Marooned in Realtime – Vernor Vinge

This novel is published both as a singleton and in the omnibus edition Across Realtime together with its prequel The Peace War.

The sequel to “The Peace War” jumps 50 million years into the future. The 300 remaining humans travel forward through the eons with Bobbles, the invulnerable stasis fields introduced in “The Peace War”. One of them is left behind. The only remaining cop in the world must solve the mystery of why she had to die marooned in “realtime” while the rest jumped ahead in time. This book is absolutely fantastic. The factional disputes, the feeling of disconnection, the sheer human suffering of losing everything you ever knew, is portrayed masterfully. It delves deeply into the question of what should we, as humans, really do with our lives and our race. Some wish to recreate the human race now that enough people are simultanously “in realtime” (not in stasis). Some with to travel forward through the eons and see what awaits at the end of the universe. Some, it would seem, want to continue the nationalist struggles of a long-lost past. What a ride!

The Peace War – Vernor Vinge

This novel is published both as a singleton and in the omnibus edition Across Realtime together with the sequel Marooned in Realtime.

The “Peace Authority” has stopped war by encasing warring factions in impenetrable force fields known as “bobbles” created by the “Bobbler”. Then all high technology was banned. Fifty years later, the inventor of the Bobbler leads a revolution.

Vinge skillfully describes the human condition in this very odd future world. While most humans are poor, the Peace Authority has set itself up as a sort of benevolent dictatorship, but it has stagnated technologically. The Tinkers, under the ad-hoc leadership of Paul Naismith, inventor of the Bobbler, have advanced electronics well beyond those of the Authority. The Authority’s blind spot is that it cannot believe the Tinkers are so advanced when high energy applications are banned.

There is a little of everything here. A coming of age story, love lost and hope for its resumtion, honor, loyalty, betrayal. Vinge uses the plot device of the bobbler and the bobbles to great effect, and meticulously exhausts the implications of the technology’s effect on humanity.

The Honor Harrington Series – David Weber

Space Opera in the spirit of Horatio Hornblower. Action, adventure and all that. And really good. Although I feel that Weber has lately slackened off a little, and is given to perhaps excessive verbosity in his tangents, I still eagerly await each new release.

  • On Basilisk Station (HH I) – Arguably still the best Honor book. Lots of action, but also humor and great characters. This kind of editing would do the books after 6 good..
  • The Honor of the Queen (HH II) – An incredible ride.
  • The Short Victorious War (HH III) – Long on the action, short on the characters. But that’s fine 😉

  • Field of Dishonor (HH IV) – Weber shows how even Honor has a dark side, and it’s very dark.
  • Flag in Exile (HH V) – An interesting character study of Honor.
  • Honor Among Enemies (HHVI) – Perhaps my favorite Honor. A great story of redemption.

  • More than Honor (Anthology)
  • In Enemy Hands (HH VI) – Very exciting but not quite as good as books 1 through 6.
  • Echoes of Honor (HH VIII) – Great storyline, but unfortunately Weber’s style is slipping by this point, with overlong exposition and contrived dialogue among the still great action.

  • Worlds of Honor (Anthology)
  • Ashes of Victory (HH IX) – Losing steam, which unfortunately stays lost in “War of Honor”.
  • Changer of Worlds (Anthology)

  • War of Honor (HH X) – Pretty ho-hum compared to the others. Definitely an interim book.
  • The Service of The Sword (Anthology)
  • At All Costs (HH XI) – This definitely shows a partial comeback of Weber’s old form. Although he still hems and haws his way through dialogue, the action is great and the stakes are high.

Some of the stories in the anthologies contain background for later novels, so it is rather important to read them as part of the sequence.

Around War of Honor (HH X) The Honorverse branches off with the “Saganami Island” and “Crown of Slaves” series.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

I can’t add very much to what has already been said about these books. One of the remarkable achievements of The Lord of the Rings is that it has firmly made a place for itself in the mainstream, without so much as a deprecating comment about it being fantasy. The Hobbit is more of a children’s book, and not really necessary to read in order to understand the story, but it is still a delightful tale and gives quite a bit of useful background. There are about a zillion different editions, but the complete cycle is composed of:

  • The Hobbit – the Prelude
  • The Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Two Towers
  • The Return of the King

Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning I) – John Varley

RedThunderFor some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.

Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.

 

The Draka Series – S.M. Stirling

The series consists of four novels, though the first three are now published in one omnibus entitled The Domination.

  • Marching through Georgia
  • Under the Yoke
  • The Stone Dogs
  • Drakon

The series can really shake you up. It is set in an alternate history in which the Crown Colony of the Cape (what later became modern day South Africa) becomes a powerful nation. This “Domination of the Draka” is utterly elitist and wishes to subjugate all other races to the white master race. It is also fiercely expansionist. At the time of our own timeline’s Second World War, the Domination drives a wedge between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany by invading through the Caucasus. The Domination then proceeds to conquer all of Europe and Asia (except for India), adding these territories to its African holdings. These events are detailed in the first book. The second book is about a spy expedition into Draka territory by the “Alliance for Freedom”, basically what is left of the free world (America and India). It is not quite as good as the rest of the series, and on rereading I have skipped over it completely as it is not essential to the story. The third book is about the final showdown between the two powers. The Alliance is more powerful in technology and the physical sciences, while the Domination, mostly thanks to a scruple free approach to human experiments (they’re just serfs, after all) is very advanced in genetics and bioengineering. The Draka win the war, and the “free” humans mount a last-ditch escape for a precious few to a nearby solar system.

Drakon is a change of pace. In a Draka future, the master race experiments with portals into alternate timelines. A Draka (daughter of the protagonists from The Stone Dogs) is stranded in one of these timelines (our own) and attempts to subjugate it to her will. This novel is much smaller in scope than the other three, but it remains a great read.

The scary thing about the Draka books is that you can easily find yourself rooting for “the bad guys”. These aren’t Hitler’s Nazis. The Draka want an ordered society and a life which does not use up the Earth’s resources without replenishing them. They do not see their use of “serfs” as immoral and they are not given to pettiness. Only ruthlessness. So apart from spinning a great yarn, Stirling is trying to tell us that many would choose the Draka way of life if they had the chance (well, the chance to be Draka). The Draka create an earthly paradise after their victory, and the average standard of living and intelligence of ALL men, including serfs, actually improves after the Draka victory. The series is controversial in this manner and really makes you think about some big issues. It is also a great military science fiction read.

Cosmos – Carl Sagan

This book explains… “everything”. In his great style, using “small words”, Sagan takes us on a wondrous journey through creation. Even if you are not interested in cosmology or physics, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Posleen War Series – John Ringo

Alien invasion stories have been done before, but to my knowledge never quite with this much desperation, lack of hope, or heroism on the part of the defenders. This is rich military SF with a keen eye for the strategic dimension and human psychology as well as kick-ass fun. The “original” series consists of the following.

  • A Hymn Before Battle
  • Gust Front
  • When the Devil Dances
  • Hell’s Faire

The first novel is a sort of “eve of the war” story. I was put off by the cover for quite a while but eventually decided to give it a shot. Good thing too. Aliens have contacted Earth and told them of an ongoing war, and that the Posleen, a very powerful race with a behavior like a cannibalistic Mongol horde, is only five years out from Earth. The Galactics will help, if humans help them fight. The other races are pacifistic in the extreme. There is action (of course) in the form of skirmishes and the defence of an allied planet, and we are introduced to Mike O’Neal, later leader of an elite Armed Combat Suit unit and the main hero of the story.

The second novel covers the assault on Earth. As before, Ringo has a knack for describing the political and strategic dimensions, and is not afraid of throwing disastrous screwups, unexpected developments and plain old bad luck into the mix. The United States is hunkering down, but the question is: Will the line hold for the defenders to marshal their forces?

The third novel of the series is a middle book to bridge the gap between the first Posleen assault on Earth (covered in “Gust Front”) and the climactic conclusion to the war (covered in “Hell’s Faire”). Characters are developed and the stage is set for a whopping showdown. The action scenes are great, as in all Ringo’s work, and the humor just keeps getting better. It’s quite ironic that a story about alien invasion and massive destruction, suffering and pain can make me laugh out loud so much. Ringo is good at capturing the inner essence of characters. This three-dimensionality is welcome, and few authors pull it off so well. He is also very good at developing his characters as they go through events in their lives. Masterful.

The fourth novel picks up exactly where When the Devil Dances left off. In the afterword, Ringo says that the last two should only have been one, but 9/11 gave him serious writer’s block and plans had to change. He even suggests gluing them together. The conclusion is very exciting and satisfying. While many loose ends are tied up, other fundamental questions about the various aliens, which were only hinted at in the earlier books, are now dredged up and given new focus. Why didn’t the Galactics warn Earth earlier? Why did they give intelligence to the Posleen? To answer these questions the Universe is already much expanded, with several more novels written solo and in collaboration.

Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds

Scary in it’s placing of humanity firmly at the bottom of the Universe’s pecking order, this series of books contains some pretty big concepts. Worth reading just for the descriptions of cultures and aliens. Watch out though, Reynolds is not afraid of making the Universe a scary place. I refused to read Redemption Ark close to bedtime. I would just lay awake and shiver at the thought of how huge the universe is, and how short-lived and fragile we are.

  • Revelation Space – Cool, pure SF. The last few chapters give an inkling of what is to come in future installments, but the story also stands well by itself.
  • Redemption Ark – The sequel to Revelation Space, in which many questions are, err, resolved, or then again maybe not. Several hundred years in the future, the Inhibitors are back after eons, Their objective seems to be to eradicate sentient life. Scary scary scary.
  • Chasm City – The schizo prequel to Revelation Space, which scales back quite a bit from the epic back story and gives up a very convoluted plot of a man and his quest for identity. Good reading but does lose itself a little in the identity crisis of a very screwed up psyche.

There is a sequel to Redemption Ark, called Absolution Gap, but I have never gotten around to it. While I am sure it is great, I am also sure it won’t be very cheerful.

Building Harlequin’s Moon – Larry Niven & Brenda Cooper

Niven is at his best in collaboration, and this is no exception. Building Harlequin’s Moon is is a story in many layers. The main plot line is about the first interstellar starship, escaping a Sol System full of renegade AIs and nanotech, escaping to reclaim humanity. But there is a malfunction and the starship is stranded in a barren star system partway to its goal. More antimatter is needed to refuel the ship, and the colonists refuse to use nanotech due to their belief that nanotech leads to evil. The only option is to spend sixty thousand years (yes it’s a long time but they can extend their lifespans indefinitely) building a habitable moon out of smaller ones, and then populating it with flora, fauna, humans, and then finally industrializing and constructing a huge collider to make antimatter. Rachel is a “Moon Born” “Child”, basically a slave to the goal of ultimately fueling the ship. But what no colonist counted on was that the Children are human too, and once the cogs in the plan are live humans, you have to look them in the eye. The titanic endeavor is ambitious in the extreme, but is it worth the cost to their souls?

On another level, the story is about Rachel, from her rather innocent teenage years to her coming of age as a leader of her people. And on yet another level, it’s about what makes us human. Our values, our biology, our goals?

The rather slow style of the book suits the story well, and events are followed in a careful fashion as we move, never too fast, through the action.

Building Harlequin’s Moon is full of wonderful three dimensional characters. Niven & Cooper ensure that even the most seemingly irrational and heartless protagonist is well understood by the reader as they delve deeply into her motivations. This novel shows humans at their best and worst, and it is impossible not to be entranced by the adventures of Rachel, Gabriel and the others. This is quite simply a masterpiece.

Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers – Larry Niven

Arguably Niven’s best solo novels, as well as the ultimate BDO (Big Dumb Object) story. Great adventure in an incredible setting with trademark Niven “quirky characters”. They’re not perfect but the sense of wonder created is second to none.

Interestingly, the premise of The Ringworld Engineers, that the Ringworld is unstable, was figured out by physicists after the first novel was published. At the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, MIT students were chanting “The Ringword is unstable!” Hence why our heroes need to fix the problem.

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.

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.

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.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.

The Crucible of Empire – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This direct sequel to The Course of Empire takes up the story two years after the events of the previous book. The nascent Terra taif consisting of both Jao and humans finds clues that the Lleix, a race practically exterminated by the Jao during their time as an Ekhat slave race, may have survived, but is in imminent danger from the Ekhat. Terra taif’s newest ship, the gargantuan Lexington, is dispatched to the system in question.

It is a rare sequel that is as good as the original, but Flint and Wentworth have managed to pull it off. The inclusion of the fascinating Lleix and the telling of sections from their point of view is excellently done and brings a necessary new wrinkle to the story. Flint is a master at telling a story from various points of view and really getting into the psychology of various people and races. While, of course, neither the Jao nor the Lleix are truly alien, they are different enough to make the contrasts and interactions interesting, especially when written with a good measure of humor as here. There is even a passage written from the point of view of the Ekhat, as frightening as they are powerful and utterly mad. A real page turner, this.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

The Sprawl Trilogy – William Gibson

The Sprawl Trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer
  • Count Zero
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive

Gibson invented the cyberpunk subgenre with this plot-wise loosely connected series of books and he revitalized SciFi in the process. His sparse, cool prose and his approach to characterization mark the writing of many of his successors, probably chief among those Neal Stephenson.

His descriptions of cyberculture have aged well, since he was wise enough not to be too specific about hardware and software. He himself attributes this to the fact that he had never owned a computer at the time, although that is, in typical Gibson fashion, probably far too modest a justification. Another interesting fact is that these novels were written in the mid eighties, but illustrate many of the advances in computer technology which scientists and engineers are striving towards today in 2010. Whether his ideas on man-machine interfaces are simply the result of some very good thinking, and whether he inspired a generations of computer wiz kids is, of course, open to debate.

His work remains one of the pinnacles of SciFi, and his ability to distill the essence of something into a single, cool sentence remains, perhaps, unrivaled.

The Wreck of the River of Stars – Michael Flynn

The cover looks magnificent. Flynn is back with a near future tale mirroring the twilight days of the age of sail. “The River of Stars” has long ago furled it’s magnetic sail in favor of a more modern engine. The past glories of the ship are almost forgotten as she plies her trade as a tramp freighter. But an engine failure forces a difficult decision. Her crew want to use the sail to save the ship in a last tribute to her old days of glory.

Incidentally, the story is set in the same universe as the Firestar series, with quite a few inside references sprinkled around for the avid Flynn fan.

It took me more than a month to read this book. Flynn’s prose is unusually fine, but it takes a long time to get through it. The title says it all, I guess, and the ending is more or less foretold from the beginning. This novel concentrates on the characters and their interactions. Long gone are the glory days of The River of Stars, and her crew is made up of a collection of misfits and losers who cannot find another berth. The Captain dies in the very first chapter, and things go downhill from there. Gradually the flawed crewmembers dance out their dance of death, and maybe they know their fate all along, which makes the drama even stronger.

I should point out that this book is intensely psychological, and does not, despite the setting, move very fast at all. Descriptions of feelings and motivations and interactions are drawn out almost to breaking point. It is a tribute to Flynn that he manages to hold the reader’s interest. So be warned, this is not a light summer read, but its majesty will captivate you.

Firestar Series – Michael Flynn

Near future SciFi has seldom been done better. Flynn takes us on an epic journey only hinted at in the humble beginnings of the first book. A millionairess has a hidden fear, almost an obsession. She is afraid that an asteroid has the potential to wipe out humanity by striking the Earth. While her fear is no doubt well founded, it takes extreme expressions in her, and she uses her fortune to build up a huge aerospace industry. The series consists of:

  • Firestar
  • Rogue Star
  • Lodestar
  • Falling Stars

What really makes this series great is the variety and richness of the many characters (from the second book, a Dramatis Personae is thankfully provided). The antagonisms and alliances flow over decades as Flynn deftly describes human nature, and the many things which make up its facets. Many novels have (too) many characters, but in almost all cases the majority are not fully fleshed out and threedimensional. Flynn’s wonderful character are these things. They have a past, motivations, goals and aspirations.

It is also quite remarkable how Flynn manages to weave together the many strands of his story into one whole, making this more than just a massive work of Science Fiction. It is, in fact, a story about ordinary people who, each in his or her own way, faces extraordinary personal and professional challenges in a changing society.

My only, very small, gripe with the series is how it loses a bit of steam in the third book. However, seen as a whole, the entire story is outstanding.

And yes, the last two covers are horrible and have very little to do with the books. Pah!

The Course Of Empire – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This is truly an undiscovered gem of a novel. Almost discreetly thrown out there, it will unfortunately be missed by many readers thinking it just one more of Baen’s (admittedly mostly excellent) military scifi offerings. It is much much more than that.

The story it draws closely on the history of the English occupation of India. The Jao conquered Earth twenty years ago in their struggle to hold ground against the powerful and enigmatic Ekhat. Since then, Earth has suffered under an abusive Jao viceroy. Humans still do not understand the Jao and their complex society. Most Jao see humans as lesser beings to be used up in the war against the Ekhat. But things change as a new Jao commander of ground forces arrives with fresh ideas. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are closing in and the mysterious Jao faction known as The Bond of Ebezon watches closely, ready to intervene.

The book is a page turner with plenty of action, but I did struggle with the alien Jao in the beginning. They are not written to be easily understandable. Flint and Wentworth have made them complex and truly alien without succumbing to the temptation of explaining their quirks and affectations in human terms. It’s a bit of a hump but well worth conquering. The Jao are fascinating creatures that misunderstand humans as much as humans misunderstand them. Not since Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye have I encountered aliens that are truly alien and not just humans looking different.

Flint & Wentworth masterfully take the reader from simple beginnings and purposeful confusion to understanding and enlightenment. This journey parallels that of the main protagonists, both Jao and human. Excellent!

The Raj Whitehall Series (I-VIII) – David Drake, S.M. Stirling & Eric Flint

The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.

The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.

The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:

  • The Forge
  • The Hammer
  • The Anvil
  • The Steel
  • The Sword

After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:

  • The Chosen

It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:

  • The Reformer
  • The Tyrant

Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.

This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.