The Space Machine

September 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spaceThe Space Machine by Christopher Priest

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I was pretty stoked to read this book after having read The Prestige, and as the story began, I found it to be engaging, despite its slow beginning. It reminded me a bit of reading Aickman, in that the book opens with inconsequential scenes that have no real bearing on the plot, other than to lead the reader to it. He captures the characters of Edward and Amelia well, and that was enough to keep me reading through the beginning. Oddly, once the plot began to pick up speed, the story lost its steam.

Part of it, I think, is the fact that it starts off as a straightforward time travel story. These have been done to death, enough so that it makes me question why Priest chose to use this as the central plot of his novel. From what I understand, Priest is an author who challenges the reader with new ideas, or new takes on old ideas, so it was doubly surprising to find a story that was so banal.

As I reached the sixty percent mark of the book, though, it finally clicked: This book is a mash-up of Wells’s The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Not being that familiar with both books, it took me a while to make the connection, but realizing what Priest was doing with the story didn’t make it that much more enjoyable. It plods along in places, and winds up being boring when it’s supposed to be reaching its pivotal point.

Priest captures the tone and style of an early-20th century book, in both language and theme. It’s odd, though, the things he chooses to focus on to center us in his setting. At around the forty percent point of the book, he pays an inordinate amount of attention to Amelia’s corset, which didn’t seem relevant to me. Was it intended to place us there and remind us of the tenets of that time in society? If so, he has accomplished that in other ways, and I didn’t understand the need to make such a big deal over it.

I did like how Priest characterized his two main characters. Edward is, to be honest, fairly useless. He narrates the story, but he’s less a man of action and more one of reaction. On the flip side, Amelia is a strong woman who can hold her own, despite the restrictions of women during this era. It’s a progressive point in favor of the novel, but not so much that I would recommend people read it to experience it.

As strong as Priest’s reputation is, I can see people wanting to read The Space Machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Maybe it would have been different had I read this one before The Prestige (The Space Machine was his fourth novel), but my guess is if I had read it first, I might not have bothered to read anything else. I’m hoping this book is just a fluke in an otherwise remarkable career, especially since I already own other books of his I want to read.

Started: August 30, 2018
Finished: September 21, 2018

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Contact

September 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

contactContact by Carl Sagan

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I collect quotes from the books I read. I used to write them down on index cards and keep them in a file box. One day I decided to organize them, and I found that the one source that I found to be most quotable was Contact. Its balance of science and faith struck a chord with me, which makes sense, since during the time I read it, I was still struggling with my feelings about God and spirituality.

Now, I’m listening to the book as an atheist, and it’s a different kind of experience. The science component of the book is strong, enough so that I wonder if Sagan originally approached the story as an outline of a thought experiment on first contact, and decided to develop it into a fictional story. Strangely, the faith aspect of the book is also strong, even stronger than I remember. It feels stronger in the movie, as Ellie is presented with having to decide if she believes in something despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support it, but the book pretty much comes out and says the universe was designed. It surprised me, especially when Sagan seemed to be a full-on atheist.

The book differed from the movie in other ways, including the number of people who travel in the machine. In the movie, it’s just Ellie; in the book, she’s one of a team of five, all of whom are convinced that what they experienced is real. The movie also reinforces that idea (18 hours of static, anyone?), but the book returns the agency to the characters themselves instead of to an outside, unknown-to-the-main-characters scene.

I had also forgotten how much hand-waving Sagan brings to the story. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on the science of how the machine works, but gets away with it by having the scientists of Earth reverse-engineer it to understand it completely. The ending with the aliens is also anti-climactic, as Sagan makes them absentee overseers, with no one getting the answers they want. For it to end that way, I would prefer that the story remain on Earth, with the scientists speculating.

I know Sagan was concerned with the threat of nuclear war in the era in which he wrote the book, but it feels oversimplified and laughable that he uses that as a primary factor for why the aliens contacted Earth. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the threat of nuclear war now, but to look at it now, thirty years on, is like reading about the Red Scare in the 1980s; it’s so far removed that it doesn’t seem like the concern Sagan makes it out to be.

I still enjoyed the book, partly for the nostalgia, partly for the recognition (it was fun to hear the quotes I had written down so long ago), and partly for the characters. Sagan isn’t a bad novelist, even if he isn’t the greatest, either. He relies a bit too much on telling instead of showing, but he also avoids info-dumps. Since he approached science as something to teach instead of preach, that doesn’t surprise me. There are parts of it that sound like they were written for a nonfiction book about first contact, and there are pieces of it that feel borrowed from his other nonfiction books, but it’s a solid examination of the idea, populated with interesting characters.

I dropped my rating a point after finishing this, not because it was bad, but because it didn’t have the same resonance I remembered from the first reading. This isn’t Sagan’s fault, but it is true that what you get out of a book depends on what you put into it, and in this case, losing your faith has a big impact on a book that’s mostly about faith. Still, I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the movie, since it gives an alternate look at the trip through the machine.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 19, 2018

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Black in Time

September 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

blackBlack in Time by John Jakes

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OK, how can anyone know this book exists and not want to read it? We have John Jakes, famous historical novelist, who wrote a novel set in the 1970s about a black militant and a white supremacist chasing each other through history trying to keep the other from creating his own version of utopia. Isn’t this pretty much begging to be read?

I mean, let’s be honest: This is a terrible idea. It’s a decent enough premise, sure, but a white man writing what is, in effect, a blaxploitation novel is a terrible idea. The black characters like fried chicken, they jive talk, they know karate … as much as Jakes is trying to be progressive, he relies a whole lot of stereotypes when writing his black characters. In his foreword to the book (the edition I read was a reprint), Jakes notes that he’s proud of the book, but even that was written in 1980. I wonder what he thinks of the book now.

Beyond that, though, this isn’t even that great of a time travel novel. Jakes plays fast and loose with the whole changing-the-past-affects-the-future aspect of the story. By the end, he shows what a black utopia would look like (don’t forget those stereotypes), but other, minor things, like taking and using a handgun in the 6th century BC, or someone attempting to strangle Ben Franklin at a public appearance, don’t have an effect. I don’t imagine they would change the timline, but surely a history book or two would change based on this stuff, right?

Given that the book focuses on race relations, and has a main character who’s a white supremacist, one should expect some offensive language. Aside from the liberal use of the N-word, Jakes has the white supremacist (Billy Roy Whisk, which is an excellent name for such a character) talk about trying to kill “Martin Luther Coon” before he has a chance to start his movement. And to be fair, Jakes doesn’t come across as someone who endorses such language; he’s giving all that to the characters we’re supposed to despise. I’m just giving potential readers full warning.

Parts of it are a little hard to understand, since he’s using slang that was common in 1970, but the context makes it easy to understand what he’s saying. The only time I was unsure was when he used the word “scrogged” to describe how a character took out a guard. I wasn’t sure if that meant killed or just knocked unconscious, but within a page, it was made clear. Plus, I have a new word to add to my vocabulary!

Despite all that, the story is readable, and if you can stomach how cheesy and dated much of the book is, it’s pretty entertaining. Granted, much of my entertainment came from chuckling at how bad it was, but it was enough to keep me rating the book just one star. I would actually recommend it to people, but more as a curiosity than a book that will change someone’s life. It’s one of those “If you want to read this based on the title alone, you’re good” kinds of books.

Started: September 2, 2018
Finished: September 4, 2018

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Hard Merchandise

September 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

merchandiseHard Merchandise by K.W. Jeter

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*yawn*

For better or for worse, I have committed myself to reading all of the Star Wars books. Some have been exceptional, most have been mediocre, but only one so far has been downright bad and embarrassing to read. Jeter’s entire Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, though, is the first one I’ve read that was outright boring.

The characters in this series are flat, the plots are unengaging, and the action is more likely to put you to sleep than to keep you interested. It’s a shame, too, because Jeter’s ideas are pretty cool, and his outlook on the Expanded Universe is a bit darker than expected, but he doesn’t do much with those ideas. It doesn’t help that the character everyone probably wants to read about — Boba Fett — feels more like an incidental character, since Dengar and Neelah come across as the central characters for the entire series.

Speaking of Neelah, at one point in the book, around the 100-page mark, Jeter refers to her as “the female Neelah”, which threw me. Irrespective of the fact that this is the final book in a trilogy, in which she’s featured prominently in the story, this isn’t even her first appearance in this book, where she’s already been established as female. Why make such an odd distinction in the narrative? It wasn’t even a quote; it was part of the narrative.

I’ve been more engaged reading program code, or watching a PowerPoint presentation, than I was reading this trilogy. It’s just terrible, moreso because it had the potential to be something a lot better. I wouldn’t recommend this book or series at all.

Started: August 21, 2018
Finished: September 2, 2018

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Lost Futures

September 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

futuresLost Futures by Lisa Tuttle

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Lost Futures is the sixteenth book in the Abyss imprint, and is one I recall as being one of my favorites back when I read them in the early 1990s. I was so excited to re-read it, even as I had a feeling I was carrying too much nostalgia for the book, and was setting myself up for disappointment. I’m happy to say that I came out of this thinking that it was still a solid, effective read.

This is a book about choices: the permanent, irrevocable choices of our past and how they affect our future. Claire, the main character, is living a lackluster life, one filled with a brother who died due in part to her neglect when she was younger, a string of ex-boyfriends who either left or were pushed away, and a job that pays the bills, but doesn’t excite her. When she starts getting glimpses of other versions of her life, where she made different choices, she begins thinking of them as alternate universes based on quantum physics. In short, whenever a choice is made, the universe splits to accomodate realities where one choice was made, and another for a different choice. It’s the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment, on a grander scale.

So, Lost Futures is more science fiction than one would expect from the Abyss imprint, but it’s still horror, because Tuttle looks at the realization that our past is fixed, no matter what. We can struggle with the agony of missed chances or poor choices, but eventually we have to come to terms with our choices instead of dwelling on what could have been. Plus, as the story progresses, we start to wonder which personality is reality, and whether or not what Claire is experiencing is real, or all in her mind. Tuttle plays with that convention very well.

Things happen quickly in the book. The idea of alternate universes is revealed in chapter two, so the story isn’t about working up to that reveal; instead, we’re looking at Claire’s self-examination for much of the story. Early on, Tuttle creates a strong friendship between Claire and Sophie, an old college roommate, but she drops that thread by the end of the book, which I feel is a disservice to that relationship. Aside from being a positive representation of female friendships, Tuttle has Claire focus instead on the man with whom she wants to have a relationship. Even though we only have a brief glimpse at that character, the relationship between Claire and Sophie felt stronger, more significant, and should have been revisited.

Lost Futures is a thoughtful book, and is a good representation of what the Abyss imprint was trying to do: focusing on internal horror instead of demons and other ghoulies. It appears to have gained a cult status since its first publication, and was even nominated for a couple of literary awards the year it was released. I’m pleased to see that it holds up as well as it did the first time I read it, nearly twenty years ago.

Started: August 21, 2018
Finished: August 26, 2018

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Slave Ship

August 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

slaveSlave Ship by K.W. Jeter

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After being so disappointed with the first book in this series, I went into the second book with lowered expectations. It helped at the start — it felt like it was a little bit better — but by the first third of the book, it felt like I was reading the first book all over again. It wasn’t engaging, and I felt myself lucky if I were reading twenty pages a day.

Like the first book, Slave Ship flips between two timelines, one during the events of The Empire Strikes Back, the rest about halfway into the events of Return of the Jedi. This time, I at least recognized that Jeter was using a framing device by having Dengar telling Neelah what happened in the past. I don’t remember that being the structure in the first novel, but as long as it took to get through it, and as hard as it was for me to pay attention to it, I could have just missed it.

Also, by this book, the Bounty Hunters Guild has been disbanded, which was news to me. Did it happen in the first book and I just missed it? (I’m willing to admit this is likely the case.) Or is it like the Clone Wars and it happened between entries in the series? Now, don’t think that you won’t know this is the case, though; Jeter tells us over and over again that it’s been disbanded, thanks to Boba Fett. It’s sort of like “With great power comes great responsibility” in Spider-Man: You’re going to hear it again and again and again.

Jeter still has some cool, cyberpunky ideas, which are rarely seen in the Expanded Universe, so I think it’s refreshing to see them here, but he doesn’t do much with those ideas. His characters are flat, the plot seems forced, and he uses a lot of info-dumps. His action scenes are also flat, and since there are a few battles that take place, that’s unfortunate.

Speaking of characters, that of Boba Fett feels off. I know he’s supposed to be a ruthless character, but Jeter makes him this emotionless, manipulative character who doesn’t quite gel with how I perceive him from the movies. Ruthless is one thing, but sociopathic is a little different. Plus, we never get any of Fett’s point of view, so we never know what his motivations are. I’m sure that’s intentional — Fett has always been a mysterious character — but as much as he’s featured on the covers and summaries of the books, I expected a bit more attention paid to his character.

So, I’m going to finish the series (I’ve come this far, and I’ve already committed to reading all the EU books, for good or ill), but the second book hasn’t given me any reason to change my mind on its quality. I’m tempted to just read the Wookieepedia entry for the third book so I can jump ahead, but I’m a slave to my projects. I won’t expect it will change my mind about the series, though.

Started: August 9, 2018
Finished: August 21, 2018

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The Mandalorian Armor

August 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

armor The Mandalorian Armor by K.W. Jeter

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K.W. Jeter is supposed to be this wunderkind author, hailed by Philip K. Dick and other authors, so I had high expectations for this book. I mean, this was the guy who had been tagged to write the authorized sequels to Blade Runner! Of course this book had to be good, right?

Well, with that kind of set up, you probably know where this is going. I disliked this book. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I care about anything that happened in the book. This is the first book in The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, so I expected Boba Fett to feature here, because what book about bounty hunters wouldn’t feature Boba Fett? Instead, he’s a secondary character at best, since Dengar feels like the main character.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t the first book in the Boba Fett trilogy; this is about all the bounty hunters and the Bounty Hunters Guild. It’s also the start of a trilogy, so there’s a good chance Boba Fett is going to find his way back to being a main character. It’s just odd how Jeter approaches the telling of the story, since the opening scene of the book appears to be after the titular war.

The book opens with Dengar finding Boba Fett, battered and weak, outside of his armor, next to the remains of the sarlacc. He rescues Fett, and we settle in for a story set after the events of Return of the Jedi, but then the book flashes back to events that take place between Empire and Jedi. Jeter flips back and forth between the two timelines, but the bulk of the story takes place earlier, which just didn’t work for me. At the very least, it reduces the tension of the story, since we know some of the characters featured in the earlier timeline are going to make it to the later one.

Most of the book just felt so boring. It was hard to care about the characters, and the plot meandered enough that I had to force myself to come back to the book. At one point, Palpatine and Vader are having a conversation with Prince Xizor of Black Sun, and that conversation goes on for about forty pages. The conversation was important — it layed out much of the plot and hinted at the machinations that would take place ahead — but it went on way too long. The dialogue felt forced and insincere, in that it became more an infodump than a convincing conversation between a few characters. It was way too much speech and not enough action.

Speaking of action, what action there was always felt flat and unemotional. Maybe it was due to my lack of caring about the characters, but once things did get going, I always felt like a distant observer instead of being right there in the action with them.

This was a book with so much potential. I mean, I know someone who, after learning that Disney wasn’t going to do a Boba Fett movie, turned to this trilogy to get his Boba Fett kick. I’m going to have to tell him to skip it. On the one hand, I hate to do it, because he really wants a good Boba Fett story; on the other hand, I have to do it, because I don’t want him to subject himself to this book. Me? I at least have a reason to keep trudging on, but now my expectations won’t be so high.

Started: July 25, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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The Expert System’s Brother

August 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brotherThe Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I’m a card-carrying member of the “Read Anything Adrian Tchaikovsky Writes” club. I regret getting into his fiction so late in his career, but after the brilliance of Children of Time and then the witty cleverness of Spiderlight, I went ahead and bought a full membership. The Expert System’s Brother is just the latest in a series of impressive books that play around with genre conventions to make an original, memorable story.

With this novella, Tchaikovsky drops us into a primitive yet futuristic world, and begins to parcel out what we need to know about the setting on a need-to-know basis. Oddly, it doesn’t feel forced, nor does it feel like Tchaikovsky is making it up as he goes along; instead, it feels realized in a way that suggests he is intimately familiar with the world and knows how to set the stage without having to reveal all of his tricks. In fact, as you read the story, the impenetrable title begins to make more sense, until you understand it well enough to understand the clue it gives you regarding the story.

Tchaikovsky injects the story with a questioning-authority theme by examining zealoutry and mob mentality. Two passages stand out to me in this regard:

When we surround ourselves with people who call evil good, how quickly we accept their definitions and speak them back, round and round until every way we experience the world is tainted by it.

It is a great poison, to know you have a destiny and that everything you do is right by default.

The latter quote is reminiscent of one from Spiderlight, but it’s poignant and thoughtful enough that I’m not going to complain about seeing it twice.

While the book didn’t wow me like Children of Time or Spiderlight did, it kept my interest and played with my expectations. I like books that do that, and the way Tchaikovsky manages to do that with all of his books keeps my interest piqued. Besides, Children of Time is just so damned good that I feel like I have to lower my expectations since it seems to be the story he was working toward from the day he started writing. This is probably a 3.5-star story, but I bumped it up to four because Tchaikovsky continues to impress me.

Started: July 24, 2018
Finished: July 30, 2018

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Prime Meridian

August 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

primePrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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You might believe this is a science-fiction novella, and for good reason. It’s marketed as one, it’s set in a near-future Mexico City, and Moreno-Garcia is a known genre author. The story itself, though, isn’t a typical science-fiction story, though it doesn’t suffer for it.

Amelia, twenty-five and struggling to get by in Mexico City, dreams of going to Mars. She’s had the dream since she was younger, and even had plans to go, but life, especially for a young woman in Mexico City, gets in the way. An ailing mother, a weak job market, and an apathy born of lost opportunity conspire against her wishes. Working as a friend-for-hire as her means of support, she struggles to find meaning while living with her sister and children, but there’s none to be found.

Prime Meridian is a story that could exist as literature or science fiction, as the science fictional elements are all in the setting. The story is a character examination, looking at one lost soul who represents all the disadvantaged young adults looking for identity in a changing world. Remove or replace the science fictional elements, and you’re left with a story that could be published in a literary magazine.

Which, of course, begs the question of when a story crosses from genre fiction to literary fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro managed it with Never Let Me Go, and Margaret Atwood accomplished that feat with The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), so what sets them apart? It can’t just be the character studies, since there’s plenty of genre fiction that does the same. I think it has to do with how well the author can make their main character an everyperson, someone who captures the zeitgeist of that moment. Moreno-Garcia does so with Amelia, who represents the disillusioned Millennial generation.

The story is oddly compelling, considering that it’s not plot-driven. Moreno-Garcia knows how to pace her story to keep the reader reading, introducing more and more pieces of her story until she brings us to the end of this arc in Amelia’s life. It’s a gentle story, and while it doesn’t end with all the answers, it answers just enough to ease our curiosity. What happens next is up to us.

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: July 21, 2018

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The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

August 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

catThe Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein

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I’m not sure why, but I was under the impression that this book fell earlier in Heinlein’s career. No, instead this is his penultimate book, full of all the thinks he became notorious for: blatant sexism; looser plots; more libertarianism; and much, much more perversity. I mean, I’m no prude, but when the book opens with a woman telling the male narrator that he’s stretched her out and made her no good for anyone else, it sets an uncomfortable tone.

The book is peppered with Heinlein’s philosophy on everything, and halfway through, we get the full doctrine on women and government. He had a profound misunderstanding of socialism, and a misogynistic attitude in general, and it offended me so much I almost stopped listening. Then I wondered how bad it would get, and decided to tough it out. Let me illustrate some of the biggest WTF moments:

  1. I’ve already covered the size-of-dick passage that pretty much opens the book, but I have to put it at the top of the list. It just … what? It’s baffling.
  2. The female lead walks out on the male lead, over his being an absolute jerk, but then she comes back, begging HIM to take HER back.
  3. A woman expresses anger over something said to her, but the narrator notes that “her nipples crinkled”, which he takes to mean she’s secretly pleased.
  4. Four thousand years in the future, a computer responds to a request by saying “Yassuh massah”.

Of course, the future is full of free love, with married people not just allowed, but expected to sleep with however many people as possible, and since this is a Heinlein novel, that means some of them are underage and related to each other (though he does throw in some M/M action, which was unexpected). Again, I’m no prude, but I can’t help but feel like this is more one of Heinelein’s fantasies and less a novel, though I feel that way about Stranger in a Strange Land, too.

All that aside, the story just isn’t that great. Time for the Stars and The Door into Summer were good stories, compelling and entertaining, but this novel rambles around with no obvious point. He pulls in important information only when it’s necessary, instead of setting it up earlier in the story and bringing it in when it’s relevant. The end result is a story that’s just one event after another, loosely tied together as an adventure novel. The characters aren’t very sympathetic either, since they’re insufferable. They’re privileged and entitled, and their approach to everything is one of condescension.

This book is indefensible to me. It’s questionable in so many ways, and it’s not even that good of a story on top of that. I’m still looking forward to reading Heinlein’s juvenile books, but I’m questioning if I want to read anything else from his later years.

Started: July 9, 2018
Finished: July 19, 2018

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