the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction

The Engineer Reconditioned by Neal Asher

published 2006 (or maybe 2008?)

where I got it: purchased used

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I’ve not read a ton by Neal Asher, but everything I’ve read I’ve enjoyed.   Asher enjoys having a go at religion, writing incomprehensible aliens who see humans as delicious snacks,  AIs who are smart enough to lie to their human wards, a biological explanations for immortality, over the top biological adaptations, and a galaxy with ancient alien technology and ruins.  That’s like, all my favorite scifi things!  If you’re interested in hard scifi, space opera, large scale universes, really alien aliens,  I highly recommend Neal Asher.

 

I didn’t realize The Engineer Reconditioned was a short story collection until I started reading it. The collection includes ten or so stories of various lengths from Asher’s interconnected Polity plot lines. If you’ve never read any Asher,  this is a great place to start, because whatever stories you liked the best there are a bunch of novels where those characters and situations will show up.  The collection includes stories of Jain tech, gross-out biological action on planet Spatterjay, stories of the mysterious Owner, and a few stories that are just fun romps through alien environs and dumb humans who may make tasty snacks.  Click here for a timeline and how all the Polity books work together.

 

The first and longest story, “The Engineer”, is what I came here for, and I wasn’t surprised that this ended up being my favorite story in the collection.  Two scientists, Chapra and Abaron, are aboard an exploration vessel and they come across an egg floating in space. Abaron teases Chapra about her obsession with old movies, especially a certain movie starring face huggers and chest bursting scenes.  They bring the egg inside the ship to investigate, and see if they can wake up the comatose creature inside.  Herein lies some excellent hard scifi – how to determine the creature’s natural habitat? What if air that humans can breathe poisons the creature? How to determine what to feed it? How to communicate with it?   The creature wakes up, and Abaron and Chapra are able to give it an environment in which it can survive, and food that it can metabolize. Living mostly under water, the creature starts building things and communicates its needs to the scientists by leaving different items on the pier.  After a while the scientists realize their AI has insulated them from the outside world as a protective measure. “The Engineer” was a fantastic story with great pacing, smart dialog, and some truly excellent science. Not to mention a few laugh out loud Alien jokes!

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Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker

published in 2007

where I got it: purchased used

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I’ve been trying (and not always succeeding) to read Kage Baker’s Company books in the order of publication.   Which meant next up was Gods and Pawns, which was  published in 2007.   The series starts with In The Garden of Iden, a novel that completely broke my heart into a billion little pieces. Then came Sky Coyote, in which I fell a little bit in love with Joseph even though he is a complete asshole. Or at least, I thought he was an asshole until I met Porfirio, now that guy is a piece of work.  The Company books get darker and darker the further you read in the series, and yet Baker’s writing style is full of humor and wit, so you’re laughing at the same time.  With all the research that went into these novels and short stories much of her work reads a little bit like Tim Powers, that of course these crazy things didn’t happen . . . but no one can prove that they didn’t….

 

Gods and Pawns is a collection of short stories that take place in the Company world. Similar to her collection In The Company of Thieves, these mostly light-hearted short stories are excellent entry points into Baker’s Company world.

 

What is The Company? In the future, time travel is discovered. However, you can only travel backwards in time, and recorded history can not be changed. The owner(?) of The Company sends operatives back in time, where they take in orphaned children and turn the children into immortal cyborgs who are now employees of The Company.  For the cyborgs, it’s a post-scarcity life – they never need to worry about money, or a job, or a roof over their heads. The job security is great because they are immortal. But what are they working towards? What is the point of finding and then hiding all the valuable paintings and manuscripts and gems in the world for some future you may never see? Is this a good gig? Is it slavery?  What’s the retirement policy like?

 

I have condensed and vastly oversimplified Baker’s amazingly complex world. If you enjoy long running space opera series with fantastic writing, time paraxodes (paradoxii?) horrible secrets, lots of dark humor, all written by an author who is a genius at playing the long game, this is a great series for you.  If you’re not sure if that is something you’d like, the short stories are a great place to start.  For more information, and possibly epic spoilers, checkout the Company reread that Stefan Raets did at Tor.com last year.

 

While I was disappointed that Mendoza doesn’t star in a larger portion of the stories in Gods and Pawns, I was happy to see my favorite side character, Lewis, get the spotlight.

 

Surprising nobody, my favorite short story in Gods and Pawns is the Lewis/Mendoza story, “To The Land Beyond the Sunset”, in which our two immortal operatives act as mortal guests of a family of supposed gods.  Mendoza is excited about the rare plants she finds on their property, and Lewis is trying to figure out how exactly these people are related to each other, and why they seem so ignorant. There’s also the whisperings in the walls of a secret family member who keeps getting moved around the villa so the “visiting mortals” can’t see him. There’s the expected humor in this story, Mendoza and Lewis are immortal, and do have what could be construed as godly power. And this lonesome family appears to be underfed, ill-informed, living in a ramshackle villa, and not godly at all.  Everyone is playing a role, it seems.  Mendoza’s first discovery makes me hope these people die a horrible death for what they are doing. The next discovery makes me feel so terribly sorry for them.

I always imagine Lewis looking like Cyril from Archer.

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You’ve all read Robert Sawyer (right?).  The WWW series, the Hominids series, Flashforward,  Mindscan, Frameshift,  about a 20 other novels, and his newest novel is Quantum Night.

Sawyer won his first Prix Aurora award in 1991 and has been going strong ever since.  His books are accessible and easy on the eyes. He writes the kind of near future scifi thrillers that are perfect for your friends who don’t want something too weird.

Head over the Apex Magazine website to read my interview with Robert Sawyer, where we mostly talk about Quantum Night, but also talk about getting characters (and readers!) excited about science,  what baseball has to do with writing hard science fiction, what BattleStar Galactica has to do with psychology, and the reason why your surgeon might have pretty crappy bedside manner.

I am very proud of this interview. Mr. Sawyer and I spoke on the phone for about 40 minutes, and then I muppetflailed around the house for about a week. I took time out from the muppetflailing to transcribe the interview. If you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it, please leave a comment over at the Apex site, so they know you enjoyed it too.

 

Also? If you like Jeff Vandermeer, you should read “How Lovely Is The Silence of Growing Things”, also in this issue of Apex.

In 1968, Alexei Panshin wrote a coming of age novel called Rite of Passage.  The story follows twelve year old Mia Havero, as she readies for her “trial”, during which she’ll spend 30 days alone in the wilderness of a planet.  Having spent her life on a ship, she’s got a lot to learn about how to survive dirtside.    Rite of Passage won the Nebula, and was nominated for a Hugo.  This is most definitely  not your standard 60s “kid goes on an adventure”!

 

My close friend Andy lent me his copy of Rite of Passage, and although it took months of him asking me to do so, I finally read it.     It was an absolutely fantastic novel, and it was easy for me to see why Rite of Passage made it to so many awards ballots.  Even better, the story doesn’t feel dated.  Written almost 50 years ago,  it read like a novel that could have been written 10 years ago. Andy and I decided the best way to talk about it was to literally talk about it over Google Docs, and share our chat.   Our conversation below does spoil  some huge stuff that happens at the end of the story, there is plenty more we haven’t mentioned that awaits new readers.

 

 

Andrea: What did you think of Mia? She’s not the typical scifi protagonist [for a 1960’s scifi novel], that’s for sure!

 

Andy: I think Panshin had to tell this story through the eyes and experiences of someone Mia’s age (she is 12 when the story begins). Adults have hardened into acceptance (or, more rarely, rejection) of their society’s system of beliefs. Mia is still discovering these and so is receptive to alternatives.

 

Andrea: Not all the kids come back from their month on a planet.  I assumed that a percentage of kids “go native”, and decide that life on a planet is preferable to life on the ship.  What did you think happened to the kids that didn’t come back?

 

Andy: I’d like to think that many, if not most, did “go native.” However, given the mutual hostility and distrust between the starships and the planet-bound made plain in the novel, I think the majority were either killed by the planet-siders (if pursuing the aggressive “tiger” survival strategy) or died of exposure and starvation (for those using the “turtle” approach, keeping their heads down in remote places). Both the planetary societies and the one on Mia’s ship are quite harsh, in their own ways. Except for Mia and her friend Jimmy, and the people who befriend Mia on Grainau, there’s not a lot of mercy in evidence on either side.

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It’s time for another installment of five books 50 pages!  This is where I grab 5 books that I’m kinda sorta intrigued by reading just the first 50 or so pages.  The goal is that hopefully at least two will really stand out as something I want to keep reading. I’m going into these books knowing barely anything beyond them other than the back cover blurb. But I have high hopes! Last time I did five books 50 pages I discovered a book that ended up being one of my top reads for 2016.

The contestants this week are:

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Nine Fox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Cold Iron by Stina Leicht

Dear Sweet Filthy World by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What was YAY,  what was NAY, and what was MEH. Let’s find out!

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When a book has the kind of effect on you that McIntosh’s Defenders had on me, it’s time for a reread!

 

Defenders by Will McIntosh

published in 2014,  read my original review here.

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What I remember most about the first time reading this book is that it scared the living crap out of me.  Not “omg, there’s a spider, someone kill it!” scared,  not “why did a fire truck just pull into my apartment parking lot” scared, but the kind of scared that made me want to hide in the back of the bedroom closet, cover myself with a blanket, and be so silent that nothing would even know I existed.

 

When people ask me about books that had a strong emotional impact on me, this book gets a mention.

 

The first time I read Defenders, I read the last chunk of it in one sitting in the middle of the night because I was afraid that if I put the book down all the main characters would die before I could pick the book back up.

 

I’ve been itching to re-read Defenders for over a year.  It’s so absorbing that it makes for an absolutely perfect escapist thriller. Near future, but so ridiculous that none of this stuff could ever happen. . .  right? I mean, right?

 

Actually, the only thing in this book that I see as not happening in the next 50 years is us making contact with an alien species. That’s how the book opens: contact with an alien species that lands in remote areas on Earth. The Luyten are telepathic, and can easily read the minds of any human within 8 miles. When we come up with plans to attack them, they can easily pull those plans out of the mind of anyone involved and nearby, so a counter attack is easy. The Luyten didn’t come here to exterminate us, but they don’t want to die either.  I’m reminded of something author Tade Thompson said when I interviewed him:

 

LRR: If Earth does experience first contact with an alien species, how do you think humanity will react?

TT: If we encounter intelligent life, blind panic and religious hysteria.

If we encounter flora or fauna, blind panic and religious hysteria.

Humans don’t handle the unknown well. Look at our history.”

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Will 2017 be the year of the reread? only time will tell. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying Sheri S Tepper’s Arbai trilogy. Again.

 

Raising the Stones by Sheri S. Tepper

published in 1990

where I got it: who knows. I’ve had it forever.

 

 

If you’d asked me five years ago for a list of my top five favorite novels, Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones would have been on that list.  Is it still in my top five? Sadly, no.  Is it a hella good book? Absolutely. I wrote a review of Raising the Stones back in 2011, which gives a great overview of the plot if you’re interested in the plot end of things.

 

I’ve been itching for some comfort reads lately, escapist novels that I know I will enjoy no matter what is happening in the world around me.  Tepper’s Arbai trilogy fits that bill a hundred percent.  I have no idea how many times I’ve read Raising the Stones, I know exactly what happens in it, I know who dies at the end, who the jerks are, who should have known better, who was blinded by their own narrow-mindedness. It’s neat to read a book that you know so well, to set aside everything that you know you know about it, and find everything else that was hiding there in plain sight all along.

 

Something that did catch my attention this read through was how the novel is paced, and that the pacing matches exactly something else that is going on in the background. Lemme ‘splain.  The first half of the novel is painfully slow. I’d forgotten how slow it was. Slow isn’t bad per se, there is buckets of fascinating worldbuilding and learning about the various cultures in this star system and their beliefs; characterization of Maire, Sam, China, Jep, and Saturday; the slightest beginnings of what’s happening behind the scenes on the planet of Hobbs Land. There is tons of good *stuff* in the first half of the novel, it just doesn’t feel like anything is happening. Maybe I was just antsy for the good stuff? I dunno, but it felt sooooo sloooooooow.   The last third of the novel is solid anxiety. Everything comes to a head, rebellions and coups are put into action, what’s been happening behind the scenes on Hobbs Land is suddenly very much the center of attention.  It’s like something finally reached a critical mass.

 

And that’s exactly what the pacing of the plot mirrors – the pace of the growths on Hobbs Land reaching their critical mass.  Very slow, barely detectable at first, and then slowly increasing, and then reaching a point where it has no choice but to asymptotically reach for infinity.  Pretty brilliant trick for an author to pull off, when you think about it!

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.