the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘space opera

I’ve been friends with fellow blogger Lynn, of Lynn’s Book Blog for years. We started commenting on each other’s blog, and before we knew it we were doing read alongs together and plotting to take over the world!  Okay, not that last part.  Well, maybe a little.  In today’s guest post, Lynn talks Stainless Steel Rat, and how she got started reading more speculative fiction. Crime, con artists and capers in outerspace? sign me up!

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

by Lynn Williams

This month I’m reading some Vintage Sci Fi for Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Sci Fi month – which also dovetails quite nicely with Stainless Steel Droppings Sci Fi Experience.  Basically, it’s a bit like cheating – you read one book and it counts for both events.  Win.  We all love a cheat – don’t deny it!  It’s like finding a short cut or a bargain – it makes you happy!

I’ve read a few sci fi books already but the first that I can put towards my Vintage event is Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison.  I did think about writing a little introduction about the author but, to be honest, I’m probably not the best person to do that.  This is my first reading experience of this author and so to start waxing lyrical would just be plain silly – there are plenty of people out there who could really do him justice rather than me just regurgitating facts from Wiki!  The reason I chose this book?  To be honest I don’t read much sci fi and that’s something I like to address.  To be even more honest the reason for this is because I find it a little bit daunting.  Basically sci fi scares the pants off me because I think I’m not going to understand it!  I mean, it’s not like I’m a raging dunce but I hold my hands up that maths and science are not my forte – and I don’t want to read a book that makes me feel ridiculously stupid (is that bad?).

When I started blogging, one of the first blogs that I came across was Stainless Steel Droppings (followed by Little Red Reviewer).  I’ve been following these blogs for quite some time now and in doing so I’ve read books that I frankly would never have picked up, I’ve read books that the cover alone would have had me walking out the shop!, I’ve read a few classics and I’ve taken part in readalongs that meant the subject of the book was dissected in a really fun way.  Carl, over at Stainless Steel Droppings named his blog so because he has loved this author since being a young boy first stepping into the sci fi realm.  I really like that sort of thing and so I thought I’d read this book to find out for myself just how good these books are.  After all, if these books encouraged one person’s love of sci fi then what not mine?? Also, reading a bit about the Stainless Steel Rat its clear that this series is fun with a cheeky rogue being the main protagonist.

That all being said, the pressing issue – did I like it and would I continue with the series – yes, and yes!

The Stainless Steel Rat was the first in the series (although I think there have been prequels written since).  The book sets off really well with Jim diGriz going from one crime caper to the next.  The reason why this is so unusual is that crime has virtually been eradicated in this future world.  Genetic tampering (presumably) has removed the trait and so there are very few master criminals working the stars, not to mention the crime enforcers are poorly placed to deal with such crime.  Jim has little respect for the law and his lofty attitude is in a sense his undoing.  He finds himself in a situation where he’s being chased and in attempting to escape capture is actually being manoeuvred into a trap – he’s used to being the one who’s always one step ahead.  This isn’t a spoiler by the way – basically Jim is caught by the Special Corps – their aim (to boldly go maybe) to recruit master criminals and use their cunning and wily ways to catch others!  A thief to catch a thief – not a bad plan.

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outcasts of Heaven beltThe Outcasts of Heaven Belt, by Joan D. Vinge

published in 1978

where i got it: purchased used

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You know how sometimes a book looks really really good, and then you read it and it’s nothing special?  this book was the opposite. For not looking like anything special (and suffering from an ultra-cheesy tagline), The Outcasts of Heaven Belt was pretty damn good.

They came on a mission to paradise - blissfully unaware that heaven had become hell!" what an unfortunate tagline!

They came on a mission to paradise – blissfully unaware that heaven had become hell!” what an unfortunate tagline!

Think about some space operas that have come out in the last few years. How long are they? 400 pages? 600 pages? longer?   Vinge crams all the trappings of a great space opera in just two hundred pages. Everything from the not so pretty realities of space travel, to the effects of radiation, to complex planetary system politics, to how our cultural norms might change based on different environs. To add to the SFnal-ness of the whole thing, time is measured in seconds. No hours, days or weeks, character refer to kiloseconds, megaseconds and gigaseconds. There’s a great little graph in the front of the translating this into hours, days and weeks. It’s in logarithmic scale, making the metricality of measuring time in 10 to the nth seconds make perfect sense.

terrible photo of a really cool logarithmic scale of time.

terrible photo of a really cool logarithmic scale of time.

The story starts out with the crew of The Ranger. Traveling from Morningside, they’ve been enroute for four years, hoping to reach the Heaven system, and open up a new trade route. This isn’t like Star Trek, you can’t just get a message from someone instantaneously. Morningside hasn’t been in any communication with Heaven, but they’ve had no reason to believe the system isn’t doing just fine. The Heaven system had been colonized because of it’s resource rich icy and rocky asteroids and planetoids, and the moons orbiting its gas giants. Any system with that quantity of resources and trade goods would be rich within a few generations. (Vinge doesn’t even dream of Earth like planets.  None of the planets we colonize are Earths. They are what we can find, and what we can survive on)

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Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time. If you’ve been paying attention, nothing on this list will be a surprise to you.  If you happened to stumble by because you like “year end” lists,  these are my top ten speculative fiction books I read this year.  Looking for a good read? go find one of these.

Some of them are old.

Some of them are new.

Some of them were borrowed.

None of them are blue.

;)

I’ve linked the titles to my reviews.  In no particular order:

Sky Coyote by Kage Baker (1999) – the second in The Company series, this novel is told from Joseph’s point of view (and yes, Mendoza is still really, really pissed off at him). Joseph gets to do one of his favorite things – pretend to be a God. But this time, he’s got to get even the skeptics to believe his act.

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (2013) – No surprise this one made it to my best of the year list, as this is one of my favorite fantasy series.  It’s true, I ranted a little about a character who really annoyed me, but holy shit, that ending??  holy shit!  Also, I do just happen to have a Cinnamon colored dress/jacket combo and a four cornered grey hat in the making.

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White (2013 )- Secret societies, multiple personalities, sublime prose, metaphysics, unexpected romance, characters that rip each other to shreds.  What more could you possibly want? I got meddled with, my switches got hit, and I never wanted it to end.  Just go read it already. Everything about this book was spot-on perfection for me.

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990) – only the best Culture novel of the best space opera series in existence.  Not the easiest book in the world to read, but the subtlety, and the reveal at the end, and oh god I knew something was so horribly wrong as soon as he said he was going to cut his hair. . .

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ancillaryAncillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

published October 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Orbit!)

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The mission of the Radchaai is to bring civilization to humanity. The word radchaai itself, means civilization, implying that anyone who isn’t Radchaai isn’t civilized. Their empire has always expanded, annexing colonies and planets, bringing civilization and culture to the far corners of the galaxy.  Those who resist are taken prisoner, and either destroyed or turned into corpse soldiers, to become ancillaries for the massive AIs that run the Radchaai ships.

Breq is one such AI.  Twenty years ago, Breq answered to the name One Esk, and was the ship AI for the ship Justice of Toren.  One Esk controlled and embodied thousands of ancillaries who ran the ship and served the human officers on board. Twenty years ago an annexation went horribly wrong, The Justice of Toren was destroyed, and Breq was left alone with only one human body, one set of ears, one brain, no friends or allies, and a burning hatred.

Breq is still trying to figure out what happened on Justice of Toren. Yes, it’s true, that ancillaries of the Radchaai supreme leader Anaander Mianaai secretly came aboard and swore One Esk to secrecy, and then possibly changed something in the AI’s memory banks. For twenty years, Breq has been looking for the single weapon that can get past the scanners, get past the security that surrounds Anaander Mianaai.  For the good of Radchaai, Breq is plotting to destroy the creator of their empire.

The blogosphere is much a-fire about this book. Author Ann Leckie should probably start looking at flights to London for next summer:

Ana: Dare I? I can’t really think of a single thing that is not right about the book. So Yeah: 10

Thea: 10 – Utter Perfection

- The Book Smugglers

This is a book to watch out for, and if it doesn’t garner the author a Hugo nomination, I’ll be very much surprised.

- A Dribble of Ink

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice does everything science fiction should do. It engages, it excites, and it challenges the way the reader views our world. . . . Ancillary Justice might be the best science fiction novel of this very young decade.

- Staffer’s Book Review

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against a dark backgroundAgainst a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks

published in 1993

where I got it: gift from a friend

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Sharrow hasn’t done anything wrong, well, not horribly wrong. Not so horribly wrong that she deserves to be religiously and ritualistically murdered by the Huhsz. The cult has the government’s permission and approval to capture and kill Sharrow, and she’s got one year plus one day to evade them and gain her freedom.

Luckily, Sharrow is not without friends and allies. Her very wealthy cousin, Geis, is only a phone call away, but Sharrow would prefer to work with her teammates. More than just a team, she is psychically linked to a small group of soldiers who now call themselves antiquities dealers. That’s a fancy name for thieving and fencing, by the way. They don’t know what the others are thinking, but they know how the other in the group will react, and sometimes that’s more important. Sharrow’s sister, Breyguhn, is a guest (or possibly a prisoner) at the Sea House Of The Sad Brothers. She’ll be released if Sharrow can bring a mythical book known as The Universal Principles to the Brothers of the House. She’s not sure if she can find it, but she owes it to her sister to free her.

She thought all she had to do to escape the Huhzs was hide from them for a while. Of course it’s not going to be that easy, is it? Following vague clues about the location of The Universal Principles, her gang already planning other jobs, and there is of course, the Lazy Gun. Last of it’s kind, everyone is after the unpredictable weapon. If Sharrow and her gang can find it, all the better for them as well. The Lazy Gun’s are oddly temperamental. When used, they might throw a bomb, or a piano, or a buckshot at your enemy. Possibly self aware, when Lazy Guns feel they are being interfered with, they usually blow themselves up.

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Abaddon’s Gate, by James S.A. Corey (book 3 of The Expanse)

published June 2012

where I got it: received review copy from Orbit (thanks!)

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Being a review of the 3rd novel in a series, this review has unavoidable spoilers for Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War.  Also, you really, really need to read this series.

The events at the end of Caliban’s War left Jim Holden’s crew alive and with money in the bank, and a big hole in space out near the edge of the Solar System. During the course of that novel, the alien technology that crashed into Venus was a busy little beaver, building huge structures, changing the chemistry of the planet, plotting who knew what. And then it shot out to the limits of the solar system and ripped a hole into the fabric of space time. A wormhole? A portal? No way of knowing what’s beyond the ring until someone gets out there and goes through the damn thing.

Jim Holden has had plenty of “knowing what’s out there”, thank you very much. He’s happy hauling freight anywhere that’s the opposite direction of the Ring. But thanks to a journalist backed by shadow politics and money, Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are headed exactly where they don’t want to go. The journalist, Monica Stuart, intends to interview the survivors of Eros, and Holden can’t let her find out that Miller’s ghost has been speaking to him more and more lately.

A note on the title of the book: Abaddon is a biblical reference to a place of destruction, a place of the perishing. Keep that in the back of your mind.

While I’d love to have an entire novel that’s just Holden and Naomi and Amos and Alex, James Corey gives us plenty of other point-of-view characters to root for as well. There’s Bull, the shat upon OPA security chief of The Behemoth who can’t help that he was born on Earth; Anna, a Methodist pastor and member of a contingent of religious leaders headed out towards the ring; and Melba, the alias of Clarissa Mao, who is obsessed with destroying Holden the same way he destroyed her father.

I could give you a run down on all the political and plot stuff, but Bull says it much simpler that I ever could:

“We’re heading out to throw gang signs at Earth and Mars while the Ring does a bunch of scary alien mystery stuff. . . .  worst that can happen is we’ll all die.”

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Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold

published in 2012

where I got it: Hugo Voter’s Packet

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The umpteeth entry in her famous Vorkosigan saga, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance takes place very late in the Vorkisigan chronology, in fact, we only briefly meet the famous Miles Vorkosigan, and he’s semi-retired and chasing toddlers. Never read a Vorkosigan novel, or only read the first one? Have no fear, you really jump in (or back in) at this one.  Bujold does her world building in my favorite way – through interactions between characters.  Relatives and friends show up from time to time to let everyone know how things are going back home, which also lets the reader know about “back home”, and how it fits into the chronology. There’s no infodumping, just characters have an easy going and often inadvertenly funny conversation.

Right off the bat we meet Ivan Vorpatril, and his buddy Byerly Vorrutyer. These young men are effectively rich wastrels – extra heirs in a hierarchical militaristic society. They have wealthy parents, a title, and maybe some inheritance, but no one expects much from them because they’re so far down the line from the throne. Ivan spends his free time chasing women and promising his mother he’ll settle down one day, and Byerly uses his reputation as an idiot cad to his advantage in his career. It’s easy to think at first that these two playboys are exactly what they seem.

Ivan does a favor for Byerly, and ends up tied to a chair in a beautiful woman’s apartment, while the real kidnappers are breaking through the window.  The beautiful woman, Tej, happens to be the on-the-run daughter of a deposed Major House of Jackson’s Whole, a planet on the other side of the wormhole.

In a last ditch effort to protect her from the local authorities, Ivan offers her instant entry into High Vor society, via becoming his wife (in name only of course, with a promise of a divorce once he’s seen her safely to her destination).  A few hastily spoken sentences later, and poof: Tej is now Lady Vorpatril.  She’s only know Ivan a few hours, but he seems earnest in that he’s just interested in helping her.  And besides, if he tries anything (which he swears he won’t), Tej’s blue skinned companion will beat the shit out of him.

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calibans warCaliban’s War (book 2 of The Expanse series) by James S.A. Corey

published in June 2012

where I got it: gift from a friend, and it’s autographed! I have the bestest friends in the world!

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This is the second novel in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse trilogy, so there will be spoilers, some major,  for the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes (review here).  Ok, so spoilers is bad news. but the good news is, I think you could start with Caliban’s War first, and then read Leviathan Wakes, and be a-ok.

Picking up about a year after the events of Leviathan Wakes, the landscape of Caliban’s War is more a dark new world rather than a bold or brave one. Holden and crew are sitting pretty in their stolen martian warship, renamed Rocinante, and doing escort duty and pirate hunting for the Outer Planets Alliance. It’s boring, but safe. Relatively speaking. Holden is safe so long as he’s awake. Because when he sleeps, he dreams only of the horrors of Eros.  His relationship with Naomi has finally settled into something called a relationship, but she’s getting sick of the “new” Holden; The Jim Holden who shoots first and asks questions later, the one who acts too much like the late Detective Miller. But how could anyone come through the events of Eros unscathed?  I was fascinated by Holden’s tacit denial of how he’s handling what he went through by not handling it. His PTSD is the white elephant in the room. Maybe he’ll think twice next time before he decides to play hero. Yeah right.

Meanwhile, we watch as on Ganymede two seemingly unrelated events unfold: a handful of children go missing,  and a superhuman crerature slaughters  platoons of UN and Martian troops, leaving one survivor.

Unrelated my ass.

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Use of Weapons_595Use of Weapons (a Culture novel) by Iain M. Banks

published in 1990

where I got it: gift from a friend

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apologies in advance: if you’ve never read a Culture novel, this review may not make any sense to you. The only thing for it is to read a Culture novel, and then you’ll know what all the fuss is about.

People have described Use of Weapons as the ultimate in space opera and as Banks’ best work. As a fan of space opera and a somewhat newbie to Banks’ Culture novels, I have to completely agree. This is only my third Culture novel, and I was smitten with Banks on my very first Culture read. The Culture is a far-reaching post-scarcity society whose citizens have everything they could possibly want. Waited upon by AI drones and whisked across the galaxy in ships run by uber-intelligent Minds, The Culture really thinks they are all that. Often, they try to press their values on everyone they meet, even if that society isn’t interested in that particular brand of decadence.  Also, the drones are hysterical, and The Minds have a really twisted sense of humor. I love that stuff!  Few things are funnier to me than a drone telling someone to “go fuck yourself!”

A sprawling story that mentions countless planets and conflicts, yet a plot that centers around a single individual, Use of Weapons is the intimate story of one Cheradenine Zakalwe. I’ll admit I did feel a little lost during the first 50 pages or so, but once the main story got going, I couldn’t put the book down. Throwing the reader in at the deep end seems to be a Banks thing, and just going with it, even though I didn’t yet know what “it” was, was the best thing I could have done.

Contracted by Special Circumstances, Zakalwe is called in to do their dirty work: namely, starting wars and political conflicts on planets so The Culture can come in and save the day. Sometimes Zakalwe’s side wins, and sometimes it doesn’t, and Zakalwe spends his evenings wondering if any of this matters in the grand scheme of the universe. He’s a very private man, yearning to tell someone, anyone, of the struggles of his youth. There’s only one person in the galaxy he’s willing to tell the truth to, and an audience with her is his price for his latest job with Special Circumstances.

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Today’s post comes to us from nrlymrtl (pronounced Nearly Mortal, not Gnarly Myrtle), webmistress of Dab of Darkness and contributor at Dark Cargo. Thanks to the hardworking folks at Wildside Press who are making a large number of Stableford titles available as ebooks, nrlymrtl has been able to discover and enjoy a new-to-her author.   Here’s her thoughts on some of his writings:

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Biologist, Sociologist, Writer: Brian Stableford

by nrlymrtl

In 2012, I discovered Brian Stableford and his Daedalus Mission books (The Florians, Critical Threshold, Wildeblood’s Empire, The City of the Sun, Balance of Power, & The Paradox of the Sets) as published by Wildside Press. The gorgeous, detailed covers on the Wildside Press additions are also an attraction. As a biologist, these books drew me in right away because of the underlying ecological and biological principles as applied to colonizing other worlds. Even on Earth, no matter where we go, we have always had to bargain with Nature, and she has not always been an easy bargainer. Spreading Humanity across the Universe is not only a daunting task mechanically, financially, engineeringly, but also in learning to manipulate new environments and ourselves long term biologically.

And that challenge, met not just in a few years, but rather haphazardly some generations later, is what captivated me about these books. So, of course, I had to read up on Stableford. Who is this man, how many more of his books are out there, and how many should-be-sleeping hours can I physically give up to his books?

The more I learned about this man, the more I appreciated him. This Brit graduated with a biology degree in 1969 and went on to study sociology, complete with a PhD thesis titled, ‘The Sociology of Science Fiction‘ in 1979. At over 70 novels, he is still writing and publishing today, so no worries that I will run out of quality reading material anytime soon.

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About this redhead, etc.

Redhead is a snarky, non-politically correct 30-something who reviews mostly science fiction and fantasy and talks about all sorts of other fun scifi and fantasy geekery. She once wrote a haiku that included the word triskaidekaphobia.

This blog contains adult language and strong opinions. The best way to contact her outside of this blog is twitter, where she is @redhead5318 .

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