This short story collection showcases Varley at his most Varley. Not a lot of action, but quite a bit of character driven plotting. Light reading but nevertheless enjoyable and in some cases thought provoking. I did find it uneven, and some of the stories were maybe a little bit too focused on just showcasing the Eight Worlds Universe. The title story, “The Persistence of Vision”, is a departure and a wonderful tale of identity seeking.
Millennium – John Varley
The premise behind this book is, ahem, simple. Fifty thousand years from now, humanity is dying off as the result of plagues, toxic chemicals and radiation. However, time travel has been discovered and the “Gate Project” is kidnapping people who were going to die anyway in the past. For example passengers from the Titanic, victims of air crashes and so forth. These abductees, who are far more healthy than their short lived and sickly descendants, are put in storage for a future repopulation of the Earth. The story initially revolves around an impending mid-air collision between a 747 and a DC-10 over California. The two protagonists tell their stories in first person format more or less alternately. Bill Smith is the head of the crash investigation in the 20th century, and Louise Baltimore is the head of the “Snatch Team” from the Gate Project in the future.
So far so good. The characters are, as is typical for Varley, deeply flawed and authentic. The story is laid out as logically as possible, although the mechanics of time travel make this tricky. Once Varley has established the premise, the plot is about a developing temporal paradox that threatens the already bleak future with complete annihilation.
The first four fifths of the novel are quite enjoyable. It is clearly laid out where it could easily have been confusing and Varley skillfully ensures that the doomed humanity theme carries over into the characters and the story. The references to old fashioned computers don’t distract since Varley is always about the people, not the technology. The ending did annoy me a bit, since I dislike deus ex machina. But I must admit Varley pulled it off very well, especially by inserting a quite literal meaning in the whole thing.
The Ophiuchi Hotline – John Varley
John Varley’s first novel, and also the first one in the Eight Worlds Universe, has an interesting and intricate, premise. Four hundred years previously, enigmatic aliens invaded the Earth, and most of humanity died off. Humans now live scattered around the solar system, dependent at least in part on technological know-how beamed from faraway Ophiuchi. No one knows who or what is beaming the data, except that it is finely attuned to the needs of humans. Lilo, a genetic engineer condemned to death for taking her reasearch into unethical directions, is embroiled in a plot to retake the Earth for humanity. Her multiple journeys throughout the Solar System are mirrored by journeys of discovery into her own humanity. As multiple clones are branched off, Varley explores how Lilo’s personality differs given her environment, and yet retains its basic values.
This one is clearly written during the seventies, as there is a lot of nudism and casual sex.
The book seems to beg the question: “What’s the point of retaking the Earth when life is an eden out here?” The ending does take the clear stance that we have to proactively defend our existence, and not take our survival as a spieces for granted. I very much enjoyed this book, which packs a lot of story into a mere 170 pages.
One Jump Ahead (Jon & Lobo I) – Mark L. Van Name
This is the first book in the Jon & Lobo series. Jon is a man with a troubled past. His planet was destroyed and he was subjected to experiments that left him nanotechnology enhanced. Such enhancements are thought to be impossible and he needs to keep them a secret from those who might profit from them. Suffice it to say, he is a sort of super-soldier. He takes on the task of freeing a kidnapping victim. This simple act entangles him in a complex web of intrigue involving powerful corporations and governments. Along the way, he picks up an assault vehicle known as “Lobo”. The vehicle can handle anything from underwater to deep space. It is also a deeply sarcastic conversationalist.
This novel reminds me a little of the Stainless Steel Rat books. A lone hero and a plot that seems made up as it goes along. Jon is not unlikeable, but his tribulations tend to be long winded and after a few such passages I started losing interest. The characters are straight from central casting, and the locales are even worse. Cookie-cutter, forgettable places that made the plot hard to follow. As our hero jumped to a star system, I struggled to remember what had happened there earlier. The plot is decent, but I couldn’t make myself care very much whether Jon succeeded in his exploits or not. Things are going really well until they go really badly, at a point in the novel that is far too predictable. The hero is supposed to have setbacks, but this one is far too expected. The paraphernalia is pretty cool. In good Bond fashion, the right tools for the job always seem available to our hero. This is fine for comedy, but this book is not going for laughs.
And yet, there is some attraction here. If one can look past the stilted prose the stock characters and the unoriginal plotting, there are hints of potential for this hero. The machine communications are funny and interesting. The universe is engaging enough that it is worth revisiting.
Alternate Generals – Harry Turtledove (Editor)
In the Presence of Mine Enemies – Harry Turtledove
In this alternate history novel, the year is circa 2001. The Nazis won the Second World War, then conquered America a generation later. Jews are hiding in the midst of the Third Reich.
So, what’s the book actually about? As far as I could figure out, not very much. I kept wondering when something would actually happen. Unfortunately I reached the end and nothing had, unless you count interminable games of bridge while the characters wonder who is having unfaithful thoughts.
Turtledove had a great idea for the premise, but this novel is mind numbingly dull. The portrayal of everyday life under the shadow of the Germanic Empire is fascinating for about ten pages, and the hints of change intriguing, but the rest is one long yawner.
The Guns of the South – Harry Turtledove
Time-traveling South African white supremacists go back to the American Civil War and equip the confederates with AK-47’s. Well, it’s a cool idea. Unfortunately, Turtledove gets lost in the details, so to speak. Too many protagonists, and not enough focus. This is a fun little book, but it could have been so much more.
The Articulate Executive – Granville N. Toogood
This non fiction book is about how to speak in public and visual aids to that end. The author’s name is a bit worrying and in fact Toogood comes across much as he describes himself: “a fairly facile, somewhat sophisticated Eastern Ivy League City Slicker”.
Don’t let that faze you! This book (or most of it, at least) is a real gem if you ever need to speak in public, or even in a small group in a corporate setting. The tips and tricks, techniques and anecdotes are excellent. Anyone in working life can benefit from this quick read, and I highly recommend it.
There are unfortunately some small factual errors in the examples, but that doesn’t detract from the usefulness of the book. Toogood is undoubtedly a good speaker, but he sometimes gets carried away with his examples to the point of making errors.
Unfinished Tales – J.R.R. Tolkien
While The Silmarillion felt like a pretty well connected series of tales, this book is not of the same quality. It gives a lot of background to the history of Middle Earth, but only the really dedicated Tolkien fan will enjoy it.
The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher set about compiling all the notes and stories he had left behind about Middle Earth. The Silmarillion is the most well know result of this work, and chronicles the story of the elves in times long before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It takes the form more of a historical chronicle than a novel, and so feels rather removed from the action. Only for the dedicated Tolkien fan.
The Tau Ceti Agenda (Tau Ceti Agenda II) – Travis S. Taylor
The sequel to One Day on Mars takes place a few years after the events of that book. We are rather disconcertingly thrown straight into the action of a new “24“-like tale taking place within a short time span. United States forces are attacking a separatist base in the Oort Cloud. At the same time, the president (Senator Alexander Moore from the previous book) and his family are being attacked by every automaton at Disneyland (no, really). Finally, a secret agent emplaced at the separatist home planet in the Tau Ceti system gets into trouble.
The action (and there is a LOT of action) is fast, furious and for the most part well written. It annoyed me, though, that there was little or no introduction to events. It was all rather confusing at first. The story, once it is revealed, is in fact quite engaging. So it was annoying that there was so much action in the way in the first part. The other thing about this book that bothered me was that far too much space was given to confusing mecha/fighter battlescenes. The abundance of characters and the sheer overdescription of so many aspects soon made me skim through these scenes. They are supposed to be “cool” and “kick-ass” I suppose, and in many respects they are, but I could have done with a few less descriptions of hair raising maneuvers and how many gees the pilots are pulling. Conclusion: mixed bag. Nice action book, not great. Very intriguing macrostory unfortunately muddled by a great many less than relevant action sequences.
One Day on Mars (Tau Ceti Agenda I) – Travis S. Taylor
The entire plot is set, not entirely unexpectedly, during one day on Mars. The United States is now a Solar System wide government that even extends to a few extrasolar colonies. However, a nation of separatists exists in a “reservation” on Mars. On this day, the separatists attack the United States. The book follows the military actions, and the unexpected plan of the separatists.
As a military science fiction action book, this is a pretty good one. Stuffed with action scenes involving futuristic weapons like shape-shifting robots (think Transformers that can become fighter plane, robot, tank), the book drags you along at a furious pace. So far so good. The backstory, filled in over the course of the novel, is interesting, telling how the United States has become ever more detached from its original ideals of true democracy and representation. The president runs instant polls to figure out how to deal with crises instead of making decisions on his own. The separatists don’t shy away from atrocities. They also decry the current United States, and see themselves as defenders of the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. One thing that bugged me was the sub-par editing, especially in the first half of the book. There is an excess of spelling and grammatical errors, as well as some poor style. This is especially irritating given Baen Books’ typically high standards in that department.
The Quantum Connection (Warp Speed II) – Travis S. Taylor
Computer geek Steven Montana was left alone in the world after the secret war in Warp Speed. Life is looking up as he gets a job for the government working on top secret stuff. Then it all goes to hell as he is abducted by aliens (again, as it turns out). At that point, the story changes scope significantly, as Steven hooks up with the protagonists of Warp Speed and they fight a war for the survival of humanity in a hostile galaxy.
This format of this novel is Heinleinian romp straight out of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. But there are differences. All the science is cutting edge, with quantum entanglement, computer agents and nanomachines to name but a few things. The generally positive outlook on humanity and charming naif tone from the prequel remain. Steven is an archetypal good guy who gets the intelligent and pretty girl (how the latter happens is a bit unusual, but still). It is also a novel of how opportunity for personal growth and turning yourself around can lurk behind the most unlikely corner.
Just like it’s predecessor, this one was immensely enjoyable. It is pure, shameless fun. The characters are perhaps a bit over the top but it feels as if the author does this very much on purpose, with a glint of mischief in his eye. All the Golden Age clichÃ©s are treated with respect and irreverence both, as this book harkens back to a simpler time, reminding us that goold old fashioned heroes can help us navigate today’s more complex moral landscape.
Warp Speed (Warp Speed I) – Travis S. Taylor
Our hero, Anson Clemens, invents a warp drive, falls in love with a shuttle pilot, goes to space to try the warp drive and starts World War III, just to name a few things. There certainly is a lot of action, both up close and personal and on the macro scale.
At least in the beginning, the plot of this novel is somewhat similar to The Getaway Special. It also has similarities to The Trigger in that a revolutionary new technology has consequences unforeseen in both type and magnitude. The main character has much in common with the main character of Ringo’s Into the Looking Glass, for which Taylor and Ringo co-wrote the sequels. And then there are the quite overt Heinleinian nods. Taylor should not be thought of as a copycat, however. He simply took his inspiration from some very good places. I was pleased to see the connections, even if I don’t think that all of them were intentional.
The beginning of the book was unauspicious. I felt a vague dislike for the main character and his almost clichÃ© existence (supersmart physicist, mountain biker, karate champion, quirky sense of humor, distracted scientist persona) but that soon passed. Taylor has even been accused of fanservice with Anson Clemens. I will agree with his rebuttal that there are quite a few amazing people out there and that heroes do not tend to be average and that there is a indeed place for real heroes. Anson Clemens and the astronaut Tabitha Ames are definitely such exceptional people. The people surrounding them are equally pretty amazing. This may seem like a bit too much of a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Really smart people will surround themselves with other smart people. If they can work as a team, fantastic things tend to pop out the other end. Just look at the Apollo Program. Was there ever such a large collection of supersmart geeks anywhere? Besides, it’s fiction, and in this case good fiction to boot.
I really liked this book. I stayed up until three in the morning reading it. It is lighthearted and the main character is unpretentious. It is a definite page turner. Finally, it takes off in unexpected directions without feeling random, just like the best John Varley books. After finishing it, I had a big grin on my face.
This is the debut novel by Taylor, a guy who really is a rocket scientist. He has no less than five science degrees in various denominations and flavors.
Singularity Sky – Charles Stross
It is hard to tell what this one is about from the blurb. Between the covers is postmodern science fiction well grounded in current physics. A mysterious entity known as “The Festival” arrives on the backwater colony of a neo-Victorian Empire, quite literally showering manna from heaven on the populace in return for “entertainment” in the form of information. The Empire attempts to retaliate, and all the while a pair of agents, one for the UN, hover and observe. These agents work a pair of mysterious powers that seek to ensure that humanity is not destroyed by the mysterious Eschaton, an powerful entity that brutally punishes causality violations. Technology now allows time travel as a biproduct of (apparent) faster than light travel, and the Eschaton is merciless on those who violate its causality edicts.
In the middle of this dangerous universe, the two secret agents develop a strong personal relationship. Stross skillfully manages to focus on their story and it’s pertinence while the worlds around them spirals towards an uncertain future. At the same time, he does not forget to show the humorous side of those who refuse to accept self-evident realities. Innovative and deeply insightful, but ultimately pretty boring. My big gripe is that I didn’t feel any empathy whatsoever for the characters.
The Ship Avenged – S.M. Stirling
The sequel to The City Who Fought, penned by Stirling alone, is just as mediocre as its predecessor.
The City who Fought – S.M. Stirling & Anne McCaffrey
This collaboration between Stirling and McCaffrey takes place in the Brain & Brawn Ship universe
It is vaguely better than McCaffrey’s own efforts. The characters are more solid and there is at least some excitement. Still, I don’t feel that I can really recommend this to anyone.
In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (The Lords of Creation II) – S.M. Stirling
In the somewhat free-standing sequel to The Sky People, Stirling takes us to a Mars inspired by the work of Burroughs and the “science” of Percival Lowell. The arid and cold planet is nevertheless inhabited by close relatives of humans. Our hero, one of the U.S. team based on Mars, travels to a lost city on an archeological expedition. But the Martian head of the expedition team is more than she seems. Soon people are out for their heads as they are embroiled in the thick of Martian politics.
Stirling is masterful at characterizing alien cultures. Even minor dialogue lines are steeped in a deep imagined tradition. It is a pleasure to read, especially as Stirling’s unobtrusive understated humor pervades the prose. This tale of a Mars that never was but that dreamers really wished for is a great adventure yarn.
The Sky People (The Lords of Creation I) – S.M. Stirling
This series is set in an alternate history where Mars and Venus were found teeming with life by spaceprobes in the 1960s. A space race ensued to set up bases on the planets. Interestingly, the superpowers spent so much on space that no major wars were fought on Earth after the Korean War. The action starts on Venus in 1988. Marc Vitrac is one of the researchers living there. It is very much a frontier life among the lush and extremely varied flora and fauna. After some initial setup, Marc and a few others set off on a long journey of adventure. They find answers as to why Venus’ life forms seem so similar to Earth ones, and those answers are unsettling. Along the way, they befriend some natives and, in that inevitable manner of colonization, they are assimilated into their adopted land.
Diehard “outdoor Stirling” fans need not worry. There is plenty of camping, hunting and bowmaking. The characters are. as usual with Stirling, engaging and “real”, as is the backdrop. It is easy to see that Stirling had a lot of fun writing this. It’s as if he woke up one morning and decided to throw a whole bunch of elements (dinosaurs, giant mammals, modern humans, neanderthals, giant bugs and on and on) into a pot just to see what would come out. The result is a fun read but not Stirling’s best. The setting is very rich and complex and more could have been fleshed out, if only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. An appendix discussing background history and societal aspects would have been very welcome.
A Meeting at Corvallis (Emberverse III) – S.M. Stirling
Stirling concludes the Emberverse trilogy in grand style, but doesn’t really tie up all the loose threads. As with the earlier two books, Stirling loses himself in long descriptions of nature, down to the names of flowers and whatnot. With most authors, such long winded prattling would have led to me discarding the book well before the first hundred pages. But Stirling makes it work. His memorable characters play out their destinies against a rich backdrop of modernity turned medieval after the Change.
The trilogy is a pleasure to read and Stirling’s prose is so delightful I would gladly have read another few hundred pages. If nothing else, several characters are worth longer backstories than they get.
The Protector’s War (Emberverse II) – S.M. Stirling
The Protector’s war continues the Emberverse series begun with Dies the Fire. Eight years on from the events of the previous book, the world has somewhat settled after the change. The Protector, the Bearkillers and Clan Mackenzie have all consolidated their positions, and past adventures are turning into legend and myth. A showdown with the Protector must come, but not in this book. That is reserved for the final novel, A Meeting at Corvallis.
I enjoyed this installment very much, but it does suffer from middle of the trilogy syndrome. Just like The Empire Strikes Back, it introduces concepts and characters, setting the stage for the final showdown. If Stirling weren’t so engaging regardless of what he is writing about, the story itself would be a bit boring. But even the sometimes very long descriptions of locales and nature paint rich and gorgeous pictures that are a sheer pleasure to read.
Dies the Fire (Emberverse I) – S.M. Stirling
S.M. Stirling stole the island of Nantucket from the present time in the Nantucket series. In Dies the Fire, he postulates that when that event happened, all modern appliances (electronics, engines, etc) stopped working in “our” world. Also, all explosives (yes including gunpowder) burn much more slowly. To top it off, steam engines are vastly less efficient. This leads the characters involved to feel it must have been an outside influence (such as “Alien Space Bats) that created what comes to be called “The Change”. The story does not go into The Change itself more than that however, rather focusing on a group of people having to live in the world post-Change.
As so often with Stirling, I found myself unable to put the book down. He does have a way to make characters pop. The two protagonists, Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel, are uncommonly well equipped to handle the change, and draw to them people who also have survivor traits. They seem to have more than their fair share of luck, a theme which crops up here and there. This has led to criticism from some readers, who have said it simply isn’t possible for the protagonists to make out quite so well. I would say that if they hadn’t been so lucky and skillful, they would have died along with 90% of humanity in the year after the Change.
As usual, Stirling has done meticulous research into everything from archery to Wicca. It is a pleasure to watch his characters develop through the story.
Conquistador – S.M. Stirling
John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, inadvertently opens a portal to an alternate timeline in his Oakland, California, basement. He and his old war buddies proceed to conquer this version of the Earth. In the other timeline, Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and the white man never arrived in America. The most advanced civilizations are still technologically in the middle ages. The “Gate” remains open, allowing Rolfe and his new nation to secretly smuggle precious metals to the original timeline (they know where to find it easily by using maps from our timeline) and manufactured goods to the other timeline. The “Gate Secret” is very tightly held.
But all is not well in paradise. A faction fight in the alternate timeline spills over into ours, and two Fish and Game Warden find themselves caught up in the middle, then exiled through the gate. They must now team up with the “good” alternate timeline faction (Rolfe’s granddaughter, for one) to defeat the evil faction.
I enjoyed “Conquistador”. It is adventure pure and simple. The action scenes are masterful. The setting, as well as the social, economic and ecological discussions are both entertaining and intriguing. However, I do think that Stirling could have delivered a better plot. The ending is rather abrupt, and some of the moral issues prominent in the first half of the book (is the whole idea of conquering a new world and setting yourselves up as a benevolent dictatorship really a good thing?) are conveniently dropped by the wayside at the end. And then there are the characters. Likeable as they may be, our heroes are a little too perfectly intelligent, likeable and generally extremely fit and good looking. While I am a sucker for happy endings, I still found it a little bit too happy and perfect and neatly tied up, even though the very last page does open the door for sequels.
The Peshawar Lancers – S.M. Stirling
This singleton is set in the year 2025, but not in our future. The premise is that a shower of comets hit Earth in the 1860’s, pushing civilization to the brink of extinction both by the impacts themselves and related general cooling. The British Empire relocated its seat to Delhi, and the story takes place in what is India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in our timeline. The Empire is ruled by the Angrezi Raj, or King-Emperor.
This is classic swords and horses adventure. Very gripping, with some great characters. The middle of the book was a little “unfocused”, and Stirling could have added dates to the section headings, since there is a bit of jumping backwards and forwards. The end is one long drawn-out cliffhanger after another. As usual, Stirling proves that he knows his history, weapons and tactics. A real page turner and recommended for for high adventure buffs
What Distant Deeps (RCN VIII) – David Drake
Peace has broken out between the Republic of Cinnabar and The Alliance of Free Stars. Captain Leary and the Princess Cecile are tasked with taking a new commissioner to the backwater planet of Zenobia. It is supposed to be a quiet and uncomplicated mission, but of course danger and intrigue are lurking. A plot by a local planetary ruler to invade Zenobia soon throws a wrench in the works.
I enjoyed this one greatly. Leary and Mundy are in fine form, The space action is very good, especially the final battle which takes up a good chunk of the book. There is also an abundance of colorful characters, even more than usual for the RCN series.