Cheshire, CT USA | Member Since 2012
I loved Banks' terrific extrapolations of philosophies & technologies into believable societies. It had the right balance of action and slower, thought-intensive scenes that one would expect in the mind of a professional gamer, such as the protagonist. I do find the omnipotence of The Culture to be a detraction here, as the stakes don't seem to rise very high; there is an unexciting feeling of invulnerability that might be better left in some doubt. I also really enjoyed the ending twists, although many were unguessable due to the 'silver bullet' SF tropes employed.
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.
In all the mentions of this novel and peripheral encounters I had with it prior to reading, it somehow eluded me that it’s what I would consider ‘YA’ material- the polarizing Young Adult label that either terrifies or ensnares readers in droves. Fortunately, it is undoubtably SF as well, and carries the theme of danger lying in wait alongside graciously given gift-horses. As stated in the publisher’s jacket summary, it is about the recovery of alien technology from crash-landed UFOs. There’s some promising conflict set up between two opposing alien civilizations from which the two crashes originate, but it is largely deferred to subsequent novels. The teenage trio of protagonists take on some superpowers, as they tend to do in YA stories, and struggle to save the world while keeping their secret from Mom & Dad. The challenges they face all played out very over-and-done quickly, even after some heavy foreshadowing, and so the victories seemed unearned. The three teenagers are also all written fairly interchangeably I thought, and I never full distinguished them in my mind. I will leave it to younger readers to judge whether Phillips successfully captured teenage thought and dilemma adequately, although I suspect his characters a bit over-matured. One satisfying technique used here successfully was to slowly weave together plot threads from disparate characters which at first seemed unrelated. With a number of unresolved questions and troubling character disappearances, we seem well positioned for a follow-up story, though I hope it expands the stage settings and characters.
This debut novel by Madeline Ashby asks some interesting questions about what the motivations and desires of humanoid AIs would be, and the surprising answer is remarkably similar to what their human creators seek. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of robo-happiness looks much the same as the familiar goals, with some cosmetic differences in the health & diet departments. Ashby’s von Neumann robots are lot like the vampires making the rounds in a lot of YA fiction these days: Super-powered, beautiful versions of people who happen to eat something unusual, but share all our emotions and dramas. Here, I was a bit disappointed, and saw potential for some wildly interesting outlook that superimposes inarguable machine logic on top of everyday life. The closest thing here was the universally in-built “failsafe” directive that the vN possess which compels them to obey and cherish humans, (their garlic/sunlight/stake/holy water Achilles’ heel). The central conflict of the story arrises from, naturally, the appearance of a vN who can willfully ignore her failsafe. Like many of those YA ‘paranormal romance’ stories, there is a blossoming romance in the works, and an authoritarian regime eager to snuff it all out. The first person perspective brought to mind Charles Stross’ “Saturn’s Children”, which also featured a female humanoid robot protagonist, and a parallel mechanism to the failsafe whereby robots are compelled to obey all humans completely and lovingly.
When adapting Doctor Who for audio presentation, it makes great sense to use a audio-centric setting, as “Dead Air” does with it’s 1960’s pirate radio station floating off the coast of England. The format also lends itself to suspenseful “In the dark” scenes where the listener is just as blind as the characters. Despite these in-built advantages, however, the story drags a bit for want of relatable characters to identify with or even a sufficiently menacing villain to overcome. Told from the first person perspective of the Doctor himself, the story right off precludes any hope of fully relating to the protagonist’s fear or dread; David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor doesn’t really suffer from these. The only way for the author to provide any exposition into the threat is for the Doctor to explain it to other characters, or directly to the listener through a clever "narration for posterity” trick. Companionless, he takes on the temporary acquaintance of a mostly helpless young lady named Layla, who he spends the story attempting to protect from an Alien weapon that has achieved some degree of sentience and (therefore?) bloodthirst. In between these moments of terror-filled tension, he provides a sympathetic, “girlfriendy” shoulder for Layla to unburden her unrequited love sob-story on to. While there are only four characters in this brief adventure, it was enjoyable to hear Tennant narrate the additional voices, which I felt were memorably done. The most off-putting element for me was deus ex machina provided by that sonic screwdriver, the crutch of lazy writers since 1968.
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