The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System – Eric Klein

BJ is an IT troubleshooter in New York City. After a job well done, he receives a raffle ticket and wins the grand prize of a cruise through the solar system. On board, he soon meets the captain’s daughter Faye and the pair take a liking to each other. They are inseparable through adventures and misadventures on various planets and moons.

Most of this novel reads like a combination of travelogue and brochure. There is not much action beyond the tours that the protagonist and his inconceivably compatible-at-first-sight girlfriend take. Not-so-subtle hints of conspiracy are dropped and near the end of the story, an unlikely plot is hatched by nefarious elements. The whole thing is cute, the characters likeable, but it is altogether too banal; the homage to Heinlein, in particular, The Number of the Beast, and the 1933 version of King Kong too contrived.

After the predictable conclusion, one-fifth of the text is dedicated to appendices, including (seemingly) every bit of background the author researched or created about the cruise ship, the science, the political topology, and various other bits. This section detracts greatly from the text itself and gives a self-serving impression, as if the author felt the need to show off his own cleverness instead of letting the story speak for itself.

Zero Limit – Jeremy K. Brown

Caitlin Taggart is stuck on the Moon, unable to get home to her daughter on Earth, after international tension has led to a travel ban for Moonborn like her. She works as a regolith miner. She is offered an illegal asteroid mining job for a chance to get home. On the job, things go very wrong for Caitlin and her crew, with consequences that threaten Earth itself.

Leaving aside the handwavy physics poorly suited to a hard science fiction story, I found this novel unengaging. Apart from the well developed protagonist, the rest of the characters seem like cardboard cutouts, with actions dictated by “plot reasons”. While the scope of the story is ambitious, and the flashback scenes are well written, the whole thing doesn’t gel.

The Gods of Sagittarius – Eric Flint & Mike Resnick

In the future, humanity is part of an interstellar society. A security expert is tasked to escort a scientist as he investigates a murder with seemingly paranormal aspects. Meanwhile, an alien seeks vengeance for the extermination of her religious sect. Unlike the science-rooted humans, the alien knows that magic is real.

The novel is space opera with a large degree of comedy. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the overwrought dialogue and interactions very funny. The story isn’t very entertaining either.

 

Escape from Earth – Allen Steele

Escape from EarthOur hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…

This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.

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Shooting the Rift – Alex Stewart

ShootingTheRiftSimon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.

It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.

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Angel of Europa – Allen Steele

AngelofEuropaAfter a serious accident early in the first Jupiter expedition, Otto Danzig was put into medical hibernation to allow him to heal. Now, months later and at Jupiter, he has been woken up to investigate the possible murder of two crew members while exploring the subsurface ocean of Europa.

The nicest thing I can say about this story is that it is a a short story so at least I didn’t have to put up with it for very long. The concept and plot are fine, but the characters and cultural mores are cringe-worthy. I have accused Mr. Steele of this before, but his characters are all too often solidly middle-class American prudes from the 1950s, even if they are from other countries, eras and cultures. What is worse, characters from other cultures are caricature-like, written like sloppy stereotypes. Case in point, the antagonist in this story is a sexy French woman, and of course she acts like the American stereotype of a sexy French woman. Apart from that, it seems this story was sent to the publisher without some needed polish and revision. The whole thing isn’t nearly as tight as it could be.

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Outlander (Outlander I) – Diana Gabaldon

Outlander1OutlanderClaire Beauchamp Fraser is a nurse who has just been through World War II. She goes on a second honeymoone to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, a man she has met for only a few days during the war years. As she touches a stone in an ancient standing stone formation, she is transported back in time to the 1740s, a time which in Scotland was characterized by the Jacobite uprisings. She finds herself abducted by a band of Highland men and taken to Castle Leoch, where the locals are highly suspicious of her claims to be a woman of fine birth who has been robbed by highwaymen.

Despite the painstaking historical detail and the romantic nature of the setting, I found myself rapidly bored with this book. The use of the first person voice only works for me if the narrator is at least somewhat self-deprecating; preferably even snarky. Claire is neither of these things, and she comes off as quite a bit too serious. The romantic bent of the novel is also too strong, with Claire almost instantly attracted to the rugged Jaime, a handsome outlaw with a quiet demeanor and a well-muscled body. I gave up after a hundred pages or so.

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Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch I) – Ann Leckie

ImperialRadch1AncillaryJusticeThe story is in two parts, divided temporally. In an earlier time, a living ship and her “ancillaries”, human bodies taken over by the ship’s intellect, serve the Radch, a ruthless empire ruled by an even more ruthless leader. In a later time, what is left of the ship’s intellect, inhabiting a human body, is on a quest to find a mythical weapon in order to exact revenge.

The premise is very intriguing, and the world-building top notch. It is a fascinating society where familial connections are everything and strict obedience mandatory, with dissent punished by death immediately. Outside the Radch, things are looser, and people see the Radch as rather strange, if very powerful.

While the writing is fine, the characterization excellent, and the story intriguing, this book has a serious flaw that prevented me from getting more than a third of the way in. It seems completely devoid of humor. The characters having no sense of humor may be understandable, but unfortunately the writing lacks any twinkle or spark. This makes the whole affair very dull. I can see the skill in the writing but after a while this became a slog which I didn’t feel like continuing.

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Deep Space (Star Carrier IV) – Ian Douglas

StarCarrier4DeepSpaceDeep Space takes place twenty years after Singularity. Admiral Koenig is now the president of the North American Union, and Trevor Grey is the captain of the Star Carrier America. Trouble is brewing as a mysterious object appears at the fringes of known space, destroying the scout force sent to investigate it. The Sh’daar resume hostilities by attacking a human colony. Finally, the Confederation is in trouble as the EU seeks to eliminate North American Union independence. Naturaly, the America and its fighters are in the thick of things.

At its core this is a decent continuation to the the Star Carrier series. The story is fine, and the action, especially in the second half, is pretty decent. Unfortunately the book is hampered by seemingly endless repetition of the same factoids of history. How many times do we need to know about the Sh’daar’s obsession for transcendence, the way the Chinese Hegemony bombarded Earth, how the periphery of the North American Union is swampland inhabited by primitives? This book would have been much better if Douglas had edited out most of his repetitive infodumps.

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The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester

TheStarsMyDestinationGully Foyle, spaceship crewman, is stranded on his broken ship for months, certain he is already dead. Another ship passes by but ignores his signals. Gully goes a bit crazy. He is rescued by a strange tribe of space habitat dwellers, and their antics drive him more crazy. Finally, he makes it back to Earth and civilization. He starts an obsessive quest for revenge against the crew and owners of the ship that did not rescue him. He makes a fortune through shady means and changes his name in order to infiltrate the rich strata of society in the service of his quest.

Human society is not as we know it, but profoundly changed by the discovery of the innate human ability to “jaunte”, or teleport, with the power of the mind. Physical layers of security such as walls have little meaning unless the entrances are defended with “jaunte-proof” labyrinths designed to be impossible to memorize.

This science fiction classic is in many ways an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Foyle’s obsession is apparent throughout the book. He certainly is not a likeable character, but very interesting. He uses any means necessary to achieve his goal, despite the suffering that this causes in others.

Despite the fascinating aspects of a changed society and the quite engaging story, I found the second half of the book to be hopelessly dull. Mr. Bester changes the rules to fit the plot, with new strange characters that have just the right abilities that Foyle can use appearing just at the right time. The book also jumps from scene to scene in quite a jarring fashion, with less than the necessary introduction. The whole thing felt quite disjointed in fact. I really tried but finally gave up about four fifths of the way through.

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Spider Star – Mike Brotherton

SpiderStarThe inhabitants of an extrasolar colony accidentally triggers a weapon system built into the star they orbit. With the help of archaeological records evidence, they can trace its creation back to an ancient race that inhabited the system. An expedition is sent to the mythical “Spider Star” in order to find a solution. The journey itself takes years, and when they arrive, everything is so very alien.

The premise is intriguing and fascinating. The plot itself is not half bad. Unfortunately the characters are uninspired cardboard cutouts and the read itself is fantastically dull. I really wanted to like this book but after about reading about two thirds of it I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

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Time Spike – Eric Flint & Marilyn Kosmatka

This singleton Assiti Shards novel sees a maximum security prison in southern Illinois get sent back in time, dragging along with it large group of Cherokees from the 19th Century, conquistadors from the 16th century, and Mounds people from prehistoric times.

The idea of dragging a prison back in time is interesting. What do you do with the convicts? How do you keep guarding them? Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only bright point in this novel apart from the action scenes and the fact that it is an easy read and the vaguely interesting historical tidbits. Most characters are so two dimensional and cookie cutter that I had a very hard time remembering who was who. The portrayal of men and women falling in love more or less instantly was naive and plain silly, the argument being that since they had to survive, they’d better pair up.

The subplot with the “present day” scientists was completely superfluous, and seemed to be there mostly to tie in with possible sequels and bring needless exposition. Again, the instant love trope reared its ugly head here.

The Scope of Justice (Target: Terror I) – Michael Z. Williamson

This rather short novel follows a US sniper and spotter team on an assassination mission in Afghanistan. It is set after the Afghan war of 2001 and the target is a terrorist leader. Needless to say, the initial attempt goes to hell in more ways than one. The two Americans then have to use their own ingenuity and local resources to both survive and to complete their mission.

This is competent but not great military fiction. A rather straightforward story, exciting but without any really unexpected wrinkles. Interesting reading if you want to learn something about modern snipers and how they operate. The dialogue is pretty awful at times though.

The Apocalypse Troll – David Weber

In the future, mankind is winning the war against the Kangas. But the enemy attempts to send troops back in time to Earth 2007. Only one Kanga unit, a deadly Troll, remains alive in 2007 after mankind tries to stop the plan. But a human from the future also survives… And so it begins.

The idea of only one “future human” surviving is entertaining, and Weber on a bad day is still better than many authors on a good one. However, I did feel that Mr. Weber was treading water here. The plot is predictable and somewhat prosaic. The ending is a bit too syrupy and well tied up. The good guys are a bit too good. A nice way to spend an afternoon or two, but nothing fantastic.

The Shadow of Saganami (Saganami I) – David Weber

This is the first of a spin off in the Honor Harrington series. It starts off by dealing with the next generation of midshipmen. Helen Zilwicki, one of the characters created by Eric Flint for the Honorverse, is prominently featured.

I was disappointed with the first 300 pages but after that the book rapidly picks up the pace and shows true Honorverse form. It is a shame that Weber has descended into verbose overflow. Yes, David, I understood what you meant after the first sentence. You don’t need to re-explain and expand for another overly long paragraph. It slows down the action too much.

I would recommend this for the Honor Harrington fan, but not as a first taste of Weber. There is too much background information that needs to be known to make it enjoyable as a first foray.

Note: This series is also known as Saganami Island.

Crown of Slaves (Wages of Sin I) – David Weber & Eric Flint

This is the first of a spinoff series in the the Honor Harrington Universe. My guess is that Flint is doing most of the writing since he is the one who came up with the Zilwicki characters in the Honorverse anthologies.

All the way through reading the book, I kept thinking that Weber and Flint can do much better than this. While the characters are engaging, the plot is lackluster. There’s a lot of interesting material here, but it just doesn’t feel like the high adventure it’s supposed to be. The whole thing is rather construed and feels forced. The first half is very dull, but the novel thankfully picks up during the second half. And then there’s the endless exposition; just as in the later works by Weber, the explanations drone on and on. If I hadn’t been a fan of the Honorverse, I would probably not have finished the book.

One Jump Ahead (Jon & Lobo I) – Mark L. Van Name

This is the first book in the Jon & Lobo series. Jon is a man with a troubled past. His planet was destroyed and he was subjected to experiments that left him nanotechnology enhanced. Such enhancements are thought to be impossible and he needs to keep them a secret from those who might profit from them. Suffice it to say, he is a sort of super-soldier. He takes on the task of freeing a kidnapping victim. This simple act entangles him in a complex web of intrigue involving powerful corporations and governments. Along the way, he picks up an assault vehicle known as “Lobo”. The vehicle can handle anything from underwater to deep space. It is also a deeply sarcastic conversationalist.

This novel reminds me a little of the Stainless Steel Rat books. A lone hero and a plot that seems made up as it goes along. Jon is not unlikeable, but his tribulations tend to be long winded and after a few such passages I started losing interest. The characters are straight from central casting, and the locales are even worse. Cookie-cutter, forgettable places that made the plot hard to follow. As our hero jumped to a star system, I struggled to remember what had happened there earlier. The plot is decent, but I couldn’t make myself care very much whether Jon succeeded in his exploits or not. Things are going really well until they go really badly, at a point in the novel that is far too predictable. The hero is supposed to have setbacks, but this one is far too expected. The paraphernalia is pretty cool. In good Bond fashion, the right tools for the job always seem available to our hero. This is fine for comedy, but this book is not going for laughs.

And yet, there is some attraction here. If one can look past the stilted prose the stock characters and the unoriginal plotting, there are hints of potential for this hero. The machine communications are funny and interesting. The universe is engaging enough that it is worth revisiting.

Alternate Generals – Harry Turtledove (Editor)

Alternate military history anthology. The quality is mixed, and it requires at least a passing knowledge of the incidents the stories are based on in order to extract full appreciation. A passable light read if you’re into military science fiction.

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher set about compiling all the notes and stories he had left behind about Middle Earth. The Silmarillion is the most well know result of this work, and chronicles the story of the elves in times long before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It takes the form more of a historical chronicle than a novel, and so feels rather removed from the action. Only for the dedicated Tolkien fan.

The Tau Ceti Agenda (Tau Ceti Agenda II) – Travis S. Taylor

The sequel to One Day on Mars takes place a few years after the events of that book. We are rather disconcertingly thrown straight into the action of a new “24“-like tale taking place within a short time span. United States forces are attacking a separatist base in the Oort Cloud. At the same time, the president (Senator Alexander Moore from the previous book) and his family are being attacked by every automaton at Disneyland (no, really). Finally, a secret agent emplaced at the separatist home planet in the Tau Ceti system gets into trouble.

The action (and there is a LOT of action) is fast, furious and for the most part well written. It annoyed me, though, that there was little or no introduction to events. It was all rather confusing at first. The story, once it is revealed, is in fact quite engaging. So it was annoying that there was so much action in the way in the first part. The other thing about this book that bothered me was that far too much space was given to confusing mecha/fighter battlescenes. The abundance of characters and the sheer overdescription of so many aspects soon made me skim through these scenes. They are supposed to be “cool” and “kick-ass” I suppose, and in many respects they are, but I could have done with a few less descriptions of hair raising maneuvers and how many gees the pilots are pulling. Conclusion: mixed bag. Nice action book, not great. Very intriguing macrostory unfortunately muddled by a great many less than relevant action sequences.

Singularity Sky – Charles Stross

It is hard to tell what this one is about from the blurb. Between the covers is postmodern science fiction well grounded in current physics. A mysterious entity known as “The Festival” arrives on the backwater colony of a neo-Victorian Empire, quite literally showering manna from heaven on the populace in return for “entertainment” in the form of information. The Empire attempts to retaliate, and all the while a pair of agents, one for the UN, hover and observe. These agents work a pair of mysterious powers that seek to ensure that humanity is not destroyed by the mysterious Eschaton, an powerful entity that brutally punishes causality violations. Technology now allows time travel as a biproduct of (apparent) faster than light travel, and the Eschaton is merciless on those who violate its causality edicts.

In the middle of this dangerous universe, the two secret agents develop a strong personal relationship. Stross skillfully manages to focus on their story and it’s pertinence while the worlds around them spirals towards an uncertain future. At the same time, he does not forget to show the humorous side of those who refuse to accept self-evident realities. Innovative and deeply insightful, but ultimately pretty boring. My big gripe is that I didn’t feel any empathy whatsoever for the characters.