Old Man’s War

By John Scalzi

Old Man’s War was my introduction to John Scalzi’s writing, and while it may not be my favorite book of his (that would be Red Shirts), I have very fond memories of it.

The premise is a great one: at a point in the distant future, mankind is dispersing through the galaxy, and human colonists are in need of protection from various hostile alien species. Enter our protagonist John Perry, a 75 year-old Earther who celebrates his birthday by enlisting in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The idea here is that the CDF wants old people with experience but little to lose, who are then given new (young, strong) bodies in return for their commitment of service.

Here’s where things get a little weird (which is a Scalzi-special). You know how from time to time you may come across people saying things like “you have no idea how much hanky panky goes on in nursing homes?” And then you immediately steel yourself against that knowledge, and desperately try to forget you ever heard it in the first place? Well, permit yourself to be open to that information for just an instant, and then imagine what would happen if a bunch of those nursing home residents were given new, strong, virile bodies. Spoiler: they get freaky pretty quickly.

Anyway, this section of the book is all in good fun, and it’s sort of cathartic to read about Perry (whose wife had passed away years ago) relieving his younger days. From there, the book transitions into more of a straightforward tale of militant space exploration, with all the alien and spaceship conflict that typically entails (there are definitely hints of Heinlein here). There’s definitely more to the story (and at least one pretty incredible coincidence to help drive the plot along), but I won’t spoil the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. At 332 pages, it’s a relatively quick read, and Scalzi keeps the plot moving along in a way that demands your attention. The book also spun off five sequels (though I think I petered out around book five), so if you enjoy this one, there’s plenty more Scalzi to go around. If you’re looking for a military-themed sci fi novel, you could do much worse than Old Man’s War!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Forever War, Red Shirts

 

For We Are Many (Bobiverse, Book 2)

By Dennis Taylor

Last week I reviewed the first book in the “Bobiverse” series, We Are Legion (We Are Bob), which I found to be a surprisingly engaging “hard sci-fi” novel. Book two, For We Are Many, picks up right where book one left off, with former human (now AI replicant) Bob and his many clones attempting to re-settle Earth’s population, while simultaneously exploring the universe and encountering new friends and foes.

Make no mistake, this series is definitely on the “hard” end of the sci fi spectrum (it’s pretty readable, but a lot of the plot and action sequences depend on engineering, space physics, etc.). Being a soft sciences kind of guy, I readily admit that Taylor’s science could be total BS, and I wouldn’t know it, but I get the impression that he’s done his research. In that sense, and in terms of the books’ comedic bent, I think The Martian is probably the closest comp I can come up with.

During the course of the books, the eponymous Bob continues to create clones of himself, both to perform specific tasks (like monitoring an alien civilization), as well as to expand his (and humanity’s) ability to explore and eventually colonize distant planets. I did find it occasionally difficult to follow the proliferation of the various Bobs, which number in the dozens (hundreds?) by the end of the second novel. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as each of the Bobs retains a certain core identity, but continue to evolve and diverge from the original Bob’s perspective as they exist separately from him. Because they’re all basically the same person, it can be a struggle to keep track of who is who, though Taylor does a good job of making sure that doing so is not necessarily essential to following the plot.

I did find myself drifting a bit towards the middle of the book, which primarily focuses on re-homing humanity and terraforming planets, but the action picks back up with the emergence of a threatening alien civilization (who receive the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “the Borg,” as all true Bobs are trekkies). By the novel’s end, I was happily back in the saddle, and am eager to see what book three holds.

To recap: this series is fun and provocative, if a little bit more on the “techie” side of things than I typically go for (the author is a computer programmer, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of these books). You should absolutely start with book one if you’re considering picking up the series, and if you like that, you should absolutely give book two a try!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: The Martian, A Fire Upon the Deep

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

By Dennis Taylor

Wow, another pleasant surprise! Like Kings of the Wyld, I picked up a copy of Dennis Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) without doing much in the way of research (it helps that it’s currently available as a free rental on the kindle store).

Here’s the pitch that got me to take a chance on it:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad – very mad.

The beginning of the book is a little rocky, but it also turns out to be a bit of a red herring. What Bob does on Earth isn’t actually all that interesting- it’s once he launches into orbit (and starts making copies of himself) that things get fun. Once you reach the meat of the book, you realize that it’s really more of an extended thought experiment about how someone might react when put into the odd (but not impossible?) situation in which Bob finds himself. If you could create more copies of yourself, would you? How many? What if they turned out to be very similar, but not identical to you? What if one of them insisted on calling itself “Homer,” primarily to get a rise out of you?

In tone, the book is quite similar to Andy Weir’s The Martian, insofar as it’s a mix of somewhat campy sci-fi humor and more technical “hard science” about what is going on during Bob’s travels. I will say that the book definitely is not high brow literature. The writing is by no means bad, but this is a book about plot, not prose (or character development, for that matter). I did cringe occasionally as Taylor inserted various pieces of sci-fi lore for color, but as in something like Ready Player One, it’s all done with a good humored wink and a nudge.

To sum it up, this is an entertaining speculative novel about space travel, cloning, artificial intelligence and the colonization of the stars, all with a significant dose of sci-fi camp thrown in for good measure. If that sounds like your thing, I highly recommend you give it a try! I’m on to book two

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: Ready Player One, The Martian

Revenger

By Alistair Reynolds

I’m a relatively recent convert to science fiction, and spent a considerable portion of my first twenty-some years fuming about why libraries insisted on lumping dry old sci-fi in with my beloved fantasy books. That began to change around 2011, when I encountered Dan Simmons’ incredible and challenging novel Hyperion which, fittingly enough, was more of a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid (or at the very least, a sci-fi/literary fiction hybrid).

Since then I’ve slowly but surely incorporated more sci-fi into my literary diet, and have had the pleasure of reading several books by noted sci-fi guru, Alistair Reynolds. I first read Reynold’s House of Suns (more on that in a future review), but my most recently read Reynolds (say that 3x fast!) is Revenger.

Like Hyperion, Revenger is sort of a hybrid of several different genres, though it still fits comfortably within the “sci-fi” range. A review I found on Amazon described it thusly: “Basically, it’s Treasure Island meets Moby Dick, set in space, with a nice Blade Runner-ish color palette and a cast of character worthy of a Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.”

I really can’t argue with any of that assessment! The story follows Arafura Ness who, along with her sister Adrana, decide to leave the relatively comfortable world they grew up on, in search of interstellar adventure. The sisters’ desire to set out from their home is assisted by the revelation that they have the rare talent to be “bone readers,” which enable them to provide a vital service to ships searching for lost treasure.

This lost treasure ends up being one of the most fascinating parts of the story, to me at least (though I’ll admit to having a certain preoccupation with the treasure in “Treasure Island” as well, and indeed remember having one dream in particular about having discovered the hoard for 10 year-old self! If only…). Essentially, in this universe exist a number of “baubles,” or planetary enclosures that only open for very specific periods of time. So for instance, a ship’s captain may determine that a certain bauble will be open for a week, starting tomorrow, and so will position their crew to raid the planet’s treasures during the time that the bauble is open. The downside is that when a bauble closes, there is no way to manually open it, and so if any crew members are left inside, it’s game over.

Arafura and Adrana do indeed find themselves embroiled in adventure, but as it turns out, they may have bitten off more than they can chew. I’ll leave the plot summary there, except to note that there are SPACE PIRATES, so that’s pretty cool. Reynold’s writing is solid, and I found the book to be highly readable. There’s some “hard science” space travel detail, but in general this is more a book about interstellar adventure than anything else (did I mention the SPACE PIRATES?).

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. In fact upon finishing it, I was surprised to see that it had been 400+ pages, as it felt much shorter to me. While it’s not my favorite Reynolds work so far (that’s House of Suns), I’m more than comfortable recommending this one to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction or adventure.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: House of Suns, A Fire Upon the Deep.

 

The Martian

By Andy Weir

I started reading The Martian in 2013, having heard that it had been picked up for what would become the 2015 movie starring Matt Damon (if you haven’t seen the movie, you should, but read the book first!). While being optioned for a movie may not always been a guarantee of quality, in this case someone in Hollywood made the right call, because this is a special book.

The plot is a fairly straightforward one: in the not too distant future, a group of American astronauts become the first humans to walk the surface of Mars. Via a series of unfortunate accidents, team botanist Mark Watney is injured on the planet surface, leading the rest of the team to presume him dead. Now stranded and alone on an inhospitable planet, Watney is challenged to survive long enough to allow someone, anyone, to attempt to perform some kind of rescue.

The Martian ends up being a remarkable story because of the author’s ability to blend two unlikely themes: science and what might be called “heart.” This is very much a “hard science” book — Weir has done meticulous research on what methods and items would be available to someone in Watney’s situation, and quite a bit of the book comes down to Watney musing about technology and biology. However, Weir never loses sight of the fact that the real pulse of story is the degree to which a reader cares about Watney himself, and goes out of his way to make Watney a humorous and relatable protagonist. Make no mistake, this is a funny book, and not just by the normally dour standards of science fiction.

The second half of the book zooms out to incorporate more characters back on Earth, as people in NASA-like agencies work to try to improve Watney’s chances of survival. These interactions can admittedly get a little cheesy (especially in the movie version), and yet, I don’t think I would have it any other way. There’s a lot of gritty, dark writing out there, much of which I love dearly, but there’s also something to be said for an old-fashioned “humanity bands together” story. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shedding a manly tear or two on the subway.

There are very few people to whom I wouldn’t recommend this book. Maybe if you really, really hate potatoes? (You’ll get it when you read the book.) If you’ve been meaning to get around to reading it, let this be your kick in the pants!

Rating: 4- Mandatory Reading

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leviathan Wakes

 

 

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, Book 3)

By Ann Leckie

In most book series, and particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy genres, the narrative universe tends to grow and expand with each new book. It’s a rare series that narrows in focus over time, and off the top of my head, I can’t recall another sci-fi “space opera” type that fits that descriptor, with the notable exception of Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which concludes with Ancillary Mercy.

As blog readers will recall, I found the series’ initial installment, Ancillary Justice, to be a show-stopper. I loved the flashbacks to Breq’s former existence as a multi-bodied AI, and found the universe of the Radch to be both mysterious and intriguing. Like many other authors before her, however, Leckie seemed to struggle a bit with the “middle” book of the series (Ancillary Sword) which seemed a bit slow and myopic compared to book one.

Book three picks up just where book two had left off, with Breq continuing to try to maintain control of the Athoek system, and opposing the machinations of the many-bodied ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. But like book two, much of the actual narrative of the book is devoted to Breq’s relationships, both to the members of her crew, and to the inhabitants of Athoek. (I notice that one of the prominent Amazon reviews refers to the book as being more “soap opera” than “space opera,” and I’m inclined to agree.) While I’m not normally a fan of that kind of narrative (it’s part of what I didn’t love about Cherryh’s Morgaine books), I think Leckie does an admirable job of tugging on the readers’ sympathies. Even as the pace slowed in books two and three, I found myself rooting hard for Breq, even as I occasionally reminded myself that Breq was an android (sort of).

Unfortunately, while the narrowing of scope does allow for some increased attention on the characters’ emotional state, it doesn’t help with the overall arc of the story, which seems underdeveloped. As in book two, Ancillary Mercy’s conclusion seems rushed and unsatisfying, and I thought Leckie’s resolution re. Anaander Mianaai felt forced. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but it suffers in comparison to book one, which is unfortunate.

Final analysis: if you’ve gotten through book two, by all means, finish the series. Though I thought books two and three represented a step down from the start of the series, I was never tempted to stop reading, and I would happily read future stories about the Radch. If you don’t mind a little “soap opera” mixed in with your “space opera,” this could be the series for you!

Rating 2- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoyA Fire Upon the DeepHouse of Suns.

 

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, Book 2)

By Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, book one of the Imperial Radch series, is a tough act to follow. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start! Leckie’s initial foray into the world of the Radch was truly innovative, and not just because of her unusual treatment of gender (see my book one review for more details).

In book two (*spoiler alert*), the story re-centers on Breq (formerly the ship known as Justice of Toren, and now an AI installed in a single human body), in the slightly implausible position of having been appointed captain of her own ship. Breq, like the rest of Radch civilization, finds herself caught up in a conflict inspired by Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch. With her newfound ship, Breq travels to the planet Athoek, where she is determined to right past wrongs, and to resist the influence of Anaander Mianaai.

If you peruse other reviews of the book, you’re likely to see people argue that Ancillary Sword suffers from “second act” syndrome, insofar as it lacks the initial punch of book one, and doesn’t offer the satisfying conclusion typically associated with a series finale. I’m not going to argue differently. The scale of the book is much smaller than that of Ancillary Justice, in particular because we are given no more of the flashbacks into Justice of Toren‘s past, which constituted a lot of the appeal of the first book. The events of book two are restricted to a relatively short period of time (a year, maybe?), and while (presumably) there is a lot going on elsewhere in Radch space, we never get to see or hear about it.

In classic “second act” fashion, the book doesn’t finish with a bang, but rather sets the stage for book three. The conclusion felt a bit rushed to me, though that could have been because my kindle kept reassuring me that I had 10% more book left (appendix and excerpts from other books… boo.).

With all that said, do I regret reading the book? Not at all. While it may not be as strong as book one, I was still eager to read more about the Radch, and even though Breq’s character might not seem as nuanced as it was in book one, I still found myself rooting hard for her. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Breq and her ship, as both settle into an unusual relationship of “AI captain in charge of AI ship.”

So here’s my take: if you read Ancillary Justice and enjoyed it, there’s no reason not to continue with the series. If, however, you tried book one and weren’t blown away, it’s unlikely that book two will win you back.

Rating: 2- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, House of Suns