The One: A Cruise Through the Solar System – Eric Klein

BJ is an IT troubleshooter in New York City. After a job well done, he receives a raffle ticket and wins the grand prize of a cruise through the solar system. On board, he soon meets the captain’s daughter Faye and the pair take a liking to each other. They are inseparable through adventures and misadventures on various planets and moons.

Most of this novel reads like a combination of travelogue and brochure. There is not much action beyond the tours that the protagonist and his inconceivably compatible-at-first-sight girlfriend take. Not-so-subtle hints of conspiracy are dropped and near the end of the story, an unlikely plot is hatched by nefarious elements. The whole thing is cute, the characters likeable, but it is altogether too banal; the homage to Heinlein, in particular, The Number of the Beast, and the 1933 version of King Kong too contrived.

After the predictable conclusion, one-fifth of the text is dedicated to appendices, including (seemingly) every bit of background the author researched or created about the cruise ship, the science, the political topology, and various other bits. This section detracts greatly from the text itself and gives a self-serving impression, as if the author felt the need to show off his own cleverness instead of letting the story speak for itself.

Dark Matter (Star Carrier V) – Ian Douglas

Dark Matter continues the Star Carrier story some time after Deep Space. A new and massive alien artifact has been discovered, hinting at a population even more powerful than the Sch’daar. The conflict between the USNA and the Confederation continues. Now Admiral Grey gets a new mission.

Unfortunately, just as in Deep Space, the infodumps have taken over the asylum. The characters can’t seem to have three lines of consecutive dialogue, barring over-the-top and overlong combat communications chatter, without being interrupted by the author with a long and typically pointless exposition on physics, politics or futurism… Even more irritating is how Mr. Douglas repeats the same explanation of background, or even earlier plot points, with astounding regularity. I got about two thirds of the way through by skimming through the infodumps. Then there was a passage explaining who Stephen Hawking was and I had enough. What happened to the Ian Douglas who wrote really quite engaging military scifi? Even the first three books in this very series were pretty good.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars – Mary Robinette Kowal

TheLadyAstronautofMarsSixty-three year old Elma lives in retirement on Mars with her ailing husband. She is famous for being an Astronaut on the first Mars expedition back in the 1950s. She years to go back into space, but when she is offered her dream mission she must choose between in and staying with her husband through his last year of life.

The concept is simple and the story is short. This could easily have been a bland tale, but it is written with a poignancy and sensitivity that elevate it greatly. The first person voice sucks us into Elma’s inner turmoil in a skillful way.

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The Tuloriad – John Ringo & Tom Kratman

TheTuloriadAfter the Posleen War ends, a small band of Posleen is smuggled off Earth in secret to start their civilization anew. They start on a sort of quest to find a home. At the same time, elements of humanity led by the Catholic Church aim to bring religion to these Posleen, saving their souls and making allies of them.

If you liked the other Posleen books, you will probably enjoy read this one. It doesn’t have much value if you haven’t read them, especially Yellow Eyes. It is reasonably good fun but there are no massive stakes. In some ways it is a setup for the Hedren War. The discussions on the role of religion are reasonably interesting, and superficially contrarian for a science fiction book.

2½Rosbochs

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.

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Deep Space (Star Carrier IV) – Ian Douglas

StarCarrier4DeepSpaceDeep Space takes place twenty years after Singularity. Admiral Koenig is now the president of the North American Union, and Trevor Grey is the captain of the Star Carrier America. Trouble is brewing as a mysterious object appears at the fringes of known space, destroying the scout force sent to investigate it. The Sh’daar resume hostilities by attacking a human colony. Finally, the Confederation is in trouble as the EU seeks to eliminate North American Union independence. Naturaly, the America and its fighters are in the thick of things.

At its core this is a decent continuation to the the Star Carrier series. The story is fine, and the action, especially in the second half, is pretty decent. Unfortunately the book is hampered by seemingly endless repetition of the same factoids of history. How many times do we need to know about the Sh’daar’s obsession for transcendence, the way the Chinese Hegemony bombarded Earth, how the periphery of the North American Union is swampland inhabited by primitives? This book would have been much better if Douglas had edited out most of his repetitive infodumps.

2Rosbochs

11/22/63 – Stephen King

11-22-63In a small town in Maine, High School teacher Jake Epping is asked by his acquaintance, diner owner Al, to come to the diner. When he arrives, Al has aged years and has gone from healthy to terminally ill in cancer. It turns out that Al has found a sort of time portal in his pantry. The portal leads to 1958. Al’s plan was to live in the past until 1963, and then kill Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Al believes this would change history in important ways, preventing the Vietnam war and other horrors. Unfortunately Al contracts cancer and cannot complete his mission. Is the past pushing back against those who try to change history? Al returns back to 2011. Things have changed, but not enough, and when the portal is used again, the past resets to how things were. Before dying, Al dragoons Jake into completing the mission. He cannot just kill Oswald a few years before the assassination attempt, however. He must be sure that the man is acting alone, and not part of one of the many purported conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Thus starts Jake’s adventure in the past, where many things are different, yet many things are the same.

Mr. King’s research into the late fifties and early sixties is extensive and meticulous. The fact that people smoked constantly and everywhere is an obvious factoid, but the differences go much deeper. From food prices to idioms to the fact that bathrooms in the American south were still segregated, it is fascinating to discover how very unfamiliar current Americans would be with society and its mores in “The Land of Ago”.  Jake’s quest takes him on many side tracks as he must become an inhabitant of the era. He makes friends and even falls in love, but he cannot reveal his true purpose. He must be careful lest his use of modern idiom mark him as strange. He must also keep his focus on the objective through five years of “ordinary” life peppered with research and the intermittent stalking of Oswald.

King’s mastery of style, pacing and character building shines in the prose. Despite its considerable length (eight hundred and forty-nine pages for those who still read on paper) it is not a slog to read through. Even trivial adventures become interesting when written so well. I did feel, however, that the book had perhaps been unnecessarily padded, or more accurately insufficiently cut to size. While many events serve to build the character of Jake, they might have been excised without hurting the story, and perhaps things would have moved forward a bit faster. Having said that, the many vignettes of life in the past are fascinating, often funny and as often horrifying to more modern sensibilities.

Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed that King chose to reveal some part of the “inner workings” of the time travel mechanism. While as a science fiction fan, I typically want to find out about such things, perhaps in this case it would have been better if it had simply stayed a magical mystery without explanation. I did not feel that it really added to the story, and the point made through the reveal had already been made.

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Singularity (Star Carrier III) – Ian Douglas

Book three seamlessly segues from the end of Center of Gravity. Admiral Koenig leads the battlegroup further into Sh’daar territory, towards the enigmatic center of the Sh’daar civilization. Meanwhile Lieutenant Grey’s personal odyssey continues.

I was disappointed with the last book in the trilogy. The action is still good, but it is upstaged by the exploration of the enigma that is the Sh’daar. Wormholes, discussions about transcendence and the evolution of civilizations abound. Douglas has thought the whole thing out quite well and the ending makes sense. Unfortunately it feels as if the more lofty macrostory and themes don’t mix well with the military science fiction setting. Long discussions on the deep future and the deep past of technological civilizations slow the pace down too much. Mind you, these discussions are interesting, but they just don’t fit in well in this book.

On the character side, the developments are not very original, and the dialogue is wooden at best. Grey is a metaphor for humanity itself. Koenig is the consummate military officer. The rest are cardboard cutouts.

Center of Gravity (Star Carrier II) – Ian Douglas

Book two starts where Earth Strike left off. Admiral Koenig is set to launch a raid deep into enemy territory, with the aim of scouting, disrupting enemy momentum, and keeping pressure off Earth.

Great action scenes. However the political stuff is quite heavy handed, the message being that politicians are idiots who can’t make rational decisions and military men (well, American military men) know better. A Churchill-like politician would have added greatly to this series.

Earth Strike (Star Carrier I) – Ian Douglas

In this new series by Ian Douglas (AKA William H. Keith, Jr.) Earth and its colonies are on the defensive, hemmed in and attacked by a vast and enigmatic interstellar empire. The action focuses on the Star Carrier America and its fighter spacecraft. The first half deals with a rescue mission on a far-flung colony world, and the second with an attack on Earth itself. Sure, spoilers, but it is right there in the title.

The action is good, clean military science fiction fun, just like in Mr. Douglas’s three connected trilogies dealing with space marines. There are some quite interesting discussions regarding the impact on technology on human society. This goes far deeper than most military science fiction books, which tend to gloss over any impact outside of that on military technologies. The story is very entertaining as it rapidly moves from action scene to action scene. Douglas knows pacing.

Time Spike – Eric Flint & Marilyn Kosmatka

This singleton Assiti Shards novel sees a maximum security prison in southern Illinois get sent back in time, dragging along with it large group of Cherokees from the 19th Century, conquistadors from the 16th century, and Mounds people from prehistoric times.

The idea of dragging a prison back in time is interesting. What do you do with the convicts? How do you keep guarding them? Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only bright point in this novel apart from the action scenes and the fact that it is an easy read and the vaguely interesting historical tidbits. Most characters are so two dimensional and cookie cutter that I had a very hard time remembering who was who. The portrayal of men and women falling in love more or less instantly was naive and plain silly, the argument being that since they had to survive, they’d better pair up.

The subplot with the “present day” scientists was completely superfluous, and seemed to be there mostly to tie in with possible sequels and bring needless exposition. Again, the instant love trope reared its ugly head here.

Watch on the Rhine – John Ringo & Tom Kratman

This book is part of Ringo‘s Legacy of the Aldenata universe. It deals with the defense of Germany during the Posleen War. In what initially seems like a Faustian bargain, the Germans rejuvenate a whole bunch of old SS soldiers to form the cadre for their elite defense forces. They even resurrect the SS unit names and eventually the infamous double flash insignia. Much thoughtprovoking discussion ensues. The authors treat the subject matter in an adult manner. It’s a tricky subject, but they pull it off.

The action contained is great. The combat scenes are, as expected, intense and well written. The characters, major and minor, are all well fleshed out. The flashbacks into the past of various SS officers, especially Brasche, are excellent and used well throughout as a backdrop to the main action.

If you like the other books in the series, you will like this one. But it stands well on its own. No doubt many will loathe this book for the hated symbols it portrays and the notion of reawakening a buried evil. But as discussed in the text, symbols are not absolute. I urge readers to approach the text with open minds.

Probability Moon – Nancy Kress

The first novel in a series of three. The plot is about humans on an alien world, or something. It is hard to describe the plot since nothing memorable really happens. Some neat concepts, but I couldn’t really get into it. The characters weren’t engaging at all and the plot is confused at best.

 

A State of Disobedience – Tom Kratman

Military Science Fiction about a Second American Revolution. Kratman sets the stage with a Democrat woman (clearly modeled on a worst case Hillary Clinton) becoming President. This new President, a leftist (for the US) Congress and the cabinet enact laws that make the US a socialist police state of the worst kind. The individual states stand to lose all their powers and the freedom of their citizens. Only Texas does something, and then only when abuses and killings in that state force the hand of the governor. The US is on the brink of civil war.

I have many problems with this book. First of all, Kratman has made the President and her cronies so absurdly power-mad and clueless that it’s just ridiculous. They seem to be the embodiment of a conservative’s ideal nightmare, including the President’s love affair with her female Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Secondly, while I will agree that big government can be abusive in many ways, simply moving all the way in the other direction is not necessarily a good idea. These are complicated problems, and there are no simple solutions.

Having said that, the depictions of combat are very good. They should be, as Kratman is a former Infantryman (I will still nitpick and say that the AT-4 is not a rocket weapon). The whole “second Alamo” is a bit over the top when it comes to plausibility, but it makes for engaging reading. If you’re into military SF, you will enjoy this, although some of the political views on both sides might make you cringe.

The Stand – Stephen King

A disease wipes out most of mankind. The survivors must deal with a post-apocalyptic world in which evil is brewing.

I read the “Complete and Uncut” edition, which is a “Director’s Cut” of sorts. When “The Stand” was first published, King’s publishers figured a hardcover in the full length would be too costly to produce, meaning a retail price that would make it unsellable. Ten years later, in 1990, King was a much bigger name, and so he restored the cut parts and the book was rereleased in this form. The story itself is pretty decent but King takes way too long to get to any sort of point. It just drags and drags. Get on with it already. I just couldn’t motivate myself to continue past the first half or so.

It – Stephen King

This rather complex novel is split between two time periods and the story of a monster that terrorizes a small New England town. The gang of kids that thwarted it when they were pre-teens have to come back as adults to finish the job. Chilling throughout, with a great evil monster. Read this book in daylight.

The Dead Zone – Stephen King

A young man is in a coma after a car accident. When he wakes up after several years, he starts having worrying visions of the future. A presidential candidate will, after becoming president, start a nuclear war. Very exciting, and well written.

Firestarter – Stephen King

Firestarter is an early King novel, and much “simpler” than his later work. The heroine is pyrokinetic. In other words, she can start fires. BIG FIRES. The government tries to harness her abilities, until everything inevitably goes terribly wrong. An uncomplicated but gripping page-turner.

Carrie – Stephen King

King’ first published novel. A loner girl with psycho mother has psychic powers. Girl starts to come out of her shell. Girl is publicly humiliated. Girl goes on a rampage. In other words, great stuff. Also much less convoluted and wordy that King’s later stuff.

Resurrection – Katharine Kerr

This one is thankfully short. A novelette of just over a hundred pages in large-ish print. Even so I kept thinking that someone like Niven could have told the same story in less than thirty pages. Our hero has been “resurrected” after a plane crash incurred in combat. Her brain is still recovering from the injuries and she is having a hard time telling the truth from hallucination. Or is she?

I was quite dissapointed with this. So much interesting stuff to work with, such as the multiple realities, the Devil and the Rabbi, the process of medical resurrection itself. But it’s all quite bland really. Our protagonist Tiffany wanders about a predictable and very poor San Francisco in a confused daze. Her boyfriend is bland. Her family is bland. The Devil and the Rabbi are kind of interesting but not enough to redeem the story. If it had been any longer, I would not have finished it.

Lost Japan – Alex Kerr

In preparation for a vacation to Japan, my mother gave me this one to read. Its main themes are about the loss of important Japanese cultural traditions and the uglification of both the body and the soul of Japan. The author is an art collector, calligrapher, Japanologist and long time resident of the country. Kerr decries modern Japan as filling with concrete, electricity poles, neon pachinko parlors and ugly rooflines while her inhabitants have become conformist, dull and unimaginative.

I found the book quite interesting in parts. His stories of finding and buying an old house in a secluded valley, of the inner workings of kabuki theatre, of unappreciated artworks and of the history of tea ceremony and zen are everything from fascinating to merely eye opening. Unfortunately Kerr does give a strong impression of being the kind of luddite who wishes for all old things to be preserved. By the end of the book, I had somewhat amended this initial impression. I think he does appreciate the need for change, even encouraging it. But he does not understand why there should be change for its own sake if the change only leads to worse things. As an ideal, there is of course nothing wrong with that. But in reality, things don’t really work that way. Change happens and decades or even centuries later people figure out what the actual causes and effects were.

One particularly annoying thing about this book is the constant name dropping. All the people described in the book seem to be maverick geniuses in their fields and Kerr is a close personal friend of every single one. It comes off as not a little pompous. Kerr has certainly led an interesting life, and it is through his life experiences that he can describe his “lost Japan” so deftly. However, this reader felt a bit put off by the tone.

I was also left wondering why, among all this horror at the disappearing culture of Japan, he does not spare even a moment for one of Japan’s most vibrant forms of modern literature, manga/anime cartoons. This art form is lauded the world over. One could even draw parallels to the kabuki described by Kerr, with its emphasis on single moments of resolution as opposed to the narrative continuitiy more emphasized in the west.

The episodic nature of the book works against it. It was originally a series of articles, and the disjointed nature of the whole is unfortunately quite glaring. All in all, the book gave me an eye opening view of Japanese culture through anectodes and strong opinions. I may not necessarily agree with the author, but I suppose that is as it should be. The text should serve as a brief and good introduction to Japanese culture through the eyes of a foreigner who has made it his own.

The Dead Heart – Douglas Kennedy

This novelette length story is Douglas Kennedy’s debut. Just as in The Big Picture, the protagonist is a middle aged man stuck in a rut. However, this character is very different from succesful family man Ben Bradford in The Big Picture. Instead, he is a commitment phobic journalist who drifts through life, never holding down a job for more than a few years, never “doing” anything. One day, midlife crisis strikes hard and he flies to Australia. But not Sydney or Melbourne. Darwin. His plan is to buy a car and drive to Perth. A great adventure. On his way, he runs into a girl named Angie. After a few nights of drunken debauchery, she kidnaps him and takes him to a crazy commune in the desert. A place that it literally off the map. He is a prisoner in all but name in a nightmare of a town with nightmare inhabitants who think nothing of beating him to a pulp if he doesn’t show the right attitude.

Douglas Kennedy writes very well, but his angst filled middle aged men aren’t the thing to fill me with any great desire to pick up more of his books. They are a bit pathetic in that way most people are afraid they will turn out to be. The moral, of sorts, is to do something with your life before you end up a prisoner of that life. In the book, the protagonist is an actual physical prisoner, as opposed to the more commonplace metaphorical one, but the lesson holds true nevertheless. I did enjoy this book. It is rather short, but then it doesn’t need to be longer. Any extension would just be filler. It neatly says its piece and then is done. It is very funny at times, in a tragicomical fashion. Kennedy’s sense of irony is razor sharp. However, this humor is neatly balanced by the tragic situation our hero finds himself in. Sure, he’s a bit of a loser, but no one deserves what he goes through.

The Big Picture – Douglas Kennedy

Ben Bradford is your typical Wall Street lawyer. Wife, two kids, house in upscale soutwestern Connecticut suburbia, big paycheck. But he hates it. He wanted to become a photographer, but through a combination of societal inertia and parental pressure, he ended up “doing the right thing” and becoming a lawyer. He still maintains photography as a hobby. Now his wife is sleeping around and his marriage is obviously on the rocks. In a heated moment, he accidentally kills his wife’s lover, a loser amateur photographer. And that’s where it all changes. Ben manages to get away with the murder and escape his old life. But will his new life be any better? Can he ever stop running from his past? And on another note: Can a life with a yearly $300k+ paycheck feel like a prison? Of course it can.

When it came out in 1997, this novel was very heavily marketed and hyped. It is just the thing to appeal to careerists who have dreamed of being something else at some point. Meaning all of them. Dreaming of not being in the grinder, of making one’s own hours as an artist or something else, of not being just another suit on the commute. A very 90s feeling after the heady 80s. Stay small, be your own man, don’t waste your life like your parents. All that good stuff. And deeper than that are themes of how you cannot really escape your past. Ben is forced to and does the best of it, but his past will always haunt him. To the author’s credit, he has not painted Ben as some cold blooded killer. Our hero is constantly dogged with guilt about what he has done.

Is this novel the work of genius as was hyped at the time? That’s a tricky question. Kennedy definitely has a smooth, uncluttered style. Nothing fancy, but it serves the narrative well as he focuses on the inner demons of Ben Bradford. If you can look past some of the far too conveniently coincidental plot points, there’s a good story here. As I read, I came to empathize deeply with the destiny of Bradford. His search for that ephemeral thing called “a good life”. His escape from suburban conformism. Having lived for a few years in that corner of Connecticut, I may have a particular perspective. The inhabitants tend to know where they are going in life and deviation from the path is discouraged. Still, some things about the novel annoyed me. There are the aforementioned rather too convenient plot twists, perfectly designed to lead Ben on the “correct” path. After the murder, it all becomes a bit predictable. Where is the chaos so present in real life? There’s also the constant flirt with “art”. In the novel, Ben often describes really great photographers as being passive observers who have freed themselves from the need to obsessively prod at the composition hoping that it will become more artful. But Kennedy does exactly this with he novel. It crosses the line into constructed and pretentious. This detracts from the very good story and thematic exposition within. It is a bit too obvious that Kennedy set out to write “the great American Novel”. But he’s trying too hard, and it shows. Bottom line: recommended, but not unreservedly.

Diplomatic Act – Peter Jurasik & William H. Keith

The story is somewhat stereotypical. Aliens from an advanced federation have been secretly watching Earth. However, they don’t understand that fiction is fiction. They kidnap an actor who plays a great diplomat on a science fiction TV show since they think he can help them defuse a potential galactic war. Back on Earth, they replace him with an alien in disguise.

Peter Jurasik is more well known as the actor who played Londo Mollari on Babylon 5. William H. Keith is a prolific author who also writes Military SF under the pseudonym Ian Douglas. The novel is a cute piece, and frequently laugh out loud funny. The satire elements are dead on. The aliens are neither all powerful nor all knowing. In fact, they are prone to big errors of judgement. As such, the interaction with our hero, who is completely out of his element once abducted, works very well. It is obviously written for laughs, but there are some very clever twists to the story.