection of short stories and articles. Steele’s has a journalistic style and tends to describe the actual “normal people” protagonists of an event as opposed to the powers that be. He is seldom grandiose, but his stories tend to be very crisp and relatable. The articles are from Steele’s time as a science reporter in Florida.

The Tranquillity Alternative – Allen Steele

The premise of this alternate history novel is that the USA established a permanent presence on the Moon in the 1960s, even basing nuclear missiles there. History has caught up, though, and an expedition is sent to hand over the moon base to a European corporation, as well as deactivate the missiles. A mini technothriller with some excellent good science fiction elements. Very entertaining and a real page turner.

Orbital Decay; Lunar Descent – Allen Steele

These two near future novels are about workers in Earth orbit and on the Moon respectively. Not spectacular, but solidly enjoyable, especially Lunar Descent. The authenticity of the characters is great. These are not “Roger Ramjet” astronaut heroes, but working class Joes trying to make it work.

Armor – John Steakley

The novel is about a disillusioned soldier in a future war. But that’s only the first 100 pages, which flow pretty well and are decent science fiction battle action. After the climax of the first part, which is about the soldier Felix and his troubles, there is a jarring discontinuity and the story picks up two years later with a pirate named Jack Crow, who escapes from prison, makes a deal with another pirate and goes down to a planet.

By this time I was well and thoroughly bored. I hate it when authors make their characters do stuff which they can’t describe. Jack Crow runs a con, and Steakley writes that it is very sneaky and how it feels and all that. Everything except explaining what the con actually is. Cop out! I kept trying to read on but it was both horrendously boring and not particularly good so I couldn’t bear to continue. Who knows, there may be nice action stuff ahead, but I’ll never get to it.

The Face of the Waters – Robert Silberberg

A remnant human colony survives on the ocean world of Hydros. Humans live on artificial islands built by creatures called Gillies. On one such island, one of the humans offends the Gillies. Humans are ordered to leave. They begin an odyssey on the planet-spanning ocean to find the mythical “Face of the Waters”, a patch of land where they can be safe. But once they reach it, the nature of this land is revealed to be an enigma in itself.

The plot is quite dull and ponderous. The ideas aren’t very original. Mostly I was bored.


Boundary (Boundary I) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

The title “Boundary” refers to the K-T Boundary, an event 65 million years ago in which a large number of species, most famously including the dinosaurs, became extinct, probably due to the impact of a meteor. A group of paleontologists find a very strange fossil grouping, with bizarre anomalies including what look like bullets. The fossil sits right on the Boundary, meaning it is from the time of the event. A little later, the first mission (unmanned) to Mars’ moon Phobos reveals an abandoned, and ancient, alien base. The space program is accelerated to allow a large scale manned mission to Phobos and Mars.

This is the kind of adventure novel that I really love. Engineering, science, fun characters, and a great plot. A journey of discovery with a good sprinkling of old fashioned sense of wonder. It is not without its flaws, however. The dialog is often stilted. There is no deep exploration of interpersonal relationships as the characters mesh far too well. Love and friendship sprout in neat couplings and groups. I enjoyed this book a lot, but it could have had a bit more depth.

Kris Longknife – Training Daze (Kris Longknife III½) – Mike Shepherd

This novella fills in some of the events following Kris Longknife – Defiant. Kris and her cohorts are tasked to set up a training command for foreign navies buying Wardhaven’s fast attack boats.

It’s a cute little piece with plenty of banter between the now familiar main characters, in particular Kris and Jack. How the latter was drafted into the Marines is explained in humorous detail.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

The book is subtitled “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen.” Part journey of self-discovery, part chronicle, part medical exposé, this extraordinary book starts with a quest by the author to figure out why it hurts when he runs. Thus begins a tale so incredible it seems like fiction, populated by weird and wonderful characters like La Brujita (The Little Witch), El Lobo Joven (the Young Wolf) and the incomparable Caballo Blanco (White Horse).

As he digs deeper into the ultra-marathon world, McDougall finally finds his answers in the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico, where a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara have honed the art of running on rocky, mountainous trails to perfection. In sandals.

The insights into running from an evolutionary and physiological standpoint are fascinating. Human beings are built to run, and they are not meant to do it in running shoes. Running should be fun and natural, not a slog or a chore. Children know this, so why do we forget as adults?

As my fortieth approaches, I have incidentally started to understand what the author is talking about. About a year ago, I started doing serious exercise including lots of running. A few months later, I chucked my running shoes in favor of a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, which have no cushioning at all. My aches and pains are gone and I run faster and better than I have ever done.

The author’s easy style and unobtrusive humor make this fascinating story a pleasure to read. If you’ve ever run or wanted to run more than a few metres, you should read this book. It may well change your life.


River God; Warlock – Wilbur Smith

These books are both set in ancient Egypt. The descriptions are quite good and adequately set the scene for epic battles to save the nation and the royal family.

While the stories themselves are pretty decent, Smith’s style can be summed up in one word: Wordcrapper! Argh! Descriptions of feelings in epic prose are all well and good, but Smith just needs to learn to shut up and move on!

Triplanetary – E.E. “Doc” Smith

The Lensman series is considered the mother of all space opera, and it all begins with Triplanetary, which is a series of three vaguely related novelettes, the first one concerning the fall of Atlantis. In the second one, a spaceliner is attached by a pirate. The pirate in turn is attacked by aliens intent on grabbing all our iron (no, really…) and a few corny heroes have adventures.

Many science fiction greats including Michael J. Straczynski to Peter F. Hamilton (who told me so personally) see the Lensman series as one of the main reasons they entered the field. My problem: I hated this book. The technology and science stuff very dated, but that shouldn’t stop a good story. Certainly Jules Verne is still good over a century later. In Triplanetary, there is no rhyme, reason or consistency. Our heroes always seem to have the correct device when they need it. This removes any sense of suspense. It feels like an old black and white Flash Gordon television serial. While that was good stuff when I was nine, now it just seems corny and silly. Yawn.

Inexplicably, the first edition that I sampled skips more than half of the original “Triplanetary”, which is not so much a novel as a collection of three novelettes, skipping directly to the middle one. There is also an unrelated Smith novel as the second half of this book. I have since found the original text but just as before I could not get through it.

Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh

The story set in a small village in Northwestern India in 1947, during the division of India into India and Pakistan. The village is on the border with Pakistan, with both Sikh and Muslim inhabitants. The two ethnic groups have been living together in the village for centuries, but events in the wider world around them are forcing separation.

The book is rather short. More a snapshot of life during a troubled time than a story, since there is no clear beginning or end to the narrative itself. Various characters influence events in the village, such as the social worker from the big city, the chief of police, and the well-known criminal (almost a caricature of “the usual suspect”). The behavior of the characters is often absurd, and governed more by temporary feelings than by rational behavior. Many of the situations would be comical if not for their utter human tragedy. I think that Singh is trying to convey to the reader the absurdity of dividing people who have lived together for centuries in peace based on the thoughts of the rulers. In the village of Mano Majra, there is no conflict between Sikhs/Hindus and Muslims. The conflict comes to the village from the outside, forcing neighbors against each other, and resulting in displacement, despair, and finally massacre. The final sacrifice of the Sikh criminal Juggut to save his muslim lover Nooran is noble, but in the end only a drop in the ocean. Singh also shows how, despite a long history of being peaceful, a place can become the theater of bloodshed all too easily if the rulers (a purposefully vague concept in the novel) do not take care in their exercise of power.

The novel is touted as a portrait of what was actually happening during those troubled times on the Indian subcontinent. But it is not a history of rulers and armies in the traditional sense. The story revolves around simple villagers in a simple village. Villagers who, before the troubles, wanted nothing more than to live their lives in peace.

While the naif style of the prose sometimes grated on my nerves, I found that reading the novel sent a profound message about the responsibility of leadership, and the frailty of our heterogenous human society.

Kris Longknife – Undaunted (Kris Longknife VII) – Mike Shepherd

The seventh book in the Kris Longknife series has Kris still in charge of the exploratory ship Wasp. She blunders into an encounter with an Iteechee vessel. The Iteechee are a race with which humanity had a war 80 years previously. They are so mysterious that the causes of the war are still essentially unknown. Naturally, Kris’ great-grandparents Raymond Longknife and “Trouble” were involved at the time.

This is one of the better installments. Good strong plot even though it does take a massive detour in the middle. Lots of conversation, as per usual, but it doesn’t seem forced. Shepherd has collected an enjoyable cast of characters to play foil to Kris.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Kris Longknife – Intrepid (Kris Longknife VI) – Mike Shepherd

In Intrepid, Kris finally has her own ship command. She is on a mission to explore the outer rim and show the flag of Wardhaven/United Sentients. She discovers a plot against her arch enemies, the Peterwalds, and also a plundering expedition launched on an agrarian colony. Lots of ground pounding action anchors this book, with the Marines picked up in Audacious playing a starring role.

This may be my favorite thus far. Any hint of the tentative beginning of the series is gone. The characters are well fleshed out and the plot is interesting. Shepherd has also managed to round out the political background and it is no longer quite as vague. The “we are so clever” conversations are toned down in favor of action; a good development. This one is a real page turner.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Kris Longknife – Audacious (Kris Longknife V) – Mike Shepherd

In Audacious, Kris is sent to Eden, an old and conservative colony world where her native and cosmopolitan Wardhaven is thought of as very much a backwater. The plot seems absent at the start, apart from the by now de rigeur repeated attempts on Kris’ life. As usual, the Peterwalds are trying to take over. As usual, Kris Longknife is in the way.

While the series cannot live forever on repetitive plots somewhat varied, the characters do carry this book along like they did the others. The added wrinkle of a glimpse into Abby’s past is a nice bonus. The sometimes strained praise of Marines is oddly both fun and tiresome. After five books, I would happily read more. But just as I did after Resolute, I can’t help but wonder where it is all going in the end.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Kris Longknife – Resolute (Kris Longknife IV) – Mike Shepherd

In Resolute, Kris is put in charge of an out of the way naval district assignment on the frontier. In a sub-plot, she finds ancient alien ruins. But the real action is a “fleet visit” from the Greenfeld navy commanded by her old nemesis Hank Smythe Peterwald. In short, the Greenfeld fleet is trying to engender a crisis on the planet as an pretext to take over.

While not quite as good as Defiant, Resolute continues the development of Kris and her cohorts as characters. One wonders where it is all going in the end, but the ride is entertaining.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Kris Longknife – Defiant (Kris Longknife III) – Mike Shepherd

In Defiant, Kris must face an imminent threat to her planet. Betrayed by incompetent politicians, she skirts the law to organize the archetypal rag-tag flotilla in defense of Wardhaven as a massive force of hostile warships approaches.

Defiant is a further improvement over the first two books. From the viewpoint of Defiant the first two books, while perfectly capable of standing on their own, seem almost like a prologue. Kris comes into her own as she finally commands a large force. Themes of destiny and sacrifice are neatly explored in Shepherd’s quirky, humorous prose. With this installment, Kris Longknife has gone from merely entertaining to page-turning.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Kris Longknife – Deserter (Kris Longknife II) – Mike Shepherd

A marked improvement over Mutineer, Deserter has Kris Longknife run to the rescue of her best friend Tom. The story is a bit hazy, with an “evil dude” trying to kill Kris. Mayhem ensues. As a little side note, the title is only vaguely descriptive. I guess they had to come up with something in one word.

The story flows more smoothly in this second installment. There is a lot (and I do mean a LOT) or banter between the main characters. Many other books would have sagged under the weight of all that conversation, but Shepherd is skilled at conversations between intelligent, witty people. Real people probably don’t talk that way, but strangely that doesn’t detract from the fun.

Some aspects of Mutineer still hold true. This is very much space opera and all about the characters. Mostly fun action with engaging characters who have real flaws.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Kris Longknife – Mutineer (Kris Longknife I) – Mike Shepherd

Ensign Longknife is the scion of a great family. Her father is the Prime Minister of an important world. Her grandparents and great grandparents are equally exalted. She tries to defy family tradition, only to find that she is following it in her own way. Most of the book sets up her character for the final part where she forestalls a serious crisis by becomeing the book’s titular mutineer. Longknife is definitely a rich girl, and she has had all the advantages and disadvantages of that heritage. She is not perfect, and therein lies much of her charm. Shepherd takes pains to explain how she has become who she is. And it is important since her character shapes the story greatly.

The backstory is very dense, but Shepherd only gives it to us from Longknife’s perspective. The volume of information about politics, family history and human history coming at the reader is at times almost overwhelming. I was half tempted to start taking notes. It is a fine line that Shepherd walks. On the one hand the backstory is important to the main action. On the other hand he risks alienating the reader. Still, it is refreshing to see an author avoid the dreaded datadumps that Weber and even Flint are using nowadays. Now those will bore a reader. At least here the action keeps moving forward as the author correctly assumes that the reader can handle the flood without needing his hand held through painstaking and tedious exposition of half a dozen arguments and counter-arguments. Kudos to Shepherd.

The technology is very space operatic with nothing very surprising. The quirks are really in service of the plot. Shepherd treads a fine line as deus ex machina threatens but he avoids breaking the rules of his own oniverse once he has set them.

While this isn’t exactly the beginning of the Honor series, it is quite an auspicious start. Kris Longknife is a fascinating and engaging character.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott

Historical novel about England around the Third Crusade. Scott is a bit less fixated on tactical and weaponry minutiae than modern historical novelists. The style is heavy at times but this book is thoroughly enjoyable. A great yarn of adventure, love, and heroism.

Manhattan in Reverse – Peter F. Hamilton

This short story collection contains mostly previously published material, among others the stellar “Watching Trees Grow“, which it was a pleasure to re-read. There are three more standalones, one of which is a very short vignette. The last three stories are set in the Confederation Universe, with the two longer ones featuring investigator extraordinaire Paula Myo. (The third is Blessed by an Angel.) Myo is a very interesting character and could easily be the protagonist of a novel two of her own. Hamilton’s treatment of clinical immortality and crimes committed in an environment with such is stellar as always.

I was left wanting more.