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

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)

 

 

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

 

 

Neuromancer

By William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that modern sci-fi readers may dismiss as being “old news,” but they do so at their own peril. First published in 1984, Gibson’s novel was incredibly prescient; his description of “cyberspace” presaged much of what the world wide web would become, years ahead of its time.

Neuromancer’s influence can be seen virtually anywhere you look in the modern sci-fi scene. It popularized what would become known as the “cyberpunk” genre, and more modern works like The Matrix are direct descendants of the ideas Gibson explores. In fact, there’s a certain sense in which the very character of the modern day internet is indebted to Gibson’s vision (for more on this, check out Jack Womack’s afterword to the 2000 re-printing of the novel)!

The plot follows beleaguered hacker Henry Dorsett Case, who finds himself in difficult straits in Chiba City, Japan. In return for bailing Case out, a mysterious benefactor sets him on the path to find a piece of artificial(?) intelligence, and things get pretty crazy, pretty fast. Suffice to say, there are ninjas, samurai, a whole heap of drugs, and sojourns into cyberspace.

As a novel itself, Neuromancer is a little choppier than I’d like. It’s a challenging read at times, and wading through the characters’ slang can get tiring. Beach reading, this isn’t.

With that said, this is a cornerstone of the sci-fi genre, and I continue to be amazed that anyone could have written this book before the existence of the web. Like the subject of my next review (Snowcrash), this isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read for any one who enjoys sci-fi generally.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Snowcrash

 

H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction

By H.P. Lovecraft

I’m a certified “big book” lover, and so when I wander through bookstores, my eye often settles on the bulkiest books around (insert Sir Mix-A-Lot reference here). On just such an outing a few years ago, I found myself drawn to a suitably large tome, which revealed itself to be The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

I knew Lovecraft’s name, and that it was synonymous with weirdness, but that was about the extent of my familiarity with the author. A few short hours later, I had remedied that situation, by poring over his weird and wonderful tales of woe. Lovecraft is difficult to describe- he’s very much situated in a particular place and time (or at least that’s how it feels to read his work 100 years later), and yet he’s writing about fantastic and horrific concepts that seem to transcend time. His writing is compelling, and his imagination is truly something to behold.

The enduring nature of the words, images, and, well, creatures that Lovecraft created is a testament to his skill. I mean, how many other authors dead before 1937 are the inspiration for modern board games? (I HIGHLY recommend the game, btw.) If you’re a reluctant reader of the horror genre (and I count myself firmly in that camp), I’d still suggest giving Lovecraft a try, if only because of his over-sized influence on the modern fantasy/horror landscape.

Now, one very significant caveat: Lovecraft, by any modern definition, is well… pretty racist. Even if you’re inclined to grant the guy a certain amount of slack for having lived in a different era, your eyebrows are likely to rise on occasion due to his descriptions of “mulatto’s,” etc. My personal approach is that reading an author’s work doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their premises, but I can certainly understand if some people would just prefer to skip H.P. entirely.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Edgar Allen Poe, George R. R. Martin’s Short Fiction