The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

To Sail a Darkling Sea (Black Tide Rising II) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIIToSailaDarklingSeaBook two of Black Tide Rising picks up shortly after Under a Graveyard Sky. Wolf Squadron is now well on its way to being a reasonably organized naval military force. Faith “Shewolf” Smith is a legend after initial difficult zombie clearance actions, and her sister Sophia “Seawolf” Smith is not far behind as a boat captain. The story is fairly straight forward and mainly deals with the growing pains of squadron, the formalization of military command over it, and the introduction of new characters.

Unlike the first book, there is no backs-to-the-wall-with-everything-on-the-line combat, nor is the survival of most of the characters really in question. A setup book necessary for the continuation of the series. Having said that, Mr. Ringo’s trademark humor, his lively characters and his knack for snappy dialogue make it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I also loved the emerging anti-zombie mechanical devices.

4Rosbochs

Slow Apocalypse – John Varley

SlowApocalypseA screenwriter living in the Hollywood Hills gets advance warning of a coming disaster, a nanopathogen that renders oil supplies useless. Thinking itself a little mad, he nevertheless stocks up on supplies such as canned food and water. Pretty soon there are gas shortages, and it is clear that society is slowly unraveling while the government is hiding the truth. Things get worse and the small hill community where our hero lives buttons up, barricading the access road to prevent refugees from coming in. Then a massive Earthquake brought on by the destruction of the Los Angeles oil fields hits. Fire, flood and anarchy ensue.

Unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, this one isn’t about a superbly prepared person or group. Our hero is simply a normal person, and he does make mistakes. Varley’s skill at bringing characters to life really shines in this book. The struggle is personal, and those with real power are far away, unknowable, and untrustworthy. The big moral of the story is of course how very dependent the world is on oil. What would happen if all the oil reserves in the world vanished within the space of a few weeks? Society would break down very quickly, especially in big cities dependent on cars like Los Angeles.

4Rosbochs

Under a Graveyard Sky (Black Tide Rising I) – John Ringo

BlackTideRisingIUnderAGraveyardSkySteve Smith is not a survivalist in the “nutter” sense of the word. He is a former special forces soldier who takes what most would consider excessive precautions against various “end of the world” scenarios. His teenage daughters are well versed in weapons usage and know how to pack for the apocalypse. When Steve’s brother Tom sends him a coded message that the zombie apocalypse is coming (yes really!), he sets in motion a well-prepared plan to get his family out of harm’s way. Zombie apocalypse wasn’t one of the more likely scenarios, but he can deal. His thirteen year old daughter Faith is reasonably happy though. She has always dreamed of a chance to kill zombies.

This is an unusual zombie novel since Mr. Ringo has actually taken the time to make the zombie trope somewhat, and I use the word loosely, realistic. Your classic zombie might as well be a magical being. No matter how much zombie-ism is made out as a disease, zombies would still need to get energy from somewhere, and evacuate waste. “Normal” zombies don’t poop. Mr. Ringo neatly solves the evacuation issue by having the tailored zombie virus induce a very strong itching feeling when it strikes, giving the afflicted an uncontrollable urge to strip just before they go on the more traditional murdering cannibalistic rampage.

As usual with Mr. Ringo, the novel oozes dry humor. Some of the one liners felled in the middle of zombie killing action are laugh out loud funny, and the whole thing is extremely entertaining despite the subject matter. The “Last Concert in New York” scene is particularly quirky and absurd. I look forward to coming installments.

4Rosbochs

Genesis – Bernard Beckett

GenesisGenesis is set entirely within the four-hour examination for Academy admission of one Anaximander. The Academy rules the society of the future, and Anax is one of the very few chosen for examination. The examination focuses on her chosen subject, the life of Adam Forde, who committed a peculiar act of rebellion, and received an even more peculiar sentence for his crime.

The story is quite short, a novelette in fact, and is told through the examination dialogue and recreation of historical record. Society has devolved into war and plague, civilization destroyed but for one remote and isolated pocket. This pocket must defend itself against the plagues ravaging the outside, and rebuild into a new society. The second part of the book deals with the nature of consciousness, with surprising results.

The novel is explicitly a reflection and discussion on humanity, on what it means to be human, to be a thinking being. Mr. Beckett cleverly uses Anax’s examination and the history of society and Adam Forde to explore the subject from a philosophical viewpoint without making it tedious philosophical discourse. A very interesting read.

4Rosbochs

 

Swan Song – Robert R. McCammon

It is the nineteen-eighties and the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Various crises have combined to push the United States and the Soviet Union over the edge. It is the long dreaded nuclear holocaust. Survivors include an over-the-hill professional wrestler, a mysterious girl known as Swan, a homeless woman known as Sister Creep, and a band of survivalists. Death (or is it the devil?) also makes an appearance.

If this had been a straight post-apocalyptic thriller I probably would have liked it more. Unfortunately, just like The Stand, it quickly becomes filled with predictable supernatural elements. I’m not against supernatural stuff per se. in fact, it can very much enhance a story. But in this case the holocaust seems almost like an excuse to create the backdrop for the supernatural struggle. The decision to make this a horror story was, at least for this reader, not a good one.

The characters are cookie-cutter and the dialogue is not very good. The inner tribulations of the characters are predictable and long-winded. The holocaust itself is described in horrific detail, and actually very well.

I gave up about a fifth of the way in.

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.

 

A Meeting at Corvallis (Emberverse III) – S.M. Stirling

Stirling concludes the Emberverse trilogy in grand style, but doesn’t really tie up all the loose threads. As with the earlier two books, Stirling loses himself in long descriptions of nature, down to the names of flowers and whatnot. With most authors, such long winded prattling would have led to me discarding the book well before the first hundred pages. But Stirling makes it work. His memorable characters play out their destinies against a rich backdrop of modernity turned medieval after the Change.

The trilogy is a pleasure to read and Stirling’s prose is so delightful I would gladly have read another few hundred pages. If nothing else, several characters are worth longer backstories than they get.

The Protector’s War (Emberverse II) – S.M. Stirling

The Protector’s war continues the Emberverse series begun with Dies the Fire. Eight years on from the events of the previous book, the world has somewhat settled after the change. The Protector, the Bearkillers and Clan Mackenzie have all consolidated their positions, and past adventures are turning into legend and myth. A showdown with the Protector must come, but not in this book. That is reserved for the final novel, A Meeting at Corvallis.

I enjoyed this installment very much, but it does suffer from middle of the trilogy syndrome. Just like The Empire Strikes Back, it introduces concepts and characters, setting the stage for the final showdown. If Stirling weren’t so engaging regardless of what he is writing about, the story itself would be a bit boring. But even the sometimes very long descriptions of locales and nature paint rich and gorgeous pictures that are a sheer pleasure to read.

Dies the Fire (Emberverse I) – S.M. Stirling

S.M. Stirling stole the island of Nantucket from the present time in the Nantucket series. In Dies the Fire, he postulates that when that event happened, all modern appliances (electronics, engines, etc) stopped working in “our” world. Also, all explosives (yes including gunpowder) burn much more slowly. To top it off, steam engines are vastly less efficient. This leads the characters involved to feel it must have been an outside influence (such as “Alien Space Bats) that created what comes to be called “The Change”. The story does not go into The Change itself more than that however, rather focusing on a group of people having to live in the world post-Change.

As so often with Stirling, I found myself unable to put the book down. He does have a way to make characters pop. The two protagonists, Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel, are uncommonly well equipped to handle the change, and draw to them people who also have survivor traits. They seem to have more than their fair share of luck, a theme which crops up here and there. This has led to criticism from some readers, who have said it simply isn’t possible for the protagonists to make out quite so well. I would say that if they hadn’t been so lucky and skillful, they would have died along with 90% of humanity in the year after the Change.

As usual, Stirling has done meticulous research into everything from archery to Wicca. It is a pleasure to watch his characters develop through the story.

The Stand – Stephen King

A disease wipes out most of mankind. The survivors must deal with a post-apocalyptic world in which evil is brewing.

I read the “Complete and Uncut” edition, which is a “Director’s Cut” of sorts. When “The Stand” was first published, King’s publishers figured a hardcover in the full length would be too costly to produce, meaning a retail price that would make it unsellable. Ten years later, in 1990, King was a much bigger name, and so he restored the cut parts and the book was rereleased in this form. The story itself is pretty decent but King takes way too long to get to any sort of point. It just drags and drags. Get on with it already. I just couldn’t motivate myself to continue past the first half or so.

Crystal Rain – Tobias S. Buckell

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

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

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.