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.

The Colour of Magic (Discworld I) – Terry Pratchett

On the Discworld, which is a disc-shaped world sat on four gargantuan elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a titanic turtle sculling through the cosmos, the failed magician Rincewind and the tourist Twoflower meet. Shenanigans ensue, some involving sapient luggage.

Mr. Pratchett’s first Discworld novel starts somewhat slowly, but builds a decent head of steam by the end. The plot is not much more than a series of humorous events connected by the desire to make stuff happen to the hapless Rincewind and the clueless Twoflower, and in some strange way it works.

Gunpowder Moon – David Pedreira

In a post-climate disaster future, the superpowers have begun mining the Moon in large scale. Life on the frontier is rough and fraught with danger. However, old rivalries have not disappeared. Disillusioned American mining chief and veteran Dechert is confronted with the mysterious murder of a miner, while the powers that be seem dead set to go to war with the Chinese.

Dechert’s outlook is bleak. He has seen the elephant and exiled himself to the Moon in order to escape the ghosts of his comrades from his military days. But war is coming to the Moon and Dechert cannot escape it. He is a beautifully written protagonist, wavering between abject fatalism at the inevitability of repeating history and self-aware naive idealism about this new frontier being a new beginning for mankind. He is firm on one thing: doing his utmost to protect his people, something which he was unable to do during in the past despite his best efforts.

The novel plays out like a good thriller, showing a small slice of larger events, but it is the personal aspect that really shines.

 

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

 

TheAnubisGatesLiterature scholar Brendon Doyle is hired to investigate a magical time portal back to 1880. He misses the return trip and must now use his knowledge of the time to survive.

 

This fantasy novel has many science fictional elements, for example the internally consistent time travel. The “stranded in time” theme is very strong, as Doyle struggles to first survive and then to foil his magician adversaries.

4Rosbochs

 

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Subtitled ‘Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”‘, this book discusses misconceptions related to astronomy. For example, various false explanations to why the sky is blue are talked about. The first part is about things like tides, eclipses. Then the book moves on to things like astrology and the purported Moon landing hoax. There is also a section on bad astronomy in films.

Philip Plait is an astronomer who also runs the excellent Bad Astronomy website. He has made a name for himself as a rationalist and debunker. His casual and easy style defuses any potential animosity in the text. He dislikes fraudsters and but he does not speak condescendingly about those who merely misunderstand. He also goes out of the way to explain complex physical phenomena in ways that laymen can understand.

It’s a fun book even if you don’t have much interest in astronomy, and I learned quite a bit reading it.

Mucho Caliente – Francesca Prescott

Not my usual fare, this ended up in my hands because it was written by my neighbor’s sister. It is a romantic comedy about a recently divorced woman who moves to Ibiza to get away from her boring ex-husband. On the flight, she happens to sit next to Emilio Caliente, latin pop superstar. The latter is running away from his annoying manager and her demands. Naturally, our heroine is a huge fan. Hilarity ensues as she keeps running into him, her ideal sex-god man.

I wasn’t expecting much, but this book is very funny. Very far from the bodice-bursting romance novel I thought I would have to slog through. In tone, it is like a good romantic comedy film. Light-hearted, with a neurotic protagonist and a whole host of misunderstandings, Freudian slips and missed connections. Prescott’s characters are well rounded and funny. They feel real and, just like real people, evoke love, loathing, annoyance and exasperation. The plot is perhaps a bit convoluted, and explicitly designed for maximum hilarity and heartbreak, but it works. Prescott manages not to stray beyond the line into “just plain silly”. A “light summer read”? Perhaps, but I still found myself rooting whole-heartedly for our heroine. And that doesn’t happen if I’m not engaged in a book.

The Prince – Jerry Pournelle & S.M. Stirling

This omnibus collects all the John Christian Falkenberg novels. It consists of:

  • Falkenberg’s Legion
  • Prince of Mercenaries
  • Go Tell the Spartans
  • Prince of Sparta

The story ranges from the fall of the CoDominium to the rise of Sparta and the First Empire of Man that replaces it. However the macro story takes a backseat to the battles.

This is solid military SciFi. However, the fact that the first two novels are in fact lashups of earlier works set to a common frame gives the whole story a somewhat disjointed feel. The individual episodes are good though, and so are the characters. Interestingly, these novels are set in the same universe as The Mote in God’s Eye, but centuries earlier.

Janissaries – Jerry Pournelle

The story is rather cliche and it has been done before. Alien race kidnaps band of earth soldiers. Commander of band is a student of military history. Band is plonked down on an alien world inhabited by primitive humans. Mayhem ensues.

Nothing like an old seventies classic, down to the black and white illustrations. Pournelle does well when there is a strong military component. I did not have great hopes for this title, but it grew on me. Both the macroplot (the aliens) and the microplot (showing the locals how to use a pike) work very well. As usual, feelings and relationships are almost painfully caricaturised, but I suppose you read this sort of thing for the battles and the strategy. Good clean fun if you like this sort of thing, but hardly a book for the ages.

Birth of Fire – Jerry Pournelle

If you can get past the vintage seventies feel of the book, this is a decent and rather simple story about a young convict who comes to Mars and later leads a freedom fight. Oh, and he also finds love and belonging, of course.

Gateway – Frederik Pohl

In this classic, a peculiar asteroid is found orbiting the sun. It contains an ancient spaceport filled with ships. Volunteers come to travel on the ships. These cannot be controlled, but they can take the passengers on incredible adventures. A trip can yield nothing, immense riches, or death. And there is no way of knowing beforehand. This gripping tale mixing psychology and adventure.

The Burning City – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

This book has no discernible story. There are some good ideas but they are squandered. I wish these two geniuses would have hired some young fireplug to do the actual writing off their outline. That way their cool concepts would have made for a legible novel. Niven & Pournelle are just not the team they used to be.

Inferno – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Author Allen Carpentier is at a science fiction convention when he falls out of the window of his hotel room. He finds himself in Hell. Determined to grasp control of the situation and achieve redemption, he starts on a journey through a slightly modified version of Dante‘s hell, guided by a man called Benito.

The idea behind this novel is classic. A modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno! Great fun despite the subject matter.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Probably the funniest book I have ever read. An angel and a demon, specifically the angel who guarded the gates of Eden and the demon who gave the apple to Eve, are now in charge of Great Britain. Over the millennia, they have pretty much decided that their lives will be a whole lot simpler if they stop fighting and instead fudge their reports to their respective superiors while getting on with living the good life. This all works fine until the Antichrist is due to be born. In England.

So funny it made my stomach ache from the laughter. The subtle, understated little English gems of humor are carefully woven into an engaging, and ultimately absurd (and absurdly good and funny) story. Does for me what Pratchett cannot do alone, which is to say suck me in and make me want to read it to the end.

The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.