Monday, May 18, 2009

Regenesis by CJ Cherryh

Many years ago I read a little book by author CJ Cherryh. This book was about growing up as the clone of a really famous person who had recently died. Sadly for our young clone, she was being raised in the grand tradition of The Boys From Brazil, and everything that happened to her predecessor was re-enacted upon her in excruciating detail in an attempt to recreate the original's personality in a new body. The book was Cyteen, and the experiment was a great success, but the story did not end there: twenty-one years later, we have a sequel to the Hugo award winning novel.

Regenesis starts us off mere weeks after the close of Cyteen, and for those of us who plowed through Cyteen more than a decade ago, this is an issue that may be a bit of a sticking point. At any rate, the story picks up with Ari II, the clone of the brilliant scientist, Ariane Emory, consolidating power and trying to discover who her friends and enemies are in a mish-mash of personal and professional politics that for an almost dizzying web around her. While this may sound like it is going to be a confusing labyrinth, rest assured, Ms Cherryh will deftly guide you through the tangled skein of alliances surrounding the prodigy and her coterie, and we can watch as Ari II and her friends slowly uncover the plots against Reseune with great interest. What is more intriguing still though, is the primary plot: Ari II must do all this while still trying to find the real mastermind behind the plot to kill Ari I.

I know what you are thinking: Hold the phone, didn't they solve that little mystery at the end of Cyteen? Well, apparently they were wrong, communism is just a red herring and the Sandman killed Uncle Ben by accident. Actually, it really isn't as bad as you think: Dennys Nye is still guilty, though not as guilty as originally thought, it's just that there is a larger conspiracy running in the background, and the military is to blame. Yes, that's right, the military is attempting to do some social engineering of their own by manipulating everyone into their own schemes of political and social control of the Union.

At this point, I bet that you are thinking that I must really have disliked this book, and herein lies the rub: as convoluted and unbelievable as the things I have just described will likely sound, in this book they really work! I have to hand it to Cherryh, I was turning every page, eager to find out more. When taken out of the context of the story, these events seem byzantine and woefully far-fetched as behavioral and social patterns, but Cherryh takes the threads and binds them together like a master weaver working a loom to produce a rich tapestry of character study, because that is what Regenesis really is at its heart.

THAC0: 15
This is a dense and difficult book, but well worth the effort that reading it entails. If you didn't read Cyteen you can likely get through Regenesis, but it is going to be rough going. This is not for the novice Science Fiction reader at all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

There is magic in the written word. Some authors can conjure wonders and terrors from every page they write, enchanting us with their prose much as a wizard would with a spell. One such warlock of the written word is Jim Butcher, National Bestselling author of The Dresden Files and Codex Alera series. Sadly, even the greatest of magicians occasionally flubs a trick.

Turn Coat, the most recent addition to the Dresden Files series pits Harry Dresden against his fellow wizards in a who-dunnit where he is trying to save the life of his chief antagonist among the Wardens, Morgan. Morgan, the paragon of morality and conservative feelings in the White Council has been accused of the murder of a prominent member of the Senior Council, and only Harry can help him. That's right, the Warden who has wanted to put Harry down like a rabid dog is forced to turn to Chicago's only wizard listed in the phone book for aid and comfort against traitors in the society of wizards. Sounds interesting and exciting, right? Well... sadly, it falls a bit flat.

The story itself is pretty standard, and Butcher does a great job of working with the characters, but there is something missing from this book. I can only look at it and think that what is missing from this book is a sense of spontaniety. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, in the past it always felt as though Harry was being pushed around by all of the major characters in the story and flying by the seat of his pants as events unfolded around him. This time it felt more like Harry was in control and pulling the strings to make everyone move like puppets on a string. Gone was the sense that most of the other characters knew something that Harry didn't, gone was the sense of fighting to work through a tangled web, and gone was the sense of one lone man fighting against the rising tide. Yes, Harry Dresden has always seemed to rely on his web of friends and associates, but in this book they seemed largely ineffectual and not terribly impactful; even Karrin Murphy and Thomas seemed to barely even be there.

So, what does this mean? Well, for starters it does not spell the end of the series. Every author, no matter how good, has the occasional off book. Perhaps part of the problem is that White Knight was so good that any book following it would pale in comparison. That being said, Turn Coat felt from the outset like it could have been a whole lot more than it was, and though there was quite a lot of fantastic drama and a fantastic plot, this really just did not feel like a Dresden novel. As far as it goes, though, it is still a great book.

THAC0: 12
Fans of Harry Dresden will like the most recent installment and will be looking for the next one as eagerly as I am, but less strident fans may decide to stop here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Helix by Eric Brown

The Earth is dying. Desertification, climate shifts, plagues, civil unrest, and war have wiped out most of humanity, and with less and less of the planet available for use in agriculture, humanity heads towards a crash. As a last ditch effort, the human race builds an ark staffed with the leading minds in all the fields needed to make a colony on a new world work. Sounds pretty standard, right? Guess again.

The colony ship crash lands on a constructed world that makes Niven's Ringworld look like a kid's toy, and the crew has to find a hospitable place for the 'cargo' to live while trying to survive the depredations of hostile environments, aliens, and technology that is beyond comprehension. Add to that the internal strife amongst the multi-national crewmembers, and you have the kind of pressure-cooker situation that can only lead to great drama. Wait a moment, though, because that is only one half of the story.

Meanwhile, on one of the levels of the Helix, one of the native races, which exists in a sort of perpetual Victorian level of technology, is undergoing some social disruptions. A powerful dirigible manufacturer is bucking against the constraints of the restrictive and dogmatic church that rules his homeland, and longs to explore the world. When they encounter another alien species, it throws their entire religious conceptualization of the universe into chaos and disorder, forcing the dirigible magnate to side with the aliens against his own people.

Now the story is as old as Rendezvou with Rama or Ringworld, but this is a great and powerful form for the classic story. Helix combines both concepts with a superb sense of character and story that are hallmarks of the Eric Brown style of science fiction. The characters, whether human or alien, are real and honest: just plain folks who do not seem forced, archetypical, or unrealistic. Much like Kethani, Helix explores more than just the normal tropes of science fiction, it turns the genre on and kicks it up a few notches. At once a bold human interest story and an action adventure story, Helix has something for every reader.

THAC0: 5
Unlike Kethan, which is more of a philosophical study in vignettes, Helix is a science fiction story in the grand traditions of the genre. Love, hate, life, death, morality, and survival are all on the board of fare, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.

*Note: I am grading things based on the old system of 'To Hit Armor Class 0' or THAC0 from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The idea is that the lower the number, the lower you need to roll to score a hit. In terms of my grade, the THAC0 is the number I believe, on a scale of 1-20, that I think this will be a hit with you, the reader. 1 means that I think that pretty much everyone will love this book/movie/show and 20 means that almost nobody will like it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Kethani by Eric Brown

It is a rare thing these days to find a science fiction novel that does not, at its heart, contain something sinister or subtly horrible about the unknown. Most science fiction these days focuses either on interstellar war, alien occupation of Earth, or vast conspiracies to enslave man or destroy the fundamental human spirit of adventure. With the melding of mystery and suspense tropes into mainstream science fiction, the genre has become at once becme a darker and more suspect place than at any time in its past. That is, until recently.

I must admit that I had never heard of Eric Brown before picking up his novels Helix and Kethani about two weeks ago. They seemed interesting and what few reviews were quoted on the cover seemed respectable rather than the normal hodgepodge of writer testimonials seen on most paperbacks, and so I decided to pick both books up. I read Helix first and found it entertaining, enjoyable, and imaginative, but generally typical of the type of action story made popular by Arthur C. Clark in Rama (though I think that Helix is a far more ambitious concept and a better book for it). When I picked up Kethani, though, I prepared myself for more of the same, but what I found was far more interesting.

Imagine, if you will, a world where an alien race has mysteriously appeared on Earth to give the human race functional immortality and the keys to life among the stars. Now imagine seeing the changes wrought by that action written across twenty years and seen through the eyes of common folk living out on the moors of Yorkshire in England. OK, now that you have that firmly in mind, imagine a series of individual stories told by members of a group of men and women who meet every Tuesday at the local pub to discuss life, the Kethani, death, ressurection, and their own personal stories of the world as it evolved.

This is far from the simple story one would suppose, however. No, there are no sinister evil plots, the resurrection technology does not turn folks into soylent green, there are no horrors from beyond, people are not experimented on or coerced into doing anything, and no, it is not a cook book. What complicates the story is what complicates common, ordinary, everyday folks: life, love, death, and decisions. The story is filled with personal anecdotes about a race coming of age and coming to grips with the changes engendered by the Kethani's gift. There is suspense in each story, but it is a suspense born of hopefulness rather than fear. Even the two great mystery stories in the book are less whodunnits and more along the lines of how do people cope with life and death in a world with immortality by proxy for those who choose to avail themselves of it.

430 pages of deep thought, philosophy, and high concept science fiction await you if you pick up Eric Brown's Kethani, and if that sort of thing appeals to you as much as it did to me, then I highly recommend that you grab a copy and gobble it up.

THAC0: 10
While this is a great book, not everyone will enjoy the stories, and the lack of action, adventure, or suspense really make this more a story for fans of philosophy, character development, and secular humanism than anything else.

*Note: I am grading things based on the old system of 'To Hit Armor Class 0' or THAC0 from the old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The idea is that the lower the number, the lower you need to roll to score a hit. In terms of my grade, the THAC0 is the number I believe, on a scale of 1-20, that I think this will be a hit with you, the reader. 1 means that I think that pretty much everyone will love this book/movie/show and 20 means that almost nobody will like it.

Tune in tomorrow when I review Helix, and keep your eyes open as I try to actually provide reviews all week long (after all, I have read a lot of books since January).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Justin Grossman

For many of us, the world of comics is a strange and wonderful place filled with garishly beautiful pictures of muscular men and robust young women battling behemoths or vanquishing villains. In spite of its glorious technicolor, comic books and the entirety of the super-hero genre, seems somehow to be locked into a somewhat black and white mentality. Heroes are always the wunderkind who will save the world, or the damsel, from the manic machinations of morally-bankrupt megalomaniacs. The question is, who will save us from the overly formulaic super-story? Enter Justin Grossman.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is a study in contrasts. Told in alternating points of view, the novel follows budding New Champion member Fatale, a cyborg with some nifty gadgets, and Dr. Impossible, the world's smartest super-villain. Grossman does a great job shading in the shades of grey with these two unlikely protagonists, and the humor of the book cannot be denied, but what is it that sets Soon I Will Be Invincible apart from the other super-hero novels that have hit the stands in the last few years? Well, the answer is as complicated as the Rube Goldbergian super-science weapons that Dr. Impossible usesto try to take over the world, but it can simply be boiled down to the following: This is not a Villain Apologist piece.

What exactly do I mean by that, though? Well, in John Gardner's novel Grendel, for example, we are made to feel sympathy for the poor, misunderstood monster. This is what I mean by a Villain Apologist piece (Jaws wasn't evil, he was just hungry and it is a shark's nature to stalk lonely swimmers... right). At any rate, Grossman does not go out of his way to paint Dr. Impossible as a tragic figure (in fact, Dr. Impossible beats himself up and constantly second-guesses his decision to be a villain), and the fact that he is so smugly superior, obnoxious, and blinded by his own personal issues really keeps you from feeling that this is a misunderstood genius. Part of what makes this so much fun is the fact that you spend the entire book thinking that Dr. Impossible is the biggest stereotypical jerk villain on Earth, but he is just so interesting that you never want his sections to end.

On the flip side, you have Fatale. Now here is a character that starts off as fairly dull and uninteresting, and starts to shine mainly because the alleged super-heroes around her are an even bigger batch of jerks than Dr. Impossible on his worst day. The massive egos battling amongst themselves in the New Champions make for some entertaining fodder, but the simple fact that Fatale, the newest and least experienced of the lot, is the smartest, most observant, and generally most diplomatic person in the group makes for an interesting story.

OK, so here you have the two protagonists, each plagued by doubts and worries, wondering what it all means, and set up on opposite sides. The question is: how is it all going to work out? The answer is the one person that ties the whole story together Lily. The transparent woman from the future acts like a combination shepherd and traffic cop through the story, bridging the gap between heroes and villains, and her ultimate revelations at the end of the book put everything into perspectiveon both sides of the aisle. The question we must ask now is why? You will need to read the book, because I am certainly not answering that one here!

With all that said, most of you are asking, "Will I like this?" The answer, my friends, is that if you have ever thought that a super-hero film or comic book was silly or unrealistic, wondered why the villain was so predictable, wanted to watch the hero get his butt kicked, or just wanted a laugh at a super-hero's expense, then you will probably like this. Whether you love or hate comic books, this story will flat out knock your socks off with its zeta radiated goodness.

THAC0: 5

*Note: I am grading things based on the old system of 'To Hit Armor Class 0' or THAC0 from the old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The idea is that the lower the number, the lower you need to roll to score a hit. In terms of my grade, the THAC0 is the number I believe, on a scale of 1-20, that I think this will be a hit with you, the reader. 1 means that I think that pretty much everyone will love this book/movie/show and 20 means that almost nobody will like it.