Destiny’s Road – Larry Niven

On a distant colony planet, a boy grows up wondering why the original colony ship departed many generations ago, at the same time scorching a road into the distance with its fusion drive. No knows where the road leads. The planet has a shortage of potassium and an upper class distributes what turns out to be potassium in exchange for their ruling status.

The ideas underlying the story are very clever. Unfortunately the story itself is confusing and hopelessly. I could barely finish the book. Given the neat premise, I wish Niven would have written an outline and contracted some other author to write the actual book.

Note: This is set in the same universe as The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children, but there is no connection between the stories beyond that.

The Magic Goes Away – Larry Niven

In ancient times, there was magic in the world. But the supply of mana, on which magic is based, is dwindling. Creatures with magical metabolisms, such as dragons, are in serious trouble, and in general the world is becoming a less mystical place. A group of adventurers sets out to find the last remaining source of mana.

The idea underlying the novel is very clever. Unfortunately it is not very good. It is based on the short story Not Long Before the End but the idea doesn’t scale very well to a full length novel.

 

Downbelow Station – C.J. Cherryh

Stuck between the “old world” Terrans and the “new world” Union, Downbelow Station struggles to survive in an increasingly hostile universe. The book follows the denizens of the station and their machinations.

This novel won the Hugo Award in 1982 so I was expecting a lot. Sadly, I found it very dull. The story itself is very interesting, as is the setting. Unfortunately I dislike Cherryh’s style. It has been described as “limited third person”, meaning that the author only describes what the current point of view character thinks about. This is different from what the character actually sees, as for example things familiar to the character are ignored. I found that the lack of details stifled the novel, rendering the prose “claustrophobic”, for lack of a better word. A side effect is that events that happened “off stage” are often introduced rather abruptly. Scenes also proceed in fits and starts, jumping from one character to the next without much apparent structure. I gave up after about a third of the book.

Cosmonaut Keep – Ken MacLeod

Book one of Engines of Light. This post-singularity novel has received quite some critical acclaim. While I can appreciate the good prose, I was not drawn in by either the characters or the story. MacLeod has some cool ideas but I gave up after about one hundred pages.

Enigma – Robert Harris

Although this novel of British code breaking during World War II received good reviews, and I have no doubt of it’s historical accuracy, it thoroughly failed to captivate me and I gave up on it after only about a hundred pages.

The Lost Regiment Series – William R. Forstchen

I have read the first three books in the series:

  • Rally Cry
  • Union Forever
  • Terrible Swift Sword

An American Civil War regiment gets transported to a world where a savage species comes around every few years and collects tribute in the form of human flesh. This series trods a well-worn path of military sci-fi (a prime example is Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries), Fortschen does decently well. The first book is not bad, but by the time I got to the end of book three, I discovered that the story was not really going anywhere anymore. There is better stuff than this out there.

1812: The Rivers of War – Eric Flint

Another alternate history story from Flint and technically an Assiti Shards novel even if removed from the main thrust of that series. This one, the first of a new series, rewrites the War of 1812. Instead of being wounded in the groin at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Sam Houston is only grazed in the arm. And so he can participate in the defense of Washington against a British raid. Flint spins an interesting tale of how influential (American) Indians, whites and blacks begin to form strong bonds and plan for the future. It helps if you know some of the history, but even if you don’t, Flint is pretty good at filling in the blanks.

I enjoyed the book mildly, but it is by no means perfect. Flint has a great sense of humor and the book is a page turner. However, he is a bit too in love with his characters, and the smugness with which he describes them is often grating. Having said that, if you liked 1632 and so forth you might enjoy this.

 

 

Robots and Empire – Isaac Asimov

On the “Spacer” planet of Aurora, the woman Gladia’s life is a long succession of days filled with ennnui. Despite being descended from the first humans to settle other planets, her society is stagnating. Spacers live long, empty lives. Robots run all menial work and intricate rules of conduct control much of life. Into this drops D.G. Baley, descendant of Elijah Baley of The Caves of Steel and The Robots of Dawn (when Gladia met Elijah). Baley is a “Settler”, part of a new wave of colonizers from Earth who are much more dynamic than the Spacers, and are overtaking them in influence. The Settlers oppose the Spacers. He asks Gladia to come with him to help investigate a mystery. Meanwhile, powerful men plot the defeat of the Settlers.

This is the last Robot novel by Asimov. It is part of his efforts to unify the Robot series with the Empire/Foundation series. Asimov has great ideas as usual but I found the writing hopelessly tedious. The fact that the Spacers are amazingly annoying people, haughty, self-centered and stuck up, does not help matters. I kept thinking that if I met Gladia I would have wanted to slap her. She is constantly bitching and moaning about trivialities.

As usual with Asimov, there is almost only dialogue and very little actual action. That is not a bad thing per se, but here it has been taken to an absurd extreme. Robot Daneel and Robot Giskard spend page after page discussing events (such as there are) in excruciating detail. No eventuality or possibility is left undiscussed. One character, on two separate occasions, refuses to listen to something he needs to hear until he is convinced that he needs to hear it. Both times it is a 5-10 page ordeal. I know Asimov is trying to make the point that Spacer society is stagnating and is stuck with all these rules, but it makes reading very boring. Overall, that would be the word to describe this novel: boring.

I made it two thirds in before giving up.

State of Fear – Michael Crichton

This is the first Crichton novel I have had a hard time finishing. Somewhere in the middle, I just lost interest. It’s a decent story, but frequently disjointed and muddled. Very much unlike Crichton’s usual very focused style. Thankfully, it does pick up at the end, and Crichton is never really a bad author.

As with all Crichton’s novels, there is a central theme. This time it’s global warning. In an interesting twist, the author takes a dissenting opinion. While the views of characters should never be mistaken for being the same as the author’s, Crichton does make himself quite clear in the afterword. Put simply, he claims there is not enough research to prove global warming one way or another. Interesting. It should be noted that Crichton likes his scholarly afterwords and bibliographies. I have learned to take them with a pinch of salt.

The story revolves around an aging philanthropist, his young lawyer, and a large environmental organization. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the environmentalist organization intends to influence public opinion by attempting to control natural phenomena. For example, they wish to create a flash flood to focus attention on global warming. Crichton writes characters and their interactions with each other and technology with his usual skill.

It is important to remember the title. I don’t think Crichton wrote State of Fear as a treatise on global warming. The point of the novel (apart from entertainment of course) is twofold: First, instill some healthy skepticism about accepting any “accepted truth”. Secondly, discuss how the “powers that be” need society to fear something in order to keep it in check. A central passage in the book deals with this explictly. With the media as a willing messenger, fear is brought home to the public. Current western society is as safe as it has ever been, and yet people are irrationally fearful of many things. Maybe that’s because they are constantly hammered with wall to wall coverage of murder, war, climate change and assorted doom. It’s not that the Cold War or Global Warming are only in our minds, but the way such phenomena are “sold” to us is full of hyperbole and fearmongering.

Be skeptical. Crichton subtly reminds the reader of this with the last tongue-in-cheek point of his afterword: “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.”

What I really liked was the sheer contrarianism of the whole thing. The environmentalists are portrayed as dissention squashing fanatics. The movement is anything but grass roots, but feeds on a vast mass of donations, much of it from rich but perhaps misguided individuals who need something to do. Those asking for clear, untainted evidence are hung out as traitors to the Earth. No matter how you feel about global warming, it’s an interesting read just for that. As a thriller, though, it is only fair to middling. Crichton has done better.

Prey – Michael Crichton

Crichton takes on nanotechnology in his usual “one-week story” format. Exciting and with some neat tech stuff but not particularly deep. This sort of thing has an irresistible appeal for a geek like me . Genetics, computers, nanotech, all rolled into one. Pity the book isn’t that good.

Congo – Michael Crichton

As usual, Crichton serves up a fast paced book in which the plot spans only a couple of days. The ideas are quite fascinating, from the long discussions about what are now very archaic computers to the insightful look into primate psychology. I enjoy Crichton’s work, but his books always leave me wanting more depth.

The Andromeda Strain – Michael Crichton

Formulaic like pretty much all other Crichton books, but without the redeeming quality of page-turning excitement present in his later works. This story of a satellite falling back to Earth after picking up an alien, and dangerous, organism has aged very badly. I can forgive the aged subject matter. Unfortunately, and as opposed to other Crichton books, I didn’t care at all about the characters. There were times when I couldn’t even tell them apart. Still, having read his later works it was interesting to see how it all started. Hints of the author’s future style are discernible in the text. And since it is a very short read it wasn’t too taxing.

America – Stephen Coonts

Unusually for Coonts, there is almost no flying. This is a vaguely passable technothriller in Tom Clancy style. Still not as polished as it could be, and Coonts fails to make the last half as gripping as the first. Also, I had a hard time believing the motivations and actions of the bad guys. Having said all that, I didn’t want to put it down until the end.

The Intruders – Steven Coonts

Coonts used to fly A-6 Intruders of carriers. This makes him, per definition, a cool guy. Pity that he forgot to throw in a plot in this novel. If you like planes, you will probably enjoy it anyway. Coonts’ hero Jake Grafton meets his wife in this novel. There, I gave half the “plot” away.

 

The Deep Range – Arthur C. Clarke

In the future (as seen from 1957), submersible game wardens herd whales around underwater ranges. The whales are food animals which, along with equally farmed seaweed, have solved the world’s food supply problems. The story is about an ex-engineer on a spaceliner who suffered an accident and gets a new start as a warden.

This book has aged quite badly. While much of Clarke’s space based science fiction can be read with enjoyment today, this one is just plain tedious. So tedious, in fact, that I only got about half way through before giving up. The technology is not really fascinating anymore, but that’s not the problem. There just doesn’t seem to be a story here, and the characters are completely uninteresting.

The Teeth of the Tiger – Tom Clancy

Oh how the mighty have fallen! Some of my favorite novels are The Hunt for Red October and Executive Orders., products of a true master. By the time he wrote this novel, though, Mr. Clancy seemed to have lost it his touch. Red Rabbit was at best passable and The Teeth of the Tiger continued the decline. Full of platitudes (“if possible, the service in Vienna was even better than in Munich”) and repetitions, it makes one believe the rumors that he does not write anymore, and the novels are group efforts by his staff. Supposedly, Clancy supervises and approves. It’s very sad to see what was once a great author who has declined so much.

Having said that, The Teeth of the Tiger is still a somewhat entertaining novel, arguably worth a read for the Clancy fan. The story is about a US agency so deep undercover that it is not even part of the government (insert worrying comments about vigilantism here) and terrorism against America. Unfortunately it is predictable to the point of annoyance on the part of this reader., I really wanted to like this book, and was having a pretty good time. Unfortunately the ending, while in fact coming to some sort of conclusion, does leave a lot of stuff just hanging there.

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs is better known for his Tarzan books, but he actually shot to fame with the John Carter books (starting with this one) about the adventures of a Civil War veteran from Virginia on Mars.

These books have a big role in SciFi folklore. While the adventure is engaging, I found the character of John Carter himself (the novel is narrated in the first person) a bit off-putting. He is rather full of himself as only an expert in self deprecation can be. Perhaps it is just a bit too dated for me. So while the old fashioned writing style was manageable, I was a bit disappointed with the whole thing due to the annoyingly condescending attitudes displayed. It is high adventure in any case, complete with absurd situations and plenty of flirts with deus ex machina.

Crystal Rain – Tobias S. Buckell

On what is obviously a “lost” colony world, a man without a past (or at least much of one) is caught up in a great conflict. And apparently there’s a macguffin in the desolate north that can save the day.

I really wanted to like this. The reviews were decent, speaking of swashbuckling action against a rick backdrop of hodge-podge Caribbean culture. Unfortunately I found the whole thing pretty dull. The pacing is slow, the action scenes are cookie cutter. I kept waiting for Mr. Buckell to get to the point. But no, the obviously upcoming expedition to the north never seems to get off the ground. Mr. Buckell is obviously talented, but this was not for me. I gave up about half way through.

Chains of Command – Dale Brown

Pretty bland fare for a technothriller. The plot is just a bit too incredible and the author needs to get a better map of Europe in order to distinguish between Slovenia and Slovakia. So why did I read it? Lots and lots of aviation candy in, especially concerning about overlooked strike and bomber planes like the F-111. If you’re not into aviation, don’t bother with this one.