Armada – Ernest Cline

ArmadaZack Lightman is a typical teenager living in a small town in Oregon. He is about to graduate high school. He works part time in a vintage video game shop. He plays the hit space combat game “Armada” quite a bit, with a player ranking of sixth worldwide. He also plays the companion ground combat game Terra Firma, but is nowhere near as good as his friends. The whole world seems to be playing these games. Then one, day, an Earth Defense Alliance shuttle looking just like in the games turns up at Zack’s school to pick him up for duty. Apparently the alien invaders are real and the games are a training simulation.

Like in his debut novel Ready Player One, Mr. Cline plays heavily on nostalgia and homages to the pop culture of the eighties. The story itself is heavily influenced by The Last Starfighter, which is also is referenced in the text. However in this novel the element feels somewhat forced.

The book is a fun romp and a lighthearted read. However it feels rushed and unfinished. The reader is left with the impression that there is so much left to say about these characters, but the story moves on rails, far too rapidly tracking towards what is a predictable conclusion despite the too obvious twist.

3½Rosbochs

 

A Darkling Sea – James L. Cambias

ADarklingSeaUnder the thick ice crust of the moon Ilmatar, there is a world-spanning cold ocean filled with strange alien creatures, some of them intelligent with primitive technology. A human expeditionary base studies this dark and submerged world under strict non-contact rules. Inevitably, one of the academics tries to get a bit too close. At the same time, a ship from the advanced Sholen race arrives at Ilmatar. The Sholen with to contain human contamination of pristine worlds, and due to internal Sholen politics they attempt to force the humans to leave.

The sub-ice ocean of Ilmatar is richly described through the diverse viewpoints of Ilmatarans, humans and Sholen. Mr. Cambias has managed to make the aliens quite alien in their thinking, especially the Ilmatarans with their immediate sense of experience, tricky relationship with memory and sudden narcolepsy. An adventure novel at heart, this book manages to ride above mere action into more intellectual territory by exploring the relationships between three races with different motivations in an unusual environment. It is also a good first contact novel. I was strongly reminded of the film The Abyss, with its mix of dark underwater milieus and dank submerged base.

4Rosbochs

Cibola Burn (The Expanse IV) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse4CibolaBurnFollowing the events in Abaddon’s Gate, humanity has access to a thousand worlds connected by The Hub left behind by the protomolecule builders. The Outer Planets Alliance holds The Hub as a sort of way station. On the planet Ilus, Belter refugees have set up a lithium mining operation. However the UN has given the exploration charter for the world to Royal Charter Energy, a large corporation. While the Belters have been building a hardscrabble life, an RCE expedition to claim and explore the world has slowly been making its way to Ilus. The name itself is the first political issue of many, as RCE calls the world New Terra. Some of the Belter colonists take direct action against the perceived thread, destroying the first RCE shuttle to attempt a landing; killing several RCE staff and scientists. The UN and OPA send Holden and the crew of the Rocinante in to mediate. And from there, things go rapidly downhill.

In trademark The Expanse style, things start calmly and slowly, only to accelerate into a furious page-turning crescendo of action by the end of the novel. The world of Ilus/New Terra is not what it seems, and humans are messing with forces they can only barely comprehend. The crew of the Rocinante have matured into a closely knit team, and I can’t help comparing them to the crew of the Firefly. I even kept seeing Amos as Jayne. They trust each other to get the job done, without any doubts or hesitation. While not quite as strong as the previous installment, and somewhat ponderous in the first half, this yet another great read in the series.

4½Rosbochs

Playing the Enemy – Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – John Carlin

PlayingtheEnemyThe story of how Nelson Mandela became a free man and then united South Africa with the help of rugby.

The story is fascinating, a real-life fairy tale. South Africa was on the brink of civil war but in large part through the efforts of Mandela, disaster was averted, and even turned into triumph. Perhaps this book goes too far in sanctifying Mandela, but by all accounts he was the true statesman depicted. In fact, verbatim quotes from interviews with the main characters lend veracity to the story itself. On a side note, the author’s structure was often somewhat less than smooth, with run-on sentences of ambiguous meaning.

The second half of this book was the basis for the movie Invictus, a favorite of mine.

4Rosbochs

The Churn (The Expanse III½) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse3.5TheChurnThe Churn tells the early backstory of Amos Burton, one of our heroes on the Rocinante in Leviathan Wakes and onwards. It is set in the criminal substrate of future Baltimore. Large parts of the city have been submerged by rising sea levels, and it is in general a crappy place to live; a backwater that no one cares very much.

The apathetic attitude of the denizens of Baltimore, and by implication much of Earth, is well portrayed. Most are living on Basic, a sort of dole where they get free (bland) food and basic services but do not have to work. Many are unregistered and have no real identity in the eyes of the authorities. They live their lives without purpose or hope for a better future. And they look upwards at Mars and the Outer Planets with a dreamlike wonder, knowing that they are very unlikely to have a chance at a better tomorrow up there.

3½Rosbochs

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse III) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanseIIIAbaddonsGateFollowing the events in Caliban’s War, the protomolecule shoots itself off into the far reaches of the Solar System, well beyond the orbit of Neptune. It forms a large ring. As it turns out, the ring is a gate to another place far away from the Sun. Mars, Earth and the Outer Planets organize expeditions to study the gate. Meanwhile, the sister of Julie Mao, the mysterious woman from Leviathan Wakes, has decided to disgrace James Holden, who along with the crew of the Rocinante, is also on his way to the gate. Needless to say, things rapidly go south, with the large multinational fleet of research and warships trapped beyond the gate in a mysterious “slow zone” which limits the speed of ships. And then things go south some more as internal fighting breaks out between various factions.

Just as in the previous books, the story is told via viewpoint characters, with excellent characterization. There is deep examination of motivation and personality without it getting in the way of the action. In some ways, the book, just like its prequels, reads like an action blockbuster, especially the last third of it. But it is deeper than that, showing the authors’ insight into human nature, society and politics. The world is granular and consistent, with little things like how Belters and Earthers think alike fully developed and really affecting the actions of the characters. The stakes are high and the situations often desperate. I couldn’t stop reading because the authors kept putting our heroes in situations that seemed impossible while the fate of humanity was on the line; a real skill.

5Rosbochs

Caliban’s War (The Expanse II) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse2CalibansWarCaliban’s War is set one year after the events of Leviathan Wakes. The crew of the Rocinante is on contract from the Outer Planets Alliance to hunt pirates. Meanwhile, on Ganymede, the daughter of research botanist Praxidike Meng is abducted just prior to an unexplained assault by both Mars and Earth fleets. Turns out that the deadly protomolecule is loose again. But who set it loose? The Solar System is on the verge of war. Once again, the Rocinante finds itself in the center of things.

This book was fully as good as the first; perhaps even a touch better. The action is excellent and the prose beautiful. The attention to detail regarding the effects of living in the Asteroid Belt or on a moon of Jupiter are wonderfully thought out. For example, Belters nod with one hand since a head nod is not often visible when wearing a helmet. Both the old characters and the new ones stand out in their characterizations, with well-written arcs propelling them forward in the story.

4½Rosbochs

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse I) – James S.A. Corey

TheExpanse1LeviathanWakesA few hundred years from now, humanity has colonized the Solar System. Mars and Earth (the “Inner Planets”) are the developed juggernauts of society, with Earth crowded by a population of thirty billion. The rest of humanity lives on various moons and asteroids (the “Outer Planets”), hollowed out or domed for habitation. Tension between the Inner Planets and the fringe has been constant for centuries, with the fringe being gouged on taxes and kept cowed by the massively powerful Mars-Earth combined navies.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two characters, freighter officer Holden, born on Earth, and Ceres police officer Miller, born and raised on Ceres itself. Holden’s ship is attacked for (initially) undetermined reasons and along with a few other survivors he is now a fugitive from powerful interests. Miller is asked to investigate the disappearance of one Juliette Andromeda Mao, scion of a rich family who left the fold to hang with the semi-terrorist Outer Planets Alliance, a group dedicated to independence from the Inner Planets. Miller’s search soon leads him to an encounter with Holden, as they both try to figure out who is inciting a shooting war between the Outer Planets and the Inner Planets. More importantly, what is the terrible plague that found Julie Mao; who is trying to use it and for what purpose?

The plot moves along quickly, with kick-ass action scenes worthy of a blockbuster movie. Miller’s slow descent into madness is contrasted with Holden’s transformation from naive boy scout to cynical player. The divergence of Inner Planet and Outer Planet society is finely described with tidbits sprinkled throughout the book; a story of frontier society trying to define itself. The supporting cast is wonderfully fleshed out, avoiding stereotypes and developing relationships realistically. The story itself twists in unexpected directions, with a grandiose “couldn’t see that coming” ending. Great space opera!

4½Rosbochs

The World According to Clarkson – Jeremy Clarkson

TheWorldAccordingtoClarksonThis book is a collection of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear‘s columns in the Sunday Times between 2001 and 2003. He muses on everything from Concorde’s retirement to delayed flights in Spain. As usual, Mr. Clarkson is irreverent, frequently offensive, and more often than not just plan provocative. For the most part, he is quite funny and entertaining. I enjoyed it but it is probably not for everyone.

3½Rosbochs

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

ReadyPlayerOneThe year is 2044. Human civilization is hanging on by a thread. Recession, energy crisis, disillusionment, unemployment, starvation and poverty have reigned for decades. The only escape most people have is in a massive interactive simulation, the OASIS. The OASIS is also where most people work, a virtual universe with everything from shopping malls to space monsters. Thirteen year old Wade has grown up in a slum and has nothing to show for himself but being a geeky kid with some computer skills when OASIS co-founder and creator James Halliday dies, leaving his entire multi-billion dollar fortune and control of his company to the winner of an elaborate and mysterious quest throughout the OASIS. During the next five years, Wade becomes one of millions of “gunters”, short for “egg hunters”, trying to crack the quest and win the prize, fittingly an “Easter Egg”. This mostly involves ridiculously extensive research into the pop culture of the nineteen-eighties, Halliday’s favorite decade, to the point that Wade can recite every line of dialogue of every popular movie of the day, sing along to every hit song, and win at every old arcade game. He also knows the most obscure details of Halliday’s life. Then one day, Wade makes a breakthrough.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced, exciting, page-turning thrill-ride which proudly displays its early Cyberpunk roots. As Wade progresses on his quest, he encounters both allies and rivals. In particular, a large and ruthless multinational corporation is aiming to take control of the OASIS by running an entire division of gunters and battling for the prize. The majority of the action takes places in the OASIS, providing a stark contrast to the bleak and impoverished world outside. In the real world, people are jobless and homeless, and even debt slavery is often a better option than freedom since at least it provides room and board. In the virtual world, the poor but skilled can be wizards and warriors, paladins for justice or evil villains. The virtual world affects the real one in worrying ways, however, and domination of the real one is very much tied to winning the battle for the virtual one. For our recluse hero, this is a shocking and painful realization. He is mighty in the OASIS, but really only a geeky and powerless kid in the real world. The transformation of Wade’s real self to match the heroism of his avatar is the true underlying quest in the book.

It is clear Mr. Cline did a lot of research on eighties pop culture himself. The entire novel is one big orgy of fanservice, specifically aimed at those fans who grew up in the eighties. As an avid consumer myself of John Hughes movies, old computer games and era music, it pushed all the right buttons. The question this: can a person who is not at least casually versed in eighties pop culture truly appreciate it? I would say yes. Even without understanding the myriad pop culture references, it is a great adventure novel, and an excellent metaphor for our despondent times. Just be prepared for the massive geek-outs.

5Rosbochs

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games III) – Suzanne Collins

In the third and final book, Katniss is among the rebels. She has survived The Hunger Games, twice, but she is more and more a broken person. Friends and others want to use her for their purposes. She is no longer a Tribute but she is still a pawn.

Throughout the book, Katniss falls victim to a psychological trauma that has its roots as far back as the first book. The way in which Ms. Collins describes Katniss’s descent into madness is chilling, especially as the narrative is in the first person. The last third of the book is very bleak, as there seem to be no good options. And yet, the pace is kept up, the action moves on. Even in the darkest, most introspective passages the reader still feels carried forward in the story.

A great ending to a great trilogy.

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games II) – Suzanne Collins

A few months have passed since the events of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta now live as neighbors in the Victor’s Village, along with Haymitch. Things are strained because, despite Katniss’s status as a victor, she is also a symbol of defiance against the capitol. The President would probably like her eliminated, but cannot do so because of her status as a popular public figure. To top things off, she must pretend to be in love with Peeta in public, while Gale now works in the mines and she is in general unsure how she stands with him.

Since this year will be the seventy-fifth Hunger Games, the rules are special. Katniss’s troubles are just beginning.

While it cannot quite reach the level of the first book, Catching Fire is a more than worthy sequel. Yet again, the strict first person perspective forces the reader to see everything through the eyes of Katniss. More importantly, we see the world through the lens of her thoughts and doubts. It is a cruel and dangerous world, and she must make brave decisions in order to protect her loved ones. The action scenes take up less space and are, perhaps, not as gripping. I felt that Ms. Collins could have spent some more time here. In any case this was a page turner just like book one.

The ending leaves little resolved, and book three directly follows.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games I) – Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, quite literally the end of the line of the twelve vassal districts where laborers toil and starve to support the rich Capitol inhabitants in the nation of Panem, located in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic North America. Almost a century ago, the districts rebelled against the Capitol and were brutally repressed. Since then, each district must offer two youngsters, one male and one female, as “Tribute”, every year. The youngsters are chosen through a lottery system. The youths will compete in the titular Hunger Games. To the death. The point being to remind the districts who is boss. Through a series of circumstances, Katniss ends up in the Hunger Games.

Readers familiar with Ender’s Game will feel a strong familiarity with some of the themes. Both books deal with youngsters thrown into cruel and unfamiliar situations beyond their control. There is even some similarity in the sparse style.

The fact this novel is marketed as “Young Adult” should not scare off adult readers. The characters and settings are memorable. Seeing the world through the first person perspective of Katniss means we are forced into her constrained existence. She has no freedom in her world and may not leave District 12. She has no freedom after becoming a Tribute, with her intricate preparations for the games stage-managed by a mentor and a team of stylists. In a bitter irony, she becomes somewhat free to do as she wants in the Hunger Games Arena itself, but the freedom comes at the price of having to fight for her life, often against opponents she has deep affection for.

The pacing is perfect and the action sequences are gripping without reveling in bloodshed or cruelty. Certainly there are strong scenes of violence but the purpose is to convey the horror and evil of the Hunger Games, not to draw readers in with schlock. This novel has that rare compulsive page-turning quality.

The love triangle is somewhat cliché, but clichés can work too. The dilemma of feelings towards someone you may well have to kill, or see killed, is well done.

All in all, a superb novel that I raced through. The ending is a satisfying conclusion but leaves many questions unanswered. And so it is on to book two.

 

Cally’s War – John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

This book is part of Ringo‘s Legacy of the Aldenata universe. Set about fifty years after the Posleen War, its main character is Cally O’Neal, daughter of Mike O’Neal. Her father believes her dead, but in fact she is an assassin and intelligence operative for a secret organization known as the Bane Sidhe. The purpose of the organization is to resist the autocratic rule of the Darhel. But that’s just the backstory. This novel deals with how Cally has to assassinate a counterintelligence officer. And how she falls in love with a rival agent. It’s complicated.

There is much to like about this book. Cally herself is deeply flawed mentally and she wears different identities like personae. She is probably over 70, but with rejuvenation the body is young, and she lives like a twenty year old. The bad part is the very long introduction. Before we get to the main action, half the book is spent on what is basically a tangent. While it neatly sets up Cally’s character and backstory, I still felt that it could have been trimmed. To add insult to injury, the conclusion feels hurried, with some characters barely getting a personality before playing important parts.

If you have read the other books in the series, you may like this one. But note that there are no Posleen to fight and it’s not really about combat.

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.

Against All Enemies – John G. Hemry

The last installment in the JAG in Space series is not as strong as previous ones but does resolve some loose threads in Sinclair’s private life. Apparently he has been making enemies in all the court martials despite his stellar performance in all aspects of his service. And so his career and life doesn’t quite turn out the way he would have wanted.

The case in this book, dealing with espionage, is not as good as the others. The the focus is on Sinclair’s personal journey. Not bad, but I wish Hemry had ended the series on a stronger note. I also wish he had written more books.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Rule of Evidence – John G. Hemry

The third book in the JAG in Space series continues in the same vein as the first two. Incident followed by court martial. This time, however, Paul Sinclair’s girlfriend Jen Shen is accused of conspiracy, sabotage and murder after a freak accident on board the U.S.S. Maury.

This is, in my opinion, the best of the series. Maybe that is because so much is on the line personally for Sinclair. Maybe it is because of the kafkaesque elements of the story as Shen is accused and looks to be on her way to life in prison or even execution. While in Burden of Proof, circumstancial evidence was used to chuck a bad officer out of the Navy, now it is being used to build a case against someone innocent. The ethical dilemmas posed make the books interesting, and this one especially so.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

Burden of Proof – John G. Hemry

The second installment in the JAG is Space series is structured much like its predecessor, A Just Determination. Paul Sinclair is now a Lieutenant JG, still serving on the U.S.S. Michaelson. A deadly accident in forward engineering isn’t investigated as it should. An officer attempts to cover up the truth. Sinclair is in the middle. To mix things up, his girlfriend Jen’s father is a Navy Captain. Major trial in the second half.

This story is a bit weaker than A Just Determination, but still quite good. If you liked the first book, you will undoubtedly like this one. Hemry does well in advancing Paul and Jen’s stories and the changes in their characters.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

A Just Determination – John G. Hemry

The first book in the “JAG in Space” series is a short and neat novel about a young ensign, an incident, and a court martial. Hemry delivers a page turner. Not the heaviest reading, to be sure, but there are depths between the lines. There is in fact quite a decent coming of age story between the covers.

I am always partial to books where I can identify with and feel sympathetic with the characters. Hemry is excellent at making the reader (well, this reader at least) identify with protagonist Paul Sinclair during his struggles on his first deployment. The other crew members of the U.S.S. Michaelson are a mix of good and bad, with wildly varied motivations, just like in real life. Overall, the characters feel well fleshed out, and Hemry is skilled at portraying both them and the action, entirely from young Sinclair’s perspective.

It could perhaps be argued that this novel’s setting is incidental, and that it would have worked just as well on the sea. That may be so, but that does not detract from its appeal. A fine read.

Note: Hemry also writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell.

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.

Timeline – Michael Crichton

A corporation has developed a way to send people back in time. Something weird has happened, so a group of scholars is sent back to investigate. Needless to say, Bad Things happen. Well researched and written, and very hard to put down.

Disclosure – Michael Crichton

You know it’s Crichton when the chapter headings are days (all in same two weeks or so). I keep coming back to Crichton despite his rather formulaic plots. The guy is a dialogue genius, and his dependency on describing what is, at the time of writing, cutting edge technology, is always good for nostalgia.

This book is way better than Crichton’s norm. Really quite a gripping page turner. The movie is pretty good too.