Mini Reviews

of

Science Fiction Books

 

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I developed this format and started writing mini-reviews of the science fiction I was reading at the beginning of 2001.  The format came out of the booklet I had put together on recommended science fiction based on my fifty years of reading.  The chart at the bottom of each review gives my quick assessment of the book.

The table at the top of each review (download files only) is keyed to the big table in that booklet.  I will collect those lines of data into a table for each Web page of reviews when I have finished posting them all.  I will also post the booklet in a revised form at that time.

When the downloads are available, they will be in PDF format, and Adobe Acrobat will be required to read or print them.  Meanwhile, this is what is available.

2001 Readings

Index - click on an index item to go down to the review

1.  Confluence by Paul J. McAuley

2.  Vigilant by James Alan Gardner

3.  Cinderblock by Jannine Ellen Young

4.  Navohar by Hilari Bell

5.  Murphy's Gambit by Syne Mitchell

6.  Crusade by David Weber and Steve White

7.  Against the Odds by Elizabeth Moon

8.  Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner

9.  Ganwold's Child by Diann Thornley

10.  The Bridge by Jannine Ellen Young

11.  The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson

12.  Fine Prey by Scott Westerfeld

13.  The Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo

14.  Shadow of the Hedgemon by Orson Scott Card

 

 

1.  Confluence by Paul J. McAuley

This book was a single volume (878 small print pages), hardback, reprint of three previous books: Child of the River, Ancients of Days, and Shrine of Stars. It is not a trilogy but one long novel, probably broken up by the publisher, with little effort to make the parts stand on their own. While McAuley has won several awards, it is difficult to see why. His writing style is extremely verbose, with narrative descriptions that add little to the readers feel for the surroundings and word selections seemingly taken from a quick scan of Roget. I have seen McAuley’s writing compared to that of Gene Wolfe, but there is little comparison.

The plot has the hero on a quest through the man-made and far future world of Confluence to find people of his own race (Confluence has thousands) and to understand his origins (found as an infant floating on a boat, no less--how's that for literary allusion?). In this quest he meets villains large and small (people and machines) and the necessary sidekicks to add color to the virtually lifeless hero, Yamamanama, Yama for short. The supporting cast of characters were better conceived and developed than the hero, and the most interesting character was killed off early for some unknown reason. The thousands of races and the cultural diversity that portends makes Confluence an interesting creation with the potential for interesting social comment, but McAuley fails to deliver any. Fortunately, the plot was linear and simple to follow throughout most of the book. Otherwise, I would probably have given up early in my efforts, since this heavy (literally) book kept hitting me in the face when trying to read in bed. The ending of the book was disappointing to say the least. Instead of resolving all the mystery he spent 800 plus pages developing, McAuley avoided resolution by using a worn out plot device of time paradox wrapped in enigma. I do not recommend this book to anyone.

 

2.  Vigilant by James Alan Gardner

This book was a standard size paperback edition of 374 pages, published by Avon Books.  The book is written in a first person narrative style and is the best example of such that I have read since Emergence, by David R. Palmer.  The narrative and dialog are compact and very witty, as are the other books of James Alan Gardner.  They are a delight to read just for the excellent prose style.

This is Gardner’s second book involving the character of Admiral Festina Ramos, which is done quite well and without the recurring character taking the lead role in the plot.  The main character of this book is also a woman, Faye Smallwood, who after a briefly told rebellious youth, joins an unusual government oversite group known as the vigil.  This requires its members to have a nano-tech implant in the brain, which provides them with a direct and instantaneous link to the central world computer, known as the world soul.  The plot encompasses plagues, aliens, alien artifacts, pocket universes, etc. all packed into an envisioned universe Gardner has used for all his books to date.  Consequently, it would help to read this after reading the first book, Expendable, but it is not necessary.

The plot is fast paced, well conceived, well developed, and satisfactorily concluded.  The main characters are well drawn, with a good balance of definition for the lesser characters.  Gardner gives you everything you need for believably motivated characters, without the useless character padding frequently encountered.  This book, like all of Gardner’s to date, was a delight.

 

3.  Cinderblock by Jannine Ellen Young

This was printed as a mass-market paperback book having 330 pages.  It is a first novel written primarily as a third person narrative.  Bell has a reasonably compact style, with a good feel for dialog.  The plot is a single thread, with either a clever use of a Hitchcock plot style, where the reader (viewer) knows the mystery’s answer and watches the protagonist bumble around looking for it, or a lack of ability to create a genuine plot mystery.  Giving Bell the benefit of the doubt results in a good read.

The plot is set on a colony world that has been struck by the same plagues as humanity’s other colonies and the Earth itself.  The main character, Irene Olsen, is a biologist looking for a cure to humanity’s problems.  On the colony planet, Navohar, she finds some potential answers through a personal adventure with the remnants of the original colony, which apparently survived the plague.  The details of how this survival happened is the plot for the novel.  The world of Navohar is briefly but well conceived, and without logic conflicts.

The characters are well conceived and reasonably developed but not terribly original.  The plot pacing is brisk and believably motivated by the characters and the situation.  All in all, a good effort for a first novel, even with the plot mystery being telegraphed in the beginning of the book.

 

4.  Navohar by Hilari Bell

This was printed as a mass-market paperback book having 330 pages.  It is a first novel written primarily as a third person narrative.  Bell has a reasonably compact style, with a good feel for dialog.  The plot is a single thread, with either a clever use of a Hitchcock plot style, where the reader (viewer) knows the mystery’s answer and watches the protagonist bumble around looking for it, or a lack of ability to create a genuine plot mystery.  Giving Bell the benefit of the doubt results in a good read.

The plot is set on a colony world that has been struck by the same plagues as humanity’s other colonies and the Earth itself.  The main character, Irene Olsen, is a biologist looking for a cure to humanity’s problems.  On the colony planet, Navohar, she finds some potential answers through a personal adventure with the remnants of the original colony, which apparently survived the plague.  The details of how this survival happened is the plot for the novel.  The world of Navohar is briefly but well conceived, and without logic conflicts.

The characters are well conceived and reasonably developed but not terribly original.  The plot pacing is brisk and believably motivated by the characters and the situation.  All in all, a good effort for a first novel, even with the plot mystery being telegraphed in the beginning of the book.

 

 

 

5.  Murphy's Gambit by Syne Mitchell

This book was published as a mass-market paperback having 377 pages.  It is written in third person narrative style with a reasonable feel for dialog.  The author’s grasp of physics and other technical areas is solid, with a plausible construct of social and political structure suitable to the early stages of a galactic expansion by humanity.  Both the technical and environmental descriptions are competent and lucid, without extra verbiage.  The characters are engaging, but a little thin in development.  From time to time in the plot development the characters seem to respond to situations in too predictable a manner, as if they were only responding to the surface situation.  The small injection of romance seemed particularly subject to this problem.  These character reaction problems are probably due to an action and reaction plot-line, which the author employs throughout the novel to keep the action non-stop, and is only a minor flaw.  From a craft point of view, this is a remarkably good first novel.

The plot itself is single path in structure and well conceived, with enough twisting complexity to keep it interesting, even though all the twists weren’t surprises.  The plot parts were well integrated and the whole they made up was strikingly believable.  The universe Ms. Mitchell creates owes a lot of debt to others like Heinlein and Clarke, but she succeeds in making her vision her own.  For long-time readers of science fiction, it is always a treat to find a writer that clearly knows they are not breaking new ground, and therefore does not spend a lot of time explaining conventions and concepts that are accepted as a viable part of the genre.  After all, that’s what genre writing is.

The plot revolves around the daughter (Thiadora Murphy) of a hero (Ferris Murphy) to the Floater culture (humans physically conditioned to low gravity) who died mysteriously during a Floater rebellion against an exploitive, corporation controlled government.  Thiadora is the only pilot around who can successfully fly a mysterious spacecraft that was found drifting in an asteroid belt of a distant star system.  The advanced technology of this spaceship holds the key to ending the exploitation of the Floaters, and Murphy sets out on a personal crusade of multiple intrigues to make that happen.  While this book has a good beginning, middle, and ending, there is all sorts of room for a sequel or two or three.  I hope she writes one.

 

 

 

 

6.  Crusade by David Weber and Steve White

This was printed as a mass-market paperback having 426 pages.  This is an obvious pot boiler for David Weber, which shows none of the characteristic willingness to take the time to develop reasonable plot and characters shown in his other books.  One suspects that much of the book was written by Steve White, with David Weber lending his name to get readership.  It is not up to the standards of Weber’s Honor Harrington series or his singles, although the universe setting seems familiar.  The basic plot of the book, which involves religious fervor by aliens is not fleshed out, and goes down basically as unbelievable.  The battle sequences are fine if that’s all you want, but there is no character motivation to hold these together.  In fact, the characters are so sketchily drawn as to make them all virtually throw-aways, which the authors do frequently in the course of plot development, and sadly, the reader doesn’t care.

This is the chronological first of the series (according to comments on Amazon), which is why I read it first.  I do not intend to read any more.  Not recommended.

 

 

 

 

7.  Against the Odds by Elizabeth Moon

This is a hardback, Science Fiction Book Club edition having 353 pages.  It is the eighth book in the Heris Serrano and Esmay Suiza series, and as such, should not be read without reading at least some of the other books, and preferably all of them.  Some authors, by choice or by pressure from their publishers, make a real effort to make each book stand on its own.  I always have second thoughts about the wisdom of spending the time and effort to do that.  I think that after a series is beyond two or three books, it is a hopeless task anyway, so why clutter the book and bore your dedicated series readers.  Which in this case, I am just that, a dedicated reader.

The previous book in the series, Change of Command, was not wrapped up as tightly as usual for a Moon effort.  This book ties together all the dangling strings of the previous novel and gives us loads of room for more in the future.  As usual, Moon uses her well-drawn characters to drive the internals of the plot.  Consequently, the more intimately you know the characters from previous works, the more enjoyable this novel becomes.  She also manages to introduce some new characters, which look suspiciously like they will be around in the future.  The plot provides the outcome for the mutiny within the Regular Space Service, begun in the last book.  It also provides closure for Esmay Suiza’s beleaguered marriage into the Serrano family.

For readers of the series, it is a must read.  For those of you who have not yet read any books in this series, start at the beginning with Hunting Party.

 

 

 

 

8.  Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner

This is a hardback, Science Fiction Book Club edition having 248 pages.  While there are a few references in the book which allow it to be placed in the same universe as Gardner’s other novels, it is essentially a stand-alone effort.  The writing style is light but a bit darker in tone than the usual bitingly humorous work of the author, as befits the seriousness of its subject matter.

The story takes place in an isolated, lost-technology village on a future earth.  The villagers are steeped in their own cultural myths that have grown to support the actual physical changing of their sex each year from birth to age twenty, at which time they must make a commitment to their permanent sexual form.  While there is a surface plot of high-tech visitors to the village and the mystery of the annual gender change, the real plot is driven by the internal conflict of the characters.  That is, the conflicts within themselves that are a product of the annual gender change, as well as the conflicts between the characters.

The novel is a tour-de-force of gender psychology, the likes of which I have not read since LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  While LeGuin’s classic is dense in both plot and style, Gardner manages to convey his messages with a greater clarity of plot and character, while still taking the reader through similar gut-wrenching shifts in gender psychology along with the main characters.  This is the kind of book where science fiction can really strut its stuff.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

9.  Ganwold's Child by Diann Thornley

This is a hardback, Science Fiction Book Club edition, having 350 pages.  According to the book’s jacket, this is a first novel, and while there are some problems, they are not overly damaging.  The plot has a very young boy, Tristan, and his military doctor mother marooned on an alien planet, where the boy grows to young adulthood in a hunter-gatherer alien culture, with his only knowledge of being human limited to what his mother can teach him.  As is traditional in the alien culture, the boy bonds with another male, Pulou, as a hunting partner and life-long companion.  When the mother grows ill, Tristan leaves with Pulou on a quest to find his long lost father, also a military officer like his mother.  They go to a human colony town in their search.  This search and the coming of age of Tristan by finding his human heritage provide the core of the book’s plot.

The author has reasonable but unevenly developed characterizations.  The best example of this is the alien Pulou, who is supposedly bonded to Tristan in some deep manner that is never adequately described.  Although the reader expects to have some insight to Pulou’s psychological turmoil at being thrust into human culture, the author rarely provides more than a shallow physical reaction by the character, with no psychological insight at all.  In fact, the reader is often left with the feeling that Pulou was a late addition to the story line that was never fully integrated into the plot.  Again, the author had some difficulty in resolving the characters at the end of the book, but she had no difficulty resolving the plot itself, although predictably.

The author also has some difficulties with spatial relationships and internal consistency, but these and the other faults are forgivable in light of the pace of the plot and the ease of her writing style.  It was an enjoyable read, and I will look for later books where she might be writing with a steadier hand.

 

 

 

 

10.  The Bridge by Jannine Ellen Young

Warner Books, Inc published the book as a mass-market paperback having 348 pages.  As a snippy aside, whomever Warner employed to write the back cover blurb has no idea of the meaning of “pandemic.”  Reading Young’s first novel, Cinderblock, did not prepare me for the quality writing and story telling of this novel.  Young displayed none of the previous, self-conscious effort to appear nouveau in style or content for this book.  The writing style for this book is classic and simple, with a good command of narrative and dialogue.  I suspect this might have been a first novel that didn’t sell until after Cinderblock’s more chic style found her a publisher and an agent.  Publishers are too frequently in love with style over substance.

The plot is a familiar one to science fiction readers (Fred Hoyle’s A for Andromeda comes to mind), but as usual, when done well, there is always plenty of room for the writer to make the story fresh and uniquely theirs.  The plot involves first alien contact through the delivery of an information-containing virus to Earth.  The virus has a devastating effect on humans that was totally unanticipated by the aliens, but also manages to deliver most of the message.  The well-structured plot tells the story of a few key humans affected by the virus and their efforts to build a stargate capable of returning with a message for the aliens.

The characters are well drawn and adequately developed, providing the reader with reasonable internal motivations for the turns of the plot.  The characters are introduced as parallel plots, but are quickly and neatly brought together.  The plot and the characters are well resolved when you arrive, too soon, at the end of the book.  Bravo, Ms. Young.  I will now be checking to see what she has written between and since Cinderblock and The Bridge.

 

 

 

 

11.  The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson

Read as an Ace, mass-market paperback having 470 pages.  This is the author’s second book.  The first book, Virtual Girl, won the John W. Campbell award for best first novel.  This book was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award.  The Color of Distance is a nice poetic title which refers to the fact that the aliens of the book communicate by changing color patterns on their skins.  The human explorer that is stricken with anaphylactic shock in response to alien organisms is saved and transformed by the amphibian-like natives (Tendu) of the planet.  She is stranded on the planet for several years and learns the native language her transformation permits her to perform.  More importantly, she learns about and integrates with the close ecology of the planet.

This is a well-written story with an easy-reading style.  The main characters are well drawn with believable, even if sometimes alien, emotions, which the author displays adroitly by shifting points of view.  The other human characters with the planetary survey team are not so well developed, and tend to be cliché and cardboard stereotypes.  The thrust of the book (ecology) reminds the reader of Le Guin’s, The Word for World is Forest, but with fewer insights and subtleties.

While the book has some shortcomings, not the least of which was the open ending, it was nevertheless very enjoyable.  It has a sequel, which I intend to read soon, along with Ms. Thomson’s first novel.  Recommended.

 

 

 

 

12.  Fine Prey by Scott Westerfeld

This book was published by ROC as a mass market paperback having 288 pages.  This is apparently the second novel of Scott Westerfeld, and I will read his first.  The style is a blend of cyberpunk, social crusade, coming of age, and first contact.  The novel starts with what looks like two strong characters, but one of the characters fades for no apparent reason, and a single heroine is left.  Or is that anti-heroine?  The author leaves us uncertain, as he should in such a broad spectrum plot line.  Some readers might feel that there is a lack of action in this novel, but there is action aplenty in the internal twists and revalations of the plot.  Of course it helps if you have a liking for the philosophy of language, which is what the book is all about – I think.  That is, the limits of knowledge as constrained and directed by the cultural programming of our minds.

The story tells of the coming of age of Spider, a young girl being groomed by the aliens at their special school on earth for humans.  During her summer breaks, she is a virtual rider of killing beasts bred through genetic manipulation using alien technology.  The sport has all the trappings of a Roman blood sport or an NFL football game.  It also has the same following of money and priviledge.  But all this is just a flashy wrapper.  The meat is linguistics, and somehow, the author makes it interesting.  There is no jacket information on the author, and it would be interesting to know more about his background.

The writing is crisp and clear, which it needs to be to carry you through the digressions of flashback.  The only shortcoming of this book is that the secondary characters are too secondary.  In fact, the personalities of the killing beasts of the hunt are as well developed as those of the people.  A few less characters would have helped, if the author had no inclination to develop them more fully.

The Aliens are well drawn as a group, even if there are no alien characters to speak of.  They are marvelously alien.  In fact, these are as alien as those of C. J. Cherryh, and that’s saying a lot.  Recommended for the brave and the young – or is that the young and brave?

 

 

 

13.  The Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo

The book as read was a Science Fiction Book Club hardback, published by Ace, having 370 pages.  The Author is a previous winner of the Philip K. Dick award, but this book didn’t do it for me.  The plot revolves around the classic SF theme known as “Big Dumb Object”.  In this case an alien made spaceship apparently floating dead in space.  The discoverers of the alien ship are a “Generation Starship” of humans roaming space with no apparent rationale for doing so.

The author does a reasonably good job with character development by relating the characters to the influences of the closed society aboard the generation starship.  The writing style, however, is colorless and tasteless, with no character nuances in the dialog and no shifts for situation or location mood.  This is the biggest failing of the book for me.

For those that are more interested in plot, the book successfully creates a well paced sense of mystery, dread, and even horror as the exploration of the alien ship progresses.  But in the end, Russo fails to deliver a satisfactory resolution for the plot’s mystery or for the characters’ foibles, thereby undercutting any hope of believability for the plot or the characters.

 

 

 

 

14.  Shadow of the Hedgemon by Orson Scott Card

The book, as read, was a Science Fiction Book Club hardback, published by Tor Books in 2000, having 365 pages.  This is the second book in the Bean series, and the afterword incidates there will be two more.  Great news, because the book was stunning.  For all of you that read and loved Enders Game, written in 1985, I highly recommend that you read the new Bean series, a parallel story to the Ender saga, which began with Ender’s Shadow.  While Ender’s Game was undoubtedly brilliant, this book is both brilliant and humanly incisive.  The maturity of Orson Scott Card in the intervening fifteen years is apparent in the development and complex interplay of the characters, the deeper understanding of human motivation, and a prose style that is virtually transparent.

While Ender’s Shadow aquaints the reader with the interplay between Bean and Ender during their time at the Battle School, Shadow of the Hegemon starts at the end of the Bugger wars, and relates the power plays for control of the nations of Earth.  The author’s command of politics as well as military strategy is impressive.  His use of this knowledge in developing the villain is sure footed and intriguing.

If you haven’t yet read Ender’s Game, do so before you start the Bean series.  After reading Ender’s Game, you can read the rest of the Ender saga (three more books), which is probably preferred, but not absolutely necessary.  It will, however, help you better understand Ender’s brother, who is a key character in the Bean series.

For purposes of my recommended reading computer listing, I have arbitrarily indicated this as the second in a series, rather than the sixth book in the universe of Ender.  However you wish to categorize it, it is a must read, even if you have to do some catch-up first.

 

 

 

 

(About 40 or 50 more to go.

It's slow getting the formats converted.)

 

 

 

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