23 June 2012

An interlude in the long war

Science Fiction | Catrina Taylor

Below the Surface is a novelette in the Xenonian universe. It's in the same universe as the longer Xarrok: Birth of an Empire (which I have yet to read; dam this stupid tendency to hit every series in the middle!), and explains how Henessa meets Merx, and how Kala got drawn into the whole war.

It's a sweet little story, with the challenges being supplied by the war, loss and separation, but it remains at all times, sweet. I was greatly disappointed at reaching the end, and tried to click forward to find some more. I guess I'll have to go check out the other books now. Because I really need to know why Yatrell and Kala are at loggerheads, and what really happened with Henessa's father. And what's with the two hearts. And why the Ven are such villains. And... but I have another series to complete first, again one that I hit in the wrong order (and this time all my fault since I had both books, but picked the wrong one first). What a nice problem to have! :)

It has good, clean writing, characters that are fully brought out in merely 30 pages, very little exposition, yet enough hints thrown in to intrigue you: two hearts, how do they grow stuff in caves, what on Beta are the Ven, and why?

But you never actually meet the villains, so it's a bit too sweet in places. Normally, I'd expect more tension added from the situations in such a case, even if it's an introductory interlude. I don't necessarily want to read a science fiction story and find myself with a sappy smile on my face on several pages. ;)

Like The Queen of Death, it's a story with good people, and easy to suspend your disbelief as you read. Even if you anticipate some scenes, it's satisfying. Hopeful.

Currently, discounted infinitely heavily at Amazon (at the time of posting).

Beware of the Trojans bearing gifts

Science Fiction | John Varley

The Ophiuchi Hotline is based in the same Universe as Varley's short story collection, The Barbie Murders, and the novel Steel Beach (and possibly others that I have not read). The Earth has been Invaded, and the first-level intelligent Invaders have sanitised the planet of those pesky pests, humans, to fix it up nicely for the second level intelligences, dolphins and whales. Holy Cetacean, as the characters sometimes say. So, the third level intelligences still left alive on Earth, Luna and the other planets redevelop tech and spread out to the other planets, except Jupiter (where the Invaders continue to live). Now, in this process of bootstrapping themselves, they are aided by a transmission from 70 Ophiuchi (The Snake), called (you guessed it!).

The Ophiuchi Hotline is mentioned in passing in many of the stories in The Barbie Murders, which you should read first anyway, since some of the characters in there grow up and populate The Ophiuchi Hotline.

OK, so back to the book I recently reread. (Yup, somewhere around the 80% mark, I knew some of what was coming next, so I know it's a reread, but having conveniently forgotten the main plot points, like does the villain get his/her comeuppance, I could read it just like new).

Lilo has been sentenced to death for tinkering with the human genome. Permanent death, not the temporary type used for lesser crimes, where the person is regrown as a clone and their memories pumped back from before when they got up to their devilment. Her sentence gets postponed so that students of psychology get some live studies in over a summer. And then, an out-of-office politician offers to let her clone die instead of her if she will work for him. Boss Tweed is a rich Free Earther, who wants to throw the invaders off the planet. Lilo is killed escaping. Thrice. Eventually, Tweed needs her help because the Ophiuchians send a bill (which is why I named this post what I did, but OK, no more spoilers).

This is an adventure story, with plenty of hard science scenes, but also with a set of empathetic characters and a cool-eyed examination of how our culture and ethics are shaped by our technology, and vice versa.

A fun read, breathlessly fast in parts and more leisurely in others. It also has my mandatory: a happy ending.

Everyone should read more John Varley stories. They will stretch your mind, sometimes beyond its elastic limits. Which is a good thing, ok? I've liked his stories since I first came across The Barbie Murders, followed by the Titan series, which I started from the middle (I do a lot of that; books don't always hit the bookstores in India in a nice, logical fashion, especially minority genre books like science fiction) and finished only a few years ago. Like Larry Niven, John Varley has a world-spanning imagination, and all kinds of high-tech at close-to-magic levels shares paragraphs with descriptions of space, say, Saturn's rings, and spans a whole range of weird human motivations. In Niven's worldview, sanity is enforced, Earth is weird, space is deadly and space guys almost make sense. In Varley's view, sanity is not easily defined, humanity is defined more and more widely, and space is just another frontier.

No samples from The Ophiuchi Hotline this time, but here's a thrown-away line from one of the stories in The Barbie Murders: a floor is something that planet-bound people put between themselves and the planet, so that they don't fall all the way to its center. :D Doesn't that give you a totally different view of the downtrodden floor? For days after I read that, I was totally conscious of the pull of gravity towards the center of the planet, some six and a third thousand kilometres down. Every metre of it. Eventually, the sharp edge of awareness faded, and I reverted to participating in the collective consensus, where we avoid thinking of the mass and size of the planet that holds you in place while you run after a dog or something, and ignore the miracle of airplanes.

[Edit: the sample is from the story Lollipop and the Tar Baby, which had escaped my memory till now.]

19 June 2012

Multiplexing, oh, no!

Now, how did I get into this fix?

I'm reading three books together.

Children of the Sky I started by mistake, thinking it was the sequel to A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. It's not. It's a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, which is the sequel to A Deepness in the Sky. Facepalm. I was already 11 chapters into it (with attendant spoilers, wail!) before sense struck, so now I'm reading the right sequel.

And the third? That's The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley, which the resident teenager insists that I've read already since it's been lying around the house for years. This is entirely possible, which means I have the delicious situation of having completely forgotten the entire plot. Given that Varley has a completely stupendous imagination, this is a treat for me.

Reviews later. Bear with me. I have to read three of them at once.

In the meantime, in the next post, I will mutter a bit about Fatal Cure by Robin Cook.

17 June 2012

Series books from the middle out, part 2

Fantasy | Matt Forbeck

The Queen of Death is book three in the series The Lost Mark. You already know I ranted about kings and queens behaving democratically in a previous post. Well, they are all pretty democratic in this book, but then, they are just a group thrown together and having a common adventure. The kings and queens act as nastily as you would expect (but you don't come across many of them).

This is an easy read, with enough adventure to satisfy you, enough characterisation to make the people in it human (or elves, changelings, shapeshifters, dwarves, dragons, what have you) and likeable.

The world has twelve dragon marks, that may manifest themselves on (at least) elves as they grow. But there is a thirteenth, lost, mark, too: the mark of Death.

And Espre has it. Her stepfather, Kandler the justicar, is adamant that he will protect her from any and all enemies, come what may, even if it means flying the magical airship Phoenix into the maws of the dragons on their own continent. Arguing with him on the airship are his new lady love, a knight of the Silver Flame; an old friend who is also a shapeshifter (but doesn't shift any shapes in this book); a dwarf who used to guard his village against a dragon who was vanquished in the previous book; a young woman shaman; a five-year-old robot/cyborg created in The Last War (optimistically named); and a changeling who can mimic anyone and frequently does, who was responsible (in book 1) for all this kerfuffle in the first place, and whom nobody trusts.

Dang. Makes me wish I'd read the earlier books.

Anyway, my tendency to carp about democracy in monarchies apart, this was a fun, light read, mostly due to the crisp, argumentative dialogue, and the basic decency of a father's love for his daughter (step, from a different species). This is a book I liked.

Sample from chapter 29:
"Do you want to die?" 
Espre's breath caught in her chest. "Sometimes," she said, "Mostly not."
"There's nothing simpler than being dead." 
"I see." 
"I wanted to die." 
"Perhaps it would have solved your problems." 
Espre snorted softly at that. "No. It would have just ended them." 
Xalt's head bobbed. "I see." 
This time Espre believed he did.

Recommended. 4 out of 5 stars.

A foolproof cure for insomnia

Poverty fiction | Kamala Markandaya

Recently, I was having an online exchange with someone who was facing terrible problems in dropping off to sleep, despite being completely exhausted. You know the feeling, right?

Anyway, she was tossing and turning, and trying everything. One of the things I suggested to her was to do something incredibly boring.

While in college, I used to pick up a book called Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. It was a text, and one third of the exam would come from that horrible piece of bloat. I knew I had to read it, but could never actually manage it. So, if I couldn't sleep, I could at least get 10-20 pages closer to the end, right? It was totally foolproof--I'd fall asleep with the book in my hands within two pages.

I managed to pass my exam, and here's how: one, I maxed the other sections. All I had to do was pass this one, and that would tide me over. But, how to do it? The night before the exam, I sat on the edge of the bed, leaning way forward, so that if I started to fall asleep, I would start falling, and startle myself awake. Then I opened the book, and resolutely turned to page 35 (having managed somehow to crawl through those pages during the course of the year). Half an hour later, I woke up, perfectly balanced on the edge of the bed, after a most refreshing nap. I knew then that I was probably not destined to finish the book, but I carried it with me to college, desperate to read it through in the half hour before the exam started.

On the way, I met a classmate. She was dragging her feet along, looking completely dazed, as if her doctor had told her she had mere days to live. One look, and I knew, but I sidled up to her and sympathetically asked, "Read it?" She nodded, the nod of someone faced with having sold her soul to the Devil, and realising the Devil was standing there to collect. Craven bounder that I am, I asked her what the names of her children were, and how they died.

OK, context. The story is about a woman who gets married to a poor villager, has six kids, and all of them die in some perfectly futile way. For some reason, Delhi University felt that this celebration of abject poverty, written by a woman who'd never stepped out of London, was something worthwhile enough to inflict on all the first-year students. I hope whoever decided that had all their papers rejected, that their students pulled faces at them behind their backs, and in their next lives, they are doomed to be slushpile writers at a hole-in-the-ground publisher who would publish anything that was typewritten horizontally.

Anyhow, she gamely told me all the names, and a couple of lines each about the miserable deaths of those sodden wretches. A load lifted from my mind! With a song in my heart, I went into the exam. Sure enough, there was one question which could be answered by making up stupid sentences exalting the putrid deaths of those half-baked 2D characters.

I passed.

I never did read the whole of that thing, and so I'm still sane.

PS: I looked for a book cover image to add, but couldn't find one I recognised from all those years ago. Good enough. My memory has evidently cleansed itself thoroughly of that book. All it remembers so fondly is that it was a foolproof cure for insomnia.

10 June 2012

What if you could solve the world's problems?

Science Fiction | David Grigg

David Grigg is an author I first came across on Bliss Morgan's writing prompts Google+ page, Days of Grey, I think. He wrote every single day on the picture prompts. The quality of the flash fiction was between very good and excellent. (Much of that is collected in a book, A Torrent of Story).

I've just downloaded and read his latest novelette, A Twist of Fate, from Amazon. Like his other stories that I've been lucky enough to read, this is very well-crafted, and takes a subtle look at society and science. An ethical question in dimsum-sized meals.

(I also love the cover, and, yes, it does relate to the story, and is not a random cool image to attract science fiction readers).

Strongly recommended!

What are you waiting for? It's free for a few more hours (at the time of posting; no longer)! Return on investment = infinity.

Some of his other stories are also on Amazon and on The Narratorium. Go right ahead and pile in.

09 June 2012

Series books from the middle outward

Thriller | Rachel Butler

Is anyone in real life named Rachel Butler, or do you think it's a pseudonym?

Anyway, she wrote a book called The Assassin and then this book, Deep Cover. You can get tantalising glimpses of The Assassin in this book, but hey, I haven't read it, so no comments on Book 1.

We come in when Selena McCaffery has shot her 'Uncle' William Davis the drug lord aka Henry Daniels the police chief, while escaping death at the hands of his equally evil henchman, Damon Long, and rescuing the love of her life, cop Tony Ceola.

Presumably, the first book had a happy ending, with Long going to jail, and Davis to the hospital, in a coma. But, see, she's probably in the USA as an illegal alien, being part Puerto Rican and part Jamaican, and being smuggled in by Evil Uncle. So the FBI threatens her with deportation unless she agrees to take over the drug empire and help them bring it down. Which Tony does not like, bringing a crimp into lovey-dovey paradise. Of course, you find this out much later, like in Chapter 3 or something, because the book starts with a bang. Selena walks out of a shooting range to find she's the target of someone with a good position and at least 72 bullets.

I somehow find it difficult to believe that a girl who grew up in several dysfunctional homes in each of which she was unloved, trained as a thief and assassin, would grow into an ethically strong woman rather than a mass of untreatable neuroses, but then, how would you sell a series of books with a nutcase/evil heroine?

In the interests of avoiding spoilers, all I will say is that there are satisfying twists and turns, and a happy ending. Of course, there is a third book in the series, and I read chapter 1, which again, begins with a bang, this time a bigger one (=bomb).

And, closing with a question. If Selena finds out what her parents named her, which is her 'real' name, then? Selena, which she chose, or the [spoiler killed] other one?

An easy read for a lazy Sunday. Not as funny as the stuff by Janet Evanovich, but more believable.

07 June 2012

Farewell to the Flesh

Science Fiction | Elizabeth Bear

Carnival comes across as the nth book in a series. I got the niggling feeling that things had happened before, which I should read something else to know about. But then I got the feeling that, if this was true, it was a very good series novel, since by mid-book, you get to know the world, the advanced technology, the social state, and all the rest of the things that ... slow down, that you expect to grok by mid-book in a good SF book anyway. Hmm, not, after all, a series novel, but possibly another in a 'world'. I need to go read E Bear's earlier books.

Vincent Katherinessen and Michaelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones (huff, puff) are Old Earth spies sent to New Amazonia to act as diplomat-agents, several decades after the last invasion of New Amazonia by Old Earth failed spectacularly. Vincent and K-J (I cannot imagine the patience Elizabeth Bear has to keep typing that name in full!) are clandestine lovers, one a truth teller and one a Liar, separated when discovered to be lovers and brainwashed into hetero life (lots of people in this country would love to have that technology; some even claim they do already), or are they? But New Am does not allow stud males on-planet, so they are dragged out of various disgraces and despatched there. New Am has discovered the first ever alien artifacts, and is suspected of having free clean energy, a bounty slavered after by Old Earth.

Old Earth in ancient times had created Governors, and programmed them to ensure that any human who was not completely environmentally friendly was 'assessed' and killed. Now, the Governors enforce local laws so long as the culture is environmentally friendly, which New Am is. In spades.

The local culture is macha. Female version of macho. Duels, gunslingers, and no male can aspire to anything except being 'gentled' or else having to fight to live in the Games in the Carnival. Culture clashes and the viewpoint of the suppressed form a large part of the charm of this book.

Sample, from an early scene where Vincent is nauseated by the food on offer:

"The food isn't to your liking, Miss Katherinessen?"
... "We don't eat animals," he said negligently. "We consider murder barbaric, whether it's for food or not."
..."Strange," Montevideo said. ... "I hear some on Coalition worlds will pay handsomely for meat."
"Are you suggesting you support illegal trade with Coalition worlds?" Vincent's smile was a thing of legend. Hackles up, Montevideo took a half-step forward, and he was only using a quarter of his usual wattage. "There's a child sex trade, too. I don't suppose you condone that."
Montevideo's mouth was half open to answer before she realised she'd been slapped. "That's the opinion of somebody whose government encourages fetal murder and contract slavery?"
"It is," Vincent said. He pulled his hand from his pocket and studied his nails. ...
And then Vincent looked up, as if his distraction had been a casual thing, and gave her a few more watts. He murmured, almost wistfully, "Now that we've established that we think each other monsters, do you suppose we can get back to business?"

There, our spies meet the local truth teller, Lesa Pretoria, and the assorted cliques that create the complications that move the story forward. There are assassination attempts, upturned views, double agents, hidden meanings, more double agents, aliens, technology, parents, still more double agents, people.

And I love the tech. Nothing is explained. It just is. The House that creates rooms and facilities as required. The watch which generates a wardrobe, which turns out to be a 'weaponised utility fog'. I love this kind of science fiction. It soothes me, and reassures me that imagination is valued and live and kicking.

Recommended reading.

Page-curlingly hot writing - Goodbye Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

As a teenager, I fancied writing science fiction. One day, I wrote a few pages, and then threw them across the room, because they were too Bradburyesque for my liking (I'd just been creeped out by a Cece story).

Then I crawled around and rounded them up because they were the best bits of writing I'd done in my life till then. A few years later, I read Dandelion Wine, still my favourite Rad Bradbury book, and then the super-creepy Mars stories...

If I ever reach peaks of Bradburyesque writing again, I guess my days will be made.

Goodbye, Rad Bradbury.

02 June 2012

Catholics vs. Atheists; no contest

Science Fiction | Kay Kenyon

Spoiler warning: Much of the plot is leaked here, but not all.

Maximum Ice is not about ice. A generation ship returns to Earth, not having found any habitable planets, and running out of children, due to radiation damage. The crew hopes to resettle, after ten thousand years, but finds the planet girdled by a giant quasi-crystal called Ice. But it's not ice.

The crew maintains purpose by re-stuffing Ship Mother Zoya Kundara into cryo-statis after she's been around for a few weeks. She maintains the memory of what they are (gypsies, persecuted on Earth for being immune to a lethal pandemic, and getting the world's only generation ship in compensation, a case fought by Zoya the linguist), and resurfaces whenever they need. The Captain, Anatolly, is being challenged by his first mate, Janos. Janos then allies with the people on the ground, called the Sisters of Clarity, who are atheists, but maintain the trappings of Catholic nuns. These include black robes, separation of the sexes (and suppression of the Brothers), arbitrary rules in the dormitories, diminution of self, petty punishments, unquestioning obedience to The Faith, and low-hitting politics. That they pretend to be Sisters of any type is felt to be abominable by the ship's Catholic priest, an AI programmed by the third Vatican to keep the generations on the strait and narrow (yes, I know how to spell straight). The one who do the questioning are the believers in God and the Pope (long dead); the scientific Sisters keep trying whatever they tried and failed at for all these centuries, because they don't like trying anything new, they just keep flailing at their holey purpose. Urgh.

Now the evil atheists make common cause with zombie cannibals created by Ice in its pursuit of longevity for the last of the evil scientists who created it. (The good scientists died of despair after creating Ice to save the world from dark matter, which sucked out 'information' in a weird across-space action-at-a-distance vacuuming for some unstated but implied purpose. Having brought apocalypse to the world, it benignly moves on to other parts of the galaxy to do more feeding on 'information'.)

For 10,000 years, scattered preserves of throwback people dug into decayed cities to find electronics and raw material, most of which found its way into the baby-slaver Sisters' greedy little hands. Treasures of wooden carving, they piously say, are 'volunteer labour', yeah, right. The Sisters now barter these babies to the crew of the ship to induce them to mutiny against their (elected and no longer popular, likely to lose the next election, but till then absolute ruler by divine right) Captain.

In the end, all those godless villains get their comeuppance, and the pure strain of Catholicism wins against all evil, Ice repents and everyone is saved.

It's not that the book is written badly; it's got beautiful writing. Sample pretty prose: Darkness engulfed him, and his body filled with tears. When the hot, salty water got as high as his eyes, tears spilled out.

But what are a perfectly empathetic set of characters get ruined for me by this relentless, if written with a light touch, all-pervading religiosity, in which the attributes of scientific discovery are appropriated by the unwavering believers, and the attributes of blind religion are ascribed to philosophers. Evil scientists and even more evil atheists are abusers of males, cruel, and, in case you didn't hate them enough by now, torturers and cannibals to boot. The Good Catholics, on the other hand, maintain steadfast and invariant love of the Catholic Church and all its practices for ten thousand years and so vanquish all, finding natural allies in the preserves where otherwise good people are gratuitously stupid or callous and sell surplus children, but all is well because they teach the kid who is the great hope of humankind that she must believe in God, which she does, all the while designing robots that cutely run into the public and destroy things. And the Ship Mother gets blissfully sacrificed on a daily (or monthly) basis, and wholly sacrificed in the end of the book, so that everyone else can be saved, and she is so unquestioningly happy to do so. And the whole cast thinks this is the normal and sensible thing to do.

Urgh. Even the mandatory 'happy ending' didn't cheer me up. What could have been a thoughtful examination of flawed people turned out into casting a bunch of cranks as the wonders of the world and all others as evil, some more and some less.

Nope, not going to pick up Kay Kenyon again.