Saturday, 22 July 2017

Saturn Run review

Saturn Run
by John Sandford & Ctien
G.P. Putnam's Sons

In Saturn Run, we are taken to the Earth of fifty years from now.  One small aspect of this future is the advance in pharmaceuticals.  In moments of ultra stress, citizens are not hesitant to use a pill or shot to "smooth out".  There are still side effects, but nowhere near as harsh as we suffer today.  This sort of moment only appears a handful of times in the plot, but...the whole book feels like it has been "smoothed out".
What I mean is that the author(s) apparently were unable or unwilling to describe any messy emotions.  A few characters are possessed of hot tempers and become angry, but it is nothing but "telling" instead of "showing".  It's like a sock puppet show where the feature character declaims "Grr, I am mad".  Characters are mostly reasonable and pleasant thru out the story.  A sex fling starts to take root and becomes an actual relationship with tangled emotions.  Just as we're wondering how these characters will sort it all out, the author(s) use a deus ex machina to extricate themselves from this gooey mush stuff.  And in the aftershocks, where a well-written book would take us thru the heart ache and depression, the character reaches for that aforementioned drug and smooooths out.  The novel returns to blandsville.  Whew, that was close.  We couldn't have any undue excitement with our characters.  No arguments, no jealousies, no wild guffaws, no narrow-minded biases...just all pleasant and reasonable.

I have to stop now to reverse this negative stance.  The science adventure aspect of the book carried the weight of the plot well enough.  If semi-hard science fiction is your love, then you'll enjoy this aspect.  But, as with all too many modern books, Saturn Run needed to be 500 pages long like I need a couple of extra earlobes.  A couple-three decades ago, it would have been more like 200 pages and been an enjoyable afternoon's read.  I've read books like this in my life and felt my time well spent.  When I have to spend 500 page worth of time, I want a lot more bang for my investment.

In short, it is a good idea and well-thought out race across the solar system.  After 500 pages, though, I felt like I'd walked to Saturn and back.

I want to endorse Saturn Run, but I can't.  Despite what I've written so far, neither can I condemn it as a stinkburger.  If you have buckets of free time to spend, and space travel science is your passion, then go for it.  I'll have pretty much forgotten most of it by the end of the week.

Oh.  I consider myself, at best, only a reservist in the grammar army.  Still, I can't ignore the way the authors hosed the book down with colons and semi-colons.  They must have gotten a helluva bulk deal and then had to use them before they hit their expiration date.  I've never seen colons used in the spots these guys use them.  Ever.  It looked pretty stupid, most of the time.

So, a straight up the center not-good, not-bad for Saturn Run.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Landing on the Moon


You all are under-appreciated.  Nobody seems to truly understand the rigidity of your concentration, the intensity of your focus and the depth of your expertise.

Before Apollo 11 launched, and certainly after July 20th when photos and information flooded the media, you know who kept a dark and glittering on eye on events?  The USSR.  You can bet your last nickel that the KGB analysts, the Soviet space scientists that put the first rockets into orbit, and any number of expert eyeballs, examined those public photos and published documents long into the night.  To deflate this American victory in the Space Race would be a triumph of unimaginable proportions.  

(We’d be remiss if we failed to include Communist China and other forces in the 1970’s who’d enjoy making the USA look stupid.  Their experts no doubt took a gander at the same material.)

Apparently nothing was ever found for nothing was ever reported.  The years ticked by.

It wasn’t until you and your co-believers examined those same public photos, checked the same public records and studied the same space mission blueprints that the truth came to light.  Only your combination of genius and expertise could see the fluttering flags, the misplaced shadows and truly understand the lethal impossibility of such a space flight.

So, foil hat off to you for cracking a problem that exists for nobody but you!  Thanks for keeping the eye on the prize and not being distracted by your mother coming into your basement to do laundry!  Your revelations give the world a dull headache behind the left eye, but by golly, it’s a world that’s well informed!

It is irresistible

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Dark Forest book review

The Dark Forest
by Cixin Liu
translated by Joel Martinsen
China:  2008
(English: 2015)

On a personal note, my glee has me beyond the moon and past the stars.  For many months, my reading enjoyment has been like a long road trip where I end up sleeping on friends’ musty old couches, in tents on the cold ground (with a nasty root digging at me) and in skeevy motels with saggy busted spring beds.  One star experience after one star experience.  I tell you, my morale dropped to dangerous lows.  Where could a fellow find a decent book??  I was becoming certain no modern author could write a coherent page of prose.

Well, finally a quality hotel with a firm, king-size mattress, fresh sheets and fluffy pillows!  Lovely.

The Dark Forest is a book by acclaimed Chinese SF author, Cixin Liu.  A rich, well-written, well-thought out, well-researched book of science fiction.  As is my wont, I’m not going to delve into the plot.  There are any number of synopses available at the click of a keyboard and they can reap your ire for careless spoilers.

After innumerable books with clumsy, or zero, description of the world and characters, I revelled in the vivid writing.  The first chapter is done from the viewpoint of an ant crawling about its business.  Magnificent stuff.  Whether an alpine meadow or the Louvre or geostationary orbit, Mr. Cixin put me in the scene with real people.

The hearty endorsement on the cover by the esteemed David Brin forewarned me that I would need to bring my brain to this party.  Cutting edge astrophysics, futuristic thinking, alien psychologies, and sprawling interstellar philosophies all kept my brain doing calisthenics with a happy huffing and puffing.  It hasn’t been exercised like this in a long while.

I don’t know how to portion out the different stylistics of the writing.  How much is the “Chinese Method”, how much is Mr. Cixin’s personal style and how much is down to the translating of Mr. Martinsen?  Anyhow, the book moves in a different tempo than I’m used to.  Not unpleasant, just another requirement of the exercise regime.

Speaking of the Chinese origins, I did have some struggle to keep the Chinese names straight.  I had nearly succumbed to crying in confusion with a few early scenes until I finally read the supplied footnotes.  I felt quite silly for not reading them immediately.  “Xiao” and “lao” are honorifics sort of in the price range of “uncle” or “sir”.  NOW I understood there weren’t four or five characters bouncing out and in the scene, but only two, with one sometimes being called “Murray Lindsay” and sometimes “Uncle Murray”.  So, a piece of advice:  read the footnotes when they come up!

As a side note, the novel is far more international in aspect than I expected.  It keeps coming back to China, but the characters and references roam the countries of the Earth and beyond.  Nearly as many Western references exist as Asian and Chinese.

The most unfortunate fact was that this is Book #2 in a trilogy comprised of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death’s End.  Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, in the edition I have was there any mention that I had picked up book #2.  This is not any fault of Mr. Cixin.  This is a sloppy and possibly unsavoury action by the publisher.

This gave me a weird vibe as I read.  Various significant acts and personal details coming from the antagonists didn’t cause nearly enough commotion in the plot.  “These (aliens) managed to inflict this stupendous (action) on Earth and all humanity, but everyone treats it like a regrettable rain shower at the beach??”  Now I know that lack of reaction is because these acts and details all happened in book #1!  Everyone got it out of their system (I assume) back then.

BUT, the cool flip side of this is my reading was not impeded significantly.  Other than a puzzled annoyance hitting here and there, I fell into no gaping plot holes of utter confusion.  For me, The Dark Forest read almost like a standalone novel.  Well done, I say.

The plot itself is dark, but does not descend to the relentlessly grim tone that amateur writers believe makes their work “serious”.  Even with the dire events and harrowing moments compounding with the accumulating pages, somehow I stayed on my feet.  Like some sort of “Rocky” script, the story left me wobbling on my pins, black, blue and bloody, but still…feisty.  Determined.  After I catch my breath and wait for the spinning to stop, I will continue on to the third volume.  Knowing what I know, I regret I won’t be backtracking to the first book.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

"Dauntless" review

Dauntless by Jack Campbell.  2006
leading into the Lost Fleet series.

I did enjoy this first book, in a scarf-up-junk-food, wiping-orange-powder-off my fingers sort of way.  The premise is a nifty twist on the "Sleeper Wakes"/"Buck Rogers" idea of a hero from the past coming to whip the flaccid future folk into shape.  It's a stretch, and a bit of a cliche, but I accepted it without qualm.  Absorbing the situation, the characters, the forces in contention kept me engrossed as the story crackled along.

I finished book #1 here and then discovered another seven to go in the "Lost Fleet" series.  This did not please me.  One bag of junk food is a treat.  Consuming a total of eight made me queasy just contemplating the idea.

The basic plot is full of jumps and twists and derring-do.  Conceiving challenges for his hero and then creating a clever solution is Campbell's strong suit.  So, kudos there.

His weaknesses, though, become repetitive and tiresome.  For openers, there are no descriptions.  I literally have no idea what any of the characters look like, nor is any sense of environment provided.  There's not even such ultra-bland indicators as "She was a beautiful woman" or "He was handsome."  Nothing.  Stick figures engaged in a minimalist "Etch-a-Sketch" world.  (When one character was described as wearing a star sapphire ring, such a spark of focussed colour nearly blew me out of my chair)

The writing is also basic in structure and uninspired with vocabulary.  He is stuck in a "telling instead of showing" rut.  Telling instead of showing gets the information across, but it makes for humdrum, hard to keep eyes open, reading.

The puzzle-cracking and problem-beating kept me going into book after book.  I was just invested enough in the hero and the predicament to want to see it resolved.  It's also a rude marketing decision to have each book stop almost literally in mid-sentence.  Not so bad now, coming in well after the entire series is published, where I can just pick the next one and keep going.  If I had read this back in 2006, forget it.  I wouldn't have bothered with ever looking for the next one to appear.

I did stop at the end of book #6.  Officially there are eight in the series, but all the plot points I had been following actually wrapped up at the end of #6.  More problems were looming for Our Hero, but I jumped off the train at this station.  Done and glad to be done.

I've ramped up my criticism a bit high here.  I think because I'm frustrated with the waste of potential. Mr. Campbell has the skills to craft a decent book, but I suspect (based on the tonne of books published) he has chosen the regrettable path of speed over quality.  He could aspire to being a noteworthy chef, but instead has chosen to be a fast-food burger flipper.

I've read worse books/series, but I still am unable to recommend this effort.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Snobs Rise Again

The The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) appearing on the teevee has once again (for the umpteenth time) prompted the tedious debate of whether the book is "science fiction".

I can't sigh heavily enough.  I can't roll my eyes hard enough.

Denying that The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction is nothing but an elitist marketing ploy to avoid the "stigma" of the label.  Any other debate is nothing but pompous obfuscation.  The publishers simple want money out of the people who only know the genre by the fun, but low-calorie, low-nutrition, movies like Star Wars.  That is "science fiction" to those people.

People who do read science fiction place the title in the genre without a second thought.  (But most agree that the book doesn't generate much voltage on the imagination power meter.)

A good book is a good book.  Choosing one should be like ice cream.

"This is tasty ice cream!"
"Oh, what flavour is it?"
"Oh, I prefer strawberry, myself."

Nobody says "Euww...only the dregs of the geeks eat chocolate!"  Nobody sneers a condescending sneer at someone eating butter pecan.

That's how it should be with books.  If the quality is there, the flavour is irrelevant and a personal choice.

It's a beautiful dream, but it will never happen.  The snobs will only recant when a "Handmaid's Tale Convention" announced, featuring hundreds of fans dressed in homemade costumes lining up for admittance.