Cheshire, CT USA | Member Since 2012
It's fascinating to see in this collection of Clarke stories, the evolution and refinement of his work. Some of the earliest stories such as "How We Went to Mars" (1938) read like HG Wells's "The Time Machine" in that an amateur gentleman assembles a remarkable machine that resembles a Victorian sitting parlor with wings and recounts a fantastic voyage. Thankfully, this is not requiring any attention to minor details such as hostile alien environments, zero-G and high-G acceleration, etc. I can excuse this because the tone of this particular story is tongue-in-cheek humor. Other stories however, wave the magic wand of "Atomic-Power" to explain away any technological need the narrative may face- obviously anticipating much future success with the newly arrived science. The title story "Lion of Comarre" probably has the best example in the Atomic cutting instrument which is included in a list of common tools alongside a universal screwdriver. In other more serious stories, such as "Nightfall" (1947), Clarke addresses the terrifying self-destructive potential of Atomic power in the hands of mankind. The final story in the collection, "Breaking Strain" (1949) which contributed some of the ideas later seen in "2001: A Space Odyssey", makes a great bookend to "How We Went to Mars" in that it pays exquisite attention to the hard science details of orbital mechanics, the effect of weightlessness on the human body, psychological dangers of prolonged isolation, and more. The collection is at its best, however, when Clarke wrote in the freely fantastic realm of the unknown and unknowable extra-dimensional, such as "The Wall of Darkness" (1949) and "Technical Error" (1946). I found myself pausing after finishing each to wonder for awhile at the implications, as all good Space Opera SF should do.
This novel follows closely to the television formula: The Doctor and companion are drawn into a mystery set in modern day London, discover an alien invasion plot, and they (well, HE, really) foil it after a few twists and turns. I don’t consider that bit a spoiler, as any licensed material must necessarily deliver all the characters and settings back unaltered by the conclusion- series authors don’t own, they rent. I’ll agree with other reviewers in pointing out the similarities in the story’s villains with those in the television episode “Waters of Mars”. However, I must defend Cole in saying he wrote three years in advance of that episode’s airing. The areas to truly judge a DW story by, I feel, are the peripheral one-off characters that one wouldn’t expect to see return in any other story. These are the few with which the author can take liberties with and write freely; the portion of the whole which is owned and not rented. Most of those appearing in 'Feast of the Drowned' were unremarkable for me, and none experienced any transformative hero’s journey in this story with the possible exception of the scientist Vida. Her transition from opposition figure to team member by story’s end is not spectacularly different from any other such character conversion from the series. Nor are Crayshaw and the other villains all that dissimilar from other would-be alien invaders of Earth who had the poor luck to attempt their plans on the day that The Doctor happened to be passing through the neighborhood. Like the rest of the crowd, he is prone to monologuing his plan to The Doctor in a moment of perceived victory with raspy voice. I was also underwhelmed with the silver-bullet trope of the conclusion, and expect I’m not the only reader who foresaw it in the early pages of the story. None of the complaints should dissuade series fans from reading the book- it’s very familiarities that make it a weaker story in the wider pool of SF literature are the aspects of it that will make it enjoyable to its established audience of Doctor Who fans.
This novel follows the familiar formula that Egan fans delight in: an alien hero works out fundamental physics to defend his/her/its species in a race against impending cataclysm from natural forces that are not, initially, well understood. Here, the greatest stylistic twist is that there is no counterpoint perspective from a more familiar human or near-human protagonist, nor indeed, any additional first-person characters. The story is told in a sequence of episodes from the lifetime a single creature, our protagonist Yalda. Her planet and species are never named, being alone in their perceived cosmos, so I’ll call them ‘Orthogonals’ in reference to the unique premise that the story stems from. I can’t do any justice to the carefully described mathematics provided at every step of the hero’s journey, but can summarize by saying that her pocket universe has a different, orthogonal geometry from our own, and Egan has extrapolated this to invent a marvelous and internally consistent set of physics for her to discover along with the reader.
The novel’s theme is also a familiar one: The triumphant of applied science and nobility of those who practice it’s careful pursuit. Egan even pays homage to history’s persecuted and martyred scientists by including a dash of this to the ‘Orthogonal’ civilization he’s created. In his world, however, the selfless scientists manage to escape their adversaries and found a society of their own, where all injustices are banished and the whole community labor together for the common good and a grand project to rescue their planet. Great care is given to the details of each discovery and the particulars of the plot are largely devised in service to this exposition. I feel the story would have been more engaging and the characters more relatable if these narrative priorities could be reversed. I also would have enjoyed more interpersonal conflict and greater moral ambiguity in the characters, who all felt a little too single-minded and one dimensional (no mathematical connotation intended). Yalda particularly, is a bit too righteous, and would have been much more interesting with some dramatic flaw or dark angle. Her one social handicap is an unavoidable accident of nature, completely a faultless situation, that makes her subsequent sufferings at the hands of the unenlightened seem in parallel to historical figures like Alan Turing and other victimized minorities. The story ends with moderate abruptness, although not exactly a cliffhanger, and the largest question tensely unanswered in anticipation of the follow-up novel(s). However on its own, it still stands suitably complete, and will satisfy the reader.
All of the really novel ideas and concepts here were inherited from the preceding story, Leckie’s multiply-awarded "Ancillary Justice”. With all the potential themes and angles this novel could have delved, I was disappointed to find that it was basically a stationary episode in that regard. Fascinating dimensions to and implications of divided personality were hinted, but never delivered. The stylistic convention of Leckie’s gender-neutral society, The Radch, to use female pronouns exclusively was fascinating when first employed in ‘Justice', but mostly confusing when revisited here. That combined with a slow-moving introspective plot and an overtly etiquette-oriented society often brought to mind sitting-room scenes from Jane Austen. While the climax did redeem my opinion considerably, I found myself really laboring to get through the final third of the book, which before that scene, devoted more pages to describing tea sets than anything martial, militaristic, or remotely violent, despite the majority of the settings and characters all being active-duty Imperial Navy.
The narrative takes no chronological jumps forward or backward through the timeline, and proceeds in present tense following the events of ‘Justice’. This means that the returning protagonist, Breq, remains a lone fragment of her former multi-bodied self, and can only give a conventional single POV narration, unlike the more elaborate one from ‘Justice’. Despite this, she frequently does have the next best thing through the technological aid of the multi-perspective spaceship under her command. This leads to many sly observations of dispersed characters, and a lot of speculation on their various fluctuating feelings and guesses at inner moods and motivations. With the other multi-bodied character, Anaander Mianaai, largely absent from ‘Sword’, there’s not as much opportunity left to explore this theme.
I’m also a bit surprised that Leckie didn’t set the reader up for a dramatic twist that involved revealing one or more character genders, after first subtly leading us in the opposite direction. Since there are multiple non-Radch characters who speak plural-gender native languages, this distinction could be delivered via their dialogue and is an example of the power of the written word has over cinema and other storytelling art forms. I think many will be comforted that sufficient intrigue and mysterious threads were left unanswered to fuel subsequent stories in the ‘Ancillaryverse’, but I hope they take broader, riskier leaps in the stakes and consequences.
A terrific mystery that uses takes the SF concept of telepresence into interesting corners of possibility. While many other authors include the concept in passing without much fanfare (e.g., “Chinging” from Alastair Reynold’s recent Poseidon’s Children series), Scalzi's is the first I’ve come across to so closely examine social and psychological implications associated with it’s frequent, and usually constant, use. ‘Lock In’ patients who have lost all means of voluntary muscle control, but are otherwise fully cognitive, use thought-controlled remote robot bodies to interact with the world, while separately inhabiting a communal virtual reality set aside for their kind. Additionally, rare individuals called Integrators are able to temporarily share their own bodies with Lock-ins for the same purpose, leading to all kinds of opportunity for new and convoluted identity crises. A heavy look at the possibly further extension of this situation to able-bodied and political-economic consequences bring to mind Scalzi’s earlier “Fuzzy Nation”, a re-imagining of H. Beam Piper's 1962 sci-fi classic "Little Fuzzy” which also added a political-economic dimension. As with Scalzi’s other work, this story suffers/benefits (depending on your opinion) from a ubiquitous witty and clever dialog from all characters, much as in an Aaron Sorkin drama. I find this entertaining, but unrealistic, and would prefer to see a wider spectrum of tone to differentiate the characters. And while the story’s climax and ‘reveal’ is likewise clever, it is delivered in a very snark-heavy, condescending manner. I find there to be more dramatic tension in more evenly-balanced conflicts, and would have liked to see the protagonists at greater disadvantage throughout the narrative. I respect how Scalzi has stated that his personal challenge in writing “Lock-In” was to avoid all use of the semicolon, which he felt he has historically over-relied on. I will here suggest another noble aim for a future story: To use more varied verbs in reporting dialog (i.e. avoiding the frequent use of “said” by substituting alternatives such as “answered”, “responded”, “offered”, etc).
Like Hamilton’s earlier Void trilogy, this story is largely set in the pocket universe of The Void, where electronics and other post-19th century technology fails, and society has developed around ubiquitous psychic ability. Hamilton avoids continuity problems by devising an independent planet, Bienvenido, within the same Void as the earlier stories on which to stage the action. Here, all the same physical Void laws remain the same, but have slightly different nomenclature. Likewise, a similar social structure has arisen in Bienvenido to that of the earlier novels’ Querencia; a corrupt aristocracy with limited democratic dressing. Astonishingly, he also carries over the same archetype for his main protagonist; an idealist young lawman who enters the lion’s den city as an outsider intent on reform. The main situational difference between Querencia and Bienvenido is the ongoing threat of ‘Fallers’, alien pod-people who murder and assume the shape of their victims. Some sentimental wish fulfillment is introduced when a super-capable Nigel Sheldon appears on the scene from the outside universe. His Commonwealth technology is largely functional in the Void due to some effective planning, and he proceeds to manipulate people and events in order to stop these Fallers and break everyone free from the Void.
While it’s enjoyable to watch Nigel outsmart every other character in the book, it kind of reduces the drama to see him so wildly under-matched. The pacing often felt rushed as well, with several years of machinations compressed down to a few pages in order to hasten events. I think the story works best when it leans into the SF genre and away from the Fantasy one: The Commonwealth scenes are just more entertaining to me than the horseback ones. One notable exception can be found in the most interesting moment of the whole story, the discovery in the Desert of Bones. Here there is depth and wonder worthy of the Space Opera genre.
My biggest surprise with this story is how proximate it is to the Void trilogy. While it is technically set in between the Starflyer and Void episodes of Hamilton’s Commonwealth stories, it isn’t the narrative bridge I had expected. The readers who will enjoy this story most are those who preferred the Void stories, appreciating a good dose of Fantasy with their SF.
One of the advantages of such a long story, and I include Hamilton’s ‘Pandoras Star’ as part of this story, is that you can revisit forgotten characters and events from the earlier pages to great dramatic effect later on. Quite a few such gems get deliberately buried in the intervening text and are delightfully resurfaced when least expected. After my second reading of this pair of novels, I now hold a greater respect for the structural planning that went into it’s plot line and pacing.
As the publisher’s blurb informs us, the story focuses on a society under threat from both an external and internal alien threat. Although neither is fully resolved until the conclusion of ‘Judas’, I would argue that ‘Pandora' focusses more on the Prime alien invasion, while ‘Judas’ takes on the hidden Starflyer crisis. That’s not to say that there is any less intensity of action or violence in this volume- an incredibly dramatic climax awaits the patient reader. There isn’t any new insight into alien biology or psychology compared with the first novel, but many of the human characters are explored and evolved further. A few additional settings are introduced, although none of them are as wild or varied as those already visited. As others have already noted, you really can’t read either novel in isolation from the other, so you will certainly feel well satisfied with the resolution reached by the end of ‘Judas’, putting it only any Space Opera fan’s must-read list.
This first half of Hamilton’s Commonwealth masterpiece (because it really can’t be considered in isolation from ‘Judas Unchained’), is about as perfect an example of world-building in modern Space Opera as you can find. With only a brief introductory prologue to bridge the present to his imaginative future, the reader is quite suddenly thrust into a society and setting that turns everything upside-down. Modern science's prolongation of life combined with easy and efficient FTL transportation have broken all the fundamental rules of the game, and delivered a post-scarcity standard of living across the board for humankind. With nearly limitless real estate to spread out into among the stars, there seems to be a place for every lifestyle, doctrine, and sub-culture. But after stumbling into their first hostile alien encounter, all of that progress is threatened overnight. Hamilton delivers a handful of protagonist POV characters for the narrative to alternate between, most of which are fascinatingly expert or elite in some field or another. Each is chosen for the distinct corner of the Commonwealth society they can illuminate for the reader, although some are more interesting to follow that others. Unlike the later ‘Void trilogy' set in the same story universe, the stakes feel higher here where humanity is an underpowered underdog still new to the galactic community. The simpler, faction-light society also keep the plot relatively unclouded. Despite the unusual length of the novel, it never really felt overweight or extraneous, something the later Hamilton novel 'Great North Road’ suffered from.
This fast-paced story combines the fascinating post-human robo-society of Stross’s earlier “Saturn’s Children” with an intriguing thesis that even over interstellar distances, the Almighty Dollar is the greatest force in nature. I found it hard to decide if this later was a satiric extreme or a natural progression of macroeconomics. Stross argues that human curiosity, cooperative aspirations, and other trite SF notions for the expansion of civilization into the stars are all naively ignoring the truth of how things ultimately get done: by the patient application of market forces to a situation. Here, physical colonization missions are prohibitively expensive, and can only be undertaken with the understanding that the newly established colonies pay off their “foundational debt” with the only currency that can realistically flow between the stars: information. Hilariously, but quite believably, everything in this civilization bends to this notion: space pirates are instead ‘insurance adjusters’, planetary monarchs are ‘bank presidents’, and citizens are born chattel until the day they earn off their own ‘instantiation debt’. Superimposed onto this narrative worldview is the equally exotic outlook of mechanical life. Designed to be more resilient to the hostile environments of the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and with many adopting non-anthropomorphic body plans, they nonetheless inherit quite a bit of human psychology and skeuomorphic behaviors. This keeps the characters relatable while still allowing the narrative enough flexibility to beam their consciousnesses between stars at lightspeed (something prohibited for material objects for most of the story). The plot alternates between between moments of furious action and stretches of historical exposition chronicled by the narrator in a ongoing diary, intended for an audience as unfamiliar to the setting as we. One humorous running gag throughout is the exception-less failure of unmodified humanity (referred to as ‘The Fragile’) to quickly run extinct despite post-human societies’ every attempt to help. The novel’s strongest moments, I think, are when financial concepts are explained to the reader, with a sugar-coating of SF to help it go down agreeably.
Impressively, Neal Asher has managed to up both the quantity as well as quality of the violence in this second installment to his near-future dystopian ‘Owner’ trilogy. Like a hydra, the ruthless ‘Committee’ of Earth’s rulers, quickly sprouts new leadership in the wake of anti-hero Alan Saul’s one-man revolution in ’The Departure’. Chief among these is Serene Galahad, whose Committee bloodletting efficiently secures her role as supreme ruler of Earth. For a genocidal tyrant, this character is surprisingly understandable in Asher’s hands. His first person segments taken from her POV connect the dots of her atrocities believably, while illustrating the progression of her stomach for violence. In order to level the playing field and restore dramatic parity, Asher contrives to incapacitate and diminish Saul’s abilities, which also allows some of his satellite characters to step out from his shadow a bit. Three or four other narratives alternate with these, and all of them overflow with yet more gruesome death. Delightfully, adolescent wish fulfillment comes via some new techno-tricks Saul has learned, and almost everyone gets their comeuppance, although enough loose threads remain to provide ample material for a third installment.
This story has a remarkably sophisticated plot that traces the outlines of a mystery that kept me guessing all the way through. I was shocked to find out midway through my reading that this was written in 1952, prior to the whodunit stories in his Robot series, ‘The Caves of Steel’ and ‘The Naked Sun’, which seem somehow less complex by comparison. It also had a lot more suspense and action, even violence, than I’ve come to expect from Asimov. Only in the final chapters do we see any multi-page-long monologues, something else seen frequently in Asimov’s work. Taken together, it feels like a more mature and developed story that I would have instead placed in the 1970's or 80’s. I’m incidentally glad that I had read 1986’s “Foundation and Earth” prior to this story, as it would have spoiled one of that books biggest surprises had I not.
Aside from it’s strong mystery elements, it had rather tame space opera elements, with commonplace technologies (though perhaps not for his original audience), and no aliens whatsoever. There is a very loud theme that is impossible to ignore; the dangers of a stratified social class system without any upward mobility. This seems timely to consider in our growing crisis of 21st century Wealth Gap expansion, although retrospectively looks misplaced for the time of writing.
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