Do Unto Others (Ripple Creek II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to Better to Beg Forgiveness, Williamson revisits his team of six elite bodyguards. This time around, they’re not only a well oiled machine, but an experienced and perfectly meshed well oiled machine. They are tasked with protecting the twenty-something year old daughter of the richest man in the world(s). The action starts in Wales but soon moves to a gargantuan mining operation at the heart of the customer’s business empire. Not completely unexpectedly, there are multiple threats.

Just like the first book, this one ramps up slowly and spends a lot of time focusing on technical skills. Williamson takes what is often a very tedious and mind-numbing routine and makes it sound interesting. He is also very good at describing characters who do not act entirely rationally, who act out, who think they are doing good while in fact completely misguided. By the end, the book is a total page turner, moving the reader deftly through some rather amazing and well-crafted locales. If I have one big gripe, it is that the team itself is perhaps a bit too perfect. Fascinating to read about, but do such superhumans really exist? Or more properly, can disbelief be suspended? I certainly found mine cracking at times.

Forever Free – Joe Haldeman

This is the direct sequel to The Forever War. Twenty years (subjective for our heroes) have passed since the War ended. William and Marygay have settled down on the frigid planet of Middle Finger, which has the largest population of veterans that have not integrated with the “Man” group mind comprising most humans. Like most of the community of veterans, they feel alienated from the rest of humanity, which uses implants to integrate into a mind “Tree”; a group mind where individuals willingly surrender most of their individuality. The Taurans, enemies during the War, have a similar arrangement, and Man (group mind humans) have more in common with them than with the old-style humans. It is a life, but our heroes are not happy with it. They hatch a plan to take a starship forty thousand years into the future by flying a big loop at relativistic velocities. Only ten years subjective will pass on Middle Finger. However soon after departure things start going very wrong for unexplainable reasons and they must get in the lifeboats and return in suspended animation, taking decades to do so. Once back, they discover that everyone is gone, vanished simultaneously and instantaneously.

This is a very different book from the Forever War in some ways. It does not deal with war, for one thing. However the themes of alienation in one’s own society are still there. It grapples with what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual, what it means to be sentient. Without giving away too much of the ending, I will say that it also deals with God, or at least one possible interpretation of God. The ending surprised me but in a good way. It was very thought-provoking. Just as in the Forever War, the characters and plot are finely tuned, flowing nicely. Despite the heavy themes, it is not a heavy read. Recommended but read The Forever War first.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

TheForeverWarThis is a classic written in 1975 and I finally got around to reading it. The novel is about William Mandella, a young man drafted into the military when the first interstellar war starts. He is part of the very first group of recruits. The training, under Vietnam War veterans, occurs on a fictional planet so far out from the Sun that the environment is at almost absolute zero. Almost half the recruits die in training. Following that, the men and women are sent towards a distant planet for their first encounter with the Taurans. The important point here, and that which gives the story its name and main plot device, is that since the troops travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, much more time passes for those they left behind than for them. They are in transit a few months while decades and more pass on Earth. This is a consequence of general relativity. When Joe returns home, his mother has aged decades. The Earth is dystopian and unrecognizable. Despite his distaste for things military, he dislikes the current Earth more and decides to re-up together with Marygay Potter, the girlfriend whom he met in the service. Next time he returns, wounded, from a mission, centuries have passed, and society has changed even more. Since there are still several years left on his enlistment, he is sent out again, heartbreakingly on a separate assignment from Marygay, both in space and now in time. On this mission, seven hundred years will pass back home.

Mr. Haldeman is himself a Vietnam War veteran, and it shows in the novel. The draftees are disaffected and do not have a personal stake in the war. In fact, they do not understand it. They are just victims. As Mandella’s rank increases with time, he makes good military decisions, but this is not out of some desire to be a hero, or even because he seems particularly interested in the outcome of the war. As he repeatedly explains, he will be lucky to get out of the war alive. It is a matter of probabilities to him, not skill. In the wider perspective, the war itself seems to be an inevitable product of the society in which they live. As the centuries pass, the war gels to permanence, or as the title puts it “forever”. Society and the economy only exist to support the war and the survival of mankind. There are no lofty cultural or artistic goals involved. Mr. Haldeman’s descriptions of battle and military life cooped up in ships for months are gritty, realistic, dark. Death is commonplace both in battle and outside it. People are mourned but the characters are fatalistic about the whole thing. They know that they will die, probably soon and unexpectedly, and their lives are made up of trying to find pleasure and joy even with that knowledge. The military is a faceless machine that grinds on without much more purpose than to exist. The contrast with the caring Mandella and Potter is striking. Mr. Haldeman’s genius, however, is only partly in his setting. The other part, I feel, is that this novel is so readable, so full of (admittedly dark) humor, so “light”, if you will. Even while filled with senseless death, it still makes the reader smile. Perhaps it is because Mandella is so easy to identify with. Despite everything, he has a rather sunny outlook on life. He tries to do his best. He is a nice guy thrust into uncontrollable circumstances and he tries to make the best of things.

This is one of the finest novels that I have ever read.

 

Into the Light – Jane Wallace

The story is about Tem Sevin, who as a child saw his entire family killed by an evil group of humans known as the Gharst. Twenty years later, Sevin is a major in the special forces, and the Gharst are slowly winning a war of conquest against the Coalition. Eventually the Coalition surrenders and Sevin and various hangers-on are accused of war crimes. During the last mission, they conveniently find a Gharst prototype ship advanced well beyond the current state of the art and off they go to try and fix things.

I’ll confess that I didn’t finish the book, managing only about one third. The story is set firmly in the space opera camp, with an almost Star Wars feel to it. Physics are conveniently in support of the story and economics are ignored. Now, I’m ok with that, but since there is little science in the science fiction, the characters, plot and setting need to compensate. A prime example is Lois McMaster Bujold, where technology is not a crucial part of the story but the setting and characters are so stellar it doesn’t matter at all. Ms. Wallace, on the other hand, goes into the technology to the point that you think it would matter, then proceeds to whip out a convenient deus ex machina that negates the rules she set. There is also little sense of the military being, well, a military. The decision making process, command structure and tactics are completely out of whack. I understand that some militaries are incompetent, but at this level of operations that just wouldn’t be possible. I’m even ok with the military being unrealistic, the aforementioned Star Wars is a prime example. But in that case it shouldn’t be a primary driver for the story. And then there are the logic holes. At one point Sevin needs an emergency bandage for a buddy. Despite being surrounded by fresh corpses in uniform, he cuts up his own trouser leg. Also, since the corpses belong to soldiers presumably they would all have at least basic first aid packages on them.

Having said all that, I did enjoy the rich Universe that Ms. Wallace has created. I’m also very much in favor of Science Fiction from women, and authors who are not based in the US or the UK. If the characters had been just a bit more fleshed out, I probably would have finished the book. But I had a hard time identifying with their motivations.

Threshold (Boundary II) – Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor

Our friends from Boundary are back in a pretty direct sequel to the first book. The race is on to find more Bemmie bases. The Ares Project, despite having managed to get a foothold on Mars, is strapped for cash and resources. With some clever maneuvering they manage to get both, and set off towards first Ceres, then Enceladus.

The first book was nicely crafted, with excellent character development. This second one feels much more forced, especially the first half. I really enjoyed going back and seeing what the gang was doing after the previous story ended, but was a bit disappointed at the lack of a strong story. This series will never be “heavy” but it needed a bit more than this effort. That being said, it harkens back to adventure science fiction from an earlier time, before all the dark and broody bits that are so in vogue nowadays. And so I still liked this book more than it perhaps deserves. The ending wasn’t quite a cliffhanger but certainly lacked resolution, leaving the door wide open for a sequel. Yes please.

Yellow Eyes – Tom Kratman & John Ringo

Even more Ringo! For some reason I had been avoiding this Posleen series side story. That came back to bite me as I launched into the follow-up Hedren series and some of the characters popped up.

The story is set before and during the Posleen invasion of Earth, but deals specifically with events in Panama. Realizing that the Panama Canal is strategically important, the US sends military and material aid to bolster the defenses, including three warships. Through a complex series of events, one of the ships, the USS Des Moines, gains sentience. The story follows the defense of Panama, both from the perspective of the Posleen-Human conflict, and from the perspective of the struggle between corrupt officials and honorable ones. The Darhel, overlords of the Galactic Federation, want the humans to win, but only just, so that human civilization is shattered and cannot be a threat to them.

The Panama aspects are very interesting, and it shows that both authors have been posted there during their military careers. The story itself is quite good, with predictably excellent battle scenes. It is a worthy addition to the Posleen series, but should probably not be read as a standalone.

Live Free or Die – John Ringo

More Ringo? Why yes. You can never have enough Ringo. Live Free or Die is the start of a new series (that man is a total workaholic) called “Troy Rising“. Aliens pop up, drop a stargate (well, it is) in space, and leave. A while later, another race pops up and demands tribute in the form of most of Earth’s more valuable metals. Humanity has no choice but to comply. Through a combination of luck and deviousness, Tyler Vernon, an IT guy reduced to doing odd jobs, manages to find something that another race of aliens actually wants to buy. In the process he becomes the richest man in the world. And so starts humanity’s long road towards independence.

Like several other of Ringo’s first novels in a series, this one has three “episodes”. I don’t know why he does this but it works. What I particularly like about this novel is how humanity is thrown in at the deep end of a very deep pool without the least knowledge of how to swim. The Horvath, basically the local bullies, come in and just say “give”. It is a refreshing change from the many first contact scenarios where human technology is more or less equal to that of the aliens.

As usual with Ringo, this is an intelligent page turner with lots of cool action. The only part that became slightly confusing was the whole “many mirrors” bit. Would a schematic or two have killed you, Mr. Ringo?

The next book in the series is Citadel.

Agent to the Stars – John Scalzi

A Hollywood agent (for actors that is) acquires a new client: an alien blob named Joshua. It seems the aliens want to contact humans, but their appearance (read:image) is not the greatest.

Scalzi’s debut novel shows off his trademark humor. Great dialogue, funny situations, interesting characters. It does bog down a bit by the end, but unfortunately that is also a Scalzi trademark. Well worth a read. This book is funny!

Abandon in Place – Jerry Oltion

In this short story, ghost rockets, seemingly identical to the Saturn V Moon rockets, begin launching from Cape Canaveral soon after Neil Armstrong’s death. One astronaut is chosen to board one of the rockets before it launches.

Cute little love story declaration for the Apollo program, but really nothing special.

Eye of the Storm – John Ringo

After having spent quite some time on side stories, the “Legacy of the Aldenata/Posleen” universe finally gets back to the central core of the story, if you will. Peace is at hand, but there is trouble as the Darhel keep trying to screw humanity over in a sort of grand plan for their own domination of all races. Pretty soon, all that falls by the wayside as a new threat is looming. The Darhel now have to come to terms with the fact they need those pesky humans. However, unlike during the Posleen War, humanity is well aware of what is going on, and can dictate terms. Mike O’Neal is brought back from disgrace (he was framed) to lead.

One thing I loved about this novel was how many of the main protagonists from both the central Posleen War stories and the side stories were brought together. It was like a Greatest Hits album with only cool songs. The reunion of Cally and Mike O’Neal, with the latter being unaware that his daughter was even alive, was entertaining as hell. And any excuse to bring back the SS troops from “Watch on the Rhine” is a good one. Like the early books in the Posleen War series, this one focuses on preparation, leaving a cliffhanger as the main action finally begin. Looking forward to future installments.

Contact with Chaos – Michael Z. Williamson

Set in the “Freehold” universe, this novel is about first contact with a planetbound race that has almost no metals. They turn out to be quite advanced in ceramics, steam and other sciences, all developed without metals. Humanity, in the form of a joint Freehold/UN mission, makes efforts not to expose the race to metals. This inevitably causes tension.

While not as action packed as other Williamson novels, I found this highly enjoyable. The plot is both smart, entertaining and clever. The characters are perhaps somewhat unoriginal, but do the job adequately. I did have a hard time keeping track of some of the secondary characters. A dramatis personae would have been great. Williamson is at his best when describing the effects of weapons and other technology. Many other authors would have turned this book into a boring scholarly piece, but Williamson manages to keep the technology discussions both entertaining and fascinating. The story has many interesting twists to keep it going.