Category Archives: 5 Star Reviews
A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.
It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.
Every once in a while you come across a book that you really like but you don’t really know why. This is one of those. There’s nothing overly special or unique about it. It’s a contemporary murder mystery. A woman is notified that her estranged mother has died and left her all of her worldly assets, which includes a shop in a nothing of a town in Arizona. The shop (see title) is only one of several in the area that provide psychic readings and other woo-woo services. The deceased mom was a career con-woman. The daughter would rather not be, although it is what she was groomed for. So, when it turns out that the woman’s death probably wasn’t due to a burglary gone wrong but was, instead, a targeted slaying, the daughter is not surprised, and she begins to investigate.
I like stories with clever, witty, but essentially moral protagonists. The one in this book certainly qualifies. Alanis (possibly her real name, although she’s had many aliases) is given depth in the story through flashbacks to scenes from her childhood, traveling around the country, living in hotels, and playing parts in her mother’s cons. From these you see why she is what she is, and you admire that she’s not been completely destroyed by her experiences, that she’s somehow retained both her sanity and her humanity. One of her first acts upon arriving in Arizona is to make amends with some of the people her mother conned out of money or jewelry. But I think what I find most appealing about this spunky heroine is that she’s a clear thinker, skeptical, logical, perhaps even a bit cynical. She arrives knowing that her mother, her shop, and the mystical stuff the town is known for are nothing more than ways of extracting money from credulous, superstitious tourists. But as she learns more, she wonders if the tarot cards can’t be more than just a con. In the hands of a skilled reader, perhaps they can provide comfort, or motivation, or confidence…. Rather than being used to cheat people, maybe they can be used to help them. Of course they’d need to be in the hands of someone skilled at reading people to do that. Alanis feels that she is.
There are two more books in this series. I just ordered the second, and the third is in my local library system. I’ve added both to my TBR list. I suppose you could consider that an endorsement of this one.
A once-elegant resort hotel in Upstate New York is hosting a rehearsals and a concert to be performed by talented high school kids, and one of them, a true prodigy with a flute, goes missing. Her roommate, one of a pair of fraternal twins, finds her hanging from a pipe by the neck, duplicating the scene of a murder/suicide of a bride and groom exactly fifteen years before. But is it what it looks like? After the roommate runs for help, the body, and all signs of a hanging, are gone. Is the young flutist really dead? Did she stage a suicide to escape her domineering mother? Maybe the girl who witnessed the events of fifteen years ago and has returned to dispel lingering demons has something to do with it. Perhaps the elderly and peculiar hotel concierge is somehow involved. Or the teacher who once shot and killed a former student who broke into her home, or the Scottish orchestra conductor who has one and a half hands… All of them seem to be hiding something. They are all interesting characters in that they are bent or broken in some way. I can’t say I’d want to be friends with any of them. They’re undoubtedly a high-maintenance lot, but as fictitious suspects in a contemporary whodunit, they’re fun. I quite enjoyed this one.
There was a four-year gap between the first Sherlock Holmes story and the next. This well-crafted tale tells us what Arthur Conan Doyle was up to during that time. I’ll give you a hint. It involves Jack the Ripper.
Okay, I know. You’re rolling your eyes. Doyle wasn’t actually involved in hunting down the Ripper. This isn’t a true account. It’s historical fiction. A murder mystery. A Victorian whodunit. And do we really need another Ripper story to add to gazillion already out there? I can’t answer as to need, but we can always use more really good stories, and this is one. The characters have depth. Their words and actions feel real. The setting is vividly drawn and historically accurate (to the extent that fiction can be). The events described are believable. The pacing is good, and the story is intriguing. It tickles your intellect and nudges your emotions. Yeah, this is a good book. I don’t give out a lot of five-star ratings, but this earns one. I’m happy to recommend it to readers who appreciate historical fiction or a good murder mystery.
The midwinter holiday on Discworld is Hogswatch rather than Christmas, and the Hogfather is the Discworld’s counterpart of Santa Claus. He climbs down chimneys, gives presents, says, “HO-HO-HO,” and drives a sleigh pulled by four flying pigs. Many children of the Disc believe in him, which is why he exists. (This is a fundamental characteristic of the magical system in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.) Belief causes the thing believed in to exist, and when belief stops, that existence stops. Teatime, an assassin retained to do away with the Hogfather, plans to exploit this metaphysical law to accomplish his assigned task, but first he must break into the Tooth Fairy’s castle and get control of the teeth stored there. With them, he can influence the belief of their former owners through sympathetic magic. (That’s something of a spoiler, but if you haven’t read this yet, you may be thankful for it.)
Hogfather was the first Discworld book I ever read. This was back in 1999, I think. It could have been 2000. I’m not sure. I didn’t buy it. The book was given to me, not so much as a gift, but as a case of, “Here, I’m not going to read this again, but you might like it since I know you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
A few months later, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know what to make of the book at first. It wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I recall thinking when I was about halfway in that I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was obviously fantasy, but it wasn’t like the epic fantasy stepchildren of Lord of the Rings or the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, which dominated the fantasy genre at the time. Those stories seemed to make a concerted effort to portray their fantasy settings as ‘real’ places, and they were chocked full of dragons, evil warlords and their minions, and powerful magic. Their plots often boiled down to simple, and often bloody, contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The reader didn’t have to think much for most of these. They offered an entertaining escape from reality, but not much else. The plots were often a bit like sporting events in which one side is ‘good’ primarily because it’s from your hometown (although there’s a good chance none of the players are). In some, the biggest difference between the protagonist and antagonist was the point of view that dominated the story.
In any case, that was the kind of fantasy novel I was used to. Hogfather is none of the above. It’s not even like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the person who gave me the book was right in one regard. If you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there is a good chance you will like Discworld. Both are satirical, funny, incredibly clever, and mind-bending.
But, back to what I was saying. Halfway through my first reading of Hogfather, I was confused. This book was far more complex than the fantasy stories with which I was familiar. The setting was comprehensible but bizarre. I mean—really—a flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle? Come on! The plot confused me, and there were subplots and multiple points of view presented by an omniscient narrator. There were even footnotes! This wasn’t like watching a sporting event or a cartoon. I had to pay attention. This book was trying to make me (*gasp*) think! To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
Then, about halfway through, I got it. I can’t recall exactly what scene or phrase caused my epiphany, but I finally caught a glimpse of what this story was doing, and it floored me. The author wasn’t trying to draw me into the story to the point of total immersion. The setting was absurd because I wasn’t supposed to believe it was possible. The story was fiction, and I wasn’t being encouraged to suspend disbelief to the point where I felt for a moment that it wasn’t. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I still find refreshing. Yes, the story is set on a fantasy world starring a counterpart of Santa Claus and an anthropomorphic personification of Death, complete with black cloak and scythe, but it’s not ABOUT them. It’s about us!
But at the same time, this ridiculous setting was rich and textured. It was unbelievably believable. And the characters, although they seemed exaggerated caricatures at first, had surprising depth and personality. I recall thinking that this Terry Pratchett fellow must be some kind of genius.
I’ve read all forty or so Discworld books since, all them at least three times, and I still think this is true.
Hogfather, like many of the Discworld books, is far more than it appears at first glance. Here are a few things I noticed:
• It is, of course, a parody of the Santa legend.
• It’s a cultural satire about our traditions and philosophies.
• It’s a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of holiday commercialism.
• It’s a morality tale about duty and the importance of family ties.
• It’s a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity.
• It contrasts rational and irrational ways of thinking.
• It provides a brief comment on emergent artificial intelligence.
• It’s a fantasy story that pokes fun at fantasy, while, at the same time, explaining why fantasy is both meaningful and necessary.
• Oh yeah, and it’s funny.
If you have not read any Discworld books yet, you should. Actually, my advice is to read them all and then to reread them. (I find that Discworld stories are often even more enjoyable the second time.) Before sitting down to write this post, I reread Hogfather for what was at least the sixth time. The Discworld books are incomparable. My only problem with them is that after reading the Discworld stories, all other fantasy stories tend to pale by comparison.
When reading Hogfather, one key point to remember is that time is not necessarily linear where Death (the Discworld character) is concerned. It can be frozen, and causality can work in reverse. The future can change events in the past or cause them not to happen at all.
Hogfather, however, is not the Discworld book I would recommend to newcomers to the Disc. Yes, it was my first, and each book can stand on its own, but Hogfather is a tough go without the background provided by some of the others. I hesitate to recommend any particular Discworld book to start with. I’ve seen some forums in which people can become quite heated about this, believe it or not. I highly recommend all of them, but I will say again that Hogfather probably shouldn’t be your first.
If you’re familiar with Discworld, but have not yet read Hogfather, I suggest doing so now. It’s a great book for the holidays. If you have read Hogfather before, it’s a great one to reread for the Holidays. You’ll be glad you did.
HAPPY HOGSWATCH, EVERYONE! HO-HO-HO!
P.S. Hogfather became a made-for-TV movie in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I have a copy, and I’ll be rewatching it sometime soon.
Some wonderful quotes from Hogfather: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/583655-hogfather
My Problem with Terry Pratchett: https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
A Trailer for Hogfather, the movie… 🙂
Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Do you remember the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars?
Just as well. It was bad.
The Martian has a similar plot — a lone astronaut trying to survive on Mars and hoping for rescue. Unlike the aforesaid movie, this book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite good.
The protagonist (Mark Watney) is almost unbelievably clever, emotionally stable, and indefatigable. Of course most of the story is told through his journals, that is, from his personal perspective, and don’t we all tend to gloss over our own shortcomings? I did not see his portrayal as ‘too good to be true’ a flaw, although I must admit that his achievements did stretch credulity a bit.
There is a great deal of detail about how Watney uses and misuses the technology available to him. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on that or on the raw science behind it, but it all seemed plausible to my inexpert eyes.
Almost all of the other characters in the book are equally admirable. But then most are astronauts or scientists, which are noted for including some of the best examples of what humanity has to offer. These aren’t average people. They’re the cream of the crop, and they are portrayed as such. Most of them are the NASA people back on Earth. They come into the story in scenes that show us how they eventually realize that Watney is not dead (as they initially believed) and how they pull together to keep him that way.
What I like most about the book is that it shows humanity at its best, when people are being clever, inventive, selfless, and cooperating to achieve a worthwhile goal. There should be more stories like this.
What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It’s part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It’s a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It’s a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it’s an exploration of the metaphysical implications of some of their ideas. (Reviewers note to reader: Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate nature of reality. It’s kind of like real physics, especially theoretical physics, but without all the messy math and testability requirements.)
I write (soft) science fiction, but I’m not a scientist. Relativity seemed rational enough to me (after some mental gymnastics), but many of the implications of quantum mechanics boggled my mind. It could make accurate predictions, but it never really made sense. It was like a superposition of ‘true’ and ‘bat-crap crazy’. After joining Amanda on her search in the pages of this book, I feel I have a better intuitive grasp of entanglement, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and entropy than those I possessed before. My shaky understanding may still be dead wrong, of course, but at least I have some framework to give these ideas structure now.
This would have been enough for me to proclaim this a great science book for nonscientists. But it has more.
She shows us some of the major physicists of our time not as embodiments of their ideas but as real people who interact with the world around them much as we of lesser intellect do. They have personalities, egos, disagreements, and quirks. They are real people who also just happen to be brilliant scientists. As she related her interviews with them, I thought about young students who might be reading this and drawing inspiration from it. We sometimes put great achievers on pedestals, implying that greatness is out of reach for us ‘normal’ people. Gefter brings them down to earth, showing us their humanity and thereby reminding us that they are not so different from the rest of us.
I think this book also reminds us of the tenuous relationship between theory, experiment, and the ‘reality’ behind them. Experiments yield data and theories provide beautiful equations, but what are they telling us about the underlying reality (assuming there is some)? This seems largely open to interpretation, at least on the quantum level. Yeah, the math works, but what does it MEAN? Is the ‘thing’ found ‘real’ or is it just a data point that tells us about a relationship with other data points from a particular point of view? Apparently, the answers depend on the questions asked, and if those answers seem contradictory, it may be because some of our underlying assumptions are wrong.
Some books about science suggest that scientists are simply fine tuning, adding details to the standard model, and working out a few remaining unknowns, such as the nature of dark energy or whatever. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, I think, is telling us something entirely different. There are still a great number of things to learn and new theories needed to make sense of them. Science is not almost done. It has barely begun. There remains much to discover and understand.
I found this book informative, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and philosophy.
This is part science fiction, part fairytale, and part parody. I loved it. The setting is a contemporary world in which portals to alternate realities exist. The protagonist is an FBI agent in charge of copyright enforcement—that is, making sure other-world copies of things like the fourth season of Star Trek TOS aren’t being brought over. One day while on a seemingly routine assignment, he and his partner discover a munchkin, which his partner, quite unnecessarily, shoots dead. Thus begins a well-told tale of mystery and corruption.
The world-building, or should I say worlds-building (there are a few visited in the story) is quite good. I enjoyed the allusions to various works of speculative fiction, from Oz to Star Trek. The characters are likeable. The plot makes sense and unfolds logically. I also found no major editing issues other than some kind of transcription error. It’s the only negative comment I have on this book, but it turned some of the punctuation (apostrophes, single quotes, and emdashes) into little boxed question marks, at least in the Kindle edition I read. I found this a bit distracting at first, but I was enjoying the story and stuck with it. I’m so glad I did. It’s charming. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s engaging. It’s simply a good read. I highly recommend it.
Ravana O’Brien resumes her role as an intrepid teenage heroine in this sequel to Hollow Moon, which ends with… well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say you should not count your dead villains until you see their desiccated corpses. In this story, the residents of her home inside a recently crippled hollowed-out asteroid have become refugees on Ascension, a nearby planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. They are not entirely welcome. In fact, they are not at all welcome. Ravana, now a student at Newbrum University, is not there, though. Her father believes she is on an archeological dig on the distant and inhospitable planet of Falsafah in the Tau Ceti system, but when the story opens, she finds herself in a hospital with very unlikely nurses, and she has no idea how or why she is there. Thus begins a well-told tale of mysteries, escapes, cyberclones, aliens, spies, spaceships, and giant spiders. It is a hard-to-put-down book.
I found the prose, editing, and formatting for the digital edition above average. Pacing is also good. Although some of the science is highly speculative, it is not outlandish within the context of the story. A little suspension of disbelief is required, but this is YA science fiction, so you expect that. The story is written with a limited omniscient point of view from the perspective of several characters, although primarily from that of Ravana. I had no trouble following it, and it was clear who was on center stage at all times. I found the characters quite believable, and I would put Ravana ahead of most teenage heroines I’ve seen in recent fiction. She is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and kind to short grey aliens and rude little boys.
YA science fiction has become something of a rarity these days, and it was delightful for me to find some that was so well done. I highly recommend Paw-Prints of the Gods for YA science fiction readers, but I suggest reading Hollow Moon first.
Full Disclosure: I received a promotional digital copy of this book through Awesome Indies.
Related Post: Book Review – Hollow Moon by Steph Bennion
Spunky kids, political intrigue, a kidnapping, spaceships, surprises, a twisted villain, clever AI, mysterious aliens… What more could you want? In this case, not much. The setting is the future a couple centuries from now. Humanity has discovered a means to get from one place to another faster than light, and people from Earth have colonized space. They’ve accomplished much, but they are far from enlightened. They still have greed, fanaticism, war, corruption, and reality shows.
Hollow Moon is an imaginative and well-told tale centering on Ravana, the daughter of a space freighter captain living in a hollow moon orbiting a distant star. When she witnesses the kidnapping of the young Raja, the heir apparent of her small, inside out world, she becomes involved in far more than she expected. What she does not know is that she was already involved.
Hollow Moon is a refreshing alternative to the bulk of Young Adult speculative fiction I’ve seen in the last several years. The story is engaging. It has well-defined and well-developed characters, a fairly intricate but easily comprehensible plot, a few smiles, and, most appreciated of all, it’s NOT fantasy! It’s science fiction, and most of the science is reasonable. Okay, there was one scene with an unbelievably strong rope and a serendipitously placed wagon, and a girl who can resist a force that several tons of stone elephant cannot but, well, that’s just details. Actually, I doubt many readers would even question something like this. And then there was the school band that played Alpha Centauri by Tangerine Dream. Um, well, yeah, that’s not a violation of the laws of physics, and it’s cool, but I can’t see a school band attempting it. It’s 22 minutes long and sounds like some kind of ethereal improvised jazz bit done on flute and synthesizer. I know; details, and this one, despite being unlikely, made me smile, so it gets a pass on credibility for the sake of subtle humor. Actually, there are several gems such as this—allusions to contemporary culture scattered about and in chapter titles.
The story is written from an omniscient point of view with numerous characters sharing the spotlight. I did not find this at all confusing because the characters are sufficiently distinct. It is clear who the camera is on at any point. There were a few places where the adults seemed slightly too juvenile, but this is a YA novel and this seems to be common for those. This book does a better job with this, in fact, than I have seen in other YA stories, and in Hollow Moon, sometimes the adults actually act and sound like adults. The pace is fast enough to keep the plot moving, but it’s not frantic.
On the more technical side, the editing is more than adequate, although comma usage may not be exactly according the Chicago Manual of Style for fiction writing. I’ve noticed this is also true of science fiction and fantasy novels from bigger publishers, which may follow their own style guides for punctuation.
I normally comment on formatting in my reviews only when it is dreadful. In this case, I’m commenting on it because it was exceptional. It is obvious that a great deal of attention was paid to formatting Hollow Moon as an eBook. I see so many digital editions, especially from older, traditional publishers where the formatting is dreadful with double spacing, no paragraph indents, or no breaks between chapters. I don’t know if this is because they regard digital books as an afterthought or if they simply aren’t good at it, but Hollow Moon had none of these flaws. It even included embedded links for previous and subsequent chapters at the start of each new chapter (unnecessary but thoughtful).
Hollow Moon has charm, intelligence, and wit, and it is one of the most enjoyable YA stories I’ve read in a while. I highly recommend it for readers of YA science fiction.
This is a cross-genre story that feels like it should be classified somewhere between Doctor Who and Discworld. I’m calling it science fiction rather than fantasy because at one point the ‘magic’ is described as the clever application of the strange effects of quantum mechanics. This is no more outlandish than the Doctor’s TARDIS, although instead of the unlikely time travel of Doctor Who, this story includes travel between our reality and an unlikely alternate dimension.
It’s an interesting place.
This alternate Earth is run as a police state, and our reluctant hero, The Pan of Hamgee, is a Goverment Blacklisted Indivdual. His existence is therefore illegal, and the fact that he has survived as a GBI for five years, which is about four and a half years longer than normal, proves that he is very good at not being caught. This talent comes to the attention of Big Merv, a major crime boss who recruits him as his new getaway driver. For the Pan of Hamgee, this is good news for two reasons. As a GBI, no legitimate employer will hire him, and Merv’s other option was dumping him in the river – with cement overshoes – but these are details we don’t need to go into here.
This story has flying car chases, a bad guy you love to loath, likable gangsters, and a hero you can really identify with since, like most of us, he’s not terribly heroic – at least not intentionally. He reminds me a bit of Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. He’s a professional coward whose talent for getting into unintended trouble is only exceeded by his talent for escaping from it. All he wants is a simple, normal life, but the universe seems to have another fate planned for him. The book also has a few laughs, a lot of smiles, and even a bit of political and religious satire. There are far too few books like this. Great characters, interesting setting, humor, and cultural satire, with a genuinely good plot providing a framework holding them all together is a hard blend to achieve and an even more difficult one to do well. This book does.
The prose is well executed with just enough description for the reader to visualize the scenes. Backstory, where needed, is integrated seamlessly into the narrative. Dialog is believable and suitable to the characters and to the situation. Grammar, spelling, formatting, and other of technical requirements of the storyteller’s trade that sometimes pose a problem for the independent writer are executed professionally in this book.
It passes my personal 5-star test. In addition to all the basics needed for a well-told tale, it has that something extra that would prompt me to read it again. I enjoyed following the misadventures of The Pan of Hamgee, a likeable sod thrown into an uncomfortable situation in an imaginative world that has certain parallels to our own. I highly recommend it to readers of lighthearted speculative fiction or anyone who may be looking for something a bit different and a lot of fun.
I confess to being a diehard Discworld fan. I have been ever since the 1980s, which was before the earlier books in the series were available in the U.S. Consequently, seven of Discworld books I own are the U.K./Canadian editions. Mort is one of these. The copy I have (pictured here) came from Canada. I was living outside Detroit when I bought it, and Ontario is just across the river. This was fortunate for me because waiting for an American publisher to recognize that there was an audience here for Terry Pratchett’s unique kind of intelligent humor would have been unbearable. Harper Collins has since corrected this terrible oversight, and now all Discworld books are available in the U.S., although with much less cool covers.
I pulled this dusty old gem off my bookshelves a few days ago because the SciFi and Fantasy Bookclub on Goodreads chose it as their selection to read for January 2013. I tried to pace myself, taking three days to read it in order to prolong the enjoyment. I had forgotten how incredibly good it is.
Mort is the story of a gangly young man who becomes Death’s apprentice. If you are familiar with Discworld, you may know Death – tall guy, boney, wears a black cloak, often seen with a scythe and in the company of a white horse named Binky. He is the anthropomorphic personification of the ultimate and final reality – and he likes kittens.
In this story, Death apparently wants an apprentice for two reasons. One is that he has an adopted daughter, Ysabell, whom he thinks could use some company. The backstory for this is vague, but it seems that Death either took pity on her or was simply curious after he ‘collected’ her parents. It’s hard to tell with him sometimes. He has a wonderfully odd way of looking at things.
The other reason to have an apprentice is that he wants a break from the ‘duty.’ This turns out less well than Death might have hoped. On his first solo mission to free souls from their mortal anchors, Mort does something wrong. He saves a young princess from the knife of the assassin fated to kill her, and this disrupts the interrelated web of causality and creates a cosmic paradox. The world thinks she’s dead, but because of Mort’s intervention, she’s not, at least not from a biological perspective. This leads to complications.
Like many of Pratchett’s books, Mort is full of clever wordplay and philosophical humor. For example, at one point Mort says, “I’ve heard about boredom, but I’ve never had a chance to try it.” This cracks me up because it’s dryly funny in the context of the story, but it also philosophically insightful, or at least I found it so. This book is filled with such little Easter eggs, little bits of prose that provoke a smile in passing but can be opened to find even more inside them.
This, in my opinion, is one of the best of Pratchett’s books, the worst of which are some of the most enjoyable stories I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.
The cover is reminiscent of Monty Python. The characters remind me of those created by Douglas Adams. And the plot, well, for the sake of comparison, I’d put it someplace in the vicinity of Doctor Who and Red Dwarf. The story is not as clearly satirical as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it’s sillier than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, but comparisons can be made, and some other reviewers have made them. This book is in the same category with all of these, but it’s different. Yes. It’s funny. Actually, of the seventy or so books I’ve read this year, I found this to be one of the most enjoyable.
Why, you might ask. I know I asked this. It may be the quirky characters. There is no antagonist as such, and the protagonist, jixX (no, that’s not a typo), is not much of hero. He’s a landscape architect drafted to pilot a starship, seemingly for no logical reason. You might think this would be considered a black mark on the novel, but it didn’t bother me much. It was supposed to be absurd, and it was. The selection of the crew to accompany him also made no sense. There is the carpenter who has never worked on real wood, the beautiful and mysterious gynecologist, the ostensible scientist trying to prove the existence of God through hidden linguistic clues and who (for reasons unknown) seems to have a German accent, and the professional stowaway who is not technically part of the crew. We suspect that someone had some reason for these crew selections, but none is ever revealed. Perhaps it is as completely random as it appears and it is our presumption that such things should make sense that is misleading us. There is also a ship’s computer with questionable wit.
Then there are the little, green aliens who have a peculiar fondness for bricks. They didn’t make much sense, either, but they’re fun.
The story ends about three fourths of the way in. After that, there is an epilog, and a glossary, and some appendices, and an index. They’re fun, too.
I found this book refreshingly different. Many of the books I’ve read recently seemed formulaic, as if the writers all read the same books on how to write books. They followed the same rules for building their characters and settings and for structuring their plots. If Mark Roman read any of these ‘how to write a novel’ books, he wisely ignored them.
I highly recommend this odd little book to readers who like humorous science fiction, aren’t intimidated by a bit of mind-bending absurdity, and who are looking for something completely different.
This is something different from Sir Terry, a Victorian historical mystery and adventure story. Dodger, a 17-year-old orphan living in the slums of Victorian London, rescues a mysterious damsel in distress. The people who were distressing her want her back — or dead, and Dodger has to use every skill and contact he has to prevent this.
Dodger is a great hero who exemplifies some of the best traits of humanity. He is caring, kind, intelligent, generous… Okay, he’s picked a pocket or two, and he sees nothing wrong with retrieving items that were lost, or about to be lost, but for the most part, he’s a fine young man.
This isn’t an accurate reflection of history, but it does include fictional portrayals of historical figures, some well known such as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and Sweeney Todd, and some who are not so well known (so there is no point in naming them).
I did think Dodger might be a bit too refined at times, almost unbelievably unaffected by his deprived environment. This made him almost too good, although to be honest, this is probably why I liked the character as much as I did. He could rise above his poverty, his lack of education, and still be hopeful, considerate, and even wise.
I only have three gripes, and they are not about the story. The first is that the book was not released in the U.S. until a week after it became available in the U.K. Why is that? The second is that the U.S. cover is not as good. I’ve found this to be common with Terry Pratchett books. The U.K. cover is often great, and something far duller and less relevant to the story is used for the U.S. edition. I have no idea why this is.
My last gripe is about how this is marketed. It is not ‘YA’ in that it’s not a kid’s book. It reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books, which are also Victorian mysteries that are misleadingly labeled as YA, although Dodger is lighter and more, well, uniquely Pratchett. This book may interest some teens and exceptionally bright and well-read children, but it’s probably not going appeal to kids (sorry, Young Adults) expecting to find a comic book action story or a mindless vampire romance. I’m not saying those are bad, necessarily (although I am pretentiously implying it). What I’m saying is that a YA label may misrepresent what a great, well-written story this is.
Obviously, I enjoyed this book, but then I am a longtime Pratchett fan. There really should be more books like this, charming, witty, positive, with likeable characters doing admirable things. It is a real pleasure to read such a book.
Sally Lockhart is a rare woman in Victorian England. She’s a single mother, competent, independent, and a successful and prosperous business owner. She has never been married, so when she is served with divorce papers, she cannot understand how such a mistake could be made. It soon becomes clear it is not a mistake. The details about her in the document are correct — all except one. She has never met the man claiming to be her husband, the man who wants to take custody of her daughter.
I would not have labeled this a YA book. There is nothing juvenile about it. It is a suspenseful Dickensian story of vengeance, greed, cruelty, and corruption, which vividly captures the social conflicts of the time. The images of Victorian London are detailed and clear. The contrasts between rich and poor, worker and owner are sharp. The only YA aspect may be a carryover from the first book in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke, in which Sally is first introduced as a 16-year-old orphan. I didn’t see that book as specifically YA either, though.
My only criticism, and it’s not a strong one, is that I thought Sally should have been a bit quicker on the uptake in identifying the real force behind her troubles. I figured it out long before she did, but then I, as a reader, understand this is a novel and therefore must make sense. Real life, of course, is not like that.
I highly recommend this book to all readers, especially those fond of Victorian mysteries. It’s a great story.
Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke
This is the first of Philip Pullman’s Victorian mystery novels featuring Sally Lockhart. She is 16-years-old in this story, her father has just died in a shipwreck, and she finds herself in the middle of nefarious dealings involving a missing ruby, criminal gangs, fraud, piracy, and the opium trade.
Because the protagonist is young, this is often considered a Young Adult novel. Don’t let this mislead you. This is a well-crafted tale of mystery, murder, and intrigue. The characters are engaging. The prose is exceptional.
Victorian England is a great setting for stories because of the sharp contrasts it provides — from the largely illiterate poor working in sweatshops or grubbing a living on the streets of London, to the cultured gentry living on returns from investments of inherited capital. The extraordinary portrayal of this time and the details scattered throughout the scenes in this book make it seem as if they were written by someone who lived there, or who is, at least, intimately familiar with it and can bring it to life for those of us who are not.
I often find myself uncomfortable putting novels in predefined genre cubbyholes because the best of them often don’t fit. This is one. I think the YA categorization of this particular book and the rest of the series is most inappropriate. Sally is not a typical teenager and she is not a typical Victorian young lady. Neither is she a role model many people would want their kids to emulate, although I, as and adult, found her admirable. She defies convention, questions authority, and does her best in a bad situation.
The story is dark, at times, darker than I normally prefer, and although a hopeful conclusion comes a bit unexpectedly, it is not a case of “and they all lived happily ever after.”
In my opinion, this ranks among the best Victorian mystery novels that I have read. The story is suspenseful, the characters are well portrayed and believable, and the protagonist is likeable. I highly recommend it — for adults. (Some kids may like it, too.)
(Note: A T.V. adaptation of this book starring Billie Piper (Doctor Who) was produced for BBC One in 2006. (I haven’t seen it, yet.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruby_in_the_Smoke)
I found this book refreshingly different and very enjoyable. It is a short tale that follows the explorations of Felix, a galactic traveler who is not a robot. He is extremely curious, intensely appreciative of the wonders of the universe, kindly but detached. He is an explorer, a scout for the Solar Neighborhood, a Zorannic man, and while he may be non-biological, he is most certainly not a robot. I saw his personality as that of the quintessential scientist. He is a very charming fellow.
There is a surprising amount crammed into this little novel. It’s like a space faring Gulliver’s Travels. Felix roams the galaxy, hopping from one planet to another using his ‘gatehouse,’ which seems more like a TARDIS than a spaceship. His mission is to scout, to discover new life and new civilizations, and to assess the potential of the places he explores for colonies for the Solar Neighborhood. But just when it seems that this is all the story is, a plot happens. The Solar Neighborhood is not the only civilization looking to colonize the galaxy. And the others may not be going about it as nicely as they are.
So how is this book different? Well, it’s written in third person present tense, which is common for a synopsis but not for a novel. The prose and vocabulary are precise, the punctuation is stylistically correct, and the voice is unique. Let me give an example.
‘This is when he is eaten. It is sudden, vicious, and bewildering. Felix has the vaguest impression of being rent asunder and then is cast into the rudest kind of soundless, sightless, darkness…’
See? Well, maybe not, so I’ll just say I liked how it was done.
What else did I especially like? I mentioned the main character already. He is quite enjoyable. The style and prose, yeah, got that. I haven’t mentioned the tech yet. It’s interesting. The gatehouse isn’t a spaceship, although Felix can build one if needed for short planetary hops. The gatehouse swaps bits of space-time to get him where he needs to go. How it does this, we don’t know, but it makes sense. The robotic ants are quite cool. These are little constructor robots, not a new idea but a very logical one. They, too, make sense.
So, what didn’t I like? Nothing, really. The story seems not to have a real plot at first, other than following Felix explore the universe. I was okay with that, although some might see this as a slow start. When more of a plot did develop, it started and then ended rather abruptly, and the story concludes with something of a cliffhanger. I admit this is mildly annoying when the sequel is not immediately available.
Overall, though, I found this an exceptional book, different from most. I highly recommend it.
This collection of strange and wonderful stories written between 75 and 116 years ago (as I write this in 2012) represents some of H.G. Wells’ lesser-known works. I found a copy in my local public library, which is one of my favorite places for finding new books, or, as in this case, old books.
There are a couple of things you may notice when you read these stories. One, of course, is how prophetic H.G. Wells was in terms of changes that occur in technology. When he talks of futures in which airplanes, superhighways, instant communication, and electronic appliances of various kinds are common, you must remember that when he wrote these stories, they weren’t.
Another is how little human society has changed in the last century. Wells was uncomfortable with the level of social and economic disparity of the late Victorian era, and his utopian novels such as ‘Star Begotten’ and ‘Men Like Gods,’ which are contained in this collection, show a bright future in which this is no longer the case.
Such idyllic societies remain a utopian dream, however. The system we have today is more like the one depicted in the dystopian view of the future provided in the novella ‘A Story of the Days to Come,’ which is also included in this anthology. This is a story of two idealistic young lovers who find themselves in virtual serfdom after borrowing against an inheritance at high interest rates. The passage below is how Wells describes the 22nd Century London they are born into:
‘The new society was divided into three main classes. At the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design, potent save for the will and aim, the last avatar of Hamlet in the world. Below was the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies that monopolised control; and between these two the dwindling middle class, officials of innumerable sorts, foremen, managers, the medical, legal, artistic, and scholastic classes, and the minor rich, a middle class whose members led a life of insecure luxury and precarious speculation amidst the movements of the great managers.’
This is a version of the future in which the economic conditions are very much like those of Victorian England. I won’t argue that things have not improved since, but the similarities between this dystopia and our current system are disturbingly obvious.
Of course, not all of the stories here are comments on society or economics. Some, like ‘The Magic Shop,’ are simply charming, if sometimes a bit odd. I particularly liked this story, though.
As for the collection as a whole, I highly recommend it. If you like speculative fiction, if you want to see some of the earliest and best examples of it, pick up this anthology or read any of the stories you can find from wherever you can find them.
- Men Like Gods (Novel – 1923)
- The Empire of the Ants (Short Story – 1905)
- The Land Ironclads (Short Story – 1903)
- The Country of the Blind (Short Story – 1904)
- The Stolen Bacillus (Short Story – 1894)
- The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (Short Story – 1894)
- In the Avu Observatory (Short Story – 1894)
- A Story of the Stone Age (Short Story – 1897)
- Aepyornis Island (Short Story – 1894)
- The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes (Short Story – 1895)
- The Plattner Story (Short Story – 1896)
- The Argonauts of the Air (Short Story – 1895)
- The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham (Short Story – 1896)
- In the Abyss (Short Story – 1896)
- Star Begotten (Novel – 1937)
- Under the Knife (Short Story – 1896)
- The Sea Raiders (Short Story – 1896)
- The Crystal Egg (Short Story – 1897)
- The Star (Short Story – 1897)
- The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Short Story – 1898)
- Filmer (Short Story – 1901)
- A Story of the Days to Come (Novella – 1897)
- The Magic Shop (Short Story – 1903)
- The Valley of Spiders (Short Story – 1903)
- The Truth About Pyecraft (Short Story – 1903)
- The New Accelerator (Short Story – 1901)
- The Stolen Body (Short Story – 1898)
- A Dream of Armageddon (Short Story – 1901)
This short novel was first published in 1937, and seventy-five years later, I finally got around to reading it. It took me a while because I had to wait around for things like my parents to reach puberty, me being born, learning to read, and then realizing this book existed. I find this last thing surprising because, after reading it, I am amazed it does not have a cult following. There should be T-shirts and buttons for people who wish to identify themselves as Star-Begotten or Star-Born. Once you read it, you’ll know what I mean.
The story centers on Joseph Davis, a popular writer of romanticized histories, who comes to believe that some people differ fundamentally from most of us. They are more rational, possibly more talented and intelligent. Who are these people? Why are they different?
After what amount to BS sessions with his friends and associates, Davis entertains the hypothesis that genetic mutations caused by cosmic rays are responsible for this new step in human evolution. One of his compatriots suggests that since the mutations appear neither random nor harmful, they must be intentional. Martians (as a euphemism for aliens) are tagged as likely agents. There is an interesting contrast presented here in which people of today (well, people of 75 years ago) jump to unscientific, irrational speculation to explain how people are becoming more rational. Wells is indulging in a bit of dry, tongue-in-cheek humor with this, I suspect.
But the cause of the mutations is not the central point, it’s simply a dryly humorous plot device. The thought provoking question behind it is, ‘Is humanity really becoming more intelligent and more rational?’ And the other question is, ‘Should it?’
This is not your average kind of novel. In some ways, it’s a philosophical treatise on politics and humanity like Plato’s Republic or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, except, unlike the latter, Star Begotten is enjoyable, optimistic, and well-written. It’s one of those books that can make you think, if you let it. It can give you ideas. And this may be why it never rose to cult classic status. Ideas can be uncomfortable things. This is what Wells himself says about them:
‘A notion is something you can handle. But an idea, a general idea, has a way of getting all over you and subjugating you, and no free spirit submits to that. Confronted with an idea the American says: ‘Oh, yeah!’ or ‘Sez you,’ and the Englishman says: ‘I don’t fink,’ or at a higher social level: ‘Piffle—piffle before the wind.’ These simple expressions are as good against ideas as the sign of the cross used to be against the medieval devil. The pressure is at once relieved.’ (Another case of Wells’ dry humor.)
There are about ten other sections, mostly assessments about the current state of mankind, that I marked because I thought they deserved to be shared. But this would make for a very long book review, or whatever this is, so I’ll refrain from doing that. I will, however, share this summation of how Wells says you can recognize these star-begotten people:
‘one characteristic of this new type of mind is its resistance to crowd suggestions, crowd loyalties, instinctive mass prejudices, and mere phrases, … these strongminded individualists … doing sensible things and refusing to do cruel, monstrous, and foolish things…’
Is humanity progressing? Is it overcoming its infancy? Is it becoming rational? I don’t know but I would like to believe so. I’ve met sane, intelligent people and I suspect there are a lot of them. If you think you may be one, Wells provides this cautionary statement in the voice of one of the book’s more cynical characters:
‘There are bad times ahead for uncompliant sane men. They will be hated by the right and by the left with an equal intensity.‘
I found this short novel refreshingly different from popular contemporary ‘action-packed’ and largely idea-barren novels. It is a thought provoking social commentary about ideas, the evolution of ideas, and human potential. The charming characters, bits of dry humor, and the hopeful, optimistic outlook also appealed to me. I highly recommend it for those seeking something other than mindless entertainment.
Star-Begotten e-book (free html format) on Project Guttenberg – http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701231h.html
This novel, set in 1921 and published in 1923 is in a subgenre you don’t see much now — utopian science fiction. Yes, I did say ‘utopian.’ You may be more familiar with this subgenre’s ugly brother, dystopian science fiction. The latter has more shock value so it gets more attention, but I prefer the older, wiser sibling.
The essential difference between utopian and dystopian fiction that I see is their different perceptions of humanity. Although both begin with the premise that the human race has problems, utopian fiction posits that, in the course of time, mankind will solve them. Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, posits that humanity, if it is lucky, might survive.
I don’t read fiction to be shocked. I can get that from the news. I read fiction to be entertained. Occasionally I come across novels that also present a new thought or uncommon perspective, and I consider these welcome bonuses. ‘Men Like Gods’ provides all of these.
The protagonist, Mr. Barnstaple (no first name) is stressed and in desperate need of a holiday. The way he contrives to get away unaccompanied by wife of children, is humorous and charming, in an understated British way, as are his musings on the events of the time. He succeeds in escaping by himself in his little yellow car with no specific destination in mind but ends up much farther away than he could have imagined. A scientific experiment in an alternate dimension goes awry, and Barnstaple and a few others on the road that day find themselves in a strange land with clean air, tame animals, and beautiful people who enjoy unparalleled personal freedom. He’s obviously not in England anymore. The rest of the novel explores how he and his fellow Earthlings react to this strange utopia and how the Utopians react to them.
Considering this book was written almost a century ago, and making certain allowances for that, one thing that struck me was how relevant it remains. There are passages about droughts, famines, and fighting going on around the world that sound almost as if they could be referring to today. This description of economic concerns especially caught my attention:
‘… The great masses of population that had been blundered into existence, swayed by damaged and decaying traditions and amenable to the crudest suggestions, were the natural prey and support of every adventurer with a mind blatant enough and a conception of success coarse enough to appeal to them. The economic system, clumsily and convulsively reconstructed to meet the new conditions of mechanical production and distribution, became more and more a cruel and impudent exploitation of the multitudinous congestion of the common man by the predatory acquisitive few. That all too common common man was hustled through misery and subjection from his cradle to his grave; he was cajoled and lied to, he was bought, sold and dominated by an impudent minority, bolder and no doubt more energetic, but in all other respects no more intelligent than himself.’
The economic system he speaks of is, essentially, the one we still have; one in which common people simply trying to survive can be economically used and abused by those with wealth, power, and low morals. Although, on the bright side, we do have laws and regulations in place now to mitigate the worst examples of such things.
Then there was this about the media of the time:
‘…newspapers had ceased to be impartial vehicles of news; they omitted, they mutilated, they misstated. They were no better than propaganda rags.’
This claim especially seems appropriate to some of today’s media outlets.
What you won’t see in this novel is a detailed description of how the civilization in this alternate universe got from something like early Twentieth Century Earth to a free and peaceful utopia, although the process is said to have taken three thousand years. The point is that people not unlike us were able to overcome things like superstition, prejudice, selfish ambition, and violence. They were able to work together to build a better society in which each individual is free to think, act, and explore the mysteries of the world as they wish.
I won’t say the utopia presented here is exactly one that I would imagine or hope for, but it does seem attractive and maybe even possible. The ideas the novel presents are certainly worth thinking about, in any case, and the story is enjoyable in its own right. I highly recommend it.
Some of my favorite books have been those ostensibly written for children. This charming little story reminds me of some of the best. The prose style is reminiscent of A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh…) and the characters remind me of some of those created by Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach / Matilda / Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…) with a little Charles Dickens thrown into the names and the settings. If you think I mean that as high praise, you’re right.
The story is set in a fictional and sillier-than-real Victorian England where twelve-year-old Eddie Dickens, a little gentleman, is being sent off to live with his Mad Great Uncle Jack and even Madder Great Aunt Maud so that he will not catch the terrible disease his parents have contracted, which makes them yellow and crinkly around the edges, and although this is a very long sentence and possibly difficult to grasp all at once, it should also give you some idea of the flavor of this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And that’s all I think I’ll say about the book because it’s short, so the review should be as well.
I’d like to thank my Twitter friend Rowan for recommending this. I enjoyed it and I, too, recommend it.
Douglas Adams died in May 2001. He was barely 49 years old. I read all of his published novels up until then, but I never read The Salmon of Doubt until now. It was published the year after his death, and it presents a collection of his writings including chapters from an uncompleted and largely neglected manuscript that he originally intended to be the third Dirk Gently novel, although he had been toying with the idea of rewriting it as another Hitchhiker’s Guide story.
The reason I think I avoided reading it was that the story would never be finished. The world would never see another Douglas Adams novel, and this, I thought, was too sad to think about. So I didn’t. I suppose I was doing the emotional equivalent of throwing a towel over my head, hoping that if I didn’t acknowledge this disturbing thought, it would go away.
I recall a conversation I had with a coworker in 1999. He was a smart young man, well read, but with what I considered a distorted view of the universe. He was a philosophical adherent of the strong anthropic principle, claiming that this provided evidence of a purposeful universe. My own perspective on the issue was more like the one Adams relates in his puddle analogy.
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.
On one occasion, our conversation turned to novels, and I asked him what he thought was the best novel ever written in the English language. He mentioned a few candidates from classic literature. I smiled and shook my head.
“You don’t agree?” he said.
“What would you say, then?”
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” I replied.
He laughed, obviously thinking I was making a joke. He was wrong.
The reason I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide ranks among the best, is that it shakes our complacency about our place in the universe. It takes us, collectively and individually, out of the center, much as Copernicus and Galileo did when they wrote that Earth was, well, not the center of the universe. Adams was more subtle and far more entertaining about it, though, and brought the idea to us not from a scientific or philosophical perspective, but from that of a normal guy, Arthur Dent. He might be the last human in the universe, and, you know what? The universe doesn’t care. It’s not here because of us.
This may seem irrelevant, but it has much to do with Adams and his view of the world, which is really the focus of The Salmon of Doubt. If I were forced to place it in a category, I’d have to call it a biography, although the final twenty-five percent or so is an unfinished novel. The prologue (written before Adams’ death) and the introduction (written after) are certainly biographical. Much of the first section, aptly named “Life,” is autobiographical. The second section, “The Universe,” includes entertaining articles Adams wrote for various publications, selections from interviews, and other bits and pieces. Together, the first two sections provide a good look at this quirky genius. Here are a few highlights:
- Work habits – A procrastinator
- Approach toward writing – He found it slow and difficult
- Attitude toward technology – Fond of gadgets and gizmos and loved his Apple computers
- Religion – Atheist (He didn’t seem to consider this a matter of belief so much as a conclusion that theism wasn’t a rational hypothesis.)
- Favorite alcoholic drink – Whisky (although he was also fond of a properly prepared cup of Earl Grey tea)
- Music – Favorites included the Beatles, Bach, Procol Harum, and Pink Floyd
- Hobbies – Scuba diving
- Interests – Science, Technology, Rhinoceroses
- Favorite kind of food – Japanese
- Favorite authors – P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Ruth Rendell
- The book that changed his life – The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins (with whom he became good friends)
The last section of the book, “And Everything,” includes two short stories, The Private Life of Genghis Khan, and Young Zaphod Plays it Safe. Both are fun. It also includes eleven chapters compiled from three different versions of his uncompleted novel, The Salmon of Doubt. As presented here, this is a sequel to The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I enjoyed it. Dirk Gently is back, and he has a mysterious client, but he has no idea what he’s being paid to do or who is paying him so well to do it. Unfortunately, we never find out, although I have my suspicions. It brings back Kate, who now seems to be cohabiting with Thor, and it answers the question I had about the eagle from Teatime. I’m glad to have that resolved.
I never met Douglas Adams and obviously, I never will. After reading this book, though, I feel I know him a little. I know I owe him a lot, not just for the books I spent many hours reading and laughing through, but also because he was one of the writers who inspired me most to write my own stories. I wish I could thank him for that, or blame him. I would love to able to talk with him and ask him how he made it look so easy when it is really so hard. Mostly I would just like to have him back to let him know I appreciate what he did. I wouldn’t even badger him to write more stories.
Okay, that last bit is probably a lie.
Book Review – The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
Book Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Book Review – Shada
In Recognition of Towel Day
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I could summarize the plot of this novel in a short paragraph, but I won’t because if I did, you won’t have the “Oh, that’s different” experiences I had reading it, and I quite enjoyed them. I wouldn’t want to ruin those for you.
At one level, this is obviously a parody of Star Trek, The Original Series, told from the perspective of the poor unfortunate crewmembers sent on away missions for the sole purpose of dying in interesting and dramatic ways to advance the plot. As such, it’s a hoot. It has aliens, space travel, split realities, and inexplicable tech stuff. It also has additional layers that make it more than a comic ride through the galaxy aboard the Universal Union Spaceship Intrepid. These layers provide depth and make this a solid, thought provoking read. But even with all the philosophical and existential brain-bending, it is still a lighthearted and charming book.
When I started reading this, it reminded me of the movie Galaxy Quest. Then it became more like Star Trek IV. Then it turned a corner and seemed a bit like the Thursday Next books (by Jasper Fforde) with maybe a touch of The Never Ending Story. (Yes, I confess to being something of a geek, but who else would be reading stuff like this?) My point is that there is more than one story being told here. It’s rather like a thought experiment in novel form. I loved it.
The story has interesting, likeable characters, witty dialogue, and a very Star Trek-like setting. But if you’re looking for a mindless action adventure with a few jokes, this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a simple slapstick parody of Star Trek, this isn’t it. It is also nothing like Scalzi’s Old Man Goes to War books (which are also very good) or even Fuzzy Nation (also a winner for me). Scalzi continues to grow as a writer, and this book proves it. I won’t say it’s better than his other books, but it is definitely different. What I will say is that I thought it was so good I wished I wrote it.
This is a different kind of novel. It could be said that the setting is the story, but what a remarkable setting — a multidimensional string of planets, each one slightly different from our own unique Earth. And, after a missing scientist discloses the trick for stepping from one dimension to another using a potato and some common electronic hardware, we learn how unique. Our home planet is the only one of the countless earths upon which Homo sapiens have evolved. Not that the others are empty. Many contain many familiar and not so familiar species, but ours is the only one with people like us.
The story is related from multiple points of view with no clear protagonist or antagonist. Instead, we are treated to several interesting characters trying to deal with this new multidimensional reality in their own ways.
The primary character is Joshua Valienté, an orphan from Madison Wisconsin who has a rare talent. He can step between Earths without the help of a potato-powered stepper. This attracts the attention of the Black Corporation, a powerful, influential, and extremely wealthy organization, and especially the attention of Lobsang, one of Black Corp’s part owners. Lobsang is the character I found most interesting and entertaining. He is either a delusional artificial intelligence or a dead Tibetan motorcycle mechanic reincarnated as a computer program. Once we get to know him, it hardly matters which. If he has a heart, it’s a good one, although, true to Pratchett form, he has his flaws that only seem to make him more charming.
Joshua and Lobsang travel the long earth and discover that… well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out. Let’s just say they learn much more about our sister earths and discover a mystery that could threaten the whole string.
There is one thing I found a bit off. The character of Joshua Valienté is an American but he speaks British. Not intentionally so, I’m sure, but his word choices in a couple places are clearly from that green and pleasant land, and, at one point, he chooses fried slice for breakfast. I’m sorry, but I doubt may Americans even know what is meant by that. (For those of my countrymen who do not, imagine a thick slice of bread fried in hot oil and then, for the brave or foolhardy, topped with butter. If you really want to be traditional, you can fry it in bacon or sausage fat. It’s actually quite delicious but instantly causes the consumer to gain five pounds and increases their likelihood of heart attack by about five percent.)
This is an easily forgivable flaw, if flaw it is. The authors may simply be translating American into English for their readers, much as if they might translate the words of characters from Ankh-Morpork from Morporkian into English and, in the process, make them sound like they’re from Liverpool. That’s fine because we all know they are really speaking Morporkian. Of course, this doesn’t explain the ‘fried slice’ thing.
I enjoyed this book, and I would like to spend some more time in the company of Lobsang and some of the others. I look forward to a sequel, or an infinite string of sequels that further explore this remarkable setting.
I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel to Old Man’s War. Jane Sagan is back in a supporting role, but this novel stars Jared Dirac, a cloned and genetically modified elite soldier in the Colonial Defense Forces’ Ghost Brigades. He is the unfortunate host for the memories of Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist turned traitor who is helping an alien species, the Obin, in their war against the CDF.
Dirac’s inner conflict for self-identification is a central theme. Who is he? What is he? Is he truly human or just a manufactured killing machine? Is he a unique individual, or is he just a copy of Boutin? Does he have true choices? Can he decide who and what he is? Dirac explores these and other questions and, at the end, finds his answers.
This is also a story of mankind’s quest for the stars, their need to expand and diverge. But although space may be limitless, prime planets suitable for life are not, and humanity has found itself in conflict for them with a large number of alien species. This is why the CDF exists — to defend human colonies and sometimes to remove the colonies of others.
This is not just your typical ‘action packed’ military science fiction story, though. Nor is it ‘hard’ science fiction that relies significantly on whiz-bang gadgetry and prose peppered with heaps of techno-babble. There is a high-tech medical and genetic component, of course, but this novel is primarily ‘soft’ science fiction. Its focus is on the ‘soft’ sciences, such as psychology, sociology, culture, and politics. This is where the true conflict is, both within humanity and between species. There is real depth to Scalzi’s characters, and their interaction highlights some of the best and worst of humanity.
I recommend this book, but read Old Man’s War first. Then continue with The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. That’s it in this saga for now, but I hope Scalzi will write another. If he does, I’ll read it.