The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke

One of the great classics of science fiction, this novel is set in a city that holds the last remnant of humanity. The inhabitants of the city while away the millennia in eternal bliss. But there is trouble in paradise (of course). A young boy finds that he wants more out of existence than merely existing. I found this a bit slow paced, but it is an interesting investigation of utopia and eternity.

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.

Red Rabbit – Tom Clancy

A somewhat enjoyable story of a young Jack Ryan, also featuring the Foleys during their time in Moscow. Not nearly as “big” a story as most of Clancy’s novels. It seems a bit “Clancy by numbers”; in other words what you’d expect him to write with regards to subject matter and type of story, but without any of the great qualities of his earlier works. Despite its flaws, I nonetheless liked this tale of a defection from the Soviet Union. Still, Clancy has shown many times that he can do better than this.

 

The Bear and the Dragon – Tom Clancy

A return to form for Clancy after the lackluster Rainbow Six, this novel nevertheless struck me as pretty formulaic. It was very cool, though, to see military cooperation between Russia and the United States. I enjoyed this one a lot. Watch for Pavel Petrovich Gogol, a very cool guy.

Rainbow Six – Tom Clancy

A step away from Jack Ryan, although he still lurks in the background. Unfortunately, this novel marks a decided slump in the quality of Clancy’s writing. There is nothing wrong with the story, although I found the motivation of the bad guys a bit too James Bond’ish. I just did not feel a compelling need to finish the book. It was a bit dull, especially compared to earlier Clancy are. You won’t miss anything by skipping directly to The Bear and the Dragon.

Some say that he does not write anymore, but only oversees a staff. I don’t know about that. My opinion is that this novel was written mainly as a selling vehicle for the computer games series released around the same time by Clancy’s games company Red Storm. The Rainbow Six games are very much about the counter-terrorism unit depicted in the novel.

The Sum of All Fears

Jack Ryan brokers peace in the middle east and discovers that nuclear weapons in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Solid Clancy, and I especially like how he is not afraid to blow big stuff up just because it happens to sit in the continental United States.

The movie, although quite good, changes the story significantly and does not really reflect the breadth of the novel.

Without Remorse – Tom Clancy

In this novel, Clancy takes a step back in time to tell the story of how John Clark became… Well, how he became John Clark. Solid stuff, but not Mr. Clancy’s best work.

Red Storm Rising – Tom Clancy

The fact that it had “been done” did not scare Tom Clancy when he wrote this novel about an attach on Western Europe by the Warsaw Pact. It is pure technothriller with a very heavy military element. Masterfully written and very hard to put down.

The Pride of Chanur – C.J. Cherryh

This is now published in the omnibus “The Chanur Saga”. I managed to slog through this Novel. The story is pretty boring and the aliens are plain vanilla space opera fare. Just “humans with fur” if you like, not alien at all apart from appearance. What I don’t get is how this stuff can sell so well. Seriously, there is so much better out there.

The Lost Fleet: Courageous – Jack Campbell

By this, the third book in the Lost Fleet, the series is losing steam. What’s worse, it’s losing the plot. While the battles are still very nicely done, the backstory is wearing quite thin. Nothing much happens to move the plot forward. The fleet continues to struggle on in its quest to reach alliance space. Captain Geary continues to struggle on his quest to retain command in the face of insubordinate subordinates. Geary continues struggle to figure out his relationship with Senator Rione. Nothing new to see here. Move along. I was happy with the second book being a middle book, but at some point something radical or conclusive will have to happen. I was so fed up after Courageous I may not care enough to read the next installment.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

 

The Lost Fleet: Fearless – Jack Campbell

Campbell is back with the second installment in the Lost Fleet series, in which “Black Jack” Geary continues to fight internal and external enemies to get the fleet home. Part of the fleet defects, leaving Geary with an even greater shortage of ships. But by the story expedient of being unpredictable, he continues to fight on. The internal struggle is interesting, as Geary realizes how powerful he can become politically if he brings the fleet home.

This was very much a middle book. No resolution. I have no problem with Campbell’s rather short (by today’s standards) novels but this one could easily have been amalgamated with “Dauntless“.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless – Jack Campbell

This is solid military SciFi. The premise is that an attack fleet from the “Alliance” finds the century old survival pod of legendary commander John “Black Jack” Geary, with the man himself hibernating inside. Just after that, the fleet is stranded in “Syndic” space after being soundly defeated in an ambush. All the flag officers have been imprisoned and shot, so by virtue of time in rank, Captain Geary is now in command of the “Lost Fleet”. But in the century of his absence, two interesting developments have occured. First, he is seen as a legend; a larger than life hero viewed by the personnel now under his command as a savior. Secondly, the long war has led to high rates of attrition, loss of command know-how, and acceptance of atrocities. To add spice to the mix, many of the surviving captains are not happy about the new regime. And now the fleet has to fight its way home.

The prose is straightforward, with the point of view character always Geary himself. He is tired and sick from his long hibernation, baffled and angered by the ruthlessness and incompetence the fleet, and frustrated at the idiocy of many of his commanders. The novel (first in a series) is a study in leadership, and the necessity to perform both the right actions and use the right words in order to ensure loyalty. Beyond that, it is a fun and fast paced little book. It doesn’t hold immense depth, but if you like military SciFi, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Note that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry.

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.

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.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I had never read this classic for some odd reason. Card sets the boy Ender center stage from the very beginning. Most other characters are two dimensional parts of the surrounding for Ender to react to, with the exception of his siblings. The surroundings are equally vague, further enhancing the impression of Ender moving in a strange world. The novel focuses entirely on Ender’s personal development, and how the military is forced to mold him into a super soldier to end a mysterious alien threat. Society has become controlled and strict, with everything subjugated to the war effort, including trivial things like personal happiness.

Ender is a complex and deeply unhappy genius child. His plight is made all the more tragic by the fact that he is intensely aware of what is happening to him. He is becoming a great leader, but his empathy is suffering. He is being taught to manipulate others and mold them to his will, all the while realizing that he will be disliked, even hated, by those he controls. And what child doesn’t want to be liked rather than respected? for that matter, what adult?

The military establishment acts like those parents who want their child to “become something” without bothering to ask what the child wants. The excuse of the greater good of mankind could easily be substituted with “the good of the child”. Yet, while members of the military (appearing as voice-overs only) have doubts about what they are doing to Ender, the ends always overshadow the means.

In his introduction, Card mentions a letter from a guidance counselor who claimed that children simply don’t act or talk as the author describes them. But I agree with Card. Children can talk in an adult fashion, and their acts and motivations can be intensely Macchiavellian. However, they will censor themselves in front of adults, especially those who would frown upon their behavior. Children are seen in this novel as an underclass with no rights, which is used by society to further it’s means. Even though survival of the species is on the line, it still seems a very cruel thing to do. And this is an important theme in the novel. How far are we willing to go to ensure our survival? Is nothing sacred?

The central parts are somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the enjoyment. The pages just fly by and I was unable to put it down. The last part of the book takes an unexpected turn, but it is here that we discover Ender’s true purpose. Without giving anything away, I will say that it is not quite what you expect.

After finishing the novel, I just sat in awe for several minutes. The depth of understanding that Card has over human psychology on both the individual, group and mass levels is astounding. The way he weaves it into a story is spectacular and keeps the reader guessing, turning the pages to see what new surprises are in store. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you haven’t already, run out and buy it now!

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.

Clear and Present Danger – Tom Clancy

Jack Ryan moves to the top floor of the CIA, and has to deal with some thorny internal politics as well as the dangers of “the real world”. The small unit action descriptions and the helicopter stuff is amazing. Also very good are the internal tribulations of our hero, who finds that people can be quite ruthless when in power. In the end, however, his integrity is his strength. A great read.

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.

Noble House – James Clavell

The sequel to Tai Pan is set in the early 1960s, a time when Hong Kong had come into its own as an economic powerhouse with liberal laws allowing huge fortunes to be made and lost. The story focuses around Struan’s, the company founded by Dirk Struan from Tai Pan. The company is in trouble from several fronts, and both inter-company and political intrigue play a part.

Struan’s is rather obviously based on real life company Jardine Matheson, still one of the most important corporations in Hong Kong. while Tai pan was exciting and had a great setting, Noble House reminded me too much of one of the 1980s soaps Dallas and Falcon Crest. Ruthless, scheming rich people bickering and fighting. I read about a quarter of it but became terribly bored and gave up. Despite the really interesting snapshot of Hong Kong life in the 1960s, on the cusp of modernity, I couldn’t make myself care about the plot or the characters.