SpeculativeFiction


Terry Pratchett passes away


AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
; Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
; Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015


I was never as much of a fan of Terry's writing as others; I tried a few of his books and they left me mildly amused at best. Perhaps I chose poorly, and tastes surely differ. Yet I have known many people who were given much joy from his works, and I mourn on their behalf.

Thu Mar 12 23:38:51 CDT 2015 by Matthew. Comments

Earth Afire: The First Formic War

Having set aside my higher expectations after Earth Unaware, I was anticipating pretty much a simple adventure story this time around. That's pretty much what I got with Earth Afire. Unexpectedly, though, we were introduced to Mazer Rackham in this book, and he was unfortunately less than impressive as a character. In Ender's Game, Card writes a character who is convincingly super-intelligent yet childish. Mazer is supposed to be cut from similar if not quite identical cloth, but he doesn't carry it convincingly.

On the whole I was disappointed with this book more than the first.

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Categories Orson Scott Card

Sun Jun 22 13:46:30 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Earth Unaware: The First Formic War

I ended up reading Orson Scott Card's First Formic War series because of a discussion I had with a friend of mine about the central moral question of Ender's Game: was Ender's action to end his war moral or not? It would be a spoiler to describe exactly what he did; suffice it to say that it's a close call based on the available information, and our opinions differed based primarily on whether the books in this series were considered canon or not. She had read them, I had not; but I had read the sequels to Ender's Game and she had not. She thought the Formics had attacked first and Ender's actions were ultimately justified; I thought the question of Ender's Game hinged on the crucial first contact question of "What did the Formics know and when did they know it?"

So I decided to read the series and find out, at least the first book (Earth Unaware). I should point out that I avoided reading the series previously because I tend to avoid "Big name author with unknown coauthor" pairings; they are usually basically ghostwriting arrangements, and while sometimes it works, too often it doesn't. This time around, it's more complex than that.

For the rest of the review, with very mild spoilers, click below.

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Categories Orson Scott Card

Sat Jun 21 13:46:30 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

The Edge of Tomorrow

The Edge of Tomorrow is a Tom Cruise military sci-fi vehicle, and it's a bundle of contradictions that actually work out to a pretty good movie. Let me start by hitting you with what is obvious from the trailer: alien invasion, near-future powered armor. Those aspects are mostly handled well. The power armor is much more realistic than, say, Tony Stark's Iron Man armor; it's basically strength-enhancing and load-carrying with some token "armor" and a few mounted weapons. Cruise even gets a chance to lampshade the fact that he isn't wearing a helmet. (The real reason is that he is getting paid millions for his face to be visible, of course). The aliens are alien aliens and not very comprehensible to humanity.

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that there's a military focus to the movie, and I was skeptical about how Hollywood would handle a movie about military heroics in an alien invasion. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don't. The stereotype of the military being dumb misfits was there in spades. On the other hand, clearly that wasn't everyone; the main character was thrown in with the misfits on account of an act of utter cowardice early in the movie when he is told that he will actually be expected to fight.

The other thing I can say without spoiling too much is that the movie is a transparent ... homage? Reference? Tribute? I'm not sure.. to D-Day. Aside from releasing the movie on the literal anniversary of the invasion, the aliens invade Europe, are apparently based in Germany, and kill everyone. They are opposed by a US and UK lead counter invasion from the West and a simultaneous invasion from Russia to the East. A good chunk of the movie concerns events on the beach at Normandy. We're left to imagine whether they herded people into camps and made them wear yellow stars first, I guess.

I will say more with spoilers below, but the short summary is, it's a good movie, both as general entertainment, as a sci-fi experience, and as a military war movie. Just recite "These are individuals, not stereotypes" occasionally when the condescension gets too thick.

The trailers sort of hint at the third sci-fi concept in the movie, which is where the main character goes roughly 24 hours back in time each time he gets killed. (Never mind why, that really would be a spoiler). This was pretty well handled, and adds a very interesting intellectual feel to the movie. The characters abuse it mercilessly in a way that actually adds another layer to the whole; it's basically what video gamers do to beat a game. Get killed, go back to your last save game and try again until you get it right.

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Mon Jun 09 13:46:14 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Should Obama blow the silver horn?

Sun Jun 08 13:57:34 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Assassin's Quest

Fans of Robin Hobb's Assassin series already know that they are in for an emotional roller coaster, but Assassin's Quest in particular is very difficult to read. All of the supporting characters that Fitz loved and trusted have been wrested away from him by one manner of disaster or another. Those whose lives have included periods of major depression will recognize the symptoms and the self-destructive impulses. This is not a book for the emotionally fragile, but then, if you are still reading the series by this point it should be obvious. In a way, the book is noteworthy for that quality in itself: rarely does an author bring their main character so low and portray the results with such unsympathetic clarity.

Anyone who has been reading the books hoping desperately for a happy ending is unlikely to be satisfied, and I was personally somewhat disappointed by the deus ex machina quality.

Overall, it's a different sort of book. The saying is that the point of a story is the journey rather than the destination; this book is a perfect example and perfect counterexample in one. Reaching the destination is unlikely to make the reader particularly happy, but does bring a sort of catharsis; and anyone who can reach the end of the book without feeling strongly for the characters is probably a sociopath.

Probably not a good book for moody teenagers.

Categories Robin Hobb

Fri May 09 13:52:21 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

The Elfstones of Shannara

The Elfstones of Shannara (The Sword of Shannara) is, in my opinion, the best of the Shannara books. Terry Brooks has exorcised the need to imitate Tolkein, and is now free to explore a somewhat different -- and more original -- story. While he does not succeed in creating a classic that will ring down through the ages, he does manage a reasonably enjoyable fantasy novel.

Unfortunately, reasonably enjoyable is still pretty flawed. The main issue in the story is whether the main character can access and use the power of the Elfstones. The answer is generally no, or at least not yet; eventually the threat grows to the point where their power can be accessed to smash the opposition and the quest continues. Once the reader has figured out the pattern, there's not really much sense of threat. The quest is pretty much a standard "take the McGuffin to Mount Doom", conveniently handed out by a Druid with very little backstory.

All that said, this is probably the best of the Shannara series, and a good place to start with Brooks to see if you will like him as an author. There is very little connection with the first book in the series (The Sword of Shannara) and the writing is better than The Wishsong of Shannara. All three have basically the same plot with different McGuffins.

Categories Shannara Terry Brooks

Thu May 08 13:52:21 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Ebooks and book pricing...

Over at the Mad Genius Club, Amanda finds a publisher talking about ebooks as a "service" and charging more for them than printed books because they are convenient for the reader. Both sides have valid points, but the discussion hook is Amanda's conclusion:

But to say an e-book should cost considerably more than a print book because it is more convenient is ludicrous. It is especially so when the publisher refuses to admit that a reader buys the book instead of just licensing the right to read the book. As for Luby, well, he needs to quit drinking the kool-aid and realize that the reading public isn’t quite as naive — or foolish — as he seems to think it is. As for the publishers and bean counters still doing their song and dance of joy over what he had to say, they need to adapt t changing times and demands or be left behind. As the song says, “the times, they are a-changing.”

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Wed May 07 13:52:21 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Feminism in speculative fiction

I don't have a lot to say on this topic, mostly because I think the people screaming about it the loudest are really annoying and trying to make mountains out of the mole-hill they personally saw once. We all have bad personal experiences with other people occasionally, especially when everyone involved is probably drunk, but those experiences aren't a license to attack an entire community. Individuals are responsible for their own actions.

... But, that said, I've been following Leigh Butler's reread of A Song of Ice and Fire, because it's really amusing to watch her bang her head on her desk over and over and over again while complaining about sexism in Martin's universe. And the thing is, she's justified in Martin's universe, because it really is amazingly sexist. Perhaps uncomfortably so, because a lot of the sexism is rooted in the very real physical realities of violence.

But this week she said something that made me bang my own head on my own desk.

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Tue May 06 13:52:21 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Can we land a robotic probe on Europa?

The more we learn about Europa, the greater its allure. Galileo Galilei discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons in 1610, and in the intervening centuries Europa, the smallest of them, has revealed itself as a likely harbor for liquid water—and maybe even life. Last week NASA took tentative steps toward sending a robotic mission there—a goal long lauded by planetary scientists. But exploring Europa presents some serious technological, financial and political challenges.

It looks like NASA is thinking about the possibility. Of course, science fiction has already been there (Europa Report).

The science fiction version of Jupiter's moon is a pseudo-documentary in the "found footage" style. It won't blow your mind, because after all it's fiction; but it does a decent job of capturing the excitement of scientific exploration without falling back on the tropes of humanoid aliens with funny foreheads or instant hostilities. If you're interested in science and space exploration, this will keep you entertained for an evening. If your main interest in aliens is blowing them into small pieces, you can skip this one.

Mon May 05 13:52:21 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Adapt and Overcome

There's not much to say about Adapt and Overcome (The Maxwell Saga), the third book in Peter David's series about a young man who joins the space navy and comes of age amongst a series of increasingly improbable coincidences. It's fast, reasonably fun, and the infinite improbability drive is set to just a notch below winning the lottery without buying a ticket. The author's complete failure to grasp his readers' comments about his main character's plot invincibility in prior books is a charming mirror of his main character's casual stroll through explosions, firefights and love affairs that never seem to leave a scratch on him.

Readers are unlikely to be bored, but are also unlikely to remember the plot the next day. I was hoping the author would step up his game a little bit after his first two books, since comments on his amazon page suggested he was trying to address the plot armor problem. Unfortunately, the most striking difference between this book and the previous two is the spaceship on the cover.

That said, it's a fun read, and if you liked the first two (Take The Star Road and Ride The Rising Tide) you'll like this one.

Sun May 04 13:09:29 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Born of Hope -- a fan film

Sun May 04 13:01:02 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Steelheart

Brandon Sanderson's excursion into young adult literature, Steelheart (The Reckoners) explores the world of superheroes and supervillains... or more accurately, explores a world where there is a surfeit of supervillains and absolutely no superheroes whatsoever. The world is based roughly on our own present, but with variations ranging from the surreal (supervillains ruling various cities as dictators) to the bizarre (transforming entire cities into steel, with super-moles digging vast tunnels for people to live and work within).

The plot is fairly complex for a young-adult novel, with twists that an experienced reader will be able to anticipate without the sense of boring certainty that makes the whole exercise feel like a color-by-numbers exercise. I was entertained, but not blown away, which appears to be my usual reaction to Sanderson's more workmanlike books.

For devoted fans of the young-adult-superhero novels, this has a lot more depth and realism than most books in the genre and can be readily enjoyed by adults as well. Unfortunately those same qualities mean it lacks the most important quality for a really good superhero book: a light-hearted sense of fun with witty quips flying as fast as the punches. This one is definitely on the grim side.

Sat May 03 13:01:02 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

The Silver Gryphon

The Silver Gryphon (Mage Wars) is the third book in Lackey's Mage Wars trilogy, which itself is an attempt to fill in some major backstory to her Valdemar universe. It's not particularly memorable, and there are few ties to the larger world and story of Valdemar itself. Even if you've read the first two books in this trilogy, you're safe skipping this one. It's really bad, but in an inoffensive way.

Fri May 02 13:09:29 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

The Privilege of the Sword

I picked this up hoping for a mildly interesting tale of intrigue, and what I got was the renaissance through the eyes of a feminist who really, really wishes she could grow up to be a swordswoman. The Privilege of the Sword (Riverside) is not a bad book exactly; it's an unrealistic premise handled reasonably well with a light dose of intrigue and humor on top. Interesting, particularly for the attention to detail given to the fencing, but not very meaningful.

There is a sequel, Swordspoint (Riverside), which I really have no interest in reading.

Thu May 01 13:19:37 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Ender's Game

It's a good short story that became a good book that produced a good series of books that eventually produced a good movie. A writer at the Independent Institute reviews Ender's Game through the prism of Hayekian liberty.

Categories Orson Scott Card

Fri Mar 14 04:40:41 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

The Cassandra Project

I've been a mild fan of Jack McDevitt's books for a while. He does soft science fiction with a decent sense of wonder pretty well, though there's usually a mild sour note here and there that keeps his books from being an entirely positive experience. The Cassandra Project fit that description for most of the book, which is essentially a "What if" take on the fake moon landings theory. But when I read the epilogue, I wanted to throw the book across the room.

If you skip the epilogue, you might enjoy the story of an unraveling conspiracy that manages to link the moon landings and the Watergate burglaries. As is typical of a McDevitt book, it's an almost entirely intellectual exercise; there's no sense of action or excitement, just a series of puzzles to figure out. That said, it is engaging if you are scientifically inclined or merely a fan of real-world space exploration.

That's about as much of a review I can give without spoilers.

Just don't read the epilogue.

Mon Mar 10 22:50:34 CDT 2014 by Matthew. Comments

The Stars Came Back

An interesting independently published ebook, The Stars Came Back is a tale of space adventure with distinct military, political and moral themes. Stylistically, it occupies an unusual dialogue-heavy space somewhere between a novel and a screenplay; the author has mentioned that he originally wrote it as a screenplay and as it grew in length the style adjusted somewhat. Though written in a manner reminiscent of a Heinlein juvenile, it is not a coming-of-age tale; almost all of the characters are adults, though they still have room to grow and change.

It could perhaps be argued that it is a story of societal coming of age, but if so, it would only be the beginning of such a story.

The book has several flaws, most of which are pretty much par for the course with an independent ebook. The origin of the story as a screenplay is obvious, and frankly, the whole story would benefit from a rewrite to be consistently one style or the other. The conclusion of the story doesn't really conclude at all; there's a natural stopping point, followed by another shorter story that comes to it's own stopping point without actually concluding. It's fairly obvious from chapter divisions that the structure was intended as a two-hour pilot and a one-hour normal episode. A good rewrite would restructure those elements to flow more naturally.

That said, it's easy to overlook those details and get caught up in the story, which is a rare combination of easy reading and philosophical depth. Properly polished, this could become a classic. Lacking that last bit, however, it remains an enjoyable story well worth your time.

Sat Feb 15 12:20:12 CST 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Iron Sky

... it is impossible to take Space Nazis from the Dark Side of the Moon versus President Palin seriously. Fortunately, Iron Sky does not attempt it.

Tue Jan 21 03:05:09 CST 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Empathy Test

The assessor is attractive in a button-down kind of way. Blonde hair, pink jumpsuit, digital makeup set to minimal. Her face is a sculpt, something from one of the mid-level catalogues. Attractive, but not too attractive. The same face you see on a thousand other people. Only her eyes, brown and liquid, are original.

"You failed your empathy test, Mr. Clawford."

Read the whole thing.

Tue Jan 21 02:12:01 CST 2014 by Matthew. Comments

Who is Andrew Taylor Still?

He's the "famous Missourian" in first place on this official Missouri House of Representatives poll.

Robert Heinlein is currently in second place.

Put Heinlein in first place. Because science. Because science fiction. And because you've never heard of Andrew Taylor Still either.

Hat tip to The Smallest Minority.

Sun Nov 24 11:20:31 CST 2013 by Matthew. Comments

Gravity

Gravity, with Sandra Bullock in the lead role and George Clooney supporting, is an excellent movie for fans of science fiction, but as SF author Rosemary Kirstein points out (and beware spoilers behind that link), it is more science fact than science fiction. Though the events are fictional, the technology underpinning them is not. We have multiple space stations in orbit. We have people who work in space on a regular basis, if not continually. We have taken science fiction, and made it real. We have Star Trek communicators, Star Trek tricorders. We are working on self-driving cars (not quite ready yet!) and invisibility cloaks. We're doing all that with science, and this movie sticks reasonably close to what we know about science.




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Mon Oct 07 00:41:42 CDT 2013 by Matthew. Comments

23 Years on Fire

A Cassandra Kresnov novel, 23 Years On Fire advances the clock a bit and brings some intriguing new ideas into the series. Although they are coming a little bit out of left field and strain plausibility somewhat, such small sins are easily forgiven in support of a good story and the philosophical questions that comes along with it.

The novel opens with Sandy leading a military raid on a Federation planet suspected of using mind-control implant technology on the population of an entire planet -- accidentally. That theme continues with the rest of the book, as the artificial intelligences on all sides learn exactly how capable they can be once fully grown up.

The plot is less centered on Sandy than usual, which leads to a couple of disjointed timeline and viewpoint shifts that can leave the reader briefly disoriented. As a result the book feels rougher and less polished than previous entries in the series. It is nonetheless an good read, with some revelations at the end that hint at an interesting new direction for the next book.

Readers who have been following the series will not be disappointed. Others should start with the first book, Crossover.

Thu Sep 26 03:14:57 CDT 2013 by Matthew. Comments

The Given Sacrifice

The latest book in SM Stirling's Change series, The Given Sacrifice concludes the war against the Church Universal and Triumphant with a certain sense of anticlimax. While none of the events quite surprised me, I was left with a sense -- quite familiar to me from other recent books in this series -- that the author had overstretched his ability to maintain dramatic tension and that the events that have occupied the past three or four books in this series would have been better served to all take place within a single book. Compressing the narrative, if not necessarily the time scale, would make it easier for the reader to preserve the sense of risk and danger that has been rather lacking since Rudi retrieved the Sword of the Lady.

Spoilers below.

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Wed Sep 25 00:13:48 CDT 2013 by Matthew. Comments

The Empire of Isher

The Empire of Isher (by AE Van Vogt) combines both The Weapon Shops of Isher and The Weapon Makers into a single edition. The combined work is still under 300 pages, but the sparse writing style means that a lot of action can be packed into those pages. While this edition was published in 2000, the stories themselves are noticeably dated. They are also unique and very hard to describe.
The Weapon Shops of Isher introduces us to the basic concept: shops that appear mysteriously in various locations and sell weapons to anyone who wants one and isn't a government official of some kind. These weapons are made of atomic unobtainium and operate by the advanced science of handwavology in a manner sufficiently indistinguishable to be called magic, and so I will. These magic guns are impossible to use offensively (because magic) and can protect the user from being shot by most modern energy weapons (because magic) but not bullets (because no one uses bullets anymore?).

The motto of the Weapon Shops is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free."

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Sun Sep 22 22:08:20 CDT 2013 by Matthew. Comments

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