Dark Matter (Star Carrier V) – Ian Douglas

Dark Matter continues the Star Carrier story some time after Deep Space. A new and massive alien artifact has been discovered, hinting at a population even more powerful than the Sch’daar. The conflict between the USNA and the Confederation continues. Now Admiral Grey gets a new mission.

Unfortunately, just as in Deep Space, the infodumps have taken over the asylum. The characters can’t seem to have three lines of consecutive dialogue, barring over-the-top and overlong combat communications chatter, without being interrupted by the author with a long and typically pointless exposition on physics, politics or futurism… Even more irritating is how Mr. Douglas repeats the same explanation of background, or even earlier plot points, with astounding regularity. I got about two thirds of the way through by skimming through the infodumps. Then there was a passage explaining who Stephen Hawking was and I had enough. What happened to the Ian Douglas who wrote really quite engaging military scifi? Even the first three books in this very series were pretty good.

Temple – Matthew Reilly

temple-cover-2William Race is a professor of linguistics in New York. Without warning, he is drafted to translate an ancient manuscript detailing events during the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. Specifically, he must assist a team of military and civilian operatives in determining the location of a mythical Incan idol. This idol holds the key to building a superweapon. The adventure soon takes our characters into the depths of the unexplored Amazonian rainforest, searching for an abandoned temple.

Full disclosure: I only got about a third of the way through this book. It reads like a Hollywood action-adventure movie. The action scenes are exciting but strain suspension of disbelief in the extreme. Hollywood physics are definitely in evidence. Additionally, Mr. Reilly is not very rigorous in his research on his props, such as aircraft and weapons, not to mention the material of the superweapon itself.  The characters are cardboard cutouts and I didn’t find myself engaging in their story. The one redeeming quality of the book was the somewhat interesting parallel story set in the 16th Century.

1½Rosbochs

Grand Central Arena (Grand Central Arena I) – Ryk E. Spoor

GrandCentralArenaPilot Ariane Austin joins the crew of the first manned ship to attempt to break the lightspeed barrier. The first “jump” takes them to a large enclosed space containing a model of the solar system.

The characters are bland and too quickly introduced. They are all great at their jobs except for the one who is blatantly foreshadowed to have a hidden agenda. The technobabble is grating.

I really tried but I couldn’t finish this one.

1½Rosbochs

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle IV) – Ursula K. LeGuin

TheLeftHandofDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness is part of the Hainish Cycle, but very much as a standalone novel. Humanity is scattered among dozens of worlds. The planet Gethen, also known as Winter, was colonized by humanity many thousands of years previously. Contact was then lost and has only recently been re-established, with the Ekumen, a sort of federation of worlds, sending an envoy to bring the world into the fold. It is through the eyes of this envoy that most of the story is told. The humans on Gethen show curious sexual characteristics, spending most of their time as androgynous non-sexual beings, then entering a period of estrus once a month, at which point they become either dominantly male or female. This changes gender politics entirely, in fact eliminating them completely. On Gethen, people are judged on ability, with gender not entering into the equation.

While the premise is interesting, the novel has two problems. First and foremost, it may have been rather progressive when it was published in 1969, but nowadays the exploration of the human sexuality issue that is at the core of the novel is both dated and non-subversive. The world has moved on and the novel has aged badly because of it. Secondly, it is rather dull. I never felt that I cared either way for the envoy or his mission, or if the two depicted nations on Gethen would go to war. The characters are dull and the world is dull. The stakes are nominally high, but the setting is washed out and feels dead to the reader. I gave up about a third of the way in.

1½Rosbochs

The Quantum Thief (Jean Le Flambeur I) – Hannu Rajaniemi

TheQuantumThiefNotorious thief Jean de Flambeur is broken out of prison by someone who wants to hire him. It is the future and everything is desperately cool with awesomely cool monikers.

I didn’t get very far in this one. It is hopelessly mired in cool-sounding invented words and concepts, to the point of being almost impenetrable. Mr. Rajaniemi is undoubtedly a gifted writer and there might have been a good story somewhere in this novel, but unfortunately the “cool prose” made me want to hurl my ereader into the wall.

1½Rosbochs

 

Work Done for Hire – Joe Haldeman

WorkDoneforHireA veteran and struggling writer receives a dream contract for a movie novelization. Soon after, a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he is blackmailed into accepting a contract to murder a still unnamed victim. He goes on the run with his girlfriend.

I was sorely disappointed by this book. While it is competently written, the story is just a bland chase. The ending is anticlimactic and the “twist”, well, isn’t. The interleaved chapters with the novel the protagonist is writing are vaguely interesting but mostly seem like filler without ulterior purpose.

1½Rosbochs

Swan Song – Robert R. McCammon

It is the nineteen-eighties and the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Various crises have combined to push the United States and the Soviet Union over the edge. It is the long dreaded nuclear holocaust. Survivors include an over-the-hill professional wrestler, a mysterious girl known as Swan, a homeless woman known as Sister Creep, and a band of survivalists. Death (or is it the devil?) also makes an appearance.

If this had been a straight post-apocalyptic thriller I probably would have liked it more. Unfortunately, just like The Stand, it quickly becomes filled with predictable supernatural elements. I’m not against supernatural stuff per se. in fact, it can very much enhance a story. But in this case the holocaust seems almost like an excuse to create the backdrop for the supernatural struggle. The decision to make this a horror story was, at least for this reader, not a good one.

The characters are cookie-cutter and the dialogue is not very good. The inner tribulations of the characters are predictable and long-winded. The holocaust itself is described in horrific detail, and actually very well.

I gave up about a fifth of the way in.

The Prometheus Project – Steve White

The idea behind this novel is simple and rather ingenious. Just after World War II, a mysterious man calling himself Mr. Inconnu plops down on Earth claiming to be from a lost human colony. He warns the US government that aliens pervade the galaxy and that if these should discover Earth in her present state, the planet will become a low status protectorate. Kind of like an Amazon tribe discovered by super advanced Westerners. But Mr. Inconnu brings advanced knowledge, allowing the newly created Prometheus Project to both kickstart human development and fool the aliens into thinking that Earth is advanced enough to merit at least the attention given a barely civilized polity.

But there is a traitor in the Project.

I wanted to like this novel. The central concepts and the plot are well thought out. The beginning is quite entertaining, but once the novelty wears off it starts to get pretty dull. The alien cultures are described in a sense of wonder style that fails to convey a sense of wonder. White is trapped by his own storyline, as multiple infodumps thinly disguised as stilted conversation give the story a clumsy shove in the desired direction. The characters are all one dimensional, even the narrator. I skimmed through the last fifty pages just to find out what happens. I found it a pity that this book turned out less than well, because in essence it is quite a good story.

In Fury Born – David Weber

This is more or less an expanded version of Path of the Fury, with what can be considered a prequel to the original added at the start of the book. This fills out elements hinted at in Path of the Fury.

While Path of the Fury is a fun little book, this expanded version is horrible. Path of the Fury was written early in Weber’s career, when he was still writing hard hitting, fast moving, action packed military science fiction. Then he slowed down and became a word pooper. The new section is ponderous and verbose ad nauseam like his later works. I really tried but I could not get through the new material.

Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson

This is the prequel to Cryptonomicon, although they are only vaguely related. The story focuses (as far as I can tell from the first hundred and fifty pages) on the heated debate between Newton and Leibniz on the nature of calculus. Or rather, on the notation that should be used to explain it. You don’t have to be interested in mathematics (no formulae so far), but it helps. The other interesting part is how the backdrop is shaped by events following the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England and the ongoing struggle between Gathered and Established churches (Puritans and Anglicans, to put it rather simplistically), as well as the birth of the scientific method. Like Cryptonomicon, this is seemingly a collection of anecdotes loosely strung together into some sort of plot.

Stephenson’s style is, as always, florid and imaginative. The cool and gritty edge of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon is still there, but it has mutated into a sort of 17th century format.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing very dull and long-winded. This book can’t seem to hold my interest. I gave up on page 241, which is just over a quarter of the way in. I don’t think I will be reading the other two books in the trilogy either.

The Big U – Neal Stephenson

Stephenson’s debut novel, about a gigantic and quite weird university. While the first third is mildly enjoyable, the rest of the novel devolves into an intricate mess of a plot. Written in an early version of Stephensons signature style, this book shows signs of the greatness to come for this author. Having said that, I advise you to avoid this one.

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!

Sun of Suns (Virga I) – Karl Schroeder

This novel certainly has a very cool and well imagined setting. A hollow sphere the size of a small planet, filled with air. In the center is Candesce, a fusion powered artificial sun. Dotted around the place are lesser artificial suns. Around the suns low G human civilizations cluster for warmth, building giant wooden wheels to create their own gravity strongly tainted by coriolis force. Weather systems are logical extensions of the environment, with convective currents driving everything from icebergs to clouds to whole civilizations around the place.

Unfortunately it all quickly becomes rather tedious. The novel attempts to recreate the feel of an adventure novel set in the age of sail. A young man who, years ago, saw his nation conquered and his parents murdered infiltrates the highest levels of the enemy nation command structure. Said enemy nation sends a fleet (yes, cool flying ships) on a pre-emptive strike. And that’s where I called it quits. Despite the cool gadgets, I found the characters less than engaging. I didn’t give a rat’s ass what happened to any of them. After the fabulous premise was well established, it was disappointing to find the story itself so trivial, and the characters so mundane. This story needed a co-author with a better hand at dialogue and characterization, not to mention combat.

The Prophet Muhammad – Barnaby Rogerson

A biography of Muhammad. I should qualify that: A rather short and basic biography of Muhammad. Since I knew next to nothing of the man or the birth of Islam, this served as a good primer. Rogerson has been a guide in the Middle East for over two decades, and it shows in his writing. Lots of details of places, just like a guided tour. However, it is not terribly engaging reading once you get past the places to descriptions of people and events. Rogerson treats the issue of mystical revelation rather well, without judgement. He simply describes Muhammad as having visions. He focuses more on Muhammad’s reactions to the visions that on the visions themselves.

The Gold Coast – Kim Stanley Robinson

This is one of three novels in a set that examines three possible future Californias, specifically Orange County. The Gold Coast is the dystopic one of the set. While it has some very interesting imagery, it failed to capture my interest.

 

A Martian Ricorso – Greg Bear

This short story is about Mars “the way it once was”, with canals and Martians. An expedition with three crewmembers has landed and finds itself in the way of hordes of “Winter Troops”, a new breed of Martians that feeds off the remnants of the fallen civilization that created the canals.

Told as journal entries, this story isn’t anything special. If it had been any longer I would probably not have finished. it.

Saturn’s Race – Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

As in so many of Niven’s later works, there is a great backstory, but the novel falls short of the mark. A large offshore colony is dabbling in genetic engineering. There is a great feeling of hope that mankind will have a bright future. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen. Not very good, but it has some cool ideas and settings.

Destiny’s Road – Larry Niven

On a distant colony planet, a boy grows up wondering why the original colony ship departed many generations ago, at the same time scorching a road into the distance with its fusion drive. No knows where the road leads. The planet has a shortage of potassium and an upper class distributes what turns out to be potassium in exchange for their ruling status.

The ideas underlying the story are very clever. Unfortunately the story itself is confusing and hopelessly. I could barely finish the book. Given the neat premise, I wish Niven would have written an outline and contracted some other author to write the actual book.

Note: This is set in the same universe as The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children, but there is no connection between the stories beyond that.