Richter 10 – Arthur C. Clarke & Mike McQuay

This book is about earthquakes, but not in the way you think. It’s more about one man, Lewis Crane, and his obsession. This obsession will cost him everything. On the way, we see fascinating glimpses of an evolving society and, oh yes, some earthquakes. Very good stuff.

Market Forces – Richard Morgan

After several deep recessions, the rift between rich and poor has widened dramatically. Corporations pretty much run the world, and the only game in town is to work for one, if you have the guts for it. Tenders and positions are battled for on the road with car duels, often to the death. It’s all very cutthroat and cool, but Morgan has somehow kept it just this side of believable. Our hero, Chris Faulkner, works for the Shorn Corporation in the Conflict Investment department. His job is, in simple terms, to support some third world revolutionary with weapons and support. When said revolutionary is settled in as ruler, a percentage of the GDP of his country will go to Shorn.

Mr. Morgan has written a story of corporate warfare in the near future. Not too unexpectedly for this author, this book is full of cool prose, has an anti-hero, and contains some pretty extreme violence. As Morgan himself admits in the foreword, it is unashamedly inspired by films such as Rollerball and Mad Max.Cruel, but not really that far removed from some situations seen today. The difference is that the corporations in this future do not bother to disguise their naked ambition.

The book also contains the absolute best description of a long, slow break up I have ever read. Chris’ transformation from vague idealist to the ultimate antihero is brilliantly portrayed, and the end may surprise you, although in hindsight it was inevitable.

Marvelous and very very cool.

Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

This book blew me away. After five or six pages I was hooked. Very cool cyberpunk/noir in a future where bodies can used (as “sleeves”) almost like clothes (albeit very expensive ones; a normal person can only afford one “extra” body and thus double his lifespan). This naturally raises some rather intriguing philosophical questions about mortality (or the lack of it), but also about how the legal system would work under the circumstances. All this is but a backdrop for a fabulous crime thriller told in the first person. It is clear that Morgan was very much inspired by Blade Runner (down to the robotic voice saying “Cross now. Cross Now. Cross Now” at a zebra crossing). The gloomy, indifferent outlook of our hero is similar, and it is answered by a similar outlook from his surroundings. The onlyshortcoming with this book is that the plot becomes a bit convoluted at times. All in all, a very very nice 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.

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This graphic novel is one of the classics for good reason. Well drawn and masterfully written, it is a tale of a disillusioned world and its disillusioned heroes. The heroes are well into middle age as they must unite again to save the world. Even if you are skeptical to the format, you should give Watchmen a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

The Exiles Saga, Intervention and The Galactic Milieu Trilogy – Julian May

The scope of this saga spanning eight novels is staggering. A gate is opened to the past, specifically the Pliocene era. But it is a one-way trip. Adventurous souls travel back, and find a world unlike any they could imagine. Epic conflict rages between ancient races, and the future destiny of man is decided. The initial four books make up The Saga of Pliocene Exile.

  • The Many-Coloured Land
  • The Golden Torc
  • The Nonborn King
  • The Adversary

These can be read as a standalone series, but who would want to stop there?

The “bridge” book deals with first contact and the emergence of humans with “supernatural” powers such as telekinesis.

  • Intervention. In the US edition this was divided into “Intervention: Surveillance” and “Intervention: Metaconcert”.

The Galactic Milieu Trilogy deals with events after humanity has entered the galactic community.

  • Jack the Bodiless
  • Diamond Mask
  • Magnificat

What surprised me as I finally finished the whole thing was how May had meticulously planned the entire arc from the very beginning, with elements important to the last novels referenced in the first. This lends the whole series a sense of completion rare in such works. Considering the fact that it took over 12 years to write, the achievement is even more impressive.

The characters are amazing, with rich depths and particular quirks that blend in well with the evolving destiny of humankind. The settings, especially in Exiles are fabulous.

Unfortunately, the US covers are beyond awful, but don’t be put off by that. Also unfortunately, the books are out of print, but can be easily found second hand.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants & Microbes” omnibus.

Winterfair Gifts – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story forms an epilogue of sorts to Komarr and A Civil Campaign. It is told from the viewpoint of armsman Roic. A few days before Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding guests in the form of Miles’ friends from the Dendarii Free Mercenaries arrive. Taura in particular is focused on in a brief tale leading up to the wedding.

The story is cute, but would not be worth much if it hadn’t been tacked on to the end of the Miles in Love omnibus. It is certainly worth reading, and it forms a nice bookend to the macrostory of Miles and Ekaterin’s courtship, but it is not a good standalone.

This short story is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

A Civil Campaign – Lois McMaster Bujold

After the events of Komarr, Ekaterin returns to Barrayar to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Miles is more infatuated than ever. In the mist of the preparations for the Emperor’s wedding, he embarks on a campaign to win her heart. And screws up badly. Meanwhile, political intrigue lands him in trouble, and his brother Mark starts a bizarre business venture in the basement of Vorkosigan House. Much hilarity ensues.

McMaster Bujold herself describes Komarr as the romantic drama, while A Civil Campaign is the romantic comedy. It is definitely the funnies Vorkosigan book. The author was inspired by authors like Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen for this comedy of manners. It is definitely a melding of Science Fiction with those romantic styles, and brilliantly done. The infamous dinner party scene is one of the most inspired and funniest passages I have ever read. McMaster Bujold has a talent for putting her characters in the deepest trouble. She seems to revel in it, never protecting them from embarassment or injury. This makes for greatly engaging stories.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold

Now a permanent Imperial Auditor, Miles is sent to Barrayar’s subject planet of Komarr to investigate an “accident” on a solar mirror. The mirror is part of a centuries long projecto to terraform Komarr. Currently, Komarrans live in domed cities. Through a fellow auditor, he makes the acquaintance of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of a Barrayaran terraforming administrator. Miles is smitten. He must now solve the mystery of the accident, while sorting out his feelings for Ekaterin. Unfortunately, she is used as a pawn the by the sinister conspirators behind the accident when these move to enact their terrorist

I found Komarr absolutely stellar. Confident Miles is stepped back from the action a bit to make room for the conflicted character of Ekaterin. She seems everything he could wish for, but she is married and suspicious of men in general. A challenge worthy of our hero. McMaster Bujold manages to make her vulnerable and angry without making her weak and abrasive. By delving deep into the source of her unhappiness, McMaster Bujold lays out a character one cannot help but like despite her flaws. It is made clear how Ekaterin dug herself this hole. The sense of duty which noble Barrayarans so treasure has trapped her in a loveless marriage to a loser. The resolution, while bringing forth the “true” Ekaterin, does not end with “happily ever after”. The author acknowledges that life is not so simple, but without depriving us of a satisfying triumph.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

Memory – Lois McMaster Bujold

Somewhat oddly, this is the only Vorkosigan novel not collected in an omnibus. It forms a pivotal point in Miles’s character development. In it, Miles continues feeling the effects of the injuries from Mirror Dance. This, and his own fear of losing the pursuits he loves, leads to his dismissal from Imperial Security. In an odd turn of events, he finds himself a depressed bachelor with not much to do. Luckily, trouble is afoot at the ImpSec he had to leave. Emperor Gregor appoints him an Imperial Auditor, a sort of all-powerful troubleshooter, and sets him to investigating the mysterious circumstances of ImpSec head Illyan’s disablement.

Memory is a wonderful book. As is her wont, McMaster Bujold figures out the worst thing she can do to her hero, and skewers him with it. Miles’ dual identity as Admiral Naismith is completely destroyed. This was his safety valve, his way to escape the pressures of being a cripple in Barrayar’s militaristic society. The sections that deal with coping are insightful and excellently written, but still sprinkled with McMaster Bujold trademark humor. The last part of the book, with Miles as Imperial Auditor, is a pure pleasure to read. The role suits Miles’ personality perfectly, and I found myself frequently chortling at his antics. The author deserves admiration for daring to kill off her hero’s raison d’être. She could surely have milked a few more books out of Admiral Naismith, but probably felt that there was more interesting character development to be found this way. This reader is truly grateful.

Mirror Dance – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles’ twin brother Mark is back. He manages to infiltrate the Dendarii while acting as Miles. In short order, he is taking a ship on a harebrained mission to Jackson’s Whole in order to free clones doomed to act as replacement bodies for the rich, a procedure which leads to the clones’ brain being dumped. Naturally, it all goes to hell, with Miles chasing after. Miles is shot “fatally” and cryo-frozen, at which point Mark is whisked off to Barrayar to meet the parents for the first time. Meanwhile, Miles’ frozen body is lost.

McMaster Bujold is back in good shape here. The first part of this book is merely good, but the fireworks really fly when Mark ends up on Barrayar. His mother, Cordelia, steals all the scenes she is in. A truly great character who does even better in middle age as a bit player than in the books featuring her as protagonist (Shards of Honor and Barrayar). The parallel plot following the lost (in several senses) Miles is equally engaging. One of the best in the series so far.

This novel is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.

Brothers in Arms – Lois McMaster Bujold

While traveling with the Dendarii Mercenaries, Miles ends up on Earth. While there, he is entangled in a plot to replace him with a clone.

The elements to create a good story are in place. Miles’ clone brother Mark is an excellent addition to the series, seeing as how he can act as a counterpoint to Miles himself. The character development and exploration in this book is on par with McMaster Bujold at her best. The plot, unfortunately, is not. It seems a bit forced, somehow. And while still an enjoyable read (this woman is a fabulous writer) it is weak compared to other installments in the series.

This novel is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.

The Borders of Infinity – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story, collected in the Miles Errant omnibus, is a tidy set piece. It opens with Miles in a Cetagandan prison camp. The camp consists of some terrain enclosed in a dome shaped force field. No visible guards or anything like that. Every day, ration bars (one per prisoner) are passed through the force field. Inevitably, fights break out about the food. Equally inevitably, cliques have formed, for mutual protection and for acquisition of food. Miles has a secret agenda, but how will he take command of this group, using only his quick tongue?

“The Borders of Infinity” is a fine example of the short story genre. McMaster Bujold displays her uncanny grasp of the human psycho and logic. She manages to both solve the problem in a plausible manner, and tack on a realistic motivation for Miles’ actions, while keeping the reader guessing right up until the end.

This short story is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.

Diplomatic Immunity – Lois McMaster Bujold

This novel was chronologically the last one in the Vorkosiverse for several years until Cryoburn came out. Miles and Ekaterin are diverted from their honeymoon as Miles is ordered to Quaddiespace in order to sort out a diplomatic tangle involving an interned Komarran/Barrayaran trade fleet. Needless to say, complications abound as a Cetagandan plot involving haut unborn babies is uncovered.

Not knowing at the time about Cryoburn coming years later, it was quite bittersweet to read the last of the books. While Diplomatic Immunity is not the best of the Vorkosigan books, it certainly does not disappoint. As usual, the enormously talented McMaster Bujold demonstrates her prowess at seeing things from many points of view. Her descriptions of Quaddies, their actions and thought patters, are particularly impressive. A lot of thought was obviously given to how even basic mannerisms could be decidedly different for humans with four arms, no legs, and a life in zero gravity habitats. The interaction between a happily married Miles and Ekaterin is charming and alluring, leaving the reader hungering for many more books. Perhaps it is a good thing that the author quit when at the top of her game, but I couldn’t help feeling at the time that Miles, and now Ekaterin, still have many stories left to be told.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants and Microbes” omnibus.

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.

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn is chronologically placed about six years after Diplomatic Immunity. Miles is sent by Emperor Gregor to investigate a corporation on the planet of Kibou-Daini, where millions of people are cryogenically frozen, hoping to be revived when they can be cured or rejuvenated. As inevitably seems to happen, large corporations (in this case specialized in cryopreservation) have accumulated more power than any nation should feel entirely comfortable with. Miles, as is his wont, stumbles on a whole big conspiracy and, as usual, can’t restrain himself from stretching his official job description of investigator to the very limit. Well, way beyond the limit for that matter.

McMaster Bujold had Vorkosigan fans wait seven long years for a new adventure with Miles. Luckily for me, I only started reading the books in 2008, but the wait for this next installment still felt far too long. Stepping back into the Vorkosiverse and being a fly on the wall while Miles plows through his adventures like a “hyperactive lunatic”, as Dr. Raven Durona so aptly describes it in the book, is a sheer visceral pleasure. Ms. McMaster Bujold has most definitely not lost her touch, mixing humor, an interesting and thought-provoking plot and emotional impact in perfect measure. Her skill at encapsulating emotions within a clever and witty little sentence is peerless. While it felt somewhat sad that only Miles and Armsman Roic were actually on this jaunt, (SPOILER: Mark and Kareen join up at the end) the colorful supporting cast loomed over them in spirit, with many references scattered about like easter eggs for the serious fan.

As usual with her novels, Bujold wrote this one to fit both into the wider series and a standalone, and it works perfectly well as the latter. With Miles flying solo again, it felt like a throwback (perhaps even an homage) to the pre-Memory books, before Miles became got his “adult” job of Imperial Auditor. McMaster Bujold even hints at this in the epilogue, when Ivan wonders what “the old Miles would have said”.

All the books are good, and while this one is not quite as superb as, say, Memory, it still easily proves why McMaster Bujold is one of my very favorite authors.

Labyrinth – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story is set in the Jackson’s Whole system, a place where capitalism has run completely wild and unchecked. Miles’ mission is to pick up a scientist wishing to defect from one of the large syndicates that run Jackson’s Whole. But of course, things are never that easy and simple when Miles is involved.

This piece was a lot of fun, with McMaster Bujold showcasing how she understands what makes characters tick and how they react to one another. Quite enjoyable.

This short story is collected in the “Miles, Mystery & Mayhem” omnibus.

Ethan of Athos – Lois McMaster Bujold

Somewhat unexpectedly, this story doesn’t feature Miles at all. One of the main characters is Elli Quinn, introduced back in “The Warrior’s Apprentice”. She is now a Commander in the Dendarii Free Mercenaries and is hunting down a mysterious character named Terrence Cee. The titular protagonist, Ethan of the planet Athos, comes from an isolated society made up exclusively of males. He is a reproductive specialist who is sent on a mission to find ovarian cultures in order to enrich Athos’ failing gene pool. On arrival to his first waystation, he finds himself embroiled in the struggle surround Terrence Cee and his valuable genetic heritage.

Ethan’s initial contact with galactic society is very entertaining. He has never met a woman, and really has understanding whatsoever of that sex. Luckily, McMaster Bujold doesn’t make the entire novel an essay on this point. The action, almost exclusively confined to one massive space station, is entertaining and leavened with the author’s almost trademark sharp wit. The evolution of Ethan’s character from hopeless naif through angry victim to assertive decision maker makes this a bildungsroman of sorts, and a good one.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mysery & Mayhem” omnibus.

Cetaganda – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles, now a Lieutenant working for Imperial Security, is sent off to a Cetagandan state funeral along with his less than brilliant but dashingly handsome cousin Ivan Vorpatril. While there, they are embroiled in a complex plot to stir the waters of Cetagandan nobility genetic engineering.

The plot is in fact very complex, and while showcasing Miles’ intelligence, it goes perhaps a bit too far. The Cetagandan empire is a remarkable edifice constructed by McMaster Bujold. The highest caste controls the evolution of their own and the soldier caste through rigidly held gene banks and elaborately calculated pairings. It is almost worth reading the book for the descriptions of ceremonies, locations and people. Unfortunately, the plot is not as strong as one would want, and quickly bogs down in far too many twists and turns. I’m all for a nice mystery but there is very little actual action to propel the mystery along. I caught myself no longer caring very much what actually happened, as long as I could read about Miles and his ever entertaining adventures.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mystery & Mayhem” omnibus.

The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold

This was the second novel that McMaster Bujold wrote, and the first one about Miles proper. Miles fails the entrance exam for the Barrayar (military) Service Academy in spectacularly humiliating fashion. The physical handicaps caused by his in utero poisoning make him short, crooked, brittle boned and ugly. As a young Vor lordling, he doesn’t really need to work for a living, but he is expected, and expects of himself, to serve Barrayar. For now, he is sent off to visit his grandmother (Cordelia’s Mother) on Beta Colony, a world as egalitarian and “modern” in its views as Barrayar is feudal and provincial. A chance encounter on arrival eventually leads to Miles commanding his own mercenary fleet. As if that’s not trouble enough, collecting such a personal army is tantamount to treason for a Vor lord.

It is not necessary to have read “Cordelia’s Honor” in order to enjoy “The Warrior’s Apprentice” but it does help with understanding the background, in particular the peculiar character of Sergeant Bothari and his relationship to his daughter Elena. The novel is a lot of fun. Miles as a character, with his boundless energy and quick thinking, is enormously entertaining. The plot is quite far fetched, asking the reader to make some rather challenging leaps of faith. If it weren’t so engaging and frequently humurous, this novel would go from pretty good to awful.

This novel s collected in the “Young Miles” omnibus.

Shards of Honor and Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold

Behind the rather tacky cover is an omnibus edition consisting of McMaster Bujold’s debut novel “Shards of Honor” and its immediate chronological sequel “Barrayar”. The latter won the Hugo in 1992. These chronicle the adventures of Cordelia Naismith from the time she first meets her future husband, Lord Aral Vorkosigan, when she is his prisoner of war. At the end of the “Shards of Honor”, she goes to Vorkosigan’s home planet of Barrayar to become his wife. Barrayar is quite different from her own modern home planet of Beta Colony. It has only recently been rediscovered, and an old system of blood ties, honor, nobility, and plain Machiavellian insanity keep it ticking. Cordelia’s adaptation to Barrayar, and her key role during a civil war, are the subject of “Barrayar”.

The first book, “Shards of Honor”, is decent but not stellar. McMaster Bujold shows an early talent for characterization, describing motivation and personal development. “Barrayar”, on the other hand, is a rich story of adventure and one woman’s fight for herself and her family in the midst of an (to her) insane civil war. I enjoyed it immensely. McMaster Bujold has a knack for describing emotion and motivation that sweeps the reader along as if he is looking right over Cordelia Naismith’s shoulder. As a heroine, Cordelia is perfect. Heroic when need be, but more importantly rational and humble in a world where honor and revenge pull society’s fabric to the breaking point and beyond. Highly recommended.

Shards of Honor

Barrayar

Dune Roller – Julian May

A 1950s short story about a terrorizing creature that lives in a big lake.

Cute story with nice characters. It is very interesting to read something that is not only from the 1950s, but is also SET in the 1950s. Just the whole ham radio thing was quirky from a contemporary viewpoint. May wrote this with skill, foreshadowing the great things that were to come for her.