Jun 16

Review: The Devil Incarnate

At the end of my review of The Devil’s Concubine I wrote “it would be nice to think that the sequels will be about something other than her approach-avoidance dance with the guy, but experience has taught me to be pessimistic in such matters.”

To my pleased surprise, my pessimism was not fulfilled. In The Devil Incarnate (Jill Braden; Wayzgoose Press), the romance element is almost disappeared; this book really is about QuiTai’s struggle against the Thampurians rather than her sex life.

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Jun 11

Review: Space Opera

Space Opera (Rich Horton, editor; Diamond Book Distributors) starts off with an introduction that gives a historical overview of the evolution of the term “space opera” from its disreputable beginnings in the 1940s to the self-conscious modern revival of the subgenre after 1985.

It’s a pretty good summary with a few odd lapses. Missing, for example, is the informative detail that the term was coined by analogy with “soap opera”, but in its original context probably owed more to the now near-extinct term “horse opera” for a formulaic Western. Also, given the editor’s cogent argument that space opera never really went away during the pre-revival years, it seems inexplicable that he fails to mention such obvious exemplars as The Mote In God’s Eye (1975) and Startide Rising (1983), among others.

But these are nearly quibbles, relatively speaking. The larger lapse is that the editor of this anthology never engages the question of what “space opera” actually is – that is, what traits define it relative to other subgenres of science fiction. The consequence of this lack is that the stories in this anthology, while sometimes quite brilliant individually, add up to rather less than the sum of their parts, and it can be difficult to discern why any particular story was selected.

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Jun 09

Review: Trial By Fire

Trial By Fire (Charles E. Gannon, Baen) is the sort of book that divides those who notice it into two parts. One group will sneer “Yard goods from Baen, yet another space opera full of stuff blowing up”; the other will nod and smile and say “Good clean fun, I’ll take it.”

I’m cheerfully in the second group, myself. But I do have standards. Done badly, this sort of thing is just boring and derivative button-pushing, a sort of male-targeted analog of formula romances. Done well, it’s a fun ride with enough elements of puzzle story and sense of wonder to make it respectable SF even if it doesn’t aspire to the heights of conceptual breakthrough found in the best of the genre.

This particular book is the second in a sequence that I would describe as enjoyable if unexceptional. Much of the furniture is familiar (one of the major alien species is perhaps too much like Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx, and another is fairly generic Proud Warrior Race Guys) but the author knows his way around the battles and action scenes, and some of the reveals in the puzzle side of the plot are genuinely interesting.

Overall, the author earns his money. You’ll want to read the first book, Fire With Fire, before this one. Expect sequels – but if you’re in the target market for this book, you already know you want them.

Jun 08

Review: The Worth of a Shell

M. C. A. Hogarth’s The Worth of a Shell (self-published) is a complex, serious, well-thought-out extrapolation of the consequences of alien sexual biology marred only by the fact that one of its central premises is not at all credible.

The Jokka are presented as a humanoid species with three sexes; males, females, and neuters. There’s a tragedy built into Jokka physiology; under stress, the females often have strokes that decrease their intelligence. Giving birth induces such stress so reliably that after multiple pregnancies they generally become mindless animals who have to be strapped into a mating harness.

This novel tells of a disgraced neuter who finds renewed meaning in his life by becoming the protector of a female who rejects breeding because she doesn’t want to lose her curiosity and self-awareness. They seek the Birthwell, the legendary origin-point of the Jokka, where she suspects there might be an answer to the Jokka tragedy.

Much of this is well executed. Hogarth has invented plausible specializations for each of the three Jokka sexes and worked out what the resulting dominant social pattern would be like in both logical and evocative detail. Her exploration of the character psychologies arising from these circumstances is equally thoughtful and convincing; she does a particularly good job on her neuter viewpoint character. It is really too bad that Hogarth has screwed up something so basic in her worldbuilding that the whole edifice collapses in a heap.

No, it isn’t the trisexuality, in itself. It is true that premise is almost certainly impossible for a species that isn’t eusocial, like ants or meerkats; the bioenergetics of this have been investigated in some detail. But we can let that slide under the One-McGuffin Rule (a work of SF is allowed one impossible or highly implausible premise as long as the consequences are worked out consistently, and FTL doesn’t count).

The real problem here is the second half – most females going non-sophont after a few births. It’s the “most” that’s the problem here. If this disadvantage were wired so deeply into the Jokka genome that there was effectively no differential across germlines it might be stable. But explicitly it is not; for a few prized females (no one can predict which) the decline is slowed or halted.

This difference is not stable under selection. Remaining sophont in order to care for and advance the interests of your offspring is such a huge reproductive advantage that the alleles preventing the stroke vulnerability should have been strongly selected for in the Jokkas’ evolutionary past, and birth-related strokes should never have had anywhere above about 1% incidence.

The author’s apparent failure to even realize this problem is a crash landing that makes this novel a sad failure as SF. Doubly unfortunate because I can think of a couple of different fixes for it that would have had minimal impact on what the author apparently wanted to do.

Note for those unfamiliar with genre forms: it is allowed for Ms. Hogarth to have an explanation in mind that she has not revealed, but respect for her readers’ ability to play the game requires that she drop a clue to the explanation, or at least signal that she knows it’s a continuity problem that has to be resolved.

Further warning: this is another one of those first-of-a-sequence books that is not so labeled and doesn’t warn you that it ends without resolution. Turns out this may only be true of the ARC; the Amazon listing describes it as first of a series.

Jun 07

Review: Echopraxia

Peter Watts writes complex, dark novels full of intellectual fireworks – disturbing tours-de-force that question our most cherished notions of consciousness, self, free will, and agency. I often disagree with his logic and conclusions, but he plays the game honestly and shows his work – usually with extensive citations to the published literature in half-a-dozen scientific fields.

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May 27

Review: Elements of Mind

I’ve been friendly with Walter Hunt for some years, so when he told me that his new novel Elements of Mind (Spence City) involved Victorian mesmerists, I knew to expect an atmospheric and meticulously researched fantasy full of period language and detail, probably one dovetailing with real history as seamlessly as anything by Tim Powers.

That is indeed what we get. In Victorian England, a society of mesmerists – in effect, sorcerers who can use gestures and the power of animal magnetism to compel humans and others – is aware of various categories of dangerous spirits. There are elementals of earth, air, fire and water; greater entities of a kind a Victorian Christian could only categorize as demons or perhaps djinn; and still greater, half-awake entities who might be old gods.

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May 22

Review: Template

I learned from his previous novels Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice that Matthew Hughes seems to have chosen crafting really high-quality tributes to Jack Vance as his artistic mission (at least when writing SF). As a long-time Vance fan myself I consider this a worthy goal, and in Template (self-published) he does not disappoint.

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May 20

Review: Reach for Infinity

Reach for Infinity (Jonathan Strahan, ed., Rebellion Publishing) is an anthology of new hard SF. The authors and the editor are stretching themselves, taking chances; some of these stories are failures. In general, however, even the failures are interesting efforts that will push you to think about their premises and consider the ways in which SF is constantly claiming new imaginative territory.

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May 19

Review: Anthem’s Fall

S.L. Dunn’s Anthem’s Fall (Prospect Hill Press) wants to be a high-concept SF novel. What it actually achieves is more like a bad comic book. Without the pictures.

In New York City, scientist Kristen Jordan (brilliant and beautiful, and very young, of course) is growing increasingly worried about an übertechnology she helped create, as the secretive leader of her research team seems to be developing ever more grandiose objectives. In the parallel world of Anthem, warfare and political collapse are destabilizing an empire. The teaser copy promises us that contending super-entities from Anthem will erupt into our world, requiring Kristen to unleash a technology against them that may be more dangerous than the invaders. DUM DUM DUM! And dumb, dumb, dumb.

But I never got that far. By fifty pages in it was clear that this is one of those books that, as Dorothy Parker put it, should not be lightly tossed aside; rather, it should be hurled with great force. I made myself soldier on a bit after that to give the Anthem-centered part of the narrative a fair shake, but it was no improvement on the parts set in New York City – if anything the smell of bad comic-book got stronger.

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May 16

Review: A Darkling Sea

While most life on Earth is powered by chemical energy captured from solar radiation, deep in our seas there are entire ecologies powered by volcanism – specifically the hot water issuing from hydrothermal vents. Hot mineral-rich water supports a food chain based on chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea; it extends upwards in complexity through giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp. These animals live miles further down than sunlight ever reaches, in an extreme of pressure and frigid temperatures that would kill any surface life in short order.

In recent years planetary astronomers have come to believe that beneath the icy surfaces of some of our gas-giant moons there are dark oceans of liquid water. Tidal forces acting on the moons power volcanism; Europa, in particular (the smallest of the four “Galilean” moons of Jupiter) is suspected of having its own hydrothermal vents. Exobiologists think it is relatively likely that life has evolved around them.

James Cambias’s A Darkling Sea (Tor) transplants the Europa scenario to Iluvatar, a moon in a solar system roughly half way between future Earth and the homeworld of aliens called the Sholen who are attempting to limit human interstellar expansion. A peace treaty with the Sholen constrains human scientists living in a seafloor habitat beneath the ice. They chafe to make contact with the intelligent arthropods at the top of Iluvatar’s foor chain, but are forbidden from contaminating their culture.

After a human scientist attempting to spy on the Ilmatar is captured and dissected by Iluvatarans who do not realize he is a sophont like themselves, a Sholen mission shuts down the base and orders the humans to evacuate. Some humans, refusing, flee into the lightless ocean and must make allies of the Iluvatarans to survive. When the Sholen’s clumsy attempts at forcing the issue kill some of the mission crew, the survivors vow to strike back.

Cambias imagines a detailed and convincing ecology for Iluvatar. The natives have plausible psychologies given their evolutionary history (the way Cambias develops the operation and limits of the sonar that is the only distant sense of these eyeless beings is impressive). The gritty details of life in a cramped, smelly human dive habitat are also well handled. Even the villains of the piece are not mere cardboard; the Sholen have their own internal factional problems, and become dangerous not because the are strong but because they are divided, afraid, and dwindling.

Overall, this is a tense, well-constructed SF novel of first contact, done in the classic Campbellian style and lit up with the sense of discovery that such works ought to have. It could have been written by Hal Clement or Arthur C. Clarke if either were still alive. It works excellently on that level, even if you don’t notice that the author has embedded in it a sly parable.

I won’t spoil the fun by laying it all out for you. But the viewpoint character’s last name is “Freeman”, and the repressive eco-pietism of the Sholen echoes the attitudes of some humans in our present day. The second half of the book, without ever tub-thumping about it, delivers a satire of various human political delusions. Even the Sholen social pattern of achieving consensus by bonobo-like sexual bonding carries mordantly funny symbolic freight once you realize what it’s a comment on.

All in all, highly recommended. This is much the best first SF novel I’ve read in the last few years, and leads me to expect good craftsmanship from Cambias in the future.

May 06

Review: Right to Know

There are many kinds of bad SF out there. One of the subtler kinds is written with enough competence that it might be good if the author had any original ideas, but reads like a tired paste-up of familiar genre tropes and plot twists that an experienced reader can see coming a light-year off.

Edward Willett’s Right To Know (Diamond Book Distributors) is such a novel. Oppressive society on a decaying generation starship! Plucky, desperate resistance! Planetfall where humans with FTL drives got there ahead of them! Earth has mysteriously vanished! Fanatical planetside cultists mistake our hero for their messiah! Head of the Resistance is the Captain’s daughter! (That last one would only be an actual spoiler if you’re thick as neutronium, because it’s telegraphed with about the subtlety of a brick upside the head.)

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May 04

Review: Extreme Dentistry

Fearless monster killers have been a very popular trope in SF and fantasy lately, in a trend perhaps best exemplified by Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter sequence but extending to the dozens of nigh-interchangeable Buffy clones in leather clogging the Urban Fantasy subgenre lately. Hugh A. D. Spencer’s Extreme Dentistry seems to have been intended as a dark and mordantly funny satire of this sort of thing, and succeeds.

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Apr 17

Review: Sea Without A Shore

I’m not, in general, a fan of David Drake’s writing; most of his output is grimmer and far more carnographic than I care to deal with. I’ve made an exception for his RCN series because they tickle my fondness for classic Age-of-Sail adventure fiction and its pastiches, exhibiting Drake’s strengths (in particular, his deep knowledge of history) while dialing back on the cruelty and gore.

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Apr 10

Review: 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

The Ring Of Fire books are a mixed bag. Sharecropped by many authors, ringmastered by Eric Flint, they range from plodding historical soap opera to sharp, clever entertainments full of crunchy geeky goodness for aficionados of military and technological history.

When Flint’s name is on the book you can generally expect the good stuff. So it proves in the latest outing, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, a fun ride that’s (among other things) an affectionate tribute to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and age-of-sail adventure fiction in general. (Scrupulously I note that I’m personally friendly with Flint, but this is exactly because he’s good at writing books I like.)

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