Seeker

By Douglas Richards

I’ve spent most of the last few months on a fantasy binge, and so wanted to make sure to add some sci-fi to the blog before too long. Enter Seeker, by Douglas Richards.

Richards is a former biotech executive, thinker and all-around science guy. He’s by no means a bad writer, but I get the sense that he’s definitely a science guy first, and a novelist second. The characters in Seeker tend to be pretty one-dimensional, and people spend a lot of time standing around and lecturing each other about human evolution, etc. With that said, even if the characters are pretty 2-D, the plot definitely isn’t, which is the book’s saving grace.

Richards begins Seeker with a big of a headfake: our protagonist, scientist Ben Kagan, is captured by the last remnants of ISIS who are intent on forcing him to help weaponize a fleet of driver-less vehicles. Fast forward through some plot, however, and we come to the real story: an alien probe has landed in the middle of the Amazon, and engineered a “Hunger Games”-style competition between nation states to see who can capture the probe first. Throw in some bionic and robotic methods of Enhanced Human Operation (EHO), the possibility of interstellar war, and some fascinating speculation about next-gen technology, and you’ve pretty much got a sense of the novel.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the book, even if it did have some shortcomings (2-D characters, campy writing at times). The book hits its stride about half-way through, as what up until that point seemed like a rather trite story line gets fleshed out in a much more satisfying way. I also very much enjoyed the coda at the end of the book, where Richards discusses how each technological improvement featured in the book might actually take place (and when).

So to recap: this is a good choice if you’re looking for slightly more “hard” sci-fi, but with an adventure twist! It’s by no means perfect, but it’s a satisfying, if occasionally stilted, sci-fi read.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: All Systems Red, Old Man’s War

The Mad Queen

By T. Mountebank

I began Sister Sable (Book one of the the Mad Queen series) with high hopes. The book’s Amazon reviews frequently use the kinds of words that get me interested in a story: complex, dark, surprising, intelligent. With 75% five-star ratings, people are obviously finding something to appreciate in the story, but I’m afraid this is one instance where I’m going to need to diverge from the crowd: I put the book down about a third of the way through.

To a certain extent, my lack of appreciation for the book is probably a reflection of my preference for a neater (e.g. tighter, cleaner) story. As a reader, I’m open to some provocative confusion, but in general, I like to have a pretty solid sense of what’s going on, who’s who, and what outcomes I’m rooting for. There were plenty of interesting narrative elements in the opening of the book, and Mountebank is clearly a skilled writer, but I just didn’t find myself getting pulled into the action. My sense is that there was just too much going on, involving too many characters that I didn’t know well yet, for me to make the necessary progress to start empathizing with people. Too much, too soon.

My lack of interest in the story may also have to do with my general inclination towards magic systems that add clarity to the story rather than lessening it. On the spectrum of “fantasy as science” (e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s clearly delineated magic systems) to “fantasy as primordial magic” (e.g. Gandalf’s somewhat unknowable powers), I tend to prefer the former. If I can’t predict what Sister Sable will use her powers to do next, that’s not necessarily a good thing from a story-telling viewpoint. Chaotic, unpredictable magic abilities can certainly shake the story up, but I don’t think they mesh well with a story that itself is already rather chaotic and complicated.

Rating 1 – Skip it.

 

Tuf Voyaging

By George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin is best known for A Song of Ice and Fire, but he’s no one trick pony. The guy’s been publishing for decades, and working in a variety of genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, dark humor, romantic vampire fiction, you name it. For die-hard Martin enthusiasts, I recommend checking out Dreamsongs I and II, which offer a fascinating view of his evolution as a writer through the years.

Even for people who are not rabid Martin fans, I still highly recommend Tuf Voyaging. Originally published in 2004, Tuf Voyaging is a collection of short stories about the eponymous Haviland Tuf: a bit of an odd duck of a human who spends his time jetting around the galaxy in his giant ark of a spaceship, looking for ecological crises to solve. The genre here is sci-fi, but it’s definitely a soft, semi-humorous take on the genre. Most of the advanced technology is contained within Tuf’s extremely capable spaceship, which acts much like Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver (that is to say, it does whatever the author needs it to). If you’re keen on highly technical, rigorous sci-fi, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

For the rest of us, however, there’s still quite a bit here to like. GRRM is a wildly talented storyteller, and Tuf is a compelling, if emotionally distant, protagonist. Each short story zips merrily along, and I was surprised to find that the book was over 400 pages (it felt much shorter). There’s a certain attractive escapism that comes with imagining that an individual with a semi-magical ship could suddenly arrive in our atmosphere and propose to solve our ecological woes. Especially in our current political doldrums, it can be nice to imagine that there’s someone else out there that can save us from ourselves.

So help us out here, Tuf!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommend

If you liked this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon The Deep, We Are Legion (We Are Bob)