Tide of Battle – Michael Z. Williamson

Short story and essay collection. The fiction runs the gamut from entries in the author’s Freehold Universe, to Victorian fantasy, and a rather interesting novella set in an alternate Bronze Age, pitting sentient humanoid felines against mind-controlling dinosaur-like reptiles. The essays contain some amusing musings on rifle technology, as well as very inappropriate, and often hilarious, cocktail recipes.

While I don’t always agree with Mr. Williamson’s political views, even in his fiction, he offers insightful political and social commentary with a great deal of thought and research behind it. There is a short passage about how his views have developed in the two decades since he published Freehold. This passage provides tantalising glimpse of an interesting mind which does not deny the impact of new data.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

The Secret Throne (The Queen of Dreams I)

Taggie and Jemima are pre-teen sisters, sent off for the holidays to their apparently eccentric father who lives somewhat distant from modern society. Quite suddenly, he is kidnapped by dark forces. And the sisters discover that they are heirs to a dynasty in a very different realm.

Mr. Hamilton’s prose is as tight as ever, even when he is writing for tweens and young adults. The characters are engaging, complex and imperfect. The plot is fine, but unfortunately rather linear and predictable. A good read, but Mr. Hamilton’s efforts to make things more approachable for his expected audience have not quite worked out.

Side note: My ten-year-old daughter adored this book.

 

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

Shift (Silo II) – Hugh Howey

Like Wool, the second volume in the Silo series started as a set of linked novelettes. The narrative begins hundreds of years before the events in Wool, with Donald, a newly elected US Representative, being brought onto the Silo project. This is before the apocalyptic events leading to the occupation of the silos, and gives background on how it all came to be. Donald is an unwilling accomplice in the control of the subsidiary silos as he slowly realizes how he, and the entire complex, has been manipulated, with conspiracy nested inside conspiracy aimed at a mysterious goal. Another section deals with how Solo from Wool came to be alone in his dying silo for decades.

While Wool was, despite its dark setting, a story of hope and searching for a better future, Shift contains very few bright points. The parts about Solo and his solitary descent into quasi-madness are especially bleak. Donald struggles with his conscience, his desire for revenge, his realization that even knowing the truth is not going to make things better. While the mental battles were well written, I felt that this book could have been trimmed to make it a bit less of a slog at times.

Grunge (Monster Hunter Memoirs I) – Larry Correia & John Ringo

“Chad” Gardenier grows up in an academic household, hating his parents. He enlists the Marines as quickly as he can, and is killed in the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombings. He is sent back to the mortal realm with a mission, and instructions to look for a sign. The sign is “57”. He eventually joins Monster Hunter International as a, you guessed it, monster hunter.

The book, written in memoir form, has all the hallmarks of a John Ringo novel. The hero is self-reliant, really good at what he does, has right-wing political views and is total badass. The prose is infused with Mr. Ringo’s signature dry wit, and the action scenes especially are laugh-out-loud funny.

While it is a fun and easy read, it is disappointing that the story is not very interesting, or surprising. This is a fun little book for John Ringo fans, but it doesn’t have the same high stakes feel as the main Monster Hunter International series. While the journey is entertaining, the outcome is very much predictable.

The Monster Hunter Memoirs series is set in the Monster Hunter International universe, specifically about 30 years prior. While both Mr. Correia and Mr. Ringo are credited as authors, the books are written almost entirely by Mr. Ringo.

Perigee – Patrick Chiles

Polaris Airlines runs the first fleet of suborbital passenger transports, brainchild of industrialist and owner Walt Hammond. Flight 501 is a private charter from Denver to Singapore. Due to a malfunction it becomes stranded in orbit.

This is good clean fun if you like aerospace and a thrilling story. The characters ring true, especially the pilots, engineers and operations staff at the airline. I did sometimes have a hard time telling minor characters apart, since Mr. Chiles’s world is almost exclusively populated by “ordinary white people” straight from Central Casting.

It falls over a bit on the technical details, which is unfortunate since in a technothriller like this the technical details are essential. The explanations are often lacking in the clarity needed for mainstream prose. There are also inconsistencies in the text which should have been caught in editing. For example, one paragraph will mention thin cirrus clouds and afternoon sun, then the next will speak of an aircraft “breaking out of the overcast.”

United States of Japan – Peter Tieryas

UnitedStatesofJapanThe setting is Southern California. It is the late 1980s in a world where the Axis won World War II.  The occupied Western United States are now the United States of Japan (USJ), and the occupiers rule with an iron fist despite the appearance of a happy and prosperous nation. The secret police tortures and “disappears” people at the least hint of treason against the Divine Emperor. Beniko Ishimura is an underachieving Captain in the Imperial Forces working as a censor for videogames. Ten years earlier, he took part in quelling a major revolt in San Diego, and now those events are coming back to haunt him.

Oh, and there are giant robots. This is seldom a bad thing.

Even without Mr. Tieryas’s explicit admission in the afterword, it is obvious that this book was heavily influenced and inspired by The Man in the High Castle, down to the dissenting material showing an alternate reality that is in fact that of the reader; one where the Allies won and the world is very different. The world-building is excellent, showing a dystopian USJ that is struggling economically and socially while all criticism of the regime is harshly punished. The cruelty of the torture and death inflicted by both USJ agents and dissidents is graphically described to the point of making the reader squirm, but in this world such things are sadly normal.

The story is somewhat opaque in the first half of the book, but things rapidly clarify towards the end, when flashbacks to the San Diego revolt and events in the present converge. Themes of betrayal, loyalty and forgiveness are strongly emphasized in a strong ending.

3½Rosbochs

Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

Into the Storm (Destroyermen I) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen1IntotheStormIn March of 1942, during the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the obsolete American destroyer U.S.S. Walker is taking a beating. While attempting to escape into a squall, she and her crew are transported to a parallel Earth. In this world, there are no humans. Sentient lemurs and raptors are locked in an age-old struggle.

The premise is interesting, and the execution competent, if not tremendously original.  The story is well told and enjoyable, but I did sometimes find myself wanting more of the World War II action. One thing that disappointed me was that things were a bit too neat and easy. Two alien races meeting for the first time and quickly ally without more than trifling misunderstandings is stretching things a bit too far.

3½Rosbochs

Podkayne of Mars – Robert A. Heinlein

PodkayneofMarsPodkayne is a girl from Mars in her late teens. Mars is a bit of a frontier planet, and she has dreams of venturing further afield. Together with her younger brother Clark, she goes along with her uncle, a powerful Senator, on a journey towards Venus and Luna aboard the luxurious liner Tricorn. Intrigue awaits.

Published in 1962, there is some debate on whether this novel should be considered one of the Heinlein Juveniles or not. I would say it is somewhere in transition territory, still passable as Young Adult fiction but definitely starting to explore more adult themes than its predecessors. The publishers were apparently not entirely pleased by this, and Heinlein even had to rewrite the ending before publication to make it less dark, though many current editions include the original ending as well.

The story is told from Poddy’s perspective. She has ambitions to break into the male dominated industry of spaceship flight crews. She wants to be treated as an equal in those respects, but she is certainly aware of how to make men do her bidding through manipulations. The sexual dynamics are rather dated, even though Heinlein was a progressive thinker on the subject in his day. The story is somewhat banal, but Poddy’s sassy and irreverent narration saves it from being boring. The setting also cleverly avoids most things that would date it, ensuring it does not age as badly as most SF of the time. The one thing that cannot be avoided is the view that Mars and Venus would be in any way inhabitable by humans, views that were refuted completely in the years following publication. However I was happy to squint at those details, treating Mars and Venus as “the way they should have been” in more innocent Universe.

3½Rosbochs

 

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (The Kingkiller Chronicle II½) – Patrick Rothfuss

TheSlowRegardofSilentThingsThis novella set in the Kingkiller Chronicle world follows Auri, the girl who lives in the abandoned underground spaces of The University and whom Kvothe befriends. She went insane while a student, and ever since has apparently lurking underground, organizing silent things (inanimate objects) that she finds based on some strange inner logic based on her obsessive compulsion.

This story is very strange. There is but one character (if you don’t count the silent things which, to be fair, the protagonist considers characters) and she is clearly insane. Eight full pages are dedicated to the making of soap. By hand. And yet, I found myself slowly warming to Auri and the little adventures she had while running around with her objects. I enjoyed how some spaces in the underground were frightening, some were safe, some were warm and some were uncomfortable. This story works despite every convention it breaks.

3½Rosbochs

On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children II) – Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildren2OntheSteelBreezeAfter the events in Blue Remembered Earth, the stars are open to humanity. The mysterious alien artifact Mandala, on the planet Crucible twenty-eight light years away, becomes the destination for a swarm of huge spaceships constructed from hollowed-out asteroids. Chiku Akinya is the daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the protagonists of the first book. She has undergone an unusual procedure, creating two clones of herself and implanting neural machines that synchronize memories. Chiku is three individuals, but also one through the shared memories. One copy, known as Chiku Red, departs to recover great-grandmother’s lost spaceship, fast leaving the vicinity of the Solar System. Another, Chiku Green, joins the asteroid ship exodus on its way to Crucible. The last, Chiku Yellow, remains on Earth. The latter two are the main protagonists. As the distance between Chiku Green and Chiku Yellow increases, so does the communication lag, and the story jumps decades forward in time to keep the rhythm, skipping seamlessly between the two to emulate their shared memories.

Even more than in the first book, the main theme is about the nature of intelligence. Can machine and organic intelligences co-exist? Another major theme is the nature of aging. As life extension is more and more perfected, senescence becomes a rare thing, to the point the withholding of anti-aging procedures is used as a punishment for one of the characters. How does this affect humans?

Unfortunately, this installment suffers from the same issues as the first book. The book seems overlong and the pace is ponderous. The story itself is not very powerful, serving more as a backdrop to a philosophical discussion.

3½Rosbochs

The Savior (Raj Whitehall X) – David Drake & Tony Daniel

RajWhitehall10TheSaviorIn the second and final part of the tale of Abel Dashian on the planet Duisberg, things come to a head as Zentrum manipulates the Redland barbarians into invading The Land. Center and Raj have other plans.

While a satisfying conclusion that contained many great action sequences, this book is like its predecessor not quite up to the standard of the earlier books in the Raj Whitehall series. A fair part of the novel is made up of flashbacks, which in this case are both unnecessary and confusing. Many parts are not as fleshed out as they should be either, and I kept feeling that this book should have been longer. The last quarter in particular felt very rushed towards a conclusion. Having said that, it is still a fun and easy read in the military science fiction genre.

3½Rosbochs

Islands of Rage and Hope (Black Tide Rising III) – John Ringo

BlackTideRising3IslandsofRageandHopeAfter consolidating through the North Atlantic hurricane season, Wolf Squadron moves on to capture Guantanamo Bay and liberate the Marines trapped there. Our heroes then mow through a few Caribbean islands in search of vaccine production materials, a quest which eventually leads them to an unlikely place.

New Marines means Shewolf has to convince new people that her way is the correct way. Unsurprisingly, taking orders from a thirteen year old Second Lieutenant is hard for those who have not seen her in action. Unfortunately, interpersonal issues, and the organizational tangles stemming from them, take up too large a portion of the book. There are some very interesting discussions on leadership but they too often take the form of infodumps from senior officers, who always seem to have more knowledge than any average person. Having said that, this is Ringo and as usual with him the novel is a page turner, especially the last third where the action really picks up. The humor, also as usual with Ringo, is dry and hilarious.

3½Rosbochs

 

When Diplomacy Fails… (Ripple Creek III) – Michael Z. Williamson

RippleCreek3WhenDiplomacyFailsIn the third installment of the Ripple Creek series, the crack team of Ripple Creek bodyguards is tasked to protect a government official and election candidate while she tours a backwater planet riddled with factional violence.

While a solid entry in the series, I found this one to be slower moving than the others, at least for the first two thirds before the crap hits the fan. Williamson competently moves the action forward with plenty of battlescenes, weaponry details and tactical minutiae. The more interesting parts of the novel are about handling a distasteful protectee who detests her detail, and of the personal struggles of one team member. Unfortunately, the rest of the team are by now far too polished and perfect, leaving the ending not very much in doubt.

3½Rosbochs

 

The Churn (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheChurnThe Churn tells the early backstory of Amos Burton, one of our heroes on the Rocinante in Leviathan Wakes and onwards. It is set in the criminal substrate of future Baltimore. Large parts of the city have been submerged by rising sea levels, and it is in general a crappy place to live; a backwater that no one cares very much.

The apathetic attitude of the denizens of Baltimore, and by implication much of Earth, is well portrayed. Most are living on Basic, a sort of dole where they get free (bland) food and basic services but do not have to work. Many are unregistered and have no real identity in the eyes of the authorities. They live their lives without purpose or hope for a better future. And they look upwards at Mars and the Outer Planets with a dreamlike wonder, knowing that they are very unlikely to have a chance at a better tomorrow up there.

3½Rosbochs

The Rats, The Bats & The Ugly (Rats, Bats & Vats #2) by Eric Flint & Dave Freer

TheRatsTheBatsandTheUglyThe second book in the series picks up directly where book one left off. Chip and Fitz are unfairly accused, Virginia is drugged and hidden. The Korozhet are known by our heroes to be the enemy, but they hold all the cards.

The first half of this book, while necessary, is not really that much fun and humor. And that is a problem. Without fun, this series is too absurd to be really good. Thankfully, the second half more than makes up for it. A good read assuming you’ve read the first book.

3½Rosbochs

 

Rats, Bats & Vats (Rats, Bats & Vats #1) – Eric Flint & Dave Freer

RatsBatsandVatsOn the colony planet of Harmony and Reason, the colony’s shareholders are an entitled and elitist upper class, while the rest of the population is poor and indebted. Most of the lower class is made up of “Vats”, vat-grown humans based on genetic material brought from Earth. To make matters worse, insectoid/arachnid aliens have invaded, and the incompetent shareholder military leadership is doing poorly. With the aid of alien technology, the humans “uplift” rats and bats to help fight the war. The bats are flying sappers with Irish accents and strong political views. The rats are nymphomaniac drunks acting as infantry. The action centers on a group of grunts who find themselves stuck behind enemy lines.

Despite the completely absurd premise, or perhaps because of it, this was quite a fun book. It is written with tongue firmly in cheek and humor firmly in the gutter. I enjoyed the misadventures of this one particular group of misfits, replete with constant inter-species sniping and a bitterly resigned attitude towards the idiocy of the brass.

3½Rosbochs

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

TheGraveyardBookA toddler slips out of his house just as his parents and older sister are murdered by a mysterious man called Jack. He walks up to the local graveyard and is taken care of by the dead, who name him Nobody. His upbringing is unusual, to say the least.

The premise behind this book is clever in the extreme. It completely subverts the trope of a graveyard being a frightening place with shadowy monsters lurking. For “Bod”, the graveyard is home and refuge. It is where he plays, where he is educated, where he feels kinship with his people. Death is not something to be feared, but an event which changes people.

The novel is semi-episodic to start, with every chapter almost a self-contained shorts story, but later the thread of the initial murder is picked up, leading towards a resolution. Gaiman’s whimsical style certainly goes well with the setting, and I found myself smiling as Nod interacts with the dead from many different epochs, greeting and speaking to each with the mannerisms appropriate to the age.

3½Rosbochs

Owner’s Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper VI) – Nathan Lowell

SolarClipperTales6OwnersShareIn the sixth and final book of the series, Ishmael Wang finds himself, through a series of somewhat contrived circumstances, owner of his own small passenger and cargo ship. He must now turn a profit for himself. An added wrinkle is that one of the crewmen is the heir to the shipping line where he used to work. She has been forced by a codicil in her father’s will to work as a crewmember for a year in order to inherit the company. This adds some unexpected complications.

While most of the book follows the same adventures in normality model as the previous ones, there is a healthy dose  of intrigue, and even some violence, in this last book. Ishmael’s final fate is bittersweet. While part of me wants to applaud Mr. Lowell for not giving our hero a stereotypical feelgood happy ending, part of me wishes he had.

3½Rosbochs

 

Camouflage – Joe Haldeman

CamouflageAn alien winds up on Earth and spends millions of years roaming it as a shark until one day in the 1930s it decides to take the form of a human. It spends the following decades learning about humanity and growing as a person. In an interleaved plot line, in 2019 an ancient alien artifact is found in the Pacific Ocean and a marine salvage company investigates.

The growth of the alien as a human is very well written, from tentative and often disastrous beginnings to a finding of true purpose and even love. The descriptions of humanity from the alien’s often uncomprehending viewpoint are fascinating, in particular the part during the Bataan Death March, where the worst of humanity is on display.

3½Rosbochs

 

 

Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children I) – by Alastair Reynolds

PoseidonsChildrenIBlueRememberedEarthThe story is set in the second half of the 23rd Century. Mankind has colonized Mars and the Moon, and has expanded industrial concerns into Trans-Neptunian space. Earth, long ravaged by climate change and pollution, is slowly recovering. In most of human society, the “Mechanism”, a sort  of benevolent big brother, and compulsory neural implants have practically eradicated violence and crime. Robots and proxies (advanced telepresence), are everywhere. The Akinya family from Tanzania has been instrumental in the expansion into space, or more accurately the family matriarch, Eunice Akinya, a legendary deep space explorer and pioneer industrialist. As the book starts, Eunice has just died. For the last sixty of her one hundred and sixty years, she has been living in enigmatic isolation in the Winter Palace, a habitat orbiting the Moon. As the family gathers to scatter her ashes, a loose end appears. A previously unknown safe deposit rental on the Moon. Geoffrey Akinya, one of Eunice’s grandchildren, is reluctantly roped into retrieving the contents. What he finds will start him and his sister Sunday off on a treasure hunt to the remote wilderness of the Moon, then to Mars, and beyond.

The concept of making the African continent prominent is an interesting one. Today, the common western view of Africa is that of a lost continent continually ravaged by poverty, war and disease. In this book, Africa has become a center of high civilization, and Swahili is one of the lingua francas of humanity. The setting is intricately designed, with robots, proxies and neural interfaces prevalent. This brings about some interesting aspects of the “what is consciousness” discussion, as advanced autonomous machine intelligences are one of the potential futures envisaged. On the other hand, the group known as the “Pans” sees evolution of humans themselves as the way forward, in order to avoid humans becoming sessile with proxies doing the exploration and the discovery.

The story itself is not the strongest part of this book. It is adequate enough though, and the characters follow its meanderings more as a way to explore the nature of humanity and consciousness than to actually get to the payoff at the end.

This is a long book, and while I don’t mind per se, it is rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds writes with a smooth and easily read style but I still think the book could have been shorter. The protagonist Geoffrey is rather interesting; initially an unwilling actor in events who is slowly drawn in until he drives them.

3½Rosbochs