Sunday, April 12, 2015

Time for the Stars

Time for the StarsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is juvenile science fiction book, from the 1950's (what we'd call Young Adult Fiction, today), so it must be read with that in mind. It is told in the first person, by Tom, one of a pair of identical twins. He and his brother, Pat, are chosen by a non-profit agency to participate in some tests, for an untold purpose. It becomes clear that the tests are to determine the ESP capability of twins. It is discovered that Tom and Pat have very good ESP capability between themselves, and it is finally revealed why they want ESP-enabled twins: for long-range space travel, with one twin on a ship and the other back home on earth, so that they can communicate despite the relativistic differences. (It is determined that ESP does not obey the physical laws of relativity, and is instantaneous, no matter the physical distance, or relative time displacement.0 The rest of the book is about the adventures of the ship, as they seek a habitable planet, and the differences that arise between the twins, as they age at different rates.

This is pretty much a standard science fiction tale from the 50's, without a lot of the cheesy, pro-American rah-rah. Kudos to Heinlein for addressing the issues of relativity - that facet of the book is well-done. But, ESP? Really? I guess that we should cut him some slack for that - back then, lots of people thought ESP was a reality, and could be utilized in various ways. But that was a hard hurdle to clear, for me. Once I accepted that part of the story, the rest of it went as expected - some sibling rivalry, a few "gee whiz" moments with supposedly cool technology, and the usual amount of sexism. At least Heinlein was realistic about the dangers faced on alien planets, and we were not subjected to 'bug-eyed-aliens' on the planets visited. This book is not the usual tripe of "good old American know-how" triumphing over everything, which is refreshing. For that, and for the good treatment of relativistic issues, I give it 3 stars, despite the ESP factor. I think that had I read this when I first discovered science fiction, as a young girl in the 60's, I would have LOVED it!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, Neil. How do you do it? How do you manage to write such amazing stories? Stories full of magic, full of emotion, full of truth. Stories that make you laugh, make you cringe, make you feel. As an aspiring writer myself, when I read your stories I despair - how can I ever hope to write even half was well as you do?

The stories and poems in this collection were almost all previously published. Some I had read before. One, "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" was even published as an illustrated book. But even the ones I had read before were worth reading again. That's the thing about Gaiman - his works are so multi-layered that upon each rereading you will find something new, something that catches you out, that you didn't notice before.

As in every collection, readers will find stories that resonate with them more than others. For me, these were the highlights:
"The Thing About Cassandra" - Quintessential Gaiman. It's all about the power of words to create.
"Down to a Sunless Sea" - Another quintessential Gaiman story. It's a bit creepy, and full of wonderful prose and imagery. Also kind of melancholic.
"Orange" - A delightfully humorous story, told as only the responses to an investigator's questions. A bit cheeky, but it works.
"The Case of Death and Honey" - Did you ever wonder why Sherlock Holmes got into beekeeping after retiring? This story provides the answer.
"An Invocation of Incuriosity" - Another vintage Gaiman story. Wryly humorous, with not a word out of place.
"And Weep, Like Alexander" - See previous.
"Nothing O'Clock" - A wonderful Dr. Who romp, that even non-Whovians will enjoy.
"Black Dog" - A creepy story. The further adventures of Shadow, the protagonist from American Gods. Gaiman at his best.

The stories and poems not listed were all still wonderfully written, and full of imagination and originality. They just didn't quite hit home for me. Nevertheless, they are all worth reading (and rereading).


Monday, April 6, 2015

The Ship Who Sang

The Ship Who SangThe Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great piece of classic science fiction, that holds up very well today, and doesn't feel dated or archaic. The book is a series of short stories (which can be considered longish chapters) that tell the story of Helva, a girl who was born severely physically deformed. In the time of the book (far future, with faster-than-life travel between planets) such babies were tested for brain functions, and if they passed, the babies were raised to become implanted into ships, cities or other complex entities, where they would serve as the "brains" of said entity. In the case of Helva, she was implanted into a ship. As such, her sensory inputs are from the ship, and her "movement" is that of the ship. All such "brain ships" are paired with an able-bodied human, called a "brawn," to perform activities that the ship cannot do. People embedded like this have protected rights, and basically work off the cost of their training and embedding by performing assignments for the government.

The stories in this book begin with Helva's birth and training (though briefly), her various pairings with brawns, and several different missions. Helva learned to enjoy music during her years of training, and develops her singing voice(s) with her first brawn. She gets quite a reputation, as "the ship who sings" - hence the title of the book.

All of the stories are quite interesting, exploring different worlds and/or different facets of the brain/brawn partnership. Through it all, Helva strives to be true to her own values, and also seeks to earn enough money to pay off her debts and become a free contractor. The science of how the ships work is only lightly touched on - these stories are more focused on the character of Helva and the society in which she lives and works. It is quite refreshing to read a work from this era (1969) where there is a strong female character. I'm sure it was quite ground-breaking at the time. Overall, this is a fun, mostly light, adventure story, with a great central character. I definitely recommend it!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Bookman Histories

The Bookman HistoriesThe Bookman Histories by Lavie Tidhar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an alternate history steampunk trilogy in one volume, comprising three separate books: The Bookman, Camera Obscura, and The Great Gamee. And while all steampunk novels can be considered alternate history, this one truly is, because the ruling family of Great Britain is comprised of large, intelligent lizards. (The queen is still named Victoria, however.) The origin and motives of these lizards are part of the mystery that is unraveled in the course of the novels. Each novel is fairly stand-alone, but there are common characters and plot lines that run through all three, so I would recommend that you read them in order.

This is not a short read - all three novels combine for over 1000 pages. And the story is quite complex, with quite a large number of characters and sub-plots to keep straight. It wasn't quite as difficult to get through as War and Peace, but it was close. It is truly an epic tale.

Part of the difficulty in getting though the books was the fact that I never truly connected with the characters. The only exception was the character of Orphan in the first book, but that is his only appearance. I thought I'd really like the main character in the second book, as she is a kick-ass female assassin, but she is portrayed so dryly that I never felt emotionally invested. This is my main complaint about these books - the characters, though quite complex, seem wooden, and seem to exist only to move the story to the next plot point. One gets the impression that the author had an idea for a story, and simply added in the characters as needed, in order to serve the plots.

The star of the books really is the world. It is rich and complex, and quite inventive. The author brings in both real-world and fictional characters (such as Frankenstein, Lord Byron, Dr. Jekyll, Harry Houdini, Sherlock Holmes and Oliver Twist) and weaves them into the myriad plots quite nicely, even though they may be from different eras in our world. He also uses real-wold events, such as the Chicago World's Fair. These little touches are fun, and help to lighten the rather complex plots.

Had I read these books back-to-back-to-back, I may not have struggled so much with keeping the plots and characters straight. As it was, I read the books over about a five month period, interspersing them with dozens of other books. These books just didn't pull me in, so that I was content to pause for long periods between them. For me, the mark of a successful series is that you cannot wait to pick up the next book, as soon as you finish the current one. This was definitely not the case for this trilogy, and I blame the wooden characters. Even the most interesting and inventive of alternate worlds cannot make up for this lack.

However, I would still recommend this to steampunk fans, as the world is delightfully complex, and the mix of fictional and real-world characters is quite fun. I just think that the author could have done a better job with the characters.