There was a time when Larry Niven was one of my favorite authors. Of course, that time was when I was an immature SF geek who didn't read much else. Okay, I still think "Ringworld" was kind of awesome. And I have fond memories of some of his other collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, e.g. "Footfall" and "Oath of Fealty." But the last few I have read really unearthed things I didn't notice when I was younger, and this one, which was one of their early collaboration, really shows its age.
"Lucifer's Hammer" is fine plot-wise. In fact, I'd say Niven and Pournelle always do very well with the plots and the hard SF. This is an end-of-the-world post-apocalypse adventure, and I love those like candy. So I enjoyed it despite groaning every now and then at the authors', ah... issues.
Written in 1977, "Lucifer's Hammer" is your basic "comet strike devastates Planet Earth" scenario. The Hamner-Brown comet is spotted months away by a wealthy amateur astronomer, and as it approaches, excitement turns to apprehension as scientists keep revising the estimate of the odds of the comet striking Earth from "billions to one" to "millions to one" to "thousands to one," and... you get the idea. It is not exactly a spoiler to say that the comet does, in fact, strike the Earth — in fact, it fragments into pieces which land in massive strikes all over the globe. Pretty much every coastal area is wiped out, there are massive weather changes, tectonic shifts bring volcanoes to life, so yeah, pretty much the end of global civilization, as least for a few generations. It doesn't help that as soon as the strikes begin, the USSR and China launch nukes at each other. Thanks in large part to a joint US-Soviet space mission, with astronauts and cosmonauts watching the entire Armageddon playing out from orbit, they are able to prevent the US from launching and being targeted in return.
The remainder of the story takes place in California, where survivors in the San Joaquin valley go about preparing for the coming ice age and trying to rebuild what little civilization they can. Needless to say, this is complicated by both internal tensions and external threats from an army of anti-technology fanatics who practice ritual cannibalism, led by a mad doomsday preacher.
It's very exciting stuff, and also fairly realistic in how it approaches both the social and technological challenges of survival in a post-armageddon scenario.
So why only three stars? Well, for starters, there is Niven and Pournelle's usual problem with women. It was even worse in "The Mote in God's Eye," and I was (pleasantly) surprised that there was not a lot of gratuitous rape to spice up the fall of civilization, but the female characters all pretty much go into instant "Attach myself to the nearest alpha-male" mode, and one of the characters is even referred to (ironically, and with awareness of her role, which she does not particularly like) as the "Princess" because her Senator father is the current leader of the survivors, and whoever marries her will ensure the stability and succession of the dynasty. So there was a little bit of awareness there, and yeah, it was written in 1977, but still, one gets the distinct impression that when the Senator's aide reflects smugly to himself that one of the few good things about Hammerfall was that it put an end to "Women's lib," he's kind of speaking for the authors.
Oh, then there's the part about that cannibal army forming around a group of Black Nationalists who were going on a crime spree when the Hammer fell. The New Brotherhood Army eventually becomes a multi-racial, ostensibly egalitarian organization ("egalitarian" in the sense that anyone regardless of race who steps out of line gets killed and eaten), but the leaders are the Black Nationalists and a black former Army sergeant. Until a white preacher comes and gives them a cause - namely, fighting technology. So, let's recap: when the Hammer falls and ends civilization, white farmers, politicians, and engineers start rebuilding a stable community, while black people turn into rampaging cannibals taking orders from a white guy. Umm, did nobody see any Unfortunate Implications in this even in 1977? I suppose Niven and Pournelle's defense would be that not all of the New Brotherhood Army is black, and there is a black astronaut who's one of the good guys, and a few black farmers in the Stronghold are mentioned. Well, okay then.
There's also an awful lot of "neener-neener, how do you granola-crunching hippies like your 'natural living' now?" as the survivors of a former commune realize that gosh, they really did like having electricity and plumbing. Niven and Pournelle do this a lot, as in "Fallen Angels," where they spend the entire book poking at environmentalists and anti-space and anti-nuclear activists. In "Lucifer's Hammer," the only surviving nuclear power plant becomes potentially the salvation of civilization.
White people, nuclear power, and the space program = good.
Black people, religion, and women's lib: Bad.
I am being a little snarky here. The authors weren't quite as horribly axe-grinding as, say, certain authors of political thrillers or grimdark fantasy. But still, this is a book that you will enjoy if you like the premise and don't pay much attention to subtext, but will probably annoy you if you do notice things like ALL THE BLACK PEOPLE BECOME CANNIBALS!
Entertaining, suspenseful, a very good post-apocalyptic thriller for hard SF fans, and also slightly sexist and really (if unintentionally) racist.
In the second book in pseudonymous authorial duo James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, the Rocinante, captained by James Holden, takes on a much stronger Firefly vibe. Holden and his crew begin the book still working for the Outer Planets Alliance, hunting pirates. The alien protomolecule that crashed into Venus last book is still doing....something down there. And a giant Polynesian space marine encounters monsters on Ganymede.
After that, the book alternates between the viewpoints of Holden, angsty idealistic captain who has a knack for getting himself twisted over moral dilemmas where the usual answer is "Shoot the SOB," Bobbie, Martian marine who increasingly finds it hard to tell what side she's on, and is happiest when the solution is "Shoot the SOB," Avasarala, a foul-mouthed grandmotherly UN official who will convince you that politicians aren't always useless, and Prax, whose quest to rescue his daughter, abducted by Evil Scientists for Evil Science, humanizes the Rocinante's political/action space shoot'em-up quest.
Basically, you have a small group of people trying to chase clues and bad guys around the solar system to stop an all-out interplanetary war from breaking out over an alien biological superweapon.
I found Caliban's War to be better than the first book, as the scope is expanded somewhat (and clearly by the end, it's going to expand a lot more) and there isn't so much time spent with "vomit zombies" in space, though the alien horror does still seem to borrow a lot from Alien and other cinematic precursors.
It's not very hard science fiction — it's high adventure, bad marine chicks, alien monsters, space combat, and Firefly-esque banter. A fine series; I'm going straight into the third book.
This is one of those books with a fairly straightforward plot that's a vehicle to say a lot of things about a lot of topics: how much of one's fate is set in childhood, parenting, relationships, the seemingly inescapable crucible of environment, class differences, the media, emotional and physical abuse, stalkers, and of course, child murderers.
The Wicked Girls is set in England, and seems to have been inspired by the murder of James Bulger, a three-year-old boy who was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a pair of ten-year-olds. In The Wicked Girls, the victim and the perpetrators are all girls, and of course, there's more to the story.
Annabel Oldacre and Jade Walker come from opposite sides of the tracks; Annabel's family is upper-class and wealthy, while the Walkers are known throughout their community as the British equivalent of trailer trash. Annabel and Jade by chance strike up a friendship one day, but by the end of the day, a little girl is dead and the two of them soon become the most notorious and hated eleven-year-olds in England.
Twenty-five years later, the two of them are both living under new identities, but under lifelong probationary conditions which include monthly check-ins, and an absolute prohibition against contacting one another ever again.
Jade is now "Kirsty," a journalist, and Annabel is "Amber," a cleaner at a seedy amusement park in a seaside resort town. This reversal in expected outcomes — the girl from the bad family is now an educated, middle-class career woman with a family, while the girl from the posh family is now a weary, friendless cleaning woman — is the first statement the book makes about how the circumstances of one's childhood do not predetermine the outcome.
It turns out that Jade, the girl without a future, was sent to a relatively progressive institution where she was actually given an education, and when she was released on parole, was able to make a life for herself. Meanwhile, Annabel, whom the media had labeled the "dominant" member of the pair, on the assumption that the rich girl must have been pure evil while one could only expect the poor girl to have a broken moral compass, spent her years in juvenile detention in a hellhole. She emerges basically broken and hopeless.
When a serial killer begins killing tourists in Amber's home town, Kirsty comes to cover the story. The two of them run into each other, recognize one another, and the secrets the two of them have kept hidden their entire lives immediately threaten to spill out, no matter how hard they try to avoid each other.
The Wicked Girls has a nicely twisting plot and a range of secondary characters, each of them bringing up other issues, from Amber's emotionally manipulative boyfriend to Kirsty's struggles to support their family with her husband "excessed" out of a job in his mid-40s, the minimum wage workers at the amusement park that Amber has been put in charge of, the abused girl she takes in only to be betrayed, and of course, the media, which just like twenty-five years ago, seizes on lurid details and interviews with unreliable people to construct a narrative that will sell papers and generate moral outrage, whether or not it actually bears any resemblance to the truth.
Watching two women whose lives were destroyed as children try to reconstruct an existence under the constant fear of discovery, even by their own families, and then see it all come unraveled once again, makes this book both a suspenseful psychological thriller and a tragedy even before the climax.
Many reviews of this book refer to Battlestar Galactica, and it's pretty obvious why. A great big obsolete starship has been sitting around collecting the dregs of the fleet, with a washed out alcoholic captain, and then suddenly aliens attack and it turns out the Ark Royal is the only ship that can fight them. Christopher Nuttall obviously really loved BSG. He also seems to really love strategic space combat games and the British Royal Navy, and really hate reporters.
There isn't much fleshed out in this future universe. All the countries of the early 21st century seem to be pretty much intact and similar in their relative power and politics in the future, even though they've all begun colonizing other planets. Humans have yet to encounter intelligent aliens. Then suddenly aliens attack a colony world and wipe it out. The alien ships are armed with plasma cannons, which the shields of all the newer starships cannot withstand, so a multinational defensive fleet is quickly wiped out.
The admiralty decides to send the 70-year-old carrier Ark Royal on a crucial mission because they hope its heavy armor plating, built for a previous era of space warfare, will do better against the alien weapons. This despite the fact that they know the captain of the Ark Royal is a drunkard.
Needless to say, the Ark Royal flies into glorious battle, there is much space combat, Captain Ted proves himself to be a great officer once he puts the bottle down, and also every single female officer about the Ark Royal is apparently sleeping around. (I don't think any woman had a scene without her breasts being described.)
Ark Royal is reasonably entertaining candy for those who like military SF. Accept the premise that starships are just like naval craft, and the British Royal Navy once again rules the "waves," and it's fun to visualize ship counters moving across a hex map as the battles are described. (At times, I could almost hear dice rolling.)
The writing is okay, though like a lot of self-published novels, the lack of polish is evident. Facts are repeated, heck, everything is repeated, and there are a lot of contradictory plot points. The worldbuilding is scant; just as much as is needed to put those ships counters on the map. Being a true SF fan, I don't just want starship combat, I want to know about the aliens, and by the end of this book, even though they have captured a few of them, they still know absolutely nothing about them or why they attacked.
This was not a bad book, but it didn't stand out from the many similar series. If you like space combat, and the idea of an "old school" British navy fighting aliens, or anything Battlestar Galactica-themed, you'll probably like it.
The Lies of Locke Lamora was a fun bit of thieving and rogueing in a crapsack fantasy world. Red Seas Under Red Skies is more of the same, plus pirates. I actually enjoyed it more than the first book, not necessarily because of the pirates.
Locke Lamora is a thief, the sort of thief who makes people want to play the thief class in AD&D, and then find out that even if you reach 15th level you're still not going to be able to pull off epic fantasy novel stunts. Locke prides himself on being able to steal anything from anyone, and quite often Lynch will have him pull off audacious stunts offscreen, like waltzing into a nobleman's heavily-guarded mansion and stealing a prize piece of jewelry from around his mistress's neck while they are in bed together. But the plots that drive these books are capers — as is pointed out several times, if Locke and Jean just wanted to be rich, they could make off with a nice haul and retire whenever they like. But they always have to find a big, difficult, dangerous score, preferably one that involves pissing off powerful people. Then of course in the process of setting up a long game, they end up crossing even more powerful people, get screwed over every which way, and have to pull off a spectacular triple-plus-cross to get out of it.
Following the events of book one, Locke Lamora, the Thorn of Camorr, and his bruiser best friend Jean, flee Camorr to lick their wounds. Locke goes into an alcoholic pity party while Jean starts building up a new gang of thieves in the small town they've wound up in, until in an effort to stir him from his depression, Jean provokes Locke into an overly audacious bit of thievery to demonstrate that he's still the most cunning bastard ever. This causes them to flee, and the whole subplot with Jean's little gang of teenage thieves is dropped, never to be mentioned again. I have noticed that Scott Lynch leaves lots of loose threads dangling, like the ancient race that left the Elderglass ruins, and the lost love that Locke has been moaning about for two books now. Either he's planning to wrap this all up spectacularly in a future volume, or he is just one of those authors who gets nifty ideas, doesn't know what to do with them, and forgets about them.
Lynch's plotting is great, though — grant his main characters the sort of epic talents they are credited with, and their scheming is clever and entertaining enough to allow the reader to cross that bridge suspended over disbelief.
Anyway — pirates. They don't really show up until about halfway in.
Jean and Locke travel to Tal Verrar and spend two years preparing to steal from the Sinspire, a grand casino with successively higher levels one can only ascend with a combination of wealth, status, and game play. The Sinspire's vaults are, of course, supposedly unbreachable, and the Sinspire is run by yet another evil mastermind, so that's Locke and Jean's target. In the process of planning their con, however, they come to the attention of the Archon of Tal Verrar, who is a rival of the master of the Sinspire and a politician with a problem familiar to historical monarchs — he commands Tal Verrar's army and navy, but Tal Verrar's "priori," or ruling council, controls the purse strings. He needs a threat to materialize and convince the priori to loosen up their purses. Another pirate attack like that one seven or eight years ago would do nicely. Once he gets Locke and Jean in his power, he assigns them to... go recruit a bunch of pirates and attack Tal Verrar so the Archon can defeat the pirates and have a well-funded navy again. So Locke and Jean have to satisfy both the Archon and the master of Sinspire, convincing each that they are a double-agent for them working against the other. Meanwhile they've been poisoned, the bondsmagi they pissed off in the first book are after them, the Archon's right-hand woman is actually working for some unknown third power, and that's before Locke and Jean even get out to sea and meet the pirates they have to convince to attack Tal Verrar so they can all be hunted down and killed.
Juggling so many knives, Lynch does a pretty good job of grounding them without cutting off too many fingers. The piracy was entertaining, as he introduces a single mother pirate captain and a pleasantly silly bit of seagoing tradition in this world in which ships must always sail with women officers and cats and women.
The world remains an almost unrelentingly dark one — some of the characters, including Locke and Jean, show streaks of nobility, and Locke in particular seems to be planning some sort of grand strike against the wantonly cruel upper classes. That said, this is a grimdark fantasy world. Casual cruelty, creative atrocities, humiliation and oppression and torture as sport, not to mention everyone being reliably treacherous at all levels, is par for the course.
Lynch follows other predictable cliches as well, like as soon as Jean and his new pirate honey exchanged "I love you"s, I knew she couldn't have been more dead if she already had a sword through her neck.
Despite following a few standard fantasy tropes, this was rollicking good fun, one of those books that is most entertaining not for the swashbuckling or the fantasy bits, but for the impossible situations the author puts the characters in, so the reader is forced to turn pages to find out "How the hell are they going to get out of this one?"
Definitely elevated my desire to read the next book in the series, though I hope Lynch is going to eventually incorporate some larger meta-plot into the story, rather than just continuing to spin yarns about ever-greater heists.
The first book in a series set up to allow the author to keep churning out more books as long as they sell, the premise is a "long retreat" as Captain Geary leads his Alliance fleet away from a devastating defeat in the Syndic homeworlds.
The ingredients are all standard military SF, with an untested commander having to deal with discipline problems, subordinates who don't trust him, and an implacable, two-dimensional enemy.
The battles are described in great detail, and you can almost picture pieces moving across the screen as the narrator describes ship components, weapons options, and strategy and tactics.
Worldbuilding and characterization is sparse, but for fans of space combat stories, this is a decent listen.
This collection has three tales: The Telltale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Black Cat.
If you are unfamiliar with these classics, you should really read them. They are old-school horror, served chilled.
They're all creepy as hell - Poe depicted narrators going completely mad better than just about anyone else, including florid ol' Lovecraft. This would be fine listening on a dark Halloween night.
I was a little ambivalent about trying one of these "Great Courses" on audio, especially with references to diagrams and such, but the instructor promised at the beginning that you could follow along at home without needing the pictures, and he was right, though there are points at which it might benefit a listener to pause the the lecture long enough to look up the diagram if you are having trouble visualizing what he describes.
This is a course on advanced physics for people who are not physics students. All that high-level stuff like General and Special Relativity, the three fundamental forces, quantum mechanics, why nothing can go faster than light, how time dilation works, what is really going on with black holes and whether "wormholes" really exist (answer: there is currently no actual evidence of them, we just know that the math supporting the possibility of their existence works) and a dozen other topics for any long-time science fiction reader.
And that is why I downloaded this course, because I haven't had a physics class since high school, and I've had only a brief survey course on quantum mathematics, but I wanted to understand the physics behind relativistic travel and the formation of the universe and quantum theory and all that jazz well enough to feel educated when I read science fiction that tries to be "hard" (and even to have a better grounding for any SF I might write myself...).
I would say this course works very well for that purpose. The professor promises that the math is minimal, so at several points he handwaves the formulas, saying "Trust me (but go look it up if you want to really understand it)" but assures us that the concepts he explains require no more than high school algebra, for the most part, and this was also true. So this is a very "math light" physics course for non-physicists, and thus for someone who is a veteran of hard SF there won't be much here in the way of new concepts - you have probably read Heinlein's Time for the Stars in which a pair of telepathic twins conduct the famous "twin experiment" with one twin staying on Earth getting old while the other twin sets off on a journey in a spaceship traveling at near-lightspeed. And you've read lots of stories about black holes and how they "slow time" as you approach the event horizon. (Go see Interstellar - it's a fantastic movie.) And you know that pure matter-energy conversion would be a billion times more efficient than nuclear fusion, if we could do it. And you've heard of Schroedinger's Cat and how supposedly we could use paired qubits to achieve faster-than-light communication (we can't). And gravity warps time and space, and light is a particle and a wave (and in fact so is all matter, really), and Einstein refused to believe God rolled dice with the universe.
All that is covered here, and at the end of it, you'll understand it better, conceptually, but obviously this cannot replace an actual physics course and if you want to really, really understand it, you'd have to actually get deeper into the math. I now have a better understanding of what physics says about General and Special Relativity and black holes and time travel and quantum entanglement. Do I really, thoroughly understand it? You'll probably find several points Professor Wolfson covers need to sit with you awhile, and some stuff you'll really have to read more deeply to fully "get it." But you can get the gist adequately from this course.
So, this course will not work as a substitute for taking an actual physics class. It probably won't even work very well as a primer. But if you're just a layman who already has some idea of the stuff you've been reading about in science fiction but you want to know more about it, you'll find this course quite valuable, and if you actually don't know any of this stuff, it will probably blow your mind.
The lecturer builds up his topics very carefully, starting with what ancient astronomers and physicists knew, all the way back to Aristotle. There is a lot of physics history here, so you'll get your Copernicus and Galileo and Newton and Maxwell and Bohr and of course Einstein, and that part is also quite interesting, as there is just a little bit of biographical information about each person, but more importantly, what exactly they figured out and how and how it changed what was known up to that point in time.
Overall, well worth the investment in listening to.
If at first you don't succeed, get rid of the girl and move on to the next sister.
A Kiss Before Dying is a taut little thriller about a sociopath who conceives an ingenuous plan to seduce the daughter of a wealthy copper baron. Except she goes and gets pregnant before his plan can come to fruition. Since Daddy is the moralistic disinheriting type, he figures a kid before they are properly married and he's had time to work his charms and soften the old man up will just ruin everything. When he can't persuade her to get rid of it, he's left with only one option - a well-planned murder in which he manages to make it look like a suicide, and then avoid any connection between him and the dead girl.
Which allows him to move on to daughter #2.
But daughter #2 proves a little too intuitive — she starts putting clues together and realizing her sister didn't commit suicide, and wants to find out who murdered her. She figures everything out just a little too late.
And our boy, as long on audacity as he is short on scruples, decides third time's the charm: the rich industrialist had three daughters, and after all that research he did to seduce the first two, he knows the oldest sister pretty well...
As improbable as this story may sound, I couldn't really spot any plot holes. Sure, our protagonist needed a bit of luck here and there, but nothing so overwhelmingly coincidental as to be completely implausible. He's just a meticulous, cold-blooded schemer with a knack for manipulation.
A lot of people want books with "relocatable" protagonists. Well, the protagonist of this book is a murderous, gold-digging sociopath. You want him to trip up and get caught, and you want his victims to get away, and at the same time, the exciting part is finding out how he's going to get away with it.
This book is dated now — it was written in 1954 and it's set in the early fifties, so the campus life described, and the so-visible class distinctions are not the same as now, but that just makes this suspenseful novel a period piece as well. In fact, some of the period details are what made it interesting. For example, there is surprisingly little moralizing about the proposed abortion — she doesn't want to do it, but it seems more for emotional reasons than any real ethical or religious qualms. And it struck me that in some ways, the "boy from the wrong side of the tracks" was a thing that would be even harder to envision today — nowadays, we like to pretend that American society is less class-stratified, but that's because the rich are increasingly distant and out of sight. Working class people just don't socialize, at all, with the very wealthy, which makes it easier for us to pretend that there is no such thing as class.
Ira Levin also wrote other thrillers, like Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, and with this pacey, suspenseful novel, it's easy to see how readily his stories became a part of pop culture. Definitely worth reading, and motivated me to read more by him someday.
If you are considering a collection of Maupassant short stories on Audible, you should grab this one as Audible is practically giving it away, and it contains several of Maupassant's popular stories which are selling individually for several times the price of this collection!
Since the description does not tell you which stories are included, I will list them below. There are thirteen:
"The Story of a Farm Girl"
"Theodule Sabot's Confession"
"The Wrong House"
"The Marquis De Fumerol"
"The Trip of Le Horla"
"Boule de Suif"
The stories are all enjoyable and interesting, ranging from fireside tales about hunting and farming and jilted lovers and poor peasants and debauched soldiers, to a few, like The Inn, that take the form of a ghost story even if no actual supernatural apparitions appear.
Definitely worth reading these, and I wouldn't hesitate to try some more Maupassant. John Pether's narration is clear and cultured and a perfect English tone for this translation of Maupassant's French.
This Audible freebie is a nice way to hear the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It's not a particularly thrilling fable - boys meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back - though really, it's the girl who does the getting.
The story starts with an evil hobgoblin (also referred to as a demon) who goes to magic school (why did Rowling not find a way to hook this into her mythology?) and creates a magic mirror which shows "reality" in the harshest, ugliest way possible. It is shattered into a million pieces, and spread around the world, where it becomes smaller mirrors, spectacles, or tiny specks of glass getting caught in peoples' eyes, creating mischief and cold-hearted misunderstanding.
One such shard gets in the eye of a little boy named Kai, who then spurns his childhood sweetheart, Gerda. One day he goes wandering in the woods and is picked up by the Snow Queen. Gerda, convinced that he is not dead, goes on a quest to find him.
There are talking flowers, talking crows, and a not-really-evil witch, and of course, the Snow Queen herself.
A cute story with perhaps a few too many elements thrown in for the fantasy-minded modern reader, but it would certainly entertain children. Anderson does wrap this tale up with a rather saccharine Christian moral, but it's a story to please those in search of adventuresome girls and magical talking animals.
Now maybe I should go see Frozen.
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