Mort (Discworld IV) – Terry Pratchett

Mort is a smart teenager who doesn’t quite fit in on the family farm. His father takes him to the job fair to find him an apprenticeship. He is finally selected, by Death, the Grim Reaper. Mort learns how to help the dead pass to the other side, how to walk through walls, and other useful skills. He gets to know Death’s daughter (adopted) and the butler. Then Death takes a break for night and Mort does something ill-advised, because, as teenagers are wont to do, he becomes infatuated.

From the very clever premise stems a story about growing into your own self. Mort goes from subservient apprentice shoveling horse dung to young man of principle and action. Disguised behind Mr. Pratchett’s smoothly ironic, deadpan style and many, many hilarious situations is an insightful treatise on the nature of life, death and personal development. The scenes when Death tries out various human activities like fishing or attending a job interview are laugh-out-loud funny, cleverly exposing how most things that humans do are, in fact, quite silly in one way or another.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers III) – Becky Chambers

In the first two Wayfarers books, the Exodan fleet is an mentioned as background, but now Ms. Chambers takes us on a deep dive into Exodan culture. The great generation ships of the fleet launched centuries prior, as humanity fled a dying Earth. They eventually made contact with the Galactic Commons, and collectively make up a very different human society compared to the Martian one which remained in Sol System and eventually colonised other star systems. The novel follows a few Exodans in what are almost separate short novelettes loosely intertwined.

As with the two previous books, there is no strong plot. Rather, an exploration of interpersonal relationships and a deep dive into a very particular society. Nevertheless, the reader is drawn in, and how! Starting with the often mundane everyday activities of the protagonists, Ms. Chambers weaves a sublime web exploring the nature of existence, meaning and emotional attachment. The funeral scene in particular is a powerful piece of writing which left this reader in tears of both joy and sadness. Key to the stories is how the characters develop and move forward, pushed by both their environment and their own internal motivations.

Shooting the Rift – Alex Stewart

ShootingTheRiftSimon is the son of a naval officer on a world with Victorian gender roles, except the gender roles are reversed with males being the inferior gender. He is a screwup and has just been kicked out of University, much to the disappointment of his family. He ends up on a merchant spaceship with the Commerce Guild, where his skills as a hacker get him into and out of trouble at regular intervals.

It is a measure of the dullness of this book that the day after I put it down, I couldn’t remember the name of the main character. The gender reversal would have been more interesting if there had been anything to it but the reversal. The dialogue is flat and even the supposedly “controversial” gene modified characters are uninspiring. I kept waiting for the story to go anywhere but nothing seemed to be happening. Despite a concerted effort after half the book I never picked it back up.

2Rosbochs

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

 

Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning IV) – John Varley

ThunderandLightning4DarkLightningAt the end of Rolling Thunder, the great asteroid starship Rolling Thunder leaves the solar system led by the extended Garcia-Strickland-Broussard clan. The ship is a classic hollow rotating cylinder, propelled to a high fraction of the speed of light by the mysterious squeezer-bubble technology invented by Jubal in Red Thunder. As with previous installments in the series, we again jump forward a generation. The story is told in the first person by identical twins Cassie and Polly, daughters of Jubal and Podkayne. After one of Jubal’s regular exits from stasis in a “black bubble”, he screams that the ship must be stopped. Eventually he figures out that Dark Energy (catchily referred to as “Dark Lightning” in the book) may be a danger when traveling at a very high percentage of the speed of light. However as always with Varley, the story is about the people. Jubal’s scream of “Stop the Ship!” triggers shipwide unrest, and the twins are the ones who have to sort things out.

In true Varley form, the worldbuilding is first-class, detailed and intricate. The characters are authentic and easily engage the imagination. The twins are in their late teens, and as such their commentary is peppered with talk of boys and fashion, but without being annoying. Mostly it is just plain funny. After the pessimistic tone of Red Lightning and very gloomy one of Rolling Thunder, it is also nice to read an installment in the series with a brighter outlook.

4½Rosbochs

Divergent (Divergent I) – Veronica Roth

Divergent1DivergentIn a post-apocalyptic Chicago, humans are divided into five factions. Amity grows crops and pursues simple happiness and friendship. Candor resolves disputes and pursues honesty. Abnegation helps people, rules without seeking power, and pursues selflessness. Erudite pursues knowledge. Dauntless defends the city, keeps order and pursues bravery. Many have no faction, and are second class citizens. When a faction member turns sixteen he or she must choose a faction, with an aptitude test for guidance. Most stay with their own faction, but some transfer. Beatrice is a young Abnegation. After her test results show her to be Divergent, that is not showing aptitude for any faction and rather too independent-minded for her own good, she chooses Dauntless. Most of the book is about her initiation into Dauntless, on the surface a half-mad group of daredevils who believe in bravery before anything. But trouble is brewing among the factions. While the faction system has kept the peace for generations, tensions have inevitably grown, and are about to release.

Fair warning. This is young adult fiction and you have to squint quite a bit to see past the logic holes of the faction system (who keeps those trains running?) but Ms. Roth does not invite us to peer too deeply into the inner workings. In any case that would be missing the point, which is to delve into how humans cannot be so deeply constrained by a society. Who can say at sixteen what he will choose as a lifestyle and vocation for the rest of his life? The background of the factions, and especially of a new faction from the protagonist’s point of view, illustrate how difficult growing up can be if you don’t fit it.

Tris as a young protagonist is rather classic. A girl who finds her inner bravery. However the way she is written in the first person present is excellent, especially the moments of deep terror and fear. Ms. Roth has infused Beatrice with tangible and realistic personal growth.

While it rather light reading, I quite enjoyed this novel.

4Rosbochs

The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2) – Patrick Rothfuss

TheKingKillerChronicle2TheWiseMansFearIn the second book of The Kingkiller Chronicle, the memoir of Kvothe continues. He studies at The University; he travels to distant lands to seek patronage, he meets with legendary beings, and he is trained in the martial arts. In the present time, however, odd things are happening.

While The Name of the Wind is a great book in its own right, in The Wise Man’s Fear it feels as if Mr. Rothfuss is truly spreading his wings. Threads and references thought lost and forgotten in the first book are brought back to light, re-examined, re-evaluated and given new interesting shades of meaning. The adventures of Kvothe are fascinating and thought-provoking, keeping the reader turning the page. And yet that reader is constantly left wondering what happened between then and now. The tension in the present is palpable in the brief interludes with Chronicler.

Mr. Rothfuss skillfully weaves themes surrounding the complicated relationships between legend and reality, truth and fiction, innermost desire and actual power. At just over 1000 pages, this is a long book, but just like the first one it has a terrific page-turning quality.

5Rosbochs

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1) – Patrick Rothfuss

TheKingkillerChronicle1TheNameoftheWindKote, whose real name is Kvothe,  is an innkeeper with a storied past that he keeps secret. His exploits are the stuff of legend. Frequently wildly inaccurate legend, but with a core of truth. One day he starts telling his story to a man known as Chronicler. The novel leaps back in time as the reader enters Kvothe’s developing memoir, back to his childhood as a traveling trouper, when he was also informally apprenticed to an Arcanist. So begins the storied life of Kvothe. Our protagonist learns magic, but it does not mean he immediately becomes powerful. His story is one of poverty and constant struggle. He is a supreme intellectual genius but this leads him into trouble more often than not.

The world of Kvothe is certainly fantasy, but very low-key in terms of magic and mythical creatures. These things exist but are rare. And while common folk attribute many happenings to demonic forces, magic is treated as science by the more enlightened people of the age. There are no Gandalf-style wizards with unexplained and inconsistent powers, but learned men who study at a University in order to harness what most see as supernatural forces. There is even a version on The Enlightenment, as it is mentioned that only a few centuries earlier, Arcanists were burned at the stake, but in the present time they are more accepted. I enjoyed this “scientific method” take on fantasy very much.

The story is very strictly from Kvothe’s perspective in the form of his memoir, apart from the brief parts in the “present day” parts told in the third person, and even those follow Kvothe without other viewpoints. This makes for a very focused story without a wider “epic happenings” perspective. Even events that potentially could be monumental to the world at large are seen through our hero’s eyes, making them very personal.

This novel is perhaps overlong. It is an excellent read, but sometimes I feel that the meanderings could have been culled somewhat. On the other hand, it ended somewhat without actually ending. There was no satisfying end of an era, just an abrupt discontinuation before the reader inevitably must move on the next book in the series.

4½Rosbochs

Half Share (Trader’s Tales of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper II) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper2HalfShare

The second book in the series picks up exactly where Quarter Share left off. Ishmael transfers from the galley to environmental. He also starts to come to terms with women and relationships with such.

As in the first book, there is no imminent danger and there are no action scenes. Mr. Lowell has a knack for making ordinary pursuits interesting, but his dialogue flirts with cheesiness rather too often. The second half of the book is a departure. In no time flat, Ishmael goes from normal uncertain eighteen-year old to hunk with perfect pick-up lines. The transformation is too fast and well over the top. To compound the problem, our teenage hero is seemingly the perfect man. He has no flaws and everyone likes him, especially women. Having said that, the characters, cheesy and somewhat unrealistic as they often are, certainly come alive on the page. I did feel a strong bond with the denizens of the SC Lois McKendrick, and I do want to find out what happens to them next.

2½Rosbochs

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

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipperIQuarterShareTeenager Ishmael Wang’s mother dies suddenly and as a result he has ninety days before he is booted off the company-owned planet where he lives. One of the few options he has is to join the merchant navy.

This book purposefully eschews space opera staples like aliens, ship-to-ship battles and other disasters for a less spectacular story of hard work and dedication leading to success. While it could have been boring, I found myself rather enjoying young Ishmael’s adventures in normality. The trading between stars brought back fond memories to the hours I spent playing Elite and Frontier: Elite II way back when. Certainly this is not a gripping space adventure, but it is a fun diversion despite the oftentimes wooden dialogue.

3Rosbochs

Apollo’s Outcasts – Allen Steele

ApolllosOutcastsJamey Barlowe is a teenager with such weak bone structure that he cannot walk unsupported. This is because he was born on the Moon. He is roused from sleep and hurriedly taken to a space launch facility along with his sisters. The Vice President of the United States has come to power due to the mysterious death of the President. As becomes apparent, she is a bit of a nut and, among other things, wants to imprison Jamey’s space scientist father due to his signing a petition regarding the space program. Jamey and one of his sisters are sent to safety on the massive Moon base Apollo, established to mine Helium-3 for power generation. And so begins Jamey’s adventure, with a looming confrontation with the United States on the horizon.

It dawned on me after a few pages that this was Young Adult fiction. After a few more pages I noticed that it was clearly inspired by Heinlein’s “juveniles”. Not a bad place to start.  The story is a not too complex bildungsroman. Jamey meets girl. Jamey’s best friend meets girl. They have to acclimatize to life on the Moon. They have military training on the Moon. The base is attacked.

It is a lightweight read even for a Young Adult novel, and despite the elaborate Moonbase setting some things kept nagging at me. Despite Steele’s effort to introduce at least some modern trappings, it seemed as if these kids were stuck with current technology and the social mores of the 1980s. Given that the novel takes place in 2097, I think it is safe to assume that there would be more advances than a Moonbase and some cell phone technology that could come on the market in 2014. I also wondered why people still listen to the radio in cars (which at least drive themselves) the way they do today, or why they have landlines. Another point was that Steele confused weight and mass in zero gravity. He might just have been trying to simplify but even Young Adult science fiction should get it right.

2½Rosbochs

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

ReadyPlayerOneThe year is 2044. Human civilization is hanging on by a thread. Recession, energy crisis, disillusionment, unemployment, starvation and poverty have reigned for decades. The only escape most people have is in a massive interactive simulation, the OASIS. The OASIS is also where most people work, a virtual universe with everything from shopping malls to space monsters. Thirteen year old Wade has grown up in a slum and has nothing to show for himself but being a geeky kid with some computer skills when OASIS co-founder and creator James Halliday dies, leaving his entire multi-billion dollar fortune and control of his company to the winner of an elaborate and mysterious quest throughout the OASIS. During the next five years, Wade becomes one of millions of “gunters”, short for “egg hunters”, trying to crack the quest and win the prize, fittingly an “Easter Egg”. This mostly involves ridiculously extensive research into the pop culture of the nineteen-eighties, Halliday’s favorite decade, to the point that Wade can recite every line of dialogue of every popular movie of the day, sing along to every hit song, and win at every old arcade game. He also knows the most obscure details of Halliday’s life. Then one day, Wade makes a breakthrough.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced, exciting, page-turning thrill-ride which proudly displays its early Cyberpunk roots. As Wade progresses on his quest, he encounters both allies and rivals. In particular, a large and ruthless multinational corporation is aiming to take control of the OASIS by running an entire division of gunters and battling for the prize. The majority of the action takes places in the OASIS, providing a stark contrast to the bleak and impoverished world outside. In the real world, people are jobless and homeless, and even debt slavery is often a better option than freedom since at least it provides room and board. In the virtual world, the poor but skilled can be wizards and warriors, paladins for justice or evil villains. The virtual world affects the real one in worrying ways, however, and domination of the real one is very much tied to winning the battle for the virtual one. For our recluse hero, this is a shocking and painful realization. He is mighty in the OASIS, but really only a geeky and powerless kid in the real world. The transformation of Wade’s real self to match the heroism of his avatar is the true underlying quest in the book.

It is clear Mr. Cline did a lot of research on eighties pop culture himself. The entire novel is one big orgy of fanservice, specifically aimed at those fans who grew up in the eighties. As an avid consumer myself of John Hughes movies, old computer games and era music, it pushed all the right buttons. The question this: can a person who is not at least casually versed in eighties pop culture truly appreciate it? I would say yes. Even without understanding the myriad pop culture references, it is a great adventure novel, and an excellent metaphor for our despondent times. Just be prepared for the massive geek-outs.

5Rosbochs

Rolling Thunder (Thunder and Lightning III) – John Varley

In the sequel to Red Thunder and Red Lightning, we yet again skip ahead a generation, this time to Podkayne, granddaughter of Manny and Kelly. Martian born and bred, she is drafted (as all are) into service with the Martian Navy. The book starts by ridiculing Earthies (those who live on Earth) as generally helpless and whiny. It is hard to find too much fault in that assesment, but more about that later. As is sometimes the case with Varley, he writes more chronicle than anything else, and thus we follow the meanderings of Podkayne. It isn’t until the second half that things really start to happen. By then a very gloomy post-9/11, post-Katrina view has settled onto the book. If it weren’t for cheery Podkayne, this would not be a very cheerful book. In the end, the protagonists make a big decision, and there is a happy ending, of sorts.

While Red Thunder was a very positive book, and Red Lightning was at least mildly optimistic, Rolling Thunder paints a very bleak picture of Earth’s future, with billions dead and the planet rendered uninhabitable. Certainly the catastrophes depicted are not man made (unlike in Red Lightning) but it is clear that mankind had already started the processt”. Podkayne is a serviceable protagonist, but she is no Manny or Ray from the previous books. The end, and I won’t give away the surprising development there, feels a bit too much as if Varley wanted to tie up the loose ends any which way. I do love reading Varley, and this was, as always, entertaining. His voice is mesmerizing and his insights into human character are always interesting and novel. However I do feel that this was not on par with most of his work. Or perhaps he just gave me a bit too much of the blues.

Destiny’s Road – Larry Niven

On a distant colony planet, a boy grows up wondering why the original colony ship departed many generations ago, at the same time scorching a road into the distance with its fusion drive. No knows where the road leads. The planet has a shortage of potassium and an upper class distributes what turns out to be potassium in exchange for their ruling status.

The ideas underlying the story are very clever. Unfortunately the story itself is confusing and hopelessly. I could barely finish the book. Given the neat premise, I wish Niven would have written an outline and contracted some other author to write the actual book.

Note: This is set in the same universe as The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children, but there is no connection between the stories beyond that.

The Weapon – Michael Z. Williamson

This novel is set in the same universe and time period as “Freehold“. It is the story of Kenneth Chinran, the man who led the attacks on Earth during the Freehold War. It is a long novel divided into three parts. In the first, Ken enlists and is trained as an “Operative”, meaning an elite black ops soldier. The second part deals with a deployment to Mtali, a planet locked in faction warfare. It is here that first learns of the atrocity or war. The third part deals with the training for, and actual covert attack on Earth, in which billions of civilians die as a result of his team’s action.

The story is told in the first person. We see the world through Ken’s eyes. The transformation that he undergoes makes for an unusual bildungsroman. From innocent youth to trained killer, to disillusioned soldier, and finally on to mass murderer to some and possibly faceless hero to others. The frightening message of this book is that he is well justified in doing what he does. His nation of Freehold has been attacked for the crime of merely existing. Freehold believes in libertarianism to the extreme. There aren’t any elections because there simply isn’t very much government. Everyone is free to do whatever he or she wants, but on the other hand there is no safety net. Freeholders tend to be self-reliant and independent. This is contrasted with Earthlings, who are passive inhabitants of a corrupt system where egalitarianism and “fairness” have been taken to absurd extremes. Ken Chinran contemptously refers to them as “sheeple” who wait for “someone to do something” in a crisis instead of standing up and improving their lot. Williamson’s characterization is extreme, but these are clear jabs at many present day  societies, where people wait for handouts and are happy to give government more power over them as long as they are given food and entertainment (“bread and circuses” is of course an ancient concept). While the book can get a bit preachy at times, the fact that Ken is telling the story makes it very direct. This is one person who comes into contact with things that disgust him, and how he reacts to them. It is easy to see his point of view, especially in these times where supposedly democratic and free countries have seizures without trial and a myriad pointless laws.

The development of Ken himself is as frightening as the story. His training is designed to make him a killer. He and his fellow Operatives take pride in their skills, taunting their enemies as they themselves take insane risks. In the end, though, his conscience catches up with him. He hates himself, he hates his commanding officer for ordering him to do what he has done. Nevertheless, he knows that it was necessary. He knows that what he did, the mass killings and the destruction of society on Earth, were necessary things in order not only for Freehold, but for free people to survive. It is interesting, and Williamson touches on this several times, how Ken survives his suicide mission, but finds out that giving his life would have been easier. He has given more than his life. He has sacrificed his soul.

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.

Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning I) – John Varley

RedThunderFor some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.

Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.