Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

4Rosbochs

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

The Hemingway Hoax – Joe Haldeman

A cTheHemingwayHoaxollege professor and Hemingway enthusiast becomes embroiled in a scheme to forge Hemingway’s lost early manuscripts. So far, a fairly ordinary story. But then things turn unexpectedly into a journey across parallel universes.

Solid work from Mr. Haldeman, but nothing of particular note. The first two thirds are rather enjoyable, but the ending left me somewhat disappointed.

3Rosbochs

Marsbound (Marsbound I) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound1MarsboundCarmen Dula is nineteen years old when she moves to the Mars base with her family on a five-year assignment. She is an intelligent, level-headed (remote) college student who falls in love with the pilot. The journey and stay present challenges large and small, both regarding survival itself and getting along with the other residents. Then one day she wants to spend some time alone and unwisely takes a walk outside without a buddy. She falls into a hole and is rescued by a Martian.

Wait, what? I did not see that twist coming. I thought this was going to be about colonizing Mars. I suppose I should have read the blurb which blatantly alludes to it. As so often happens with Haldeman, the familial way in which his first-person protagonist speaks to the reader lulls us into a sense of false security about where the story is going to go. What starts out small and almost ordinary balloons out or proportion in unexpected directions as suddenly this everyman (or in this case everywoman) has to make decisions that affect the entire human race.

4Rosbochs

Camouflage – Joe Haldeman

CamouflageAn alien winds up on Earth and spends millions of years roaming it as a shark until one day in the 1930s it decides to take the form of a human. It spends the following decades learning about humanity and growing as a person. In an interleaved plot line, in 2019 an ancient alien artifact is found in the Pacific Ocean and a marine salvage company investigates.

The growth of the alien as a human is very well written, from tentative and often disastrous beginnings to a finding of true purpose and even love. The descriptions of humanity from the alien’s often uncomprehending viewpoint are fascinating, in particular the part during the Bataan Death March, where the worst of humanity is on display.

3½Rosbochs

 

 

Work Done for Hire – Joe Haldeman

WorkDoneforHireA veteran and struggling writer receives a dream contract for a movie novelization. Soon after, a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he is blackmailed into accepting a contract to murder a still unnamed victim. He goes on the run with his girlfriend.

I was sorely disappointed by this book. While it is competently written, the story is just a bland chase. The ending is anticlimactic and the “twist”, well, isn’t. The interleaved chapters with the novel the protagonist is writing are vaguely interesting but mostly seem like filler without ulterior purpose.

1½Rosbochs

Great North Road – Peter F. Hamilton

GreatNorthRoadIn the early 22nd Century, a body is found in the river Tyne in the northern English city of Newcastle. The murdered man is a North, one of hundreds of clone brothers in the immensely powerful and rich North family. But which one? Detective Sid Hurst is assigned to lead what soon becomes a massive investigation. Earth and its colonies are linked through instantaneous travel gateways, with undesirables and jobless shunted out to the colonies. Massive corporate interests loom over society. Taxation is so high that everyone has “secondary” accounts, a deep grey economy of bribes and favors shadowing what is reported to the government. As Sid investigates, the mystery of the dead North deepens, leading finally to a geophysical expedition looking for clues in the far-flung jungles of the world St. Libra, where mysteriously there is no animal life at all, only plant life.

Great North Road is a singleton book, but still retains Hamilton’s customary “big brick” format at over twelve hundred pages. The characters are many and the plot complex. The backdrop is detailed, with a rich backstory spanning decades. Strange societies and interesting people abound. Unlike most of Hamilton’s works, however, this one is very firmly grounded thematically in the contemporary world. Earth in the early 22nd Century seems stuck in a rut. There are technological advancements over today, certainly, but not as many as one would think. And definitely nothing that has changed the paradigm. The economy is still very much dependent on oil, albeit an artificial variant produced by genengineered algae. Government bureaucracy is powerful, massive, overwhelming and nonsensical. The ultra-rich are disconnected from normal society. The “failed capitalism” theme is powerful, a bit like that seen in the news today. Is this really the best way forward for society, or are humans meant for something more? And yet, forces are conspiring to break out from this path. Hope, as always, is a strong theme for Hamilton. And unlike in his big series, he manages to tie it all up neatly in the end.

4½Rosbochs

Manhattan in Reverse – Peter F. Hamilton

This short story collection contains mostly previously published material, among others the stellar “Watching Trees Grow“, which it was a pleasure to re-read. There are three more standalones, one of which is a very short vignette. The last three stories are set in the Confederation Universe, with the two longer ones featuring investigator extraordinaire Paula Myo. (The third is Blessed by an Angel.) Myo is a very interesting character and could easily be the protagonist of a novel two of her own. Hamilton’s treatment of clinical immortality and crimes committed in an environment with such is stellar as always.

I was left wanting more.

Valor’s Trial (Confederation IV) – Tanya Huff

The fourth Confederation novel has Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr being taken prisoner, and waking up in a very odd prison. Against insurmountable odds, she leads a band of Marines (and eventually others) towards escape.

This is the best one so far. Huff’s skill at describing the interpersonal relationships between the many varied characters shines throughout the novel. The dry humor and spot-on characterizations make this a pleasure to read. Also, despite the plot being cookie cutter on paper, it has many original and intriguing aspects. The macrostory is interesting in itself, but there is not much need to it. I would be happy reading about Torin’s adventures even without that sort of framing.

The Heart of Valor (Confederation III) – Tanya Huff

Torin Kerr is now a Gunnery Sergeant. She is assigned to babysit a Major who has recently recovered from very serious injuries, and who has arm bones made of experimental plastics. They travel to Crucible, the Marine Corps training planet, and embed with a training platoon going through their rotation. Things soon start to go wrong as the Crucible systems go out of control. In parallel, Torin’s now boyfriend, a salvage operator she met in The Better Part of Valor, investigates a possible alien infiltration of the Confederation.

This volume was a disappointment after the well crafted fun of the first two novels. The plot is very contrived. The alien invasion infiltration elements do not mesh well with the action parts. Other seemingly random elements are neither entertaining, not pertinent to plot advancement or character development. The “how cool are we Marines” dialogue, fun in the previous installments, has gone totally over the top. It grated on my nerves constantly. The novel’s saving grace are the action scenes, which are up to the high standard set by the first two novels, and the strongly fleshed out characters.

The Better Part of Valor (Confederation II) – Tanya Huff

The second book in the Confederation Series has recently promoted Gunnery Sergeant Kerr getting her “reward” for seeing through General Morris in the previous book. Along with a scratch team, she is sent to assist in the exploration of a vast alien ship of unknown origin. As they are stranded on board, the ship continually seems to change the environment in order to test the team.

This book is worth a read for the same reason as it’s predecessor. The characters are well rounded and well described. The dialogue and other interactions are both funny and believable. Most importantly, the story is a real page turner.

Note: This book is collected in the “A Confederation of Valor” omnibus.

Valor’s Choice (Confederation I) – Tanya Huff

Torin Kerr is a First Sergeant in the Confereration Marines. A century and a half previously, Earth was contacted by the alien Confereration. It seemed the Confederation was in a bit of a pickle. An enemy known as The Others was attacking Confederation worlds. But the alien civilizations in the Confederation were all basically pacifists. There was a need to recruit warlike races to wage war. Humans were the first of these races, and thus the military forces follow what is basically a human model. Since then, the di’Taykan and the Krai have also joined the military races. In this, the first of the novels, our hero is the senior NCO on a diplomatic mission aimed at securing the membership of a fourth military race. But something goes horribly wrong and her platoon is forced to make a heroic last stand with limited equipment and no support.

I didn’t need the afterword to tell me that the battle in the book was based on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of the defining moments of the Anglo-Zulu War and immortalized in the classic film Zulu. One could not ask for a better framework on which to mount the story. Ms. Huff’s characters are funny, self-deprecating, enjoyable to read about. The dialogue is particularly stellar, and typically had me smile and snorting. The underlying theme of how the grunts must bear the attempts to kill them of not only the enemy, but also of the brass and the politicians is hardly orginal, but Ms. Huff treats this theme with razor sharp wit without diluting its importance and impact. Our heroine is hard as nails but disarmingly human, as evidenced by her accidental indiscretion on the very first page. A great read.

Note: This book is collected in the “A Confederation of Valor” omnibus.

High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

I love the movie based on this novel, so I figured I had to read the book eventually. Hornby has a great writing style, very self-deprecating and funny in the way of understated comedians. The book is much darker than I imagined, but is a very good illustration of how most men (as far as I know) think of their lives, at least when they are young. The insecurity, the “leaving your options open” bit, the belief that relationships can stay forever in that first few dates mode. Our hero, Rob Fleming, is a bit older that most guys who ask themselves this question, which only adds to his plight.

So if you are a guy who wants a girl to understand how men think, give her this book and ask her to believe every word. Because it’s all true.

Penny Arcade Volumes 1 and 2 – Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

The web published comic strip Penny Arcade should be familiar to anyone who likes video games. These books collect the strips in paper format. Holkins and Krahulik have made a name for themselves as the guys with their fingers on the jugular of the industry. Sometimes bizarre, often profane, always funny. Highly recommended if you are or have been a gamer. Others may find it more than a bit odd.

Against All Enemies – John G. Hemry

The last installment in the JAG in Space series is not as strong as previous ones but does resolve some loose threads in Sinclair’s private life. Apparently he has been making enemies in all the court martials despite his stellar performance in all aspects of his service. And so his career and life doesn’t quite turn out the way he would have wanted.

The case in this book, dealing with espionage, is not as good as the others. The the focus is on Sinclair’s personal journey. Not bad, but I wish Hemry had ended the series on a stronger note. I also wish he had written more books.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Rule of Evidence – John G. Hemry

The third book in the JAG in Space series continues in the same vein as the first two. Incident followed by court martial. This time, however, Paul Sinclair’s girlfriend Jen Shen is accused of conspiracy, sabotage and murder after a freak accident on board the U.S.S. Maury.

This is, in my opinion, the best of the series. Maybe that is because so much is on the line personally for Sinclair. Maybe it is because of the kafkaesque elements of the story as Shen is accused and looks to be on her way to life in prison or even execution. While in Burden of Proof, circumstancial evidence was used to chuck a bad officer out of the Navy, now it is being used to build a case against someone innocent. The ethical dilemmas posed make the books interesting, and this one especially so.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Burden of Proof – John G. Hemry

The second installment in the JAG is Space series is structured much like its predecessor, A Just Determination. Paul Sinclair is now a Lieutenant JG, still serving on the U.S.S. Michaelson. A deadly accident in forward engineering isn’t investigated as it should. An officer attempts to cover up the truth. Sinclair is in the middle. To mix things up, his girlfriend Jen’s father is a Navy Captain. Major trial in the second half.

This story is a bit weaker than A Just Determination, but still quite good. If you liked the first book, you will undoubtedly like this one. Hemry does well in advancing Paul and Jen’s stories and the changes in their characters.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

A Just Determination – John G. Hemry

The first book in the “JAG in Space” series is a short and neat novel about a young ensign, an incident, and a court martial. Hemry delivers a page turner. Not the heaviest reading, to be sure, but there are depths between the lines. There is in fact quite a decent coming of age story between the covers.

I am always partial to books where I can identify with and feel sympathetic with the characters. Hemry is excellent at making the reader (well, this reader at least) identify with protagonist Paul Sinclair during his struggles on his first deployment. The other crew members of the U.S.S. Michaelson are a mix of good and bad, with wildly varied motivations, just like in real life. Overall, the characters feel well fleshed out, and Hemry is skilled at portraying both them and the action, entirely from young Sinclair’s perspective.

It could perhaps be argued that this novel’s setting is incidental, and that it would have worked just as well on the sea. That may be so, but that does not detract from its appeal. A fine read.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Friday – Robert A. Heinlein

I bought this book mainly for the cover but in my defense I was sixteen. And yes, there is quite a bit of sex in it. Friday is a vat-grown superwoman who seeks love. And finds it. Ah well…

The Eden Trilogy – Harry Harrison

What if dinosaurs had not become extinct, but instead evolved sentience? These sentient dinosaurs have also developed biotech to a certain extent, using non-sentient dinosaur species for various purposes. In the trilogy, the dinosaur civilization founds a colony in America and comes into contact with Stone Age humans. This whole thing could rapidly have descended into sillyness but it is mildly entertaining and thought provoking. The three novels are:

  • West of Eden
  • Winter in Eden
  • Return to Eden

The Stainless Steel Rat Series – Harry Harrison

SciFi humor. I quite enjoyed the first five books or so, but in the end the laughter starts wearing thin. I gave up after “The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell”. Those I have read are:

  • The Stainless Steel Rat
  • The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You
  • The Stainless Steel Rat for President
  • A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell