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

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

TheManintheHighCastleGermany and Japan have won World War II and now control most of the world between them. The former United States are split between them, with the backward Rocky Mountain States situated between a Japanese puppet state in Western North America and a German puppet state in Eastern North America; acting as a buffer zone of sorts. Fifteen years after the war ended, the two superpowers are engaged in a cold war, with Germany expanding into space and Japan falling behind. The book follows several characters in events far from the core of politics, including a German secret agent, a Japanese trade official and a woman seeking audience with the author of an intriguing novel. The novel is about an alternate history where Germany and Japan lose the war, thus more closely resembling our own.

Mr. Dick cleverly implements the device of using characters very peripheral to the main thrust of history. These see historical events without the sureness or clarity of a history book, and color them with their own perceptions, each flawed in its own way. There are long passages of reflection on the nature of manufactured objects, of their “historicity”; in other words their connection with historical events. How does history reflect on the present through its relics? The discussions on race and the open use of race to profile people and cultures gives a glimpse of the way things might perhaps have been if the Axis had won the war. The social mores depicted unfortunately date the book somewhat, especially the depiction of Juliana’s ready subservience to a new man in her life. However it remains a classic for good reason.

3½Rosbochs

Kris Longknife – Furious (Kris Longknife X) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknife10FuriousFollowing the events in Daring and Welcome Home/Go Away, Kris Longknife has been sent to metaphorical Siberia, nominally commanding a squadron of fast attack boats but in reality having to stay out of the way. She has fallen off the wagon and spends her nights consuming large quantities of whiskey. The details of the Voyage of Exploration have been swept under the rug.

Kris’s grandfather, billionaire magnate Alex, has decided to put together a trade fleet to make contact with the enemy at the other side of the galaxy. Oddly, the first half of the book is a caper story with Kris trying to get a face to face with grandpa. The second half is courtroom drama as she must answer for her actions.

I found the story itself to be very disjointed. The whole caper was absurd, though it had its moments of fun. Things picked up considerably in the second half, and I now once again look forward to the next installment. If nothing else, the ending of Furious is a bit cliffhanger.

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

3½Rosbochs

The Heretic (Raj Whitehall IX) – David Drake & Tony Daniel

A free-standing TheGeneralTheHereticcontinuation of The General Series, this book takes place on the world of Duisberg, a fallen human colony reduced to pre-industrial times. Due to an extremely dry climate, civilization is concentrated around a single river, much like it is by the Nile in Egypt. Outside The Valley, nomadic barbarians roam the badlands. In an interesting twist, a malfunctioning planetary management computer is attempting to keep things in stasis, eking out survival for humanity, if not progress and success. As in “The Chosen” and “The Reformer/The Tyrant”, Center and Raj Whitehall’s minds arrive on an interstellar probe to change things. Soon they take control of young Abel, child of the local military commander.

While it is not quite up to the standards of previous installments, particularly “The Chosen”, it is nevertheless a fun read for the military science fiction buff. Technological and geographical constraints are skillfully used to create challenges. The characters themselves are not very fleshed out, but serve their purpose well enough.

3½Rosbochs

 

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes II) – Arthur Conan Doyle

TheSignofFourThe second novel in the series, also known as “The Sign of Four”, is set a few years further on from the events in A Study in Scarlet. Holmes and Watson have lived together for a few years when a young woman comes to them with a mystery. Her late father disappeared years ago and now an unknown person sends her a pearl once a year, along with a strange note. The adventure then unfolds with Holmes having to solve a locked room murder, and unraveling a complex tale of treasure and alliance among criminals.

Just as A Study in Scarlet, this one holds up very well today. The style is engaging and the story moves quickly. However, just as with the previous novel, I found the very long “explanation flashback” to be excessively long and quite jarring. Still an enjoyable novel for the brief time it takes to read it.

3½Rosbochs

 

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes I) – Arthur Conan Doyle

AStudyinScarletThe first novel in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. John Watson, freshly returned from campaign in Afghanistan, becomes what we today would call Holmes’s roommate. Holmes is a mysterious character, addicted to deduction in the service of the detective arts. He is called in to solve a murder and Watson observes.

Despite being well over a century old, this novel stands up very well today. It is eminently readable, even a page turner. It reads more like a historical novel than a dated document written in a forgotten past. Holmes as a character is perfect; mercurial, ironic, enigmatic and arrogant. I had two problems with this novel, and I am hardly treading new ground here. First, it violates that cardinal rule of detective novels. It is impossible for the reader to figure out who did it before this is revealed. Secondly, just as Holmes is about to reveal all about halfway through the book, the story flashes back a few decades on an immensely long backstory set in Utah. While this was certainly more page turning action, I found the transition quite jarring.

3½Rosbochs

The World According to Clarkson – Jeremy Clarkson

TheWorldAccordingtoClarksonThis book is a collection of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear‘s columns in the Sunday Times between 2001 and 2003. He muses on everything from Concorde’s retirement to delayed flights in Spain. As usual, Mr. Clarkson is irreverent, frequently offensive, and more often than not just plan provocative. For the most part, he is quite funny and entertaining. I enjoyed it but it is probably not for everyone.

3½Rosbochs

Center of Gravity (Star Carrier II) – Ian Douglas

Book two starts where Earth Strike left off. Admiral Koenig is set to launch a raid deep into enemy territory, with the aim of scouting, disrupting enemy momentum, and keeping pressure off Earth.

Great action scenes. However the political stuff is quite heavy handed, the message being that politicians are idiots who can’t make rational decisions and military men (well, American military men) know better. A Churchill-like politician would have added greatly to this series.

Armored – Edited by John Joseph Adams

This anthology of short stories deals with armored fighting suits (mecha, what have you) from many different perspectives. Some stories are pure action, while others delve deep into sentient machines and man-machine interfaces. There’s even romance.

The stories range from excellent to passable. And there is quite a bit of thought-provoking stuff.

The Road of Danger (RCN IX) – David Drake

Once again we join Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy with the crew of the Princess Cecile. A Cinnabar national is inciting rebellion on an Alliance world. With the two nations now at peace, the political situations is sticky. If the rebellion succeeds, it could mean resumption of hostilities, and that would be ruinous for both sides.

Another fun adventure with our friends, this time rather interestingly splitting our two protagonists up for a good long section. While I do enjoy the reading, I get the feeling that Mr. Drake is treading. Leary and Mundy seem so superior to any challenge posed them that there are no real challenges. They are almost ridiculously awesome. Unless Drake puts their back to the wall against real odds again, this series will peter out into dullness.

Better to Beg Forgiveness (Ripple Creek I) – Michael Z. Williamson

Set in the same universe as Freehold but preceding it chronologically, this novel follows a group of bodyguards tasked with protecting the president of a nation wracked by civil war. The setting is very much inspired by present day Afghanistan and Iraq. Clan warfare and a lacking sense of national identity make the task of unification and pacification very difficult. To make it worse, the bureaucrats and military organizations of the UN (now a world and multiplanetary government) don’t care one way or another. They simply want their own agendas pushed. When it all hits the fan, the bureaucrats choose to simply “remove” the president, but the bodyguards have other ideas.

From the excellent action scenes to the realistic character studies, Williamson displays his impressive knowledge of military matters. The plot is a bit slow and perhaps even unfocused in the first half, but then picks up speed to end in a huge climax. If you are a fan of Williamson’s other work, you’ll like this one, but it is only really for the hardcore military fiction buff. That’s right, I didn’t say science fiction. In fact, this book could have been set in the present day Middle East with very few changes.