Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance – Lois McMaster Bujold

In the latest book set in the Vorkosiverse, Miles is conspicuously absent barring an amusing cameo. The protagonist is instead Miles’s cousin and close friend Ivan Vorpatril, a favorite secondary character in many of the earlier books. Ivan is mostly known for his somewhat overbearing mother, social secretary to the Emperor, his high birth but unwillingness to get close to the corridors of power, and his many successive girlfriends, none serious. While on the planet Komarr assisting the Chief of Military Operations on an inspection, now Captain Ivan Vorpatril receives an unexpected and unwelcome visitor, Byerly Vorrutyer, a part-time spy and old acquaintance of Ivan’s who specializes in ferreting out corruption in Barrayaran high society. Byerly leads Ivan to investigate a young lady on the run from a hostile  takeover in Jackson’s Whole, the definition of a Machiavellian society. Unsurprisingly, things blow up in Ivan’s face and he is found saddled with the young lady as a bride in order to protect her from both local security forces and outsystem bounty hunters. What follows when Ivan takes her back home to an encounter with his mother, and subsequently when parts of the young lady’s past resurface, makes for a caper of epic proportions.

Bujold is in super form here. The little ironies woven into descriptions and conversations made me chortle with pleasure and re-read certain passages over and over. The decision to explore the character of Ivan is an inspired one. He was always known to have a spine, even though he lacked the propensity of his cousin Miles to bash people over the head with it. His growing intimacy with Tej after their sudden wedding is marvelously portrayed, sweet without romantic comedy movie cheesiness, as are the complex family dynamics on both sides. This novel was a great pleasure to read for this Vorkosigan fan, and it should also be easily accessible for new readers.

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games III) – Suzanne Collins

In the third and final book, Katniss is among the rebels. She has survived The Hunger Games, twice, but she is more and more a broken person. Friends and others want to use her for their purposes. She is no longer a Tribute but she is still a pawn.

Throughout the book, Katniss falls victim to a psychological trauma that has its roots as far back as the first book. The way in which Ms. Collins describes Katniss’s descent into madness is chilling, especially as the narrative is in the first person. The last third of the book is very bleak, as there seem to be no good options. And yet, the pace is kept up, the action moves on. Even in the darkest, most introspective passages the reader still feels carried forward in the story.

A great ending to a great trilogy.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games I) – Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, quite literally the end of the line of the twelve vassal districts where laborers toil and starve to support the rich Capitol inhabitants in the nation of Panem, located in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic North America. Almost a century ago, the districts rebelled against the Capitol and were brutally repressed. Since then, each district must offer two youngsters, one male and one female, as “Tribute”, every year. The youngsters are chosen through a lottery system. The youths will compete in the titular Hunger Games. To the death. The point being to remind the districts who is boss. Through a series of circumstances, Katniss ends up in the Hunger Games.

Readers familiar with Ender’s Game will feel a strong familiarity with some of the themes. Both books deal with youngsters thrown into cruel and unfamiliar situations beyond their control. There is even some similarity in the sparse style.

The fact this novel is marketed as “Young Adult” should not scare off adult readers. The characters and settings are memorable. Seeing the world through the first person perspective of Katniss means we are forced into her constrained existence. She has no freedom in her world and may not leave District 12. She has no freedom after becoming a Tribute, with her intricate preparations for the games stage-managed by a mentor and a team of stylists. In a bitter irony, she becomes somewhat free to do as she wants in the Hunger Games Arena itself, but the freedom comes at the price of having to fight for her life, often against opponents she has deep affection for.

The pacing is perfect and the action sequences are gripping without reveling in bloodshed or cruelty. Certainly there are strong scenes of violence but the purpose is to convey the horror and evil of the Hunger Games, not to draw readers in with schlock. This novel has that rare compulsive page-turning quality.

The love triangle is somewhat cliché, but clichés can work too. The dilemma of feelings towards someone you may well have to kill, or see killed, is well done.

All in all, a superb novel that I raced through. The ending is a satisfying conclusion but leaves many questions unanswered. And so it is on to book two.

 

Reamde – Neal Stephenson

A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.

This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.

The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family,  is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.

While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

The book is subtitled “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen.” Part journey of self-discovery, part chronicle, part medical exposé, this extraordinary book starts with a quest by the author to figure out why it hurts when he runs. Thus begins a tale so incredible it seems like fiction, populated by weird and wonderful characters like La Brujita (The Little Witch), El Lobo Joven (the Young Wolf) and the incomparable Caballo Blanco (White Horse).

As he digs deeper into the ultra-marathon world, McDougall finally finds his answers in the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico, where a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara have honed the art of running on rocky, mountainous trails to perfection. In sandals.

The insights into running from an evolutionary and physiological standpoint are fascinating. Human beings are built to run, and they are not meant to do it in running shoes. Running should be fun and natural, not a slog or a chore. Children know this, so why do we forget as adults?

As my fortieth approaches, I have incidentally started to understand what the author is talking about. About a year ago, I started doing serious exercise including lots of running. A few months later, I chucked my running shoes in favor of a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, which have no cushioning at all. My aches and pains are gone and I run faster and better than I have ever done.

The author’s easy style and unobtrusive humor make this fascinating story a pleasure to read. If you’ve ever run or wanted to run more than a few metres, you should read this book. It may well change your life.

 

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut – Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane flew on three shuttle missions as a Mission Specialist. His autobiography is a frank portrayal of NASA and the Shuttle program through his eyes. It starts with a hilarious and eye-opening description of the astronaut selection process (I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes) and then takes the reader from Mullane’s childhood through his NASA career.

The book is not written for laughs, but there is a lot of humor involved in Mullane self-deprecating style. (Of course there are  serious moments as well, such as when dealing with the Challenger disaster.) The narrative reflects one man’s singularly obsessive passion for spaceflight, and what happened once he made his dreams come true. Mullane is open about his fears, but also about what drives men and women to crave spaceflight and torture themselves in order to achieve it. The book focuses in detailed fashion on many of the less glamorous, and less well-publicized, aspects of spaceflight, chief among them visits to the toilet but also what it is like to lie uncomfortably on your back for hours waiting for launch.

This book is a real treat and highly recommended even if you aren’t that interested in space travel.

 

Luftslottet som sprängdes (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) – Stieg Larsson

The final novel in the Millennium trilogy concludes the story begun in Flickan som lekte med Elden (The Girl who Played with Fire) and ties up the Salander arc started in Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The novel picks up right after the dramatic events surrounding the encounter between Zalachenko and Lisbeth Salander. Salander is arrested and spends most of the time in isolation, first in hospital and then in prison. At the same time Blomkvist and his cohorts work to set things straight, proving how the state has committed crimes against her and in the process unraveling a conspiracy deep within the Swedish secret police.

Despite the fact that much of the book consists of spy-novel maneuvering and exposition of past events, it is a total page turner, especially the second half. The suspense as good guys and bad guys try to outmaneuver each other is gripping and masterfully written. The character development of Salander is interesting, particularly her slow realization (helped along by her attorney and others) that if she wants the people around her and the state to consider her a competent adult she has obligations towards these people and the state. The state especially has repeatedly betrayed Salander, and she is thus understandably suspicious of the concept.

Due to the death of Stieg Larsson and the legal disputes surrounding his estate, we may never see the nearly finished fourth novel or six additional novels which he allegedly planned. A shame, perhaps, but the three published works are still rather neatly tied up. And in this way Larsson’s legacy will not be diluted. He will forever be remembered as a novelist at the top of his game, with no slow decline to mar the image.

For the record, I read it in the original Swedish.

A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge thinks big, strange and different.

A Fire Upon the Deep. Hi-tech meets lo-tech in a story with some rather interesting takes on physics and sentience. Don’t be surprised it you don’t understand anything for a hundred pages or so. It gets easier. A fantastic view of the universe, and amazing aliens. A great journey.

A Deepness in the Sky. Chronologically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep but apart from being in the same universe and having one character who appears in both they are completely unrelated. Interstellar travel is slow, and sometimes plans take decades to come to fruition. A mission to a mysterious star finds fascinating aliens who live on a planet with some pretty extreme climate. The mission itself is subverted by tyrants. The novel follows both the aliens and the humans as they both struggle towards the climactic conclusion: Contact!

The Honor Harrington Series – David Weber

Space Opera in the spirit of Horatio Hornblower. Action, adventure and all that. And really good. Although I feel that Weber has lately slackened off a little, and is given to perhaps excessive verbosity in his tangents, I still eagerly await each new release.

  • On Basilisk Station (HH I) – Arguably still the best Honor book. Lots of action, but also humor and great characters. This kind of editing would do the books after 6 good..
  • The Honor of the Queen (HH II) – An incredible ride.
  • The Short Victorious War (HH III) – Long on the action, short on the characters. But that’s fine 😉

  • Field of Dishonor (HH IV) – Weber shows how even Honor has a dark side, and it’s very dark.
  • Flag in Exile (HH V) – An interesting character study of Honor.
  • Honor Among Enemies (HHVI) – Perhaps my favorite Honor. A great story of redemption.

  • More than Honor (Anthology)
  • In Enemy Hands (HH VI) – Very exciting but not quite as good as books 1 through 6.
  • Echoes of Honor (HH VIII) – Great storyline, but unfortunately Weber’s style is slipping by this point, with overlong exposition and contrived dialogue among the still great action.

  • Worlds of Honor (Anthology)
  • Ashes of Victory (HH IX) – Losing steam, which unfortunately stays lost in “War of Honor”.
  • Changer of Worlds (Anthology)

  • War of Honor (HH X) – Pretty ho-hum compared to the others. Definitely an interim book.
  • The Service of The Sword (Anthology)
  • At All Costs (HH XI) – This definitely shows a partial comeback of Weber’s old form. Although he still hems and haws his way through dialogue, the action is great and the stakes are high.

Some of the stories in the anthologies contain background for later novels, so it is rather important to read them as part of the sequence.

Around War of Honor (HH X) The Honorverse branches off with the “Saganami Island” and “Crown of Slaves” series.

Red Lightning (Thunder and Lightning II) – John Varley

The sequel to the wonderful Red Thunder does not disappoint. A generation after the events of Red Thunder, the children of Ray Garcia and Kelly Strickland are growing up on Mars. An unexplained impact in the Atlantic and a consequent tsunami to dwarf all previous tsunamis are catalysts for the action. But this is not a disaster novel. It’s a novel about how Ray Garcia-Strickland grows from just another teenager into a man. Told strictly in Varley’s favored first person, we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent who wants to be a man but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. The tone is authentic and as usual Varley delivers on his characters. Thoroughly well imagined and believable, they feel like old friends by the end.

Varley’s novels, and especially the Red Thunder series, leave me with a feeling of well being after every section I read. The characters are so likeable and authentic it makes me want to be with them, in their world. Add to that the long section set in a fascism-leaning America logically and quite frighteningly extrapolated from today’s fear of terrorism as a convenient excuse for governmental power grabbing (the historical parallels are remarkably sinister), and it makes for a great novel.

Steel Beach – John Varley

This novel is set in Varley’s “Eight Worlds” Universe. It is the story, almost the chronicle, of Hildy Johnson, who also made an appearance in “The Golden Globe”. Steel Beach is the story of how Hildy Johnson didn’t commit suicide. That’s putting it crudely since the actual story is full of wonderful detail and nuance.

Hildy Johnson lives on Luna (the moon), a utopia with very long (perhaps even infinite) life, no real need to work and unprecedented personal freedom. Ironically, this personal freedom comes from having a very advanced Central Computer (the “CC”) run basically everything. Every citizen has a personal interface with he CC and can ask for any information at any time. Sex changes and other surgerical procedures are effortless and painless. Subcultures of all sorts thrive as people pursue what they really want to do. For example, large “Disney’s”, basically theme parks where you can even live, provide their inhabitants with life as it was in, say, an idealized Texas in the late 1800s. So life is pretty good. There’s just one problem: Hildy (who starts the novel as a man and ends it as a woman) keeps trying to commit suicide. The CC has noticed a rash of suicides and is trying to do something about them. He dragoons Hildy into helping him. Little does either know where this will land them or the rest of Luna.

The novel is about this, and much more. It is an exploration into what makes us human. Why do we live, exactly? What do we live for? Hildy is faced with the issue of having more or less infinite life ahead of him but no understanding of what he/she must do with it. The unbridled consumerism of Luna is not enough to give him/her purpose. And so he is endlessly seeking. Steel Beach is a wonderful exploration into the nature of humanity. But it is neither lecturing nor boring. The first person exposition is witty, whimsical, at times laugh out loud funny, while remaining insightful and interesting. I loved this book.

Contact – Carl Sagan

This novel is the story of a radio astronomer who manages to detect a signal from space, and what happens after. The scope is large, but Sagan keeps it going smoothly forward to the incredible conclusion. The discussion of science versus religion is well done, and lacks the bitter antagonism which could easily have creeped in. Fills you with a sense of wonder like few other books, and while it makes you feel small in the Universe, it nevertheless manages to convey a message of hope and love.

I also loved the movie. It was faithful to the spirit of the book, but given the time constraints it did not delve into the interesting details of the book. Also, it glosses over the important and very engrossing religion vs. technology discussion.

One of my favorite novels.

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This graphic novel is one of the classics for good reason. Well drawn and masterfully written, it is a tale of a disillusioned world and its disillusioned heroes. The heroes are well into middle age as they must unite again to save the world. Even if you are skeptical to the format, you should give Watchmen a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

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

A Civil Campaign – Lois McMaster Bujold

After the events of Komarr, Ekaterin returns to Barrayar to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Miles is more infatuated than ever. In the mist of the preparations for the Emperor’s wedding, he embarks on a campaign to win her heart. And screws up badly. Meanwhile, political intrigue lands him in trouble, and his brother Mark starts a bizarre business venture in the basement of Vorkosigan House. Much hilarity ensues.

McMaster Bujold herself describes Komarr as the romantic drama, while A Civil Campaign is the romantic comedy. It is definitely the funnies Vorkosigan book. The author was inspired by authors like Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen for this comedy of manners. It is definitely a melding of Science Fiction with those romantic styles, and brilliantly done. The infamous dinner party scene is one of the most inspired and funniest passages I have ever read. McMaster Bujold has a talent for putting her characters in the deepest trouble. She seems to revel in it, never protecting them from embarassment or injury. This makes for greatly engaging stories.

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

Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold

Now a permanent Imperial Auditor, Miles is sent to Barrayar’s subject planet of Komarr to investigate an “accident” on a solar mirror. The mirror is part of a centuries long projecto to terraform Komarr. Currently, Komarrans live in domed cities. Through a fellow auditor, he makes the acquaintance of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of a Barrayaran terraforming administrator. Miles is smitten. He must now solve the mystery of the accident, while sorting out his feelings for Ekaterin. Unfortunately, she is used as a pawn the by the sinister conspirators behind the accident when these move to enact their terrorist

I found Komarr absolutely stellar. Confident Miles is stepped back from the action a bit to make room for the conflicted character of Ekaterin. She seems everything he could wish for, but she is married and suspicious of men in general. A challenge worthy of our hero. McMaster Bujold manages to make her vulnerable and angry without making her weak and abrasive. By delving deep into the source of her unhappiness, McMaster Bujold lays out a character one cannot help but like despite her flaws. It is made clear how Ekaterin dug herself this hole. The sense of duty which noble Barrayarans so treasure has trapped her in a loveless marriage to a loser. The resolution, while bringing forth the “true” Ekaterin, does not end with “happily ever after”. The author acknowledges that life is not so simple, but without depriving us of a satisfying triumph.

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

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy; A Second Chance at Eden – Peter F. Hamilton

The trilogy itself consists of:

  • The Reality Dysfunction
  • The Neutronium Alchemist
  • The Naked God

There are also two ancillary volumes:

  • A Second Chance at Eden – short story collection
  • The Confederation Handbook – reference volume

In the USA, each volume of the trilogy was published in two parts, as evidenced by the thumbnails.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy is a huge story spanning over 4000 pages, in truth one massive multi-volume novel. It tells of a great evil that befalls the otherwise mostly peaceful but very interesting and multifaceted Federation. Everything changes as mankind faces its true self. As the external threat starts to seriously damage the foundations of civilization, the large differences between various human and alien factions make for an interesting backdrop to the struggle. Actually it is very difficult to describe Night’s Dawn in a few short sentences. The scope is quite breathtaking, there are many characters and the writing is impeccable. The only nagging complaint is the far too rapid conclusion. Hamilton seems to have been in a hurry to tie things up. Some might feel the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But in my opinion whatever you think of the ending, the journey is certainly worth it.

“The Confederation Handbook” reference can be practical to have lying around since there is a lot to keep track of.

The short story collection ”A Second Chance at Eden” is a fine companion to the trilogy. Although only a few of the stories are in the same universe, all of them are gems in their own right. Importantly, though, the title story gives some valuable background on how the Edenist Culture was founded.

These books have particularly gorgeous covers, thought US editions marred this a bit by darkening and altering the colors.

Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Gibson is not what you would call a prolific writer. Every now and then something dribbles out. The works are generally short, although the ultradesigned packaging can fool you into thinking otherwise. I am a huge fan of Neuromancer and his other early works. Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrows Parties were all good, but it felt like he was just showing off and not really putting his heart into the thing. Pattern recognition is much much better.

The story starts in London where our heroine has to deal with the peculiar and uniquely retro British way of constructing household appliances and home furnishings in general. The novel is quite simply put one of the best I have ever read. The elegance of Gibson’s inventive and very modern prose takes us into a world of branding and a mysterious body of footage which has spawned it’s own subculture. The heroine, Cayce Pollard (in-joke for Gibson fans is the way her first name is pronounced “Case”) is very likeable in her imperfections and phobias. The descriptions are flawless as we follow the action exclusively from her point of view.

Her friends are the colorful protagonists of the world in which we ourselves live. A world of global powermongers seeking influence, but not by the unfashionable means of violence. These persons, in Gibson’s trademark way only glimpsed from somewhere further down the food chain, are postmodern creatures, influencing without revealing themselves. Cayce herself has friends in many places, and like many of us now living in ***cliché warning*** an increasingly global society, we communicate via email for close friends, as well as chatrooms and message boards where we can easily find likeminded people, people who share a common interest. Larry Niven talked about how, in a society with instantaneous, cheap transportation, social clubs became increasingly important when men and women needed to anchor their lives socially as geographical roots became blurred. In the same way, Gibson explores how, with internet technologies it is quite possible, indeed necessary, today to be far from friends, but still very close.

So, a “lifestyle” piece from Gibson which absolutely fascinated me and sucked me in like few other books have. Cyberpunk, having been invented by Gibson himself way back in 1984, is alive and well as the most cutting edge way to be a spectator to our own world.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Probably the funniest book I have ever read. An angel and a demon, specifically the angel who guarded the gates of Eden and the demon who gave the apple to Eve, are now in charge of Great Britain. Over the millennia, they have pretty much decided that their lives will be a whole lot simpler if they stop fighting and instead fudge their reports to their respective superiors while getting on with living the good life. This all works fine until the Antichrist is due to be born. In England.

So funny it made my stomach ache from the laughter. The subtle, understated little English gems of humor are carefully woven into an engaging, and ultimately absurd (and absurdly good and funny) story. Does for me what Pratchett cannot do alone, which is to say suck me in and make me want to read it to the end.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.

The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.

Nova – Samuel R. Delany

I first read this book years and years ago as a teenager. I can still remember staying awake half the night, then finishing it the next evening. It is a magnificent grail quest of sorts, complete with manic captain, a demonic enemy, big stakes, a rich and varied past for the characters, and a fabulous setting. The ease with which the prose flows, and the believable and interesting situations and interactions make this one of SciFi’s masterpieces.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Joss Whedon et. al.

I came very late to Buffy. I watched the original movie, and thought it was vaguely fun but brainless, so that put me off. I now know that Joss Whedon hated what they had done with his script. After many positive comments on io9.com, I thought I would give the series a shot.

On the face of it, Buffy is a pretty silly show. A high school girl has a destiny. She is the latest in a long line of “Vampire Slayers” who keep the world safe from evil. Vampires and demons are real. All the classic tropes like wooden stakes, drinking blood, burning up in sunlight, crosses are also real. Very silly. But delving a bit deeper, one notices that Buffy isn’t just a copy of countless late night TV horror movies. It is an unexpectedly intelligent show with strong themes such as love lost, death, the danger of absolute power, hate and fear but despite all that is not afraid at poking fun at itself or the characters.

Buffy’s greatness comes from several factors. First is the subersion of classic tropes. In the typical horror movie scenario, the dumb but pretty blond is being chased by vampires, or demons, or zombies. She shrieks and dies a horrible death. In Buffy, the blond is pretty but certainly not dumb (granted, not very academically minded either). She turns around and kills the vampire. The series is full of this reversal of the accepted order of things, often done in a humorous ways. It thrives on our knowledge of pop culture, offering up recognition moments without just copying old ideas.

Second, The Slayer (capital T, capital S) starts out is a high school girl with a head full of boys, make-up and clothes shopping. She is not an aloof superhero, but an approachable teenager saddled with way more responsibility than she could ever want. Buffy is an action hero, but not like a man at all. She isn’t a strong woman who acts like a man. She is strong but still feminine. She is also strong because she must; becoming a hero very much against her will. She realizes that she must save the world regardless of the personal price to herself, since no one else can or will.

Third, it is an ensemble show with strong characters. The “Scoobies”, as Buffy’s friends call themselves, are not just sidekicks. They drive the show as much as she does. Buffy is protagonist but not lone gunman. In fact, the Scoobies often have more interesting character development than Buffy does. The interaction between the characters and the wonderfully witty dialogue makes scenes spring to life in an uncanny way.

Fourth, it is easy to identify with the characters and really feel for them. Empathy for the characters unfortunately seems to be an underrated quality in television. I tried to watch the pilot of Lost but after an hour I really thought everyone did deserve to die in the crash. On the other hand, shows like Friends, Firefly (Whedon again), Farscape, Babylon 5, Warehouse 13 and The West Wing get to me. The creators make me care about what happens to these people, despite the shows sometimes being weak in other areas.

Fifth is character development. Identification with the characters is not enough. There must be a real sense of character development. After watching all seven season of Buffy, I went back to episode one just for fun. I was shocked to see how the characters seemed so young and naive, so different from what they would become. It was like imagining I was a teenager again and looking forward to who I am now. Just like real people, Buffy and the Scoobies had changed, and their environment had changed around them. I had been dragged along in this process, watching the kids grow up and the adults watching them, frequently in despair.

Sixth, the creators aren’t afraid to make awful things happen to the characters. The fact that they make us care for them makes it poignant, even heartbreaking at times. At the same time, the love between the main protagonists becomes all the more beautiful because of the adversity they must face.

Seventh are the all-important story arcs. Shows that press the reset button after each episode (e.g. The Mentalist) can be fine, but will never be great. The story arcs that flow through Buffy are nothing short of astounding, with foreshadowing of themes and events sometimes three of four seasons before they happen. Despite that, this isn’t a show that requires note-taking or obsessive attention. It does not make the mistake of being only about the arc, and most of the episodes are just fine as standalones.

The eighth and final element is the dialog. It is snappy, witty, intelligent, and frequently interspersed with unexpected and clever little jokes. There is rarely boring exposition. The words feel as if they mean something, and go deeper than just moving the scene along.

The first season has its fair share of corniness, but right from the start, the characters and their interactions feel “real”. The dialog is witty and incisive, very often crossing over into brilliant. Most importantly, I started caring for Buffy and her friends in the very first episode. The first season certainly has weaknesses, including a couple of pretty crappy episodes, but there is enough fun to keep things going, as well as a strong feeling that this is a diamond in the rough. By the middle of the second season the show has hit its stride, evolving from its initial “Monster of the Week” format towards ever greater awesomeness.

I recommend Buffy to anyone who loves television. Yes, the subject matter is silly, but this show is both fun and engaging. If you give Buffy a chance she will amaze you.

If you are really skeptical I recommend getting a taste with one of the best episodes of television of all time: Season 4 episode 10 – “Hush”. In this one, the town of Sunnydale (where Buffy is set) is invaded by strange evil men who take away everyone’s ability to speak. For about half the episode, there is no dialogue at all! Despite this, the acting is stellar and the story gripping. The fact that the characters cannot speak, but it is perfectly clear what they are trying to say. Most shows can’t accomplish such clarity even with dialogue.

Good-bye Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Spike, Faith, Anya, Angel, Joyce, Tara, Dawn, Riley, Kennedy, Andrew, Principal Wood and the rest. But not farewell. I’ll come back to visit soon.