Archive for the ‘Books’ Category.

The fate of the Blue Carbuncle

Everyone seems to have a favorite movie that they watch during the holidays – mine is The Blue Carbuncle (1984). Jeremy Brett seems as if he were born to play Sherlock Holmes, and I have watched every episode in which he has starred. Not only is The Blue Carbuncle one of my favorites, but it takes place during Christmas which makes it perfect for holiday viewing.

One question that came up this year was whether Holmes kept the jewel, or wound up returning it to the police or the Countess. In the show, he says something about adding it to his private museum, and we see him lock the Blue Carbuncle in a desk drawer along with a brief glimpse of his cocaine syringe.

I decided to settle the matter by opening my copy of The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. I found the answer on page 100:

I’ll lock it up in my strong box now, and drop a line to the Countess to say that we have it.

Another mystery solved!

Across Realtime by Vernor Vinge

Across Realtime encompasses two stories: The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime. As you might guess from the titles, the latter is much cooler than the former. Having read Marooned in Realtime first as a separate paperback, I already knew most of the big technological reveals in The Peace War. In fact, after about 200 pages I just couldn’t finish the The Peace War; I didn’t care about the characters or the plot enough to make it through the climax and denouement.

However, Marooned in Realtime is certainly worth a read – both for the overview of the “bobble” technology, as well for an engaging story. Throw in a murder mystery and some allusions to big scifi ideas, and you’ve got a great novel. Still, I think Vinge shines brightest when he puts us in the Qeng Ho universe. Starting with the best, I’d sort his novels (the ones I’ve read, anyway) as follows:

  1. A Fire Upon the Deep
  2. A Deepness in the Sky
  3. Marooned in Realtime
  4. Rainbow’s End
  5. Tatja Grimm’s World
  6. The Peace War

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

When I saw that one of my favorite scifi authors, Vernor Vinge, grabbed the 2007 Hugo Award for Rainbows End, I had to pick up a copy. Heh, I was just about to compare the book to Neuromancer and Snow Crash when I flipped it over and saw a quote starting with: “In the grand tradition of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson…”

Anyway, yes, this is definitely something of a hacker book, though not with the dark passion of Neuromancer, nor the wild ride of Snow Crash. This book is basically a very educated projection of what the world will look like in 2025. The key technology is advanced contact lenses that can provide a virtual reality overlay and Internet access – smart clothing helps to create an interface that is faster and more powerful than the traditional keyboard and mouse. As a computer scientist, Vinge is able to create a very believable view of around 15-20 years into our future.

For me, the best part of this book were all the computer references – I think my favorite was, if I’m not mistaken, a shout out to GNU Hurd. Rainbows End is a far cry away setting-wise from the likes of A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, but we do wind up getting at least a peripheral view of some of Vinge’s past themes: artificial intelligence and mind control.

Overall, this was not my favorite of Vinge’s work. It’s a good scifi book to be sure; perhaps I’m looking for a level of escapism that Rainbows End‘s near-future setting didn’t provide for me. Anyway, time to figure out where to slot this one in my SciFi Leaderboard

Seeker by Jack McDevitt

Seeker, a story about two adventurous antiquarians searching for a lost colony, won author Jack McDevitt the 2006 Nebula Award. Some of the praise for McDevitt that I see on the jacket cover is pretty effusive:

“The logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.”
-Stephen King

“‘Why read Jack McDevitt?’ The question should be: ‘Who among us is such a slow pony that s/he isn’t reading McDevitt?'”
-Harlan Ellison

Having read the book, I’m not fully prepared to describe Jack McDevitt as a glowing creature of pure energy who communes directly with my soul in a starburst language of mesmerizing telepathy. But I guess every paperback is stamped with whatever hyperbole the publisher could fish out of humanity. This other quote from the cover mirrors my thoughts a little more closely:

“[A] classy riff on the familiar lost-colony theme.”
-Publishers Weekly

Seeker is set about 10,000 years in the future when humanity has FTL, advanced (but subservient) AI, virtual reality that approaches holodeck immersion, colonies throughout the galaxy, and relatively peaceful contact with the one sentient alien race. Overall, a good mix of science fiction that serves as the setting for the characters’ hunt for the 9,000-year-old lost colony of Margolia.

The book reads like a detective novel, told in a first-person narrative by the capable interstellar pilot Chase Kolpath. Chase is female so I was intrigued to see how McDevitt would handle filling out a character of the opposite sex. What you get is someone that reminded me of “the Major” from Ghost in the Shell – business-like, skilled, sexy, and relatively emotionless. To me, the narrative came across as intelligent, but oddly detached. McDevitt doesn’t spend a lot of time fleshing out the cast, but he keeps the character construction subtle and tasteful.

Going back to the detective theme, the book really does have that feel. The characters slowly gather clues; a murderous plot begins to unfold; the pieces fall into place at a greater rate as the pages go by; an exciting conclusion is reached in the end. Seeker didn’t necessarily blow me away, but McDevitt has produced a very smart and engaging science fiction novel.

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold scored the 1995 Hugo Award for Mirror Dance, one of the many books in her “Vorkosigan Adventures”. I enjoyed this one so much that I’m tempted to explore the rest of the series, but I want to keep my literary train moving.

Mirror Dance centers around the physically stunted Miles Vorkosigan and his psychologically tormented clone, Mark Vorkosigan. The two fight and charm their way through an aggressive stage of political powers using their shared genius and endless ambition. I feel like I’m not doing the plot much justice here… it really is fantastic.

But the real brilliance behind this book is the character construction of Mark, the clone raised from birth to assassinate his “father”. Mark’s internal monologue – the struggle against his demons – is incredible. Being able to create that character and build those thought processes takes quite a lot of skill. My hat is off to Ms. Bujold.

In terms of science fiction, what you’re mainly dealing with is cloning and advanced medicine. There is some FTL travel and futuristic weapons, but scifi technology is not the focus of this book. Maybe you’d consider this a “space opera”, but a great story is a great story no matter how you classify it.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

UPDATE: removed statements falsely accusing Scalzi of borrowing ideas from Joe Haldeman.

After trying to fight through some tough literary jungle, I was happy to find myself blazing through The Ghost Brigades (2006) by John Scalzi. This book lasted me all of one weekend; it felt really great to be reading voraciously again.

If one were to hybridize Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Forever Peace, you might end up with something very much like The Ghost Brigades. However, apparently John Scalzi himself (or someone acting on his behalf) commented on this blog entry to inform me of the coincidental nature of the similarities.

Although I was seeing familiar themes, there are good reasons why I tore through The Ghost Brigades in a couple of sessions; the book is a lot of fun and there is plenty of originality. Cool battles, alien intrigue, manufactured super soldiers, downloaded consciousnesses, interesting characters, and questions about humanity’s future… this book definitely hit my scifi sweet spot.

Book Fail

Whenever I try to read science fiction lately I find myself thwarted by my own expectations. Over the years I’ve been paging through the Nebula and Hugo award-winners, apparently setting my literary demands higher and higher with each read. Here is a quick list of the books I’ve been unable to complete lately:

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder – a friend implored me to read this based on its fascinating setting. I worked at it a few times, but I couldn’t get past the ridiculous characters. I wish Schroeder had emulated Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama strategy: use a collection of forgettable mannequins to explore an awesome science fiction concept. Unfortunately for me, the early goings of this book featured a small ratio of Schroeder’s interesting scifi concepts to the roughly hewn characters and dialog.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – science fiction stories that involve time travel back to an earlier part of documented human history are usually a turnoff for me. When I pick up a scifi book I want science fiction, not a goddamn Renaissance “faire”. After a few halting starts, I finally began to make headway in Doomsday Book… then I discovered a misprint in the form of a duplicated chapter combined with a skipped chapter. That annoyance, along with characters that I didn’t really care for and a plot that I wasn’t super keen about, was enough to cause me to put the book down.

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – after reading both Red Mars and Green Mars, I apparently couldn’t bring myself to delve into another of these rambling tomes. I’m not dismissing these books; the series has fascinated me with believable technology, rich characters, and ideas on alternate societies and economics. While this is the trilogy on Mars colonization, there are chunks that feel like a bit of a grind. Maybe when I’m feeling more patient I’ll try to get into this one.

Sometimes I start to wonder whether video games, Netflix Instant, and HDTV have spoiled my love of literature. But then I recall my thoughts on the Hyperion Cantos and start to look forward to that next great read.

The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons

When Hyperion arrived in the mail, I instantly had a good feeling about Dan Simmons’ 1990 Hugo award winner. My intuition proved correct and I ended up consuming all four books in the Hyperion Cantos. As a fan of science fiction – hell, as a fan of literature – you will find these books astounding.

After reading over 2000 rich pages full of expertly crafted characters and exotic worlds, I am at a loss to summarize the story. The four books are divided into two couplets: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion describe the Shrike Pilgrimage, a journey to the Time Tombs undertaken by seven diverse pilgrims under the watch of the murderous Shrike creature; Endymion and The Rise of Endymion tell an epic love story as humanity fights for and against its ultimate evolution. There, that’s the best I could do in terms of a quick summary – hardly scratches the surface of the tetralogy’s depth.

To rattle off a few literary themes, the books explore:

  • Religion, in a surprising number of forms
  • Love, also in a surprising number of forms
  • The evolution and motivation of artificial intelligence
  • Likewise, the evolution and motivation of humanity
  • The sanctity and splendor of nature
  • Poetry, especially that of John Keats

And I’m sure there is more that I’m not remembering at the moment. Switching to the topic of pure science fiction, this is definitely in the realm of “high” sci-fi, but there is good internal consistency and enough realism to not wander too far into the fields of fantasy. You have FTL, beam weapons, a mechanism for instantaneous travel, better-than-sentient AI, nanotech on the periphery, and “doc-in-the-box” devices that can heal pretty much anything. The books are full of interesting gadgets/technology and you will generally not suffer from sci-fi withdrawal.

To give a few criticisms, I found the second and fourth books to have some areas where you tend to get bogged down as a reader. Whereas I tore through Hyperion and Endymion, I found myself taking more breaks with the other two; The Fall of Hyperion had some slow political sections and The Rise of Endymion had me dragging my feet through the world of T’ien Shan where the author is hurling all these Chinese/Tibetan names/landmarks/structures at you.

As a computer geek, I found some of the AI/metaverse stuff to be a little silly. Simmons uses a Neuromancer sort of mechanic – even making a reference to William Gibson – which I found unfortunate because I hate the representation of hacking as flying around some 3D digital environment. Still, the whole AI theme and execution is pretty cool, even if you aren’t treated to a Vernor Vinge sort of plausibility.

But my gripes are small compared with the overall majesty of this series. The Hyperion Cantos has definitely jumped to the top of my sci-fi favorites, not just for providing compelling science fiction, but also for its exploration of so many vibrant aspects of the soul. I’m going to have to take a brief literary break to let these books sink in before I hit up the Hugos and Nebulas again.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson

With the movie about to come out, my boss loaned me I am Legend by Richard Matheson. I read the synopsis on the back cover and concluded that the book might be good for a pulpy vampire-slaying romp:

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth… but he is not alone. Every man, woman, and child on Earth has become a vampire, and they are all hungry for Neville’s blood.

But what I got was an intense, thoughtful, and well-written novel chronicling one man’s struggle against horror as he descends through the stages of loneliness. You understand the main character’s emotions and Matheson is able to convey them forcefully. As much as you are drawn in to the protagonist’s isolation, so too are you fascinated by the sci-fi/horror plot that gradually unfolds over a rich 160 pages.

I don’t mean to make the story sound like some high-minded allegory; after all, it is about a man struggling to survive in a world of vampires. The entertainment value is certainly there, but I just wasn’t expecting the book to contain the depth that it did. As I churned through the last few pages, wrapping my mind around the surprise ending, I realized what a special treat I’d given.

Having seen previews for the movie, I don’t have a lot of hope that it will capture the motifs of the book. Still, I may give Will Smith a chance.

Another thing to mention is that my copy of I am Legend contained a collection of very eclectic sci-fi/classic horror short stories by the same author. These ranged from poetic, to silly, to hot (From Shadowed Places), to dark. I had seen many of the themes/ideas before, but then I looked at the copyrights and saw that Matheson had written most of them in the early 1950s. Apparently the World Horror Convention gave him a title of Grand Master, and he’s written episodes for the original Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Impressive, most impressive.

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman won both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1998. After reading The Forever War by the same author, I had to wonder about the connection between the two. Fortunately, Haldeman clues you in at the beginning of the book:

Caveat lector: This book is not a continuation of my 1975 novel The Forever War. From the author’s point of view it is a kind of sequel, though, examining some of that novel’s problems from an angle that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The angle that didn’t exist has to be the Silicon Age and the Internet. The main sci-fi constructs in Forever Peace are:

  • Nanoforges – “warm fusion” devices that can create anything given the appropriate raw materials.
  • Soliderboys – similar to the mechanized suits in The Forever War, soldierboys are remote-controlled robots that “mechanics” operate via a sort of virtual reality interface.
  • “Jacking” – hard not to smirk at the masturbation euphemism, but this is the term the book uses to describe a person’s ability to link to another person, effectively merging personalties, experiences, and sensations. People with this ability have a jack implanted in the back of their heads which they use to plug in to other people and devices.

I think even Haldeman had to have some fun with the word “jacking”. This is on the second-to-last page of the book when a Hispanic woman is thanking the protagonist:

“All the time I was changing, these past two weeks, I was hoping you would still be alive so that we could, as you say, jack together.” She smiled. “Your funny language.”

Forever Peace has basically the same themes as The Forever War:

  • Horrors of war
  • Humanity on a path to self-destruction
  • Humanity’s most promising future as a unified hive mind

The first half of the book was very engaging. The descriptions and actions of the soliderboys, the “jacking” technology and how it feels to be unified with another person, and the suicidal main character and his intense personal relationships.

But then Haldeman unveils the antagonist, a military higher-up whose religion dictates that he should destroy the world to bring about some sort of “rebirth”. Among this guy’s resources are insane zealots who are also super-spies.

The good guys, who have found that people can be “humanized” (read: pacified) by jacking together (heh) for an extended period of time, are on a quest to humanize the entire world. They capture one of these super-spies and place her in a room that “no one has escaped from before”. I could have skipped the next chapter or so, where the spy obviously escapes and wreaks havoc.

I guess the problem I had was that the enemy was a little too convenient – psychopaths bent on killing and world-ending, blindly following some crazy religion. I don’t mind the digs at religion, of course, but I found the antagonists to be overly trite.

The idea of humanity becoming a single mind, and this act being beneficial, is certainly not new. Asimov explored the idea in his Foundation series, and Haldeman himself touched on the idea in The Forever War. Still, Haldeman provides an interesting look at what such a situation would be like, and even how it might feel.