Xenocide – Orson Scott Card

Technically this is the second sequel to Ender’s Game, but in actuality Ender’s Game is pretty much a singleton with a spin-off. Xenocide picks up directly where Speaker for the Dead left off. The Lusitania fleet is still bearing down on our heroes, and the question of how to ensure the survival of Pequeninos, Buggers and humans dominates the book. The secondary plot on the planet Path could have been skipped altogether from a story point of view, but psychology is never boring with Card, and so it’s good, if sometimes long-winded reading.

Xenocide is rather slow in the first two thirds, and it took me a long time to get through it. The last third speeds up as the story reaches it’s climax. For a while I though Card would lose it with his theory of the universe, but it all works out rather neatly in the end. Well, life is a mess for Ender, but that seems to be his lot in life.

The ending neatly sets the stage for the sequel Children of the Mind. Just like in Speaker for the Dead, a lot is left unresolved.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Speaker for the Dead. The story is just as good, if not better. However it is quite slow and long winded. Card himself has said this book is maybe his “deepest” work. That isn’t to say it isn’t a great book. It really is. Finally, don’t start with this one. Read the previous two first.

Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card

As in the prequel Ender’s Game, Card puts puts Ender center stage. Ender is now in his mid thirties, but three thousand years have passed (thanks to judicious speed of light travel on his part) and he finds a chance to redeem himself for what he (and the public) sees as the xenocide (murder of alien race) of the “buggers”. History, cruelly revisionist as it often is, has condemned him for saving the human race, and his very name is a curse. Using his real name, Andrew, he travels from world to world as a Speaker for the Dead, a person who speaks the truth about a person after death at their request.

Mankind has found a new alien race, the seemingly primitive “Piggies”. The colonists of the Piggie world Lusitania call them Pequeninos (little children) and this is a powerful hint for the reader. Ender falls into a maelstrom of human suffering spanning generations, while untenable Piggy-xenologer (scholar of aliens) interaction rules and their violation is putting the future of the Piggies and the colonists in doubt.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as Ender’s Game, and it delves much deeper into the human psyche, showing off Cards strength here. While Ender may sometimes be almost annoyingly wise and seemingly unerring, this does not detract from the story. The book focuses very much on human (and piggy) interaction and feelings, and at the end you wonder how a book can be so good with so little essentially happening. It deeply explores questions of humanity and existence, as well as morality and integrity, but without becoming preachy or boring. As with Ender’s Game, Card has yet again penned a masterpiece.

The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.

But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.

Debt of Honor and Executive Orders – Tom Clancy

An older Jack Ryan moves upwards in the chain of command. Debt of Honor is nowaday subtitled “The prelude to Executive Orders”. I think this does it a tremendous disservice. Although it does end in the middle of the story, it is a fully fleshed out novel in it’s own right, and raises some interesting questions about the future of the Pacific region.

Executive Orders is my favorite Clancy. Its amazing mix of high level politics, forced change at the highest levels of the US governemnt (wishful thinking by Clancy, but I do agree with his views on this one) and of course excellent military action make this a book to read over and over.

Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy

Patriot Games was written second, but chronologically the events portrayed occur before The Hunt for Red October. These two novels kicked off a series that continues today, and remain among the best technothrillers ever written. The true passion that Clancy has for his subject matter shows through, and his strong personal belief in the values portrayed by Jack Ryan, widely considered to be his fictional alter ego, make these books among the best I have read,

These are also two of my favorite movies. The films follow the novels quite closely. Of course they abridge, but the essence of the stories is there.

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.

Encounter with Tiber – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

With a name like Buzz Aldrin on the cover I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. The story follows the first human mission to another star, and in flashbacks a human mission to the Moon that found alien artifacts, as well as two alien missions to Earth in prehistoric times.

Unexpectedly, this novel completely blew me away. The story is developed from two angles, human and alien. Interestingly enough, the two sides never meet as such, but impact on each other’s existence in various ways. While the aliens aren’t the most original, the alien characterisation is complex and well written, It is nice to read about well fleshed out characters who have deep, complex personalities on the “other” side. The tech is of course top notch (Buzz Aldrin!), but the real kicker here is the sheer epic scale of the story. After I finished it, I sat staring into empty space for a long time, my mind filled with wonder.

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.

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