A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.

Diplomatic Immunity – Lois McMaster Bujold

This novel was chronologically the last one in the Vorkosiverse for several years until Cryoburn came out. Miles and Ekaterin are diverted from their honeymoon as Miles is ordered to Quaddiespace in order to sort out a diplomatic tangle involving an interned Komarran/Barrayaran trade fleet. Needless to say, complications abound as a Cetagandan plot involving haut unborn babies is uncovered.

Not knowing at the time about Cryoburn coming years later, it was quite bittersweet to read the last of the books. While Diplomatic Immunity is not the best of the Vorkosigan books, it certainly does not disappoint. As usual, the enormously talented McMaster Bujold demonstrates her prowess at seeing things from many points of view. Her descriptions of Quaddies, their actions and thought patters, are particularly impressive. A lot of thought was obviously given to how even basic mannerisms could be decidedly different for humans with four arms, no legs, and a life in zero gravity habitats. The interaction between a happily married Miles and Ekaterin is charming and alluring, leaving the reader hungering for many more books. Perhaps it is a good thing that the author quit when at the top of her game, but I couldn’t help feeling at the time that Miles, and now Ekaterin, still have many stories left to be told.

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

The Return – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

After the fantastic Encounter with Tiber, I was hoping that Aldrin and Barnes would pull off another great epic story. In this respect, I was sadly disappointed. The Return is still a good SciFi yarn. It’s a near space, near future story which fictionalizes what I assume to be Aldrin’s hopes for humanity’s return to serious space travel. Worth picking up if you’re into this sort of thing, but nothing very special.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Until Adams’ untimely demise, this series kept expanding and expanding. I have read up to book four, that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of The Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything and finally So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. While many SciFi fans see this as the be all and end all of satire, I seem to have missed most of their point. Granted, the series is  good, but not quite so ultimately engrossing that I feel the need to read it over and over again. To be quite honest, I find some of the parts quite sad, especially the repeated failures of Arthur Dent to find happiness. I think that this book reflects Britishness in a very unique way, mixing equal parts dry humor and melancholy. Having said all that, definitely read the first two parts. They ARE classics (and now I sound like an English teacher…) If nothing else, you’ll be able to keep up when other SciFi readers reference them.

Children of Apollo – Mark R. Whittington

In this alternate history novel, a CIA analyst figures out that by 1969, the space program is having a small but noticeable negative effect on he Soviet economy. Nixon, who never has to resign, decides to massively expand the space program. As the years pass, we follow spies, politicians and astronauts in the years following the first moon landing. While there certainly is a lot of wishful thinking in the plot, with Apollo missions continuing to 23, with private space stations and space shuttles in the seventies, it has a solid foundation. If NASA funding had remained at Apollo levels or increased, we might well have seen all those things.

This book, for me, represents the best and worst about self publishing. The best because sometimes good books simply are not picked up by publishing houses, and this one deserved to be published. The worst because a commercial publisher would have cleaned up the prose and made this book really shine.

The plot is really good. Well crafted. Exciting. Good pacing. But the text is rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I didn’t count them but I estimate more than one per page on average. Even a mediocre copy editor could have fixed 99% of the problems with the text. Now, if this book had been crappy in general, I wouldn’t have cared. But it is actually a great story. Thus, my frustration stems from the fact that a very good book is dragged down by easily fixable stuff, most of which a word processor would have picked up. That’s just plain sloppy.

Some examples of what I mean: Berkeley is incorrectly spelled “Berkly”. Camaro is spelled “Camero”. Taut is spelled “taunt”. Aide is spelled “Aid”. Applause is spelled “applauds”. Champagne is spelled “champaign”. Asti Spumante is spelled “Asti Spurmanti”. Las Cruces is spelled “Las Cruzus”. Alan Shepard (the astronaut) is spelled “Alan Shepherd”. To add insult to injury, the author does actually spell that name correctly once. Baikonour is spelled in three ways in the book, all incorrect. Grammar errors include phrases like “going to fight for if-no when-you send me to Congress.” Stylistically, there are gems like “They looked at each other in for a moment, sharing the awful truth they had just shared.”

Then we have the technical errors. I will grant that the author is not an aerospace expert but since the book is about the space program one would think he could get the basics right. Finding a pilot to answer a few questions would have greatly improved the test flight passages. Certainly no pilot would ever “jerk the joystick”. There’s no jerking involved. In fact no pilot would EVER call it a “joystick”. It’s just a stick. ARGH!

Finally, we have the politics. Whittington makes Democrats/liberals out to be misguided and short sighted while Republicans lead America to a brighter future. Even though I might not completely agree, I have no problem with the sentiment being expressed. However, it is all so heavy-handed that it weighs down the plot.

In conclusion. I would say that Mr. Whittington has some real talent. What he needs is a real editor to review the text before publication. Without the errors and with a few style adjustments, this one could have scored four or more Rosbochs.

Red Moon – David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton

The plot of this story is set in 2019, with humans back on the Moon looking for fusion power fuel, and also in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, at the height of the Moon race. As things fall apart during a Moon mission in 2019, a NASA scientist must travel to Moscow to find out about a mysterious spacecraft found on the Moon. He uncovers a deep conspiracy about the Cold War Soviet space program. Back then, unknown cosmonaut Grigor Belinsky is maneuvered into taking on an unthinkable mission.

I freely admit that I am a sucker for the subject matter. Secret Moon missions? Blending fact and fiction about the Moon Race? Oh my! I just had to read this book. It delivered beyond my wildest expectations. Unlike the deeply disappointing “Children of Apollo“, another independent publication in the genre, “Red Moon” is masterfully crafted. The plot is intelligent and elegant beyond words and moves powerfully towards a breathless climax. Not since early Clancy novels have I read something with this kind of page-turning power combined with depth.

And the characters! Belinsky feels so alive, so real. He is a classic tragic hero, his inevitable fate sealed by his deep drive and desire to do the right thing in an evil world. The whole way Russians are described is so spot on, showing their poetic and melancholy side, their deeply emotional selves, in a way that few Western thrillers manage. What a book! It satisfies on many levels, with the sprinkling of culturally rooted mysticism, the slice-of-life vignettes from the 60s and the believable, three-dimensional characters lifting what could have been just a competent thriller into the realm of the sublime.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.

Encounter with Tiber – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

With a name like Buzz Aldrin on the cover I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. The story follows the first human mission to another star, and in flashbacks a human mission to the Moon that found alien artifacts, as well as two alien missions to Earth in prehistoric times.

Unexpectedly, this novel completely blew me away. The story is developed from two angles, human and alien. Interestingly enough, the two sides never meet as such, but impact on each other’s existence in various ways. While the aliens aren’t the most original, the alien characterisation is complex and well written, It is nice to read about well fleshed out characters who have deep, complex personalities on the “other” side. The tech is of course top notch (Buzz Aldrin!), but the real kicker here is the sheer epic scale of the story. After I finished it, I sat staring into empty space for a long time, my mind filled with wonder.

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn is chronologically placed about six years after Diplomatic Immunity. Miles is sent by Emperor Gregor to investigate a corporation on the planet of Kibou-Daini, where millions of people are cryogenically frozen, hoping to be revived when they can be cured or rejuvenated. As inevitably seems to happen, large corporations (in this case specialized in cryopreservation) have accumulated more power than any nation should feel entirely comfortable with. Miles, as is his wont, stumbles on a whole big conspiracy and, as usual, can’t restrain himself from stretching his official job description of investigator to the very limit. Well, way beyond the limit for that matter.

McMaster Bujold had Vorkosigan fans wait seven long years for a new adventure with Miles. Luckily for me, I only started reading the books in 2008, but the wait for this next installment still felt far too long. Stepping back into the Vorkosiverse and being a fly on the wall while Miles plows through his adventures like a “hyperactive lunatic”, as Dr. Raven Durona so aptly describes it in the book, is a sheer visceral pleasure. Ms. McMaster Bujold has most definitely not lost her touch, mixing humor, an interesting and thought-provoking plot and emotional impact in perfect measure. Her skill at encapsulating emotions within a clever and witty little sentence is peerless. While it felt somewhat sad that only Miles and Armsman Roic were actually on this jaunt, (SPOILER: Mark and Kareen join up at the end) the colorful supporting cast loomed over them in spirit, with many references scattered about like easter eggs for the serious fan.

As usual with her novels, Bujold wrote this one to fit both into the wider series and a standalone, and it works perfectly well as the latter. With Miles flying solo again, it felt like a throwback (perhaps even an homage) to the pre-Memory books, before Miles became got his “adult” job of Imperial Auditor. McMaster Bujold even hints at this in the epilogue, when Ivan wonders what “the old Miles would have said”.

All the books are good, and while this one is not quite as superb as, say, Memory, it still easily proves why McMaster Bujold is one of my very favorite authors.

Labyrinth – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story is set in the Jackson’s Whole system, a place where capitalism has run completely wild and unchecked. Miles’ mission is to pick up a scientist wishing to defect from one of the large syndicates that run Jackson’s Whole. But of course, things are never that easy and simple when Miles is involved.

This piece was a lot of fun, with McMaster Bujold showcasing how she understands what makes characters tick and how they react to one another. Quite enjoyable.

This short story is collected in the “Miles, Mystery & Mayhem” omnibus.

Ethan of Athos – Lois McMaster Bujold

Somewhat unexpectedly, this story doesn’t feature Miles at all. One of the main characters is Elli Quinn, introduced back in “The Warrior’s Apprentice”. She is now a Commander in the Dendarii Free Mercenaries and is hunting down a mysterious character named Terrence Cee. The titular protagonist, Ethan of the planet Athos, comes from an isolated society made up exclusively of males. He is a reproductive specialist who is sent on a mission to find ovarian cultures in order to enrich Athos’ failing gene pool. On arrival to his first waystation, he finds himself embroiled in the struggle surround Terrence Cee and his valuable genetic heritage.

Ethan’s initial contact with galactic society is very entertaining. He has never met a woman, and really has understanding whatsoever of that sex. Luckily, McMaster Bujold doesn’t make the entire novel an essay on this point. The action, almost exclusively confined to one massive space station, is entertaining and leavened with the author’s almost trademark sharp wit. The evolution of Ethan’s character from hopeless naif through angry victim to assertive decision maker makes this a bildungsroman of sorts, and a good one.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mysery & Mayhem” omnibus.

Cetaganda – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles, now a Lieutenant working for Imperial Security, is sent off to a Cetagandan state funeral along with his less than brilliant but dashingly handsome cousin Ivan Vorpatril. While there, they are embroiled in a complex plot to stir the waters of Cetagandan nobility genetic engineering.

The plot is in fact very complex, and while showcasing Miles’ intelligence, it goes perhaps a bit too far. The Cetagandan empire is a remarkable edifice constructed by McMaster Bujold. The highest caste controls the evolution of their own and the soldier caste through rigidly held gene banks and elaborately calculated pairings. It is almost worth reading the book for the descriptions of ceremonies, locations and people. Unfortunately, the plot is not as strong as one would want, and quickly bogs down in far too many twists and turns. I’m all for a nice mystery but there is very little actual action to propel the mystery along. I caught myself no longer caring very much what actually happened, as long as I could read about Miles and his ever entertaining adventures.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mystery & Mayhem” omnibus.

The Vor Game – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles’ first assigment after graduation from the Barrayar Service Academy seems like a complete dead end. Weather officer at a remote arctic training station. He is replacing an officer who has spent fifteen years at the base, and uses his nose to compile the forecast. Miles has been more or less promised a very attractive ship assignment if he can prove that he can follow orders and keep out of trouble for six months. For even after graduation there are many who believe Miles is too weak and short to be a real officer, and too arrogant to follow orders. Of course, Miles doesn’t manage to stay out of trouble, and ends up leading a mutiny against the deranged commander of the base. A just mutiny, perhaps, but this wasn’t what they meant when they told him to stay out of trouble. In the end, his father the prime minister and the head of Imperial Security decide that it would be safest to make him part of Imperial Security itself. To that end, he is sent as a subordinate on a fact finding mission about an impending crisis at an critical frontier wormhole hub. Yet again, Miles cannot stay out of trouble. He is forced to rejoin the Dendarii Mercenaries (from The Warrior’s Apprentice) and finds himself attempting to rescue the young Barrayaran emperor while trying to prevent an invasion.

The entire first part of the novel at the arctic base felt like an (admittedly entertaining) throwaway for quite a while. I was worried that this would make the novel disjointed, but one of the main characters from that section did crop up in a key role later. So no worries there. McMaster Bujold certainly knows how to throw together a complex plot. Luckily for the reader, she also knows how to sort it all out. The Vor Game is entertaining, engaging, exciting, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

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

The Mountains of Mourning – Lois McMaster Bujold

After graduating from the Barrayar Service Academy, Miles has a few weeks of leave. He ends up having to solve an infanticide while acting as the “Voice” of his father, Lord Vorkosigan.

This rather long short story is neat little piece. Miles gets to be clever and driven, while at the same time acquiring an increased sense of purpose for his life. Very good.

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

The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold

This was the second novel that McMaster Bujold wrote, and the first one about Miles proper. Miles fails the entrance exam for the Barrayar (military) Service Academy in spectacularly humiliating fashion. The physical handicaps caused by his in utero poisoning make him short, crooked, brittle boned and ugly. As a young Vor lordling, he doesn’t really need to work for a living, but he is expected, and expects of himself, to serve Barrayar. For now, he is sent off to visit his grandmother (Cordelia’s Mother) on Beta Colony, a world as egalitarian and “modern” in its views as Barrayar is feudal and provincial. A chance encounter on arrival eventually leads to Miles commanding his own mercenary fleet. As if that’s not trouble enough, collecting such a personal army is tantamount to treason for a Vor lord.

It is not necessary to have read “Cordelia’s Honor” in order to enjoy “The Warrior’s Apprentice” but it does help with understanding the background, in particular the peculiar character of Sergeant Bothari and his relationship to his daughter Elena. The novel is a lot of fun. Miles as a character, with his boundless energy and quick thinking, is enormously entertaining. The plot is quite far fetched, asking the reader to make some rather challenging leaps of faith. If it weren’t so engaging and frequently humurous, this novel would go from pretty good to awful.

This novel s collected in the “Young Miles” omnibus.

Shards of Honor and Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold

Behind the rather tacky cover is an omnibus edition consisting of McMaster Bujold’s debut novel “Shards of Honor” and its immediate chronological sequel “Barrayar”. The latter won the Hugo in 1992. These chronicle the adventures of Cordelia Naismith from the time she first meets her future husband, Lord Aral Vorkosigan, when she is his prisoner of war. At the end of the “Shards of Honor”, she goes to Vorkosigan’s home planet of Barrayar to become his wife. Barrayar is quite different from her own modern home planet of Beta Colony. It has only recently been rediscovered, and an old system of blood ties, honor, nobility, and plain Machiavellian insanity keep it ticking. Cordelia’s adaptation to Barrayar, and her key role during a civil war, are the subject of “Barrayar”.

The first book, “Shards of Honor”, is decent but not stellar. McMaster Bujold shows an early talent for characterization, describing motivation and personal development. “Barrayar”, on the other hand, is a rich story of adventure and one woman’s fight for herself and her family in the midst of an (to her) insane civil war. I enjoyed it immensely. McMaster Bujold has a knack for describing emotion and motivation that sweeps the reader along as if he is looking right over Cordelia Naismith’s shoulder. As a heroine, Cordelia is perfect. Heroic when need be, but more importantly rational and humble in a world where honor and revenge pull society’s fabric to the breaking point and beyond. Highly recommended.

Shards of Honor

Barrayar

The Void Trilogy – Peter F. Hamiton

A novel in three volumes consisting of:

  • The Dreaming Void
  • The Temporal Void
  • The Evolutionary Void

Like “Night’s Dawn” and the Commonwealth Saga before it, the “Void Trilogy” is not so much a series as one single novel, sprawling over three 1500 page volumes. That’s why it took two months to read. Set over one thousand years after the end of Commonwealth, it reintroduces many of the old familiar characters. While it can be read independently, I would highly recommend that you read Commonwealth first. The background is invaluable.

In the Commonwealth of the 3500s, humanity has split into many groups. Biggest is the split between Advancers, what one might think of as “old fashioned” humans, and Highers, who see their physical existence as a precursor to upload into the machine intelligence known as ANA. Among the Highers, there are several rival factions, from the Accelerators, who wish to speed up human evolution towards the enigmatic goal of transcendence, to the conservative Conservatives. Into this mix is thrust the religion of the Living Dream, born out of the dreams that its founder Inigo had of events inside the Void, a vast, enigmatic and (mostly) impenetrable region in the center of the galaxy. Inigo has dreamed of the life of a man called Edeard in a mysterious city on a planet in the Void. In fact, Inigo’s dreams of Edeard’s life mark a major subplot in the novel, as we follow Edeard from country boy to refugee to city constable in the city of Makkathran. The goal of Living Dream is to start a pilgrimage into the Void and there reach “fulfillment”. The rest of humanity and most alien races are more or less united against it, believing that such a pilgrimage will lead to an expansion of the Void which will engulf the rest of the galaxy, terminating all life.

As usual with Hamilton, the plot is complex, the characters are many, and the descriptions just lovely. The story is certainly gripping. However I did feel that this time, Mr. Hamilton didn’t quite grip me enough. Perhaps I now have too high expectations from him, but Void felt a bit ponderous, especially in the beginning. By contrast, the interludes with Edeard were quite the story in themselves, almost able to stand on their own as a novel. Weird as it may seem, I felt as if the novel wasn’t quite long enough. Some bits were a bit too sketchy, such as the whole Ocisen attack subplot. Yes, it was just a device used by a faction, but even so the complexities were worth exploring further. There was also a bit of a lack of action for much of the novel. People went hither and thither in their starships but there was often precious little actual plot or character development. So I wanted the novel to be longer, but in parts it was too slow? Exactly! The ending, however, was quite gratifying. Hamilton has by his own admission, often had difficulties actually tying things up. But he did it nicely here.

So what’s the verdict? If you have read Commonwealth and enjoyed it, you can’t go wrong by continuing with Void. It is not as good as Night’s Dawn or Commonwealth, but Hamilton at his worst is better than most authors at their best. It is great space opera, and few can write it like he does.

Peter F. Hamilton – The Void Trilogy

Like “Night’s Dawn” and the “Commonwealth Saga” before it, the “Void Trilogy” is not so much a series as

one single novel, sprawling over three 1500 page volumes. Set over one thousand years after the end of

Commonwealth, it reintroduces many of the old familiar characters. While it can be read independently, I

would highly recommend that you read Commonwealth first. The background is invaluable.

In the Commonwealth of the 3500s, humanity has split into many groups. Biggest is the split between

Advancers, what one might think of as “old fashioned” humans, and Highers, who see their physical

existence as a precursor to upload into the machine intelligence known as ANA. Among the Highers, there

are several rival factions, from the Accelerators, who wish to speed up human evolution towards the

enigmatic goal of trancendence, to the conservative Conservatives. Into this mix is thrust the religion of

the Living Dream, born out of the dreams that its founder Inigo had of events inside the Void, a vast

enigmatic and impenetrable region in the center of the galaxy. Inigo has dreamt of the life of a man

called Edeard in a mysterious city on a planet in the Void. In fact, Inigo’s dreams of Edeard’s life mark

a major subplot in the novel, as we follow Edeard from country boy to refugee to city constable in the

city of Makkathran. The goal of Living Dream is to start a pilgrimage into the Void. The rest of humanity,

and most alien races, are more or less united against it, believing that such a pilgrimage will lead to an

expansion of the Void which will engulf the rest of the galaxy, terminating all life.

As usual with Hamilton, the plot is complex, the characters are many, and the descriptions just lovely.

The story is certainly gripping. However I did feel that this time, Mr. Hamilton didn’t quite grip me

enough. Perhaps I now have too high expectations from him, but Void felt a bit ponderous, especially in

the beginning. By contrast, the interludes with Edeard were quite the story in themselves, almost able to

stand on their own as a novel. Weird as it may seem, I felt as if the novel wasn’t quite long enough. Some

bits were a bit too sketchy, such as the whole Ocisen attack subplot. Yes, it was just a device used by a

faction, but even so the complexities were worth exploring further. There was also a bit of a lack of

action for much of the novel. People went hither and thither in their starships but there was often

previous little actual plot or character development. So I wanted the novel to be longer, but in parts it

was too slow? Exactly! The ending, however, was quite gratifying. Hamilton has by his own admission, often

had difficulties actually tying things up. But he did it nicely here.

So what’s the verdict? Well, if you have read Commonwealth and enjoyed it, you can’t go wrong by

continuing with Void. It is not as good as Night’s Dawn or Commonwealth, but Hamilton at his worst is

better than most authors at their best. It is certainly great space opera, and few can write it like he

does. 20101123

Do Unto Others (Ripple Creek II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to Better to Beg Forgiveness, Williamson revisits his team of six elite bodyguards. This time around, they’re not only a well oiled machine, but an experienced and perfectly meshed well oiled machine. They are tasked with protecting the twenty-something year old daughter of the richest man in the world(s). The action starts in Wales but soon moves to a gargantuan mining operation at the heart of the customer’s business empire. Not completely unexpectedly, there are multiple threats.

Just like the first book, this one ramps up slowly and spends a lot of time focusing on technical skills. Williamson takes what is often a very tedious and mind-numbing routine and makes it sound interesting. He is also very good at describing characters who do not act entirely rationally, who act out, who think they are doing good while in fact completely misguided. By the end, the book is a total page turner, moving the reader deftly through some rather amazing and well-crafted locales. If I have one big gripe, it is that the team itself is perhaps a bit too perfect. Fascinating to read about, but do such superhumans really exist? Or more properly, can disbelief be suspended? I certainly found mine cracking at times.

Forever Free – Joe Haldeman

This is the direct sequel to The Forever War. Twenty years (subjective for our heroes) have passed since the War ended. William and Marygay have settled down on the frigid planet of Middle Finger, which has the largest population of veterans that have not integrated with the “Man” group mind comprising most humans. Like most of the community of veterans, they feel alienated from the rest of humanity, which uses implants to integrate into a mind “Tree”; a group mind where individuals willingly surrender most of their individuality. The Taurans, enemies during the War, have a similar arrangement, and Man (group mind humans) have more in common with them than with the old-style humans. It is a life, but our heroes are not happy with it. They hatch a plan to take a starship forty thousand years into the future by flying a big loop at relativistic velocities. Only ten years subjective will pass on Middle Finger. However soon after departure things start going very wrong for unexplainable reasons and they must get in the lifeboats and return in suspended animation, taking decades to do so. Once back, they discover that everyone is gone, vanished simultaneously and instantaneously.

This is a very different book from the Forever War in some ways. It does not deal with war, for one thing. However the themes of alienation in one’s own society are still there. It grapples with what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual, what it means to be sentient. Without giving away too much of the ending, I will say that it also deals with God, or at least one possible interpretation of God. The ending surprised me but in a good way. It was very thought-provoking. Just as in the Forever War, the characters and plot are finely tuned, flowing nicely. Despite the heavy themes, it is not a heavy read. Recommended but read The Forever War first.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

TheForeverWarThis is a classic written in 1975 and I finally got around to reading it. The novel is about William Mandella, a young man drafted into the military when the first interstellar war starts. He is part of the very first group of recruits. The training, under Vietnam War veterans, occurs on a fictional planet so far out from the Sun that the environment is at almost absolute zero. Almost half the recruits die in training. Following that, the men and women are sent towards a distant planet for their first encounter with the Taurans. The important point here, and that which gives the story its name and main plot device, is that since the troops travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, much more time passes for those they left behind than for them. They are in transit a few months while decades and more pass on Earth. This is a consequence of general relativity. When Joe returns home, his mother has aged decades. The Earth is dystopian and unrecognizable. Despite his distaste for things military, he dislikes the current Earth more and decides to re-up together with Marygay Potter, the girlfriend whom he met in the service. Next time he returns, wounded, from a mission, centuries have passed, and society has changed even more. Since there are still several years left on his enlistment, he is sent out again, heartbreakingly on a separate assignment from Marygay, both in space and now in time. On this mission, seven hundred years will pass back home.

Mr. Haldeman is himself a Vietnam War veteran, and it shows in the novel. The draftees are disaffected and do not have a personal stake in the war. In fact, they do not understand it. They are just victims. As Mandella’s rank increases with time, he makes good military decisions, but this is not out of some desire to be a hero, or even because he seems particularly interested in the outcome of the war. As he repeatedly explains, he will be lucky to get out of the war alive. It is a matter of probabilities to him, not skill. In the wider perspective, the war itself seems to be an inevitable product of the society in which they live. As the centuries pass, the war gels to permanence, or as the title puts it “forever”. Society and the economy only exist to support the war and the survival of mankind. There are no lofty cultural or artistic goals involved. Mr. Haldeman’s descriptions of battle and military life cooped up in ships for months are gritty, realistic, dark. Death is commonplace both in battle and outside it. People are mourned but the characters are fatalistic about the whole thing. They know that they will die, probably soon and unexpectedly, and their lives are made up of trying to find pleasure and joy even with that knowledge. The military is a faceless machine that grinds on without much more purpose than to exist. The contrast with the caring Mandella and Potter is striking. Mr. Haldeman’s genius, however, is only partly in his setting. The other part, I feel, is that this novel is so readable, so full of (admittedly dark) humor, so “light”, if you will. Even while filled with senseless death, it still makes the reader smile. Perhaps it is because Mandella is so easy to identify with. Despite everything, he has a rather sunny outlook on life. He tries to do his best. He is a nice guy thrust into uncontrollable circumstances and he tries to make the best of things.

This is one of the finest novels that I have ever read.

 

Into the Light – Jane Wallace

The story is about Tem Sevin, who as a child saw his entire family killed by an evil group of humans known as the Gharst. Twenty years later, Sevin is a major in the special forces, and the Gharst are slowly winning a war of conquest against the Coalition. Eventually the Coalition surrenders and Sevin and various hangers-on are accused of war crimes. During the last mission, they conveniently find a Gharst prototype ship advanced well beyond the current state of the art and off they go to try and fix things.

I’ll confess that I didn’t finish the book, managing only about one third. The story is set firmly in the space opera camp, with an almost Star Wars feel to it. Physics are conveniently in support of the story and economics are ignored. Now, I’m ok with that, but since there is little science in the science fiction, the characters, plot and setting need to compensate. A prime example is Lois McMaster Bujold, where technology is not a crucial part of the story but the setting and characters are so stellar it doesn’t matter at all. Ms. Wallace, on the other hand, goes into the technology to the point that you think it would matter, then proceeds to whip out a convenient deus ex machina that negates the rules she set. There is also little sense of the military being, well, a military. The decision making process, command structure and tactics are completely out of whack. I understand that some militaries are incompetent, but at this level of operations that just wouldn’t be possible. I’m even ok with the military being unrealistic, the aforementioned Star Wars is a prime example. But in that case it shouldn’t be a primary driver for the story. And then there are the logic holes. At one point Sevin needs an emergency bandage for a buddy. Despite being surrounded by fresh corpses in uniform, he cuts up his own trouser leg. Also, since the corpses belong to soldiers presumably they would all have at least basic first aid packages on them.

Having said all that, I did enjoy the rich Universe that Ms. Wallace has created. I’m also very much in favor of Science Fiction from women, and authors who are not based in the US or the UK. If the characters had been just a bit more fleshed out, I probably would have finished the book. But I had a hard time identifying with their motivations.

Threshold (Boundary II) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Our friends from Boundary are back in a pretty direct sequel to the first book. The race is on to find more Bemmie bases. The Ares Project, despite having managed to get a foothold on Mars, is strapped for cash and resources. With some clever maneuvering they manage to get both, and set off towards first Ceres, then Enceladus.

The first book was nicely crafted, with excellent character development. This second one feels much more forced, especially the first half. I really enjoyed going back and seeing what the gang was doing after the previous story ended, but was a bit disappointed at the lack of a strong story. This series will never be “heavy” but it needed a bit more than this effort. That being said, it harkens back to adventure science fiction from an earlier time, before all the dark and broody bits that are so in vogue nowadays. And so I still liked this book more than it perhaps deserves. The ending wasn’t quite a cliffhanger but certainly lacked resolution, leaving the door wide open for a sequel. Yes please.

Yellow Eyes – Tom Kratman & John Ringo

Even more Ringo! For some reason I had been avoiding this Posleen series side story. That came back to bite me as I launched into the follow-up Hedren series and some of the characters popped up.

The story is set before and during the Posleen invasion of Earth, but deals specifically with events in Panama. Realizing that the Panama Canal is strategically important, the US sends military and material aid to bolster the defenses, including three warships. Through a complex series of events, one of the ships, the USS Des Moines, gains sentience. The story follows the defense of Panama, both from the perspective of the Posleen-Human conflict, and from the perspective of the struggle between corrupt officials and honorable ones. The Darhel, overlords of the Galactic Federation, want the humans to win, but only just, so that human civilization is shattered and cannot be a threat to them.

The Panama aspects are very interesting, and it shows that both authors have been posted there during their military careers. The story itself is quite good, with predictably excellent battle scenes. It is a worthy addition to the Posleen series, but should probably not be read as a standalone.

Live Free or Die – John Ringo

More Ringo? Why yes. You can never have enough Ringo. Live Free or Die is the start of a new series (that man is a total workaholic) called “Troy Rising“. Aliens pop up, drop a stargate (well, it is) in space, and leave. A while later, another race pops up and demands tribute in the form of most of Earth’s more valuable metals. Humanity has no choice but to comply. Through a combination of luck and deviousness, Tyler Vernon, an IT guy reduced to doing odd jobs, manages to find something that another race of aliens actually wants to buy. In the process he becomes the richest man in the world. And so starts humanity’s long road towards independence.

Like several other of Ringo’s first novels in a series, this one has three “episodes”. I don’t know why he does this but it works. What I particularly like about this novel is how humanity is thrown in at the deep end of a very deep pool without the least knowledge of how to swim. The Horvath, basically the local bullies, come in and just say “give”. It is a refreshing change from the many first contact scenarios where human technology is more or less equal to that of the aliens.

As usual with Ringo, this is an intelligent page turner with lots of cool action. The only part that became slightly confusing was the whole “many mirrors” bit. Would a schematic or two have killed you, Mr. Ringo?

The next book in the series is Citadel.