Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Star Wars, Star Trek, and beyond


Review: The Night Sessions

The Night SessionsThe Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

I can't remember the last time I bothered finishing a book I liked this little.

Much of my dislike comes from too many or too few details. There were a lot of threads interwoven throughout this police procedural, and although the author tied them all together, the crimes feel more spread out than necessary; it didn't follow that the perpetrator would go from Crime A and Crime B to Crime Z. Other unexplained details include the space elevators and soletas, which cast a shadow over the entire novel, but their function and value are never adequately represented. The religious aspects are adequately explained, but I feel like it requires some significant background knowledge to appreciate them.

Finally, I found it incredibly disruptive that changes in scenes flowed right from one paragraph to the next. There was no break between a character in a bar and another in a police station; or a character suddenly talking to someone who wasn't there a moment ago. I assumed this was a printing error, as what author would be this hostile to his readers? But other reviewers' similar comments on other editions of this book suggest it was in fact intentional.

I'm not a fan of procedurals in general but hoped the sci-fi elements of this book would be enough for me to enjoy it. They weren't.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review: Extinction, by Mark Alpert

ExtinctionExtinction by Mark Alpert

After reading Robopocalypse last summer, I suspected Extinction might be too similar, too soon. It proved to be quite different: rather than an anthology of vignettes connected by a common theme of a robot uprising, Extinction focuses on fewer characters and a more subtle takeover. However, those characters prove to be unnecessarily dense in what they bring to the story. Here's our cast:

  • A man with a Terminator-style prosthetic arm that can be swapped out for a machine gun.
  • A scientist intent on achieving immortality by uploading his memories to a computer.
  • An NSA agent who is blind except when wearing special glasses that can beam images, including in the infrared spectrum, directly to her brain.
  • A sentient computer that can assimilate humans into its network through a crude lobotomization process.
  • A hacker working for WikiLeaks.

Any one of those gimmicks would be enough to tell a tale, but Alpert crams them all into one book. He seems so excited by each character that, especially in the beginning, he alternates among the various points of view regularly, with some chapters lasting only as long as two paragraphs.

Although the story is reasonably plotted and paced, there are other aspects of its recounting that seem a bit forced. Some of the character development didn't strike me as natural, with dialogue-driven flashbacks hammering us over the head with a protagonist's motivations. Some of the American military interactions also didn't strike me quite right, though I confess I have no professional background or research to suggest it should be otherwise. Though the hacker character? The most hacking we see her do is looking for a sticky note with a computer's login password.

Extinction offered a unique take on the Singularity, one in which a sentient computer program, one somewhat human in its emotions yet Borg-like in its capabilities, tries to invoke its own Judgment Day. But the overall theme is general enough that there are better alternatives to this robot apocalypse.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks

I first heard about World War Z upon its release six years ago. Since then, its name has continued to pop up, including last year when it ranked #54 on NPR's list of the best fantasy and science fiction novels of all time. Some friends and I finally decided to read it together. As is typical for us, we came to a similar opinion of the book; but surprisingly, it wasn't the popular one.

Author Max Brooks presents an oral history of a now-past war against a zombie infestation. The world is slowly recovering from a global outbreak of a zombie plague, transmitted though the usual bites and scratches of the undead. Our main character, if there is one, is a journalist who has taken it upon himself to record the experiences and reflections of the war's survivors. Each chapter is presented as a monologue or, where prompting questions are called for, a dialogue.

I'm not unfamiliar with this general format, having previously enjoyed Robopocalypse. But unlike that tale, which focuses on a few characters and then weaves their threads together into a cohesive plot, World War Z rarely revisits anyone to whom the reader has been previously introduced. As a result, there is little, if any, character development or continuity throughout the disparate tales.

The only commonality I found, other than the zombie armageddon itself, was the decidedly militaristic nature of the individual stories' focus. The book's subtitle is "An Oral History of the Zombie War", with "war" proving to be the keyword. Almost every recounting is about how a soldier fought a battle, or a general planned a strategy, or a scientist invented a weapon. There are two stories from women who related how their families survived the war, but otherwise, almost no chapter is dedicated to the human element. Even the zombies are faceless foes, rarely viewed as former parents, siblings, children, or co-workers who their former friends and family are now forced to fire upon; this psychological aspect of warfare is almost wholly ignored.

English: A participant of a Zombie walk, Asbur...It's not just average citizens who are overlooked; the science of the plague also remains unaddressed. One character pointedly asks, "How come zombies freeze in the winter but come back to life in the spring? Shouldn't the water in their bodies have expanded and burst, killing them?" Another wonders, "Why do zombies that sink to the ocean floor remain whole? Tidal forces deteriorate their clothing, yet the zombies themselves keep plodding along." These are all good questions, yet neither the author nor his nameless journalist see fit to look for answers. A cure or vaccine for the plaque is never even considered.

With so little of the war's fallout examined, and so few typical plot devices present — since every chapter is the narrator's own memory, we know that he or she survived, eliminating any mystery or suspense — World War Z was not a page-turner. My colleagues, who run the gamut of hardcore sci-fi nuts to casual enthusiasts, all agreed: on an academic scale, Michele and I gave the book a C-, and Bob and Paul gave it a C. Only Gene gave World War Z a score as high as B-. It doesn't make any of us eager to see the film adaptation, which appears to bear little resemblance to Brooks' novel.


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Continuing TV's tale in literature

It's a sad truth that television doesn't last. Whether it's seven seasons of your favorite Star Trek or a single season of Firefly, all shows get cancelled or go off the air eventually.

Fortunately, the imagination of the show's creators and writers often has a bigger budget than the television medium can afford, allowing them to continue the tales of their heroes in print format. Novels, comic books, and short stories can extend the lives of your favorite shows for many "seasons". Not all shows are fortunate enough to get that extra lease on life, but that doesn't mean your own imagination can't continue the journey.

In that vein, Charlie Jane Anders suggests some awesome books to replace your favorite cancelled TV shows. From Terminator and Angel to Journeyman and Jericho, many of your favorite (but cancelled) science fiction series of the last decade are represented by equally modern literature. Even if you were satisfied with your favorite show's run and are just looking to try some new authors or series, this list is a great place to start.

For my part, I think I'll go add Robopocalypse to my to-read list, making for a nice change from my usual Star Trek pulp.

However, I draw the line at adapting my favorite books into video games.

Review: Old Man's War

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man's War by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd never read anything by John Scalzi, who comes highly recommended, so I chose to start with Old Man's War, which proved an easy and entertaining entry point for his brand of science fiction and character development.

In the future, life on Earth looks pretty similar to today — but one enterprising company has perfected and privatized interstellar travel. The only way to leave Earth is through them, and they don't let you or your messages ever come back. Plus, you have to join their militia — and the minimum age to do so is 75.

So when the elderly John faces life as a widower, does he stay on Earth, get old, and die… or does he say goodbye to everyone and everything he's ever known and leave for the stars, in the hope that, among this company's impressive technology, is the way to make a 75-year-old body into fighting form again?

It'd be a short book if John chose the former. Instead, readers get to follow along as he seeks out new life and new civilizations — and kills them. Apparently, habitable real estate is tough to come by, and humanity is vying against several competing races to colonize them. John, a former graphic designer, is introduced to a military life with a very high fatality rate, where friends come, go, and are replaced. He handles all this change rather smoothly, cramming a lot of material into one book. But the best parts aren't the technology, but the dialogue. Other characters come to life in unexpected ways, whether it's during demanding battle scenes or off-time in the lounge.

One oversight bothered me: it was acknowledged, but never addressed why, that humanity's sole interaction with alien races is combative and not diplomatic. But I didn't discover until the last page that this book is the first in a trilogy. Perhaps future installments will expand on this relationship.

Overall, I found Old Man's War a fun and easy read that would make me receptive to its sequels.

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Review: Gods of Justice

Gods of Justice (Volume 1)Gods of Justice: Edited by Kevin Hosey & K. Stoddard Hayes

Gods of Justice features ten stories, each by a different author and set in its own universes, giving diverse experiences at the applications and implications of superpowers. Some people are about to discover their superpowers; some are confronted with new challenges; others are called out of retirement. Be it the present or future, Earth or elsewhere, the different settings are easy to get into.

My favorites were Lisa Gail Green's "Identity Crisis", about a teenager who finds out her twin sister is a superhero; Kevin Hosey's "Blunt Force Trauma", about a murder-mystery surrounding an old teammate; and K. Stoddard Hayes' "The Dodge", inexplicably set on an Old West planet and starring a sheriff who must keep his power a secret from everyone. Least favorites were "Neutral Ground", set on the battlefields of World War I; "Breaking the Circle", about a temporal paradox; and "The Justice Blues", about an abusive superhusband.

If I understand correctly, this anthology's primary format is an e-book, which may've contributed to the occasional lack of copyediting, allowing "bowls" to be substituted for "bowels", for example. But such issues are rare and don't occur where they could confuse.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Concrete review

Concrete Volume 1: Depths (Concrete)Concrete Volume 1: Depths by Paul Chadwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This B&W graphic novel collects the first several issues of the early 1980s comic book "Concrete", about a political speechwriter whose brain is transplanted into an impenetrable body by aliens. Freed from military directives, Concrete sets out to explore the world and do the things he was always afraid or unable to do before. It's a refreshing change from the typical superhero approach and one that feels like it was written as a reflection of, not contemporary to, the Eighties.

When I first started the book, I felt like I'd come in on the middle of the story, and that the trade paperback must've omitted some origin story. As it turns out, all that is revealed by the end of the book.

I wouldn't mind reading more of these. Thanks for the recommendation, Stepto!

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NPR's top 100 fantasy & sci-fi books

Nearly five years ago, I met perhaps the most well-versed geek I've ever known. His knowledge of not just popular culture but the storied foundations of the science fiction and fantasy genres put me to shame. It made me realize that, in my consumption of the latest Star Trek and Forgotten Realms novels, I'd never made time to expose myself to the classics.

I've slowly been trying to rectify that over the past few years, during which time I've read Dune, Foundation, Discworld, Ringworld, Ender's Game, I Am Legend, and Game of Thrones (before it was a television series). My current assignment is The Left Hand of Darkness, after which I know there are many more books yet to read. But rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel, I instead find myself with the opposite problem: with so many good books to read, which do I tackle next?

NPR has the answer. This summer, they invited readers and listeners to submit their favorite fantasy and science-fiction novels for consideration as the best of all time. Five-thousand submissions, 60,000 votes, and 237 semi-finalists later, they presented the final list of the top one-hundred books (and on a single, unpaginated page, at that!).

Of the top ten books, I've read six; I'm embarrassed to say it was only half that before adding the titles I earlier listed. Altogether, only 23% of the books have crossed my reading list. I still have much work to do. But how to choose from the remaining 77, other than haphazardly?

Unsurprisingly, geeks who like fantasy, sci-fi, and NPR also like flowcharts. has created a comprehensive visual guide to selecting your next novel. By asking yourself some simple questions, such as "Enjoy quests to prevent great evil from conquering the world?" or "Robots or martians?", you can quickly lead yourself to the genre, topic, series, or allegory of your liking.

Using this flowchart, I've determined that my next three sci-fi novels should be Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Timothy Zahn's Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End; in the fantasy realm, I'll be looking at T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mrs. Norrell. At least one book in each genre is already in my personal library, sitting in my "to-read" pile for years now. That seems as good a place to start as any.

What sci-fi and fantasy novels are on your list?

(Hat tips to Michele and Barbara)