Like most hard sci-fi, Larry Niven's Ringworld is not about the characters, but the setting and its technology. In that respect, Ringworld succeeds. Niven has a knack for explaining futuristic technologies in a way that brings them alive to the reader. I only wish that we had learned more of the Ringworld itself.
Ringworld's human characters are boring, and its alien characters are absurd, cartoonish, and uninteresting. Given their dire situation, the characters should be anxious and their relationship complex, but they barely seem to care that their lives are in danger. The characters are so weak, in fact, that I finished the novel a few days ago and I can hardly remember their names.
There are a few moments of tension when we learn of the Puppeteers' history of manipulating other species' evolution for their own benefit, but the situation feels disingenuous, as if their anger is just an inside joke that we know will soon pass. Furthermore, after Teela's disappearance, I was shocked at how quickly everyone wrote her off. But I guess that is excusable because I never once felt attached to any of them either.
The story's plot is simple: the group crash on the Ringworld and need to escape. They run around a bit and explore things before finding a way to get out. Ringworld is a decent read, but I do not understand the hype, nor do I understand why it has won so many awards. It is mediocre in all respects.
While the narrator was quite good, the audio quality is horrible. Aside from the obviously tape-quality audio recording itself, there was a persistent, annoying background echo. Everything the narrator said could be heard duplicated just moments after he said it, as if there was a conversation going on in the background. Sometimes this echo was very obvious and at others it wasn't noticeable. It drove me nuts and I almost stopped listening because of it. The book loses a star for its audio problems.
Santiago is the pulpy science fiction equivalent of an Wild West manhunt with spaceships taking the part of horses, laser pistols standing in for six shooters, and aliens playing the role of the Indians (in one instance, quite literally). At times, Santiago is just plain bad, but it can also be a lot of fun, sometimes surprisingly so. Perhaps one of Resnick's most clever creations is Black Orpheus, a space-bound incarnation of the ancient Greek ballad singer who incorporates all of *Santiago*'s zany characters into a song about the frontier, portions of which are shared with the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Through Black Orpheus, it is easy to grow fond of the universe Resnick has created for us. Despite its setting, there really isn't much sci-fi here: Resnick provides very little description, choosing instead to allow the dialogue and a bit of expository third-person omniscient narrative to do the work.
With nicknames like the Jolly Swagman, Man Mountain Bates, and Poor Yorick, all of Santiago's characters are larger-than-life caricatures encountered by the bounty-hunter protagonist, Sebastian Cain, as he hunts the notorious outlaw known as Santiago. Sadly, the circus of fun characters is weighed down by bad dialogue, most of which consists of bada-bing! one-liners and poorly placed expository quips. Even so, the characters really carry the story along, and they must because there isn't much of a plot to speak of.
The tale of the manhunt is poorly told, with the first half of the novel following a tiresome meet-and-greet formula: (1) we read some narrative about a wacky character; (2) Cain meets this character and attempts to extract information from him; (4) the main character is referred to another wacky character, at which point we return to step one. This tedious process is repeated about six or seven times before the mode changes.
The narrator, Rueben Diaz, has a great voice and he lends some of the characters a very distinctive personality. Unfortunately, he also struggles with the dialogue. His tone and inflection are sometimes terrible, often sounding as if an unnecessary question mark had been placed at the end of the sentence? Diaz has the potential to be an excellent narrator, but this is certainly not his best performance.
Overall, Santiago will have you laughing one moment and rolling your eyes the next. Its juvenile dialogue and poor plotting often makes it feel like a Young Adult novel but, even with its faults, it is a light, fun read.
This is largely a predictable milieu story that goes into enormous detail describing people, places, and tangential events that are better left to the imagination while failing to follow through for the most important events. While Simmons does this in the other novels of the cantos, this one is the worst.
There is so much rambling in this novel that I was often tempted to skip ahead. For example, after arriving on an unknown world, we spend thirty minutes hearing about the sky, rolling storms, and Raul’s tiresome, Aenea-obsessed, internal dialogue. Also, after Aenea and Raul are reunited after years of time debt, they have a lot of sex, and Simmons indulges us with every raunchy detail. Thankfully, he never goes into detail about their bowel habits, but this novel could easily be cut by half without doing any harm.
At least we finally learn the backstory behind the TechnoCore, the cruciform, and other mysteries. Unfortunately, much of it supplants, or is forced to fit with, the story told in the Hyperion novels. I don’t think Simmons had all of this planned out from the beginning and it shows. There is a lot of fun and interesting religious and philosophical interplay here, but it hardly makes up for the novel’s many other faults.
The ending is just wretched. Just as we reach the confrontation between the Church and Aenea, Simmons jumps ahead a year and only briefly touches on it. There is no final conflict, no epic battle, no sense of achievement, and no satisfaction. As if that weren’t annoying enough, we aren’t even there to witness Raul’s miraculous escape from the long-feared Schrödinger box prison. Instead, it becomes all love story, all the time, and even this wraps to a few weak final scenes which we have seen coming since the two were reunited on T’ien Shan.
If you read the other novels of the Cantos, this one is necessary but it is without a doubt the most boring and the least fulfilling of all the novels.
The Fall of Hyperion picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left us. Yet, instead of continuing the third-person frame story with the pilgrims telling their tales, Simmons adds a new first-person viewpoint character who, by way of his dreams, is able to observe the pilgrims at the Time Tombs on Hyperion while simultaneously being positioned within the Hegemony's inner circle of power brokers. I admit that it is a strange mechanism to tell a story but Simmons is an excellent writer and he pulls it off quite well.
Like in Hyperion, Simmons continues the story's obsessive interplay with John Keats. We get a lot more of Keats in this one, as our narrator is another cybrid clone of Keats who has taken on the name of Keats's poet friend. I have never really been a Keats fan and Simmons fails to make me one. Much of the poetry and philosophy Simmons includes did not translate very well into audibook form, not because the narrator lacked skill, but because the reading of poetry is a more laborious task intended for the eye and the ear rather than the ear alone.
Unlike its predecessor, The Fall of Hyperion finally gives us the conclusion we crave, and it is spectacular. All of the pilgrim's stories come into play now, with each pilgrim's role in the fate of the Hegemony unraveling at the Time Tombs with the Shrike in tow. The Time Tombs, the Shrike, Moneta, the Ousters, and the TechnoCore are all explained. Simmons is a true master of the craft and The Fall of Hyperion does not disappoint.
Hyperion, is intricate, exhilarating, and, at times, wantonly embellished and needlessly esoteric. Simmons's works are all pocked with literary nooks and crannies that he fills by paying homage to classic writers, spinning poetry and prose, and reviving classic themes. Unfortunately, in his quest for literary achievement, he sometimes leaves the reader behind. Reading Simmons requires both faith and patience.
The stories embedded within Hyperion are a mixed bag. The priest's story is the most compelling. Father Dur?'s exile to Hyperion and his subsequent life with the Bikura is brilliant and haunting. The scholar's tale is also very good. The remaining stories range from mildly interesting to completely lacking in context. The purpose behind the stories is not always apparent and, without reading the sequel, they seem completely irrelevant to the story. They all play a significant role, but we do not learn this in Hyperion. They also serve to lay out the foundation for the frame story's complex setting. Simmons doesn't cut corners on anything. His universe is dark, detailed, and even confusing.
Be warned that Hyperion ends abruptly. I have no idea how this novel won awards without the context of its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, considering that the frame story of Hyperion is completely unresolved at the end. If I hadn't known there was a sequel, I would have been quite annoyed. Even so, it wasn't clear at the outset that the sequel would be required for closure.
The narrators are talented and the overall production is excellent. All of the characters are given expressive voices that serve to illustrate and decorate their story. With a few minor exceptions, their voices are exactly as I would have imagined them to be had I been reading the paper version. The narrator who reads Silenus's part is particularly well-suited to the role.
Dune is difficult to grasp at first and requires patience, even for an avid sci-fi fan like myself. Here's the trick to stories like this one: don't try too hard. You won't understand everything at first, but that's ok. Just keep reading. Everything will become clear soon.
Dune is a superb story and rightfully deserves praise. The setting is brilliant: the planet and its inhabitants are intricate and arcane. You can feel the sand in your shoes and your lips cracked with thirst. The characters are well rounded and the spice (and its effect) is truly creative.
Dune does have a few flaws. For one, Herbert's writing is a bit unpolished. One of his bad habits is the lack of a consistent viewpoint. Within one section, we may jump from Paul's perspective, to Jessica, back to Paul, and then into third-person omniscient for a bit of narrative. It is awkward and amateurish. The plot is detailed and well-paced and my only quarrel with it is that Paul's over-confidence and detachment made the ending feel somewhat anti-climactic. It certainly seems set up for a sequel (and there are many).
A lot of reviewers have complained about the narration but don't let this deter you. Most of the the story is read solely by Simon Vance (who, by the way, is an excellent narrator). Yet, sometimes, and without any noticable pattern, the dialogue is read by a variety of narrators with Vance only doing the narrative. I have no idea why it was done this way and it is indeed inconsistent. Once you learn to expect this, it isn't that bad. It certainly isn't as terrible as some reviewers are claiming it to be. Regardless, all of the narrators are talented and they make easy work of the complex pronunciation and accents. Also, the background sounds and music were excellent and they really added great effect. I absolutely loved the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. It is a unique and enjoyable production.
In The Chronoliths, the world is rocked by the sudden arrival of massive obelisks, or "chronoliths," which appear to be a future conqueror's monuments to battles that have not yet occurred. As the chronoliths continue to appear, the world descends into economic and social chaos. Robert Charles Wilson is a brilliant writer and this is standard fare for him: a character story involving normal people caught up in major, world-altering preternatural events.
While The Chronoliths has an interesting premise, it is flat and intensely boring at times. Much of the action occurs elsewhere when the viewpoint character is not present and we are simply told about things that happened. Wilson fails to use the chronoliths' potential. They are fascinating objects but they are reduced to a setting, a mere backdrop by which our hero, Scott Warden, looks retrospectively on his life. To make matters worse, Warden is unlikable and apathetic. We often get the sense that he isn't involved in the story but rather that he just happens to be standing there when the story occurs.
Wilson almost always surprises the reader with something completely unexpected at the end. Unfortunately, there are few surprises here. The chronoliths turn out to be disappointing and less interesting than expected.
The narrator is decent and he has a good voice. Unfortunately, he chose to read Scott's part in a slow, monotone voice that made the character sound constantly stoned. The lack of intonation made the boring bits worse and I often found my mind wandering.
If you're a Wilson fan you may enjoy this one, but it is hardly Wilson's greatest achievement. If you haven't read Spin or Blind Lake, I suggest going there first. Overall, The Chronoliths was anti-climactic. Whereas most Wilson novels leave the reader feeling awed, I finished it thinking, "Is that it?"
In Blind Lake, Robert Charles Wilson again brings us his unique brand of science fiction: a character story wrapped around a mystery with a meaty sci-fi center. Blind Lake is set in a top-secret government research facility in Minnesota. The facility is doing ground-breaking research into what appears to be a sentient alien species. The strange thing is that no one really understands how the alien images are being recovered by the facility's self-evolving quantum computers. And when the entire facility is quarantined with no warning or explanation, things really start to get weird.
While the characters are well done, most of the story taking place at Blind Lake is actually pretty boring as far as sci-fi goes: we spend a lot of time with Chris, the self-loathing journalist, a mildly autistic little girl, and her narcissistic and paranoid father. The interaction between these characters is standard fare for daytime drama. Frankly, I found some parts of it perfectly yawn-worthy. The only other complaint I have is that the phrase "It could end at any time," was repeated so often that I felt like I was playing a drinking game.
That said, the ideas underlying Blind Lake are incredible. Not since Sagan's Contact and Wilson's later novel Spin have I found myself truly awed by a story's concepts. In addition, this novel contains some of the most beautiful passages I have ever read regarding the human species and our desire to learn and evolve. Wilson breathes life into a seemingly dead universe. He is a true genius.
The narrator a deep, commanding voice that works perfectly for Chris and Ray, but he struggles a bit with female voices. This isn't uncommon with male narrators and Snyder performs admirably. His reading is, for the most part, quite good.
Christopher Priest's The Prestige is a story about two feuding magicians set in turn of the century England. The novel is deeper than the film adaptation, but it also lacks its momentum. The novel's epistolary approach -- using diary entries to tell the story -- provided an intimate look into the feuding magicians' lives that gave the story depth and passion; but, at times, it was plain boring. In some cases, we witness events more than once from competing perspectives. This is a skillful approach to exposition but it doesn't always work perfectly.
The most fascinating part of The Prestige was being thrust into the world of turn of the century England of stage magic and spiritualism. In additon to attending seances, stage shows, and period locales, we also meet Nikola Tesla during the early years of electricity. Priest did a wonderful job describing the hope and the promise that many felt during that time. Priest also deftly harnesses the fear that many felt about electricity and puts it to his own end.
The frame story involving Alfred Borden's descendant, Nicholas, visiting the old Angier estate was unnecessary and added little to the story. The characters inhabiting this story, Nicholas and Kate, were mostly uninteresting and felt a bit contrived. The whole purpose of the frame story is to set up the ending, and it shows.
The Prestige is an entertaining novel that is flush with imagination and intrigue. Its pacing can be quite slow at times, particularly in the second half of the novel where the perspective switches from Borden to Angier. Regardles, it is entertaining and memorable. The narrator does a fantastic job. His reading really adds another dimension to the story.
Armor consists of two storylines. One follows Felix, a soldier fighting against alien creatures known as "ants," and the other storyline -- which begins abruptly about a quarter of the way through and continues until the final quarter -- follows a criminal named Jack Crow.
Felix's storyline is decent and, at times, even good. Despite Steakley's lack of skill as a writer, he managed to create a character who was interesting, terrifying, and likable. Unfortunately, Felix's story is crippled by Steakley's loss for words. For example, early into the story, a battle scene is described as "Terrible, terrible, awful, awful." How did this get past his editor? Poor descriptions such as this are peppered throughout the novel. I often found myself backtracking, sorting through ambiguous narrative trying to construct a scene.
The second storyline is horrible. Rather than the third-person with Felix, we are stuck in first-person with Jack Crow, a sociopath whose first act is to kill an innocent man. We follow this loon around reading page after page of his babbling internal dialogue. Nothing important happens here until much later. Feel free to skim. Only in the last few chapters did the storylines merge.
Aside from the bad writing, the confusing scene changes, and annoying characters, I do not understand why Fleet could not bombard Banshee from space. There seemed nothing to gain from ground-based warfare. Why was there never any support from the air? Why no armored vehicles? And how could these dumb ants possibly create starships? There was much that did not add up.
If only Steakley had stuck with Felix's story, I might have called this a decent book. With proper editing, the ending could even have remained the same without forcing hours of pointless rambling on the reader. While Felix is a great character, a genuine sci-fi superhero, the author's obsession with Jack Crow and his hypersexual exploits all but ruined the story for me.
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