Pyramid Power (Pyramid II) – Eric Flint & David Freer

PyramidPowerThe sequel to Pyramid Scheme takes place shortly after the first book. Our heroes are adapting to life on Earth, or back on Earth as the case may be, when agents from the newly constituted Pyramid Security Agency (PSA) decide to start operations in the mythworlds. Needless to say, things quickly go awry. The PSA embodies all the worst about hastily created government agencies, and is a clear reference to the Homeland Security Agency as a kneejerk reaction to 9/11. Our heroes find themselves not back in mythical Greece or Egypt, but in the Norse world of myth, populated by such classics as Thor, Odin and Loki.

Just like the previous book, this one is written with tongue quite firmly in cheek. Awful puns and funny situations are de rigueur. Sadly the story itself is somewhat muddled, and I had a hard time following the twists and turns, many of which took place off-screen and were then presented as faits accomplis.

2½Rosbochs

Portal (Boundary III) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

PortalAfter the debacle at the end of Threshold, our heroes plus the few survivors of the EU ship Odin are marooned on Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a liquid ocean underneath a globe-spanning icecap. The first half of the book focuses mainly on survival, while the second deals with the exploration of the Europan icecap and the obligatory thrilling cliffhanger.

This book is almost a throwback to old school “explore the solar system” science fiction. The struggle for survival itself becomes the subject of examination and discussion, but without becoming boring. The Universe is light and cheery and full of wonder despite its many dangers. The fleshed out characters make things come alive. The dialogue may sometimes be cheesy, but it always feels authentic. Real people don’t always spout cool one-liners, and some real people love horrid puns. The physics are real and well researched; I have learned more about ice behavior in low pressure and temperature than I thought I needed to know, but it was interesting. As with the previous installment, the story was on the light side, especially the conspiracy subplot. Also as with the previous installment, I liked this book more than it probably deserved simply because it is a joy to be with the characters on their fantastic adventures.

4Rosbochs

The Thrawn Trilogy – Timothy Zahn

So what happened after The Return of the Jedi? This series answers the question. If you are a Star Wars fan, you will want to pick this up. The writing won’t win any literary awards, much in the same way that the movies were not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but who cares? It’s action with all those characters that we have come to know and love. The series consists of :

  • Heir to the Empire
  • Dark Force Rising
  • The Last Command

 

The Apocalypse Troll – David Weber

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quantum Connection (Warp Speed II) – Travis S. Taylor

Computer geek Steven Montana was left alone in the world after the secret war in Warp Speed. Life is looking up as he gets a job for the government working on top secret stuff. Then it all goes to hell as he is abducted by aliens (again, as it turns out). At that point, the story changes scope significantly, as Steven hooks up with the protagonists of Warp Speed and they fight a war for the survival of humanity in a hostile galaxy.

This format of this novel is Heinleinian romp straight out of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. But there are differences. All the science is cutting edge, with quantum entanglement, computer agents and nanomachines to name but a few things. The generally positive outlook on humanity and charming naif tone from the prequel remain. Steven is an archetypal good guy who gets the intelligent and pretty girl (how the latter happens is a bit unusual, but still). It is also a novel of how opportunity for personal growth and turning yourself around can lurk behind the most unlikely corner.

Just like it’s predecessor, this one was immensely enjoyable. It is pure, shameless fun. The characters are perhaps a bit over the top but it feels as if the author does this very much on purpose, with a glint of mischief in his eye. All the Golden Age clichés are treated with respect and irreverence both, as this book harkens back to a simpler time, reminding us that goold old fashioned heroes can help us navigate today’s more complex moral landscape.

Warp Speed (Warp Speed I) – Travis S. Taylor

Our hero, Anson Clemens, invents a warp drive, falls in love with a shuttle pilot, goes to space to try the warp drive and starts World War III, just to name a few things. There certainly is a lot of action, both up close and personal and on the macro scale.

At least in the beginning, the plot of this novel is somewhat similar to The Getaway Special. It also has similarities to The Trigger in that a revolutionary new technology has consequences unforeseen in both type and magnitude. The main character has much in common with the main character of Ringo’s Into the Looking Glass, for which Taylor and Ringo co-wrote the sequels. And then there are the quite overt Heinleinian nods. Taylor should not be thought of as a copycat, however. He simply took his inspiration from some very good places. I was pleased to see the connections, even if I don’t think that all of them were intentional.

The beginning of the book was unauspicious. I felt a vague dislike for the main character and his almost cliché existence (supersmart physicist, mountain biker, karate champion, quirky sense of humor, distracted scientist persona) but that soon passed. Taylor has even been accused of fanservice with Anson Clemens. I will agree with his rebuttal that there are quite a few amazing people out there and that heroes do not tend to be average and that there is a indeed place for real heroes. Anson Clemens and the astronaut Tabitha Ames are definitely such exceptional people. The people surrounding them are equally pretty amazing. This may seem like a bit too much of a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Really smart people will surround themselves with other smart people. If they can work as a team, fantastic things tend to pop out the other end. Just look at the Apollo Program. Was there ever such a large collection of supersmart geeks anywhere? Besides, it’s fiction, and in this case good fiction to boot.

I really liked this book. I stayed up until three in the morning reading it. It is lighthearted and the main character is unpretentious. It is a definite page turner. Finally, it takes off in unexpected directions without feeling random, just like the best John Varley books. After finishing it, I had a big grin on my face.

This is the debut novel by Taylor, a guy who really is a rocket scientist. He has no less than five science degrees in various denominations and flavors.

The Peshawar Lancers – S.M. Stirling

This singleton is set in the year 2025, but not in our future. The premise is that a shower of comets hit Earth in the 1860’s, pushing civilization to the brink of extinction both by the impacts themselves and related general cooling. The British Empire relocated its seat to Delhi, and the story takes place in what is India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in our timeline. The Empire is ruled by the Angrezi Raj, or King-Emperor.

This is classic swords and horses adventure. Very gripping, with some great characters. The middle of the book was a little “unfocused”, and Stirling could have added dates to the section headings, since there is a bit of jumping backwards and forwards. The end is one long drawn-out cliffhanger after another. As usual, Stirling proves that he knows his history, weapons and tactics. A real page turner and recommended for for high adventure buffs

The Nantucket Series – S.M. Stirling

This alternate history series consists of:

  • Island in the Sea of Time
  • Against the Tide of Years
  • On the Oceans of Eternity

The island of Nantucket and the Coast Guard barque Eagle are mysteriously sent back in time to around 1000 BC. Being too small a society for self-sufficience, the inhabitants (including many seasonal visitors) must go out in the world and survive using technology and cunning. Epic adventure, well researched and well written.

Note: Stirling’s Emberverse series is connected to the Nantucket series since the event that sends Nantucket back in time also triggers the “Change” in Emberverse.

Boundary (Boundary I) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

The title “Boundary” refers to the K-T Boundary, an event 65 million years ago in which a large number of species, most famously including the dinosaurs, became extinct, probably due to the impact of a meteor. A group of paleontologists find a very strange fossil grouping, with bizarre anomalies including what look like bullets. The fossil sits right on the Boundary, meaning it is from the time of the event. A little later, the first mission (unmanned) to Mars’ moon Phobos reveals an abandoned, and ancient, alien base. The space program is accelerated to allow a large scale manned mission to Phobos and Mars.

This is the kind of adventure novel that I really love. Engineering, science, fun characters, and a great plot. A journey of discovery with a good sprinkling of old fashioned sense of wonder. It is not without its flaws, however. The dialog is often stilted. There is no deep exploration of interpersonal relationships as the characters mesh far too well. Love and friendship sprout in neat couplings and groups. I enjoyed this book a lot, but it could have had a bit more depth.

River God; Warlock – Wilbur Smith

These books are both set in ancient Egypt. The descriptions are quite good and adequately set the scene for epic battles to save the nation and the royal family.

While the stories themselves are pretty decent, Smith’s style can be summed up in one word: Wordcrapper! Argh! Descriptions of feelings in epic prose are all well and good, but Smith just needs to learn to shut up and move on!

Triplanetary – E.E. “Doc” Smith

The Lensman series is considered the mother of all space opera, and it all begins with Triplanetary, which is a series of three vaguely related novelettes, the first one concerning the fall of Atlantis. In the second one, a spaceliner is attached by a pirate. The pirate in turn is attacked by aliens intent on grabbing all our iron (no, really…) and a few corny heroes have adventures.

Many science fiction greats including Michael J. Straczynski to Peter F. Hamilton (who told me so personally) see the Lensman series as one of the main reasons they entered the field. My problem: I hated this book. The technology and science stuff very dated, but that shouldn’t stop a good story. Certainly Jules Verne is still good over a century later. In Triplanetary, there is no rhyme, reason or consistency. Our heroes always seem to have the correct device when they need it. This removes any sense of suspense. It feels like an old black and white Flash Gordon television serial. While that was good stuff when I was nine, now it just seems corny and silly. Yawn.

Inexplicably, the first edition that I sampled skips more than half of the original “Triplanetary”, which is not so much a novel as a collection of three novelettes, skipping directly to the middle one. There is also an unrelated Smith novel as the second half of this book. I have since found the original text but just as before I could not get through it.

Pyramid Scheme (Pyramid #1) – Eric Flint & Dave Freer

A mysterious pyramid appears in the University of Chicago Library. It starts “snatching” people at random. Almost all return within a few hours, dead or nearly so. Then a larger group is snatched. They end up in a mythical version of ancient Greece.

This romp through Greek myth (with a brief detour in Egyptian myth) by a haphazardly composed gang of modern humans is a great deal of fun. The concept is very clever and thankfully the authors don’t take the whole thing too seriously. Heroics, adventures and awful puns!

A Talent for War – Jack McDevitt

One of the earliest McDevitt novels, about investigating the truth behind a historical legend. The premise is interesting. A chance death leaves behind an inheritance and clues to a mystery.

Unfortunately it is really really boring. The characters and the locales are forgettable, and the thrust of the story is dull. I gave up after about a hundred pages.

The Rampart Worlds Trilogy

While the Exiles Saga and the Galactic Milieu Trilogy are among my favorites, May has for a far less grandiose approach here. The characters are well rounded and her elegant prose flows smoothly. Unfortunately, the story is not very engaging. Still worth a read, especially as the third book is qualitatively above the first two. My main problem with the novels is that May is just a bit too in love with the main character, and he seems to be good at everything. There’s never any big question that things are going to be all right. Fun though.

  • Perseus Spur
  • Orion Arm
  • Sagittarius Whorl

On a side note, the covers are simply magnificent, especially on the UK edition.

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs is better known for his Tarzan books, but he actually shot to fame with the John Carter books (starting with this one) about the adventures of a Civil War veteran from Virginia on Mars.

These books have a big role in SciFi folklore. While the adventure is engaging, I found the character of John Carter himself (the novel is narrated in the first person) a bit off-putting. He is rather full of himself as only an expert in self deprecation can be. Perhaps it is just a bit too dated for me. So while the old fashioned writing style was manageable, I was a bit disappointed with the whole thing due to the annoyingly condescending attitudes displayed. It is high adventure in any case, complete with absurd situations and plenty of flirts with deus ex machina.

Back to the Moon (Space Excursions I) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.

Threshold (Boundary II) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Our friends from Boundary are back in a pretty direct sequel to the first book. The race is on to find more Bemmie bases. The Ares Project, despite having managed to get a foothold on Mars, is strapped for cash and resources. With some clever maneuvering they manage to get both, and set off towards first Ceres, then Enceladus.

The first book was nicely crafted, with excellent character development. This second one feels much more forced, especially the first half. I really enjoyed going back and seeing what the gang was doing after the previous story ended, but was a bit disappointed at the lack of a strong story. This series will never be “heavy” but it needed a bit more than this effort. That being said, it harkens back to adventure science fiction from an earlier time, before all the dark and broody bits that are so in vogue nowadays. And so I still liked this book more than it perhaps deserves. The ending wasn’t quite a cliffhanger but certainly lacked resolution, leaving the door wide open for a sequel. Yes please.