Ring of Fire – Eric Flint (Editor)

An anthology of stories set in the Assiti Shards Universe. I would recommend reading 1632 and 1633 before this one. The most interesting thing about the Assiti Shards Universe is it’s shared nature. Flint has only set the most general guidelines, and other authors (both professional and non) are free to develop their story lines as they see fit, even if they affect other story lines in a major way. Flint is thus the editor of an evolving history that he has much less than perfect control over. The interesting part of the experiment is that it very much mirrors real history, which is non linear and chaotic.

1633 – David Weber & Eric Flint

The sequel to 1632, not unexpectedly titled 1633, is just as good as the first novel, if not better. Mr Flint now has the cooperation of David Weber. For the experienced Weber fan, this is discernible in the sometimes slightly long-winded expositions on politics and religion. No matter. The book is very good, especially the last ten chapters. The theme of predestination (or lack of it) is very well developed and thought provoking. The battle scenes are, as one would expect, very well written. The trademark Flint humor is still there, along with, sometimes, a certain gravitas.

1632 – Eric Flint

1632 is the story of how a West Virginia mining town gets transported to Germany in the time of that most horrible of conflicts, The Thirty Years War.

While it may be slightly formulaic and cliché at times, and not at all as sophisticated as S.M. Stirling, the characters are quite likeable and the story is high adventure at its best. It is easy to think that that the twentieth century was the worst when it came to savagery, but the the people of the seventeenth century were just as bad, if not so systematic, about their cruelty. It is hinted in the book that the death of Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus for non Swedes) at Lützen eventually led to the creation of modern Germany and thus, the two World Wars. While this may seem a bit farfetched, I find myself by and large agreeing with the thesis. But I digress. 1632 is just plain fun, easily read in a day or two.

Ministry of Space – Warren Ellis, Chris Weston & Laura Martin

This graphic novel assumes that the British gained rocketry knowledge after WWII instead of the Americans and Soviets. The British Empire prevails and establishes a substantial space presence. The art is crisp and brings to mind of 1950s space visions. The plot and characters are caricatures of the British. Lots of daring and stiff upper lip. Plenty of fun but it felt a little short.

The Belisarius Series – David Drake & Eric Flint

Military SciFi/Alternate history in which an evil empire appears in India in the fifth century. Famous historical general Belisarius receives a warning from the future and must counter the threat. This series goes deeper into philosophical and poetical tangents than similar works. Eric Flint’s classic wry humour pervades the prose. The books can almost be read as historical novels and contain quite a few interesting tidbits about the period. The series consist of:

  • An Oblique Approach
  • In The Heart of Darkness
  • Destiny’s shield
  • Fortune’s Stroke
  • The Tide of Victory
  • The Dance of Time

The sixth and final book, The Dance of Time came out over two years late and seems a bit of a late addition. It tied up all the loose ends neatly, even though the actual conclusion to the conflict was foregone by this time. However, the habit of the authors to show off their characters’s cleverness, while only a minor annoyance in the first five volumes, really grated on my nerves in the sixth book. Endless uses of “Why not?” and equally endless enumerations of “how cool are we” items both in the exposition and the dialogue are just plain bad style. Still and all, a satisfying conclusion.

Time’s Eye – Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Like 2001 and it’s sequels, “Time’s Eye” is driven by the intervention in human affairs by unknowable and very powerful alien beings. In a flash, the Earth is divided up in chunks from different times. A UN helicopter crew from 2037, a British Colonial detachment in Afghanistan, the armies of Alexander the great and Genghis Khan are all shoved together onto the same Earth, in the same general area. Overlooking these humans and their reactions to the discontinuity are reflecting spheres hovering above the ground, inscrutable and silent.

While there is some focus on attempting to solve the mystery of the events which have brought the protagonists to this, the main thrust of the story is rather typical alternate history fare, much like 1632 or Island in the Sea of Time. Frankly this aspect has been done better. I did find, however, that Clarke and Baxter manage to infuse the characters with a sense of their place in time and space. Unlike many other alternate history stories, this one does not revel in, or lose itself in, the practicalities of the events. Sure, the “modern” humans introduce the stirrup and steam engines, but unlike with Stirling (who, to be fair, I much enjoy reading) the alternate history angle does not seem to be the actual point.

Time’s eye shows hints of what the superhuman beings behind the “Eyes” are actually doing. It is cruel indeed, but seen as necessary. So do the means really justify the ends?

 

The Draka Series – S.M. Stirling

The series consists of four novels, though the first three are now published in one omnibus entitled The Domination.

  • Marching through Georgia
  • Under the Yoke
  • The Stone Dogs
  • Drakon

The series can really shake you up. It is set in an alternate history in which the Crown Colony of the Cape (what later became modern day South Africa) becomes a powerful nation. This “Domination of the Draka” is utterly elitist and wishes to subjugate all other races to the white master race. It is also fiercely expansionist. At the time of our own timeline’s Second World War, the Domination drives a wedge between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany by invading through the Caucasus. The Domination then proceeds to conquer all of Europe and Asia (except for India), adding these territories to its African holdings. These events are detailed in the first book. The second book is about a spy expedition into Draka territory by the “Alliance for Freedom”, basically what is left of the free world (America and India). It is not quite as good as the rest of the series, and on rereading I have skipped over it completely as it is not essential to the story. The third book is about the final showdown between the two powers. The Alliance is more powerful in technology and the physical sciences, while the Domination, mostly thanks to a scruple free approach to human experiments (they’re just serfs, after all) is very advanced in genetics and bioengineering. The Draka win the war, and the “free” humans mount a last-ditch escape for a precious few to a nearby solar system.

Drakon is a change of pace. In a Draka future, the master race experiments with portals into alternate timelines. A Draka (daughter of the protagonists from The Stone Dogs) is stranded in one of these timelines (our own) and attempts to subjugate it to her will. This novel is much smaller in scope than the other three, but it remains a great read.

The scary thing about the Draka books is that you can easily find yourself rooting for “the bad guys”. These aren’t Hitler’s Nazis. The Draka want an ordered society and a life which does not use up the Earth’s resources without replenishing them. They do not see their use of “serfs” as immoral and they are not given to pettiness. Only ruthlessness. So apart from spinning a great yarn, Stirling is trying to tell us that many would choose the Draka way of life if they had the chance (well, the chance to be Draka). The Draka create an earthly paradise after their victory, and the average standard of living and intelligence of ALL men, including serfs, actually improves after the Draka victory. The series is controversial in this manner and really makes you think about some big issues. It is also a great military science fiction read.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore & David Lloyd

A dystopian graphic novel about a post nuclear war fascist England by the same writer as the incredible Watchmen. The art is very different from that work, however. To go with the setting, it is unusual for a comic strip. No thought bubbles, no sound effects, just a washed out gray style that is purposefully unnerving.

The main character, V, is a larger than life anti-hero who fights back against the fascist regime in traditional terrorist fashion, or so it seems. But this terrorist understands the people, and really serves as a catalyst for the change brewing under the surface anyway. A great story on many levels.

Beyond the cool factor of this graphic novel is the hard-hitting social commentary, the deep understanding of human nature, and the interesting conclusion. It is a scary thing how true the setting rings.

V for Vendetta was adapted into a movie with Natalie Portman, which I found very much captured the themes of the novel. While using film imagery to great effect, it didn’t hollywoodize the story into a washed down puddle of great visuals without substance, but dared to be stark and shocking like the novel.

Children of Apollo – Mark R. Whittington

In this alternate history novel, a CIA analyst figures out that by 1969, the space program is having a small but noticeable negative effect on he Soviet economy. Nixon, who never has to resign, decides to massively expand the space program. As the years pass, we follow spies, politicians and astronauts in the years following the first moon landing. While there certainly is a lot of wishful thinking in the plot, with Apollo missions continuing to 23, with private space stations and space shuttles in the seventies, it has a solid foundation. If NASA funding had remained at Apollo levels or increased, we might well have seen all those things.

This book, for me, represents the best and worst about self publishing. The best because sometimes good books simply are not picked up by publishing houses, and this one deserved to be published. The worst because a commercial publisher would have cleaned up the prose and made this book really shine.

The plot is really good. Well crafted. Exciting. Good pacing. But the text is rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I didn’t count them but I estimate more than one per page on average. Even a mediocre copy editor could have fixed 99% of the problems with the text. Now, if this book had been crappy in general, I wouldn’t have cared. But it is actually a great story. Thus, my frustration stems from the fact that a very good book is dragged down by easily fixable stuff, most of which a word processor would have picked up. That’s just plain sloppy.

Some examples of what I mean: Berkeley is incorrectly spelled “Berkly”. Camaro is spelled “Camero”. Taut is spelled “taunt”. Aide is spelled “Aid”. Applause is spelled “applauds”. Champagne is spelled “champaign”. Asti Spumante is spelled “Asti Spurmanti”. Las Cruces is spelled “Las Cruzus”. Alan Shepard (the astronaut) is spelled “Alan Shepherd”. To add insult to injury, the author does actually spell that name correctly once. Baikonour is spelled in three ways in the book, all incorrect. Grammar errors include phrases like “going to fight for if-no when-you send me to Congress.” Stylistically, there are gems like “They looked at each other in for a moment, sharing the awful truth they had just shared.”

Then we have the technical errors. I will grant that the author is not an aerospace expert but since the book is about the space program one would think he could get the basics right. Finding a pilot to answer a few questions would have greatly improved the test flight passages. Certainly no pilot would ever “jerk the joystick”. There’s no jerking involved. In fact no pilot would EVER call it a “joystick”. It’s just a stick. ARGH!

Finally, we have the politics. Whittington makes Democrats/liberals out to be misguided and short sighted while Republicans lead America to a brighter future. Even though I might not completely agree, I have no problem with the sentiment being expressed. However, it is all so heavy-handed that it weighs down the plot.

In conclusion. I would say that Mr. Whittington has some real talent. What he needs is a real editor to review the text before publication. Without the errors and with a few style adjustments, this one could have scored four or more Rosbochs.

Red Moon – David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton

The plot of this story is set in 2019, with humans back on the Moon looking for fusion power fuel, and also in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, at the height of the Moon race. As things fall apart during a Moon mission in 2019, a NASA scientist must travel to Moscow to find out about a mysterious spacecraft found on the Moon. He uncovers a deep conspiracy about the Cold War Soviet space program. Back then, unknown cosmonaut Grigor Belinsky is maneuvered into taking on an unthinkable mission.

I freely admit that I am a sucker for the subject matter. Secret Moon missions? Blending fact and fiction about the Moon Race? Oh my! I just had to read this book. It delivered beyond my wildest expectations. Unlike the deeply disappointing “Children of Apollo“, another independent publication in the genre, “Red Moon” is masterfully crafted. The plot is intelligent and elegant beyond words and moves powerfully towards a breathless climax. Not since early Clancy novels have I read something with this kind of page-turning power combined with depth.

And the characters! Belinsky feels so alive, so real. He is a classic tragic hero, his inevitable fate sealed by his deep drive and desire to do the right thing in an evil world. The whole way Russians are described is so spot on, showing their poetic and melancholy side, their deeply emotional selves, in a way that few Western thrillers manage. What a book! It satisfies on many levels, with the sprinkling of culturally rooted mysticism, the slice-of-life vignettes from the 60s and the believable, three-dimensional characters lifting what could have been just a competent thriller into the realm of the sublime.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.