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Sat, 28 May 2011

May 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In May 2011 I read the following books:

1. Earth Strike, by Ian Douglas

"Military science fiction" has a bad reputation, because of books like this. The story is simple, characters are barely developed at all, and their actions are predictable. We know from the first few pages that the admiral will disobey his orders and save the day. We know that the fighter pilot that no-one likes will be a hero. It's all very depressing that so many peoples' opinions of science fiction are formed from reading crap like this.

On the other hand, it is at least exciting. I had to keep turning the page, so polished it off in a coupla days. I doubt very much that I'll read it again, but I might read the sequel if I can find it cheap.

2. The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

This collection of short stories has been sitting half-read next to my sofa for months, but I've finally finished it. That it sat around for so long without being finished made me think that I'd write a fairly critical review, and I do indeed have some criticisms. However, the last few stories were excellent and so the collection as a whole gets 4 stars.

There's no real stinkers in this volume at all. However, quite a few, especially earlier in the book, left me frustrated - frustrated that there wasn't more, frustrated at the wonderful ideas not fully developed. Wanting more is a clear sign of good writing, but when we're given so little in a short story that I am frustrated instead of just wanting to buy the author's other books, that takes away from the enjoyment, and when I review books, enjoyment is the most important aspect.

But the next most important aspect in my reviews is "literary merit". Something supremely enjoyable will get high marks from me even if of dubious quality, but something of high quality but not particularly enjoyable will only rarely get my praise. But excellent writing will sway me even if I don't enjoy reading it. Combine excellent writing with excellent entertainment and I will praise it to the stars. The last few stories in this book were of such high quality as well as being enjoyable that what I thought would be just another middle-ranking book gets within sniffing distance of the top rank. They combine fine enjoyable story telling with bold ideas, and excellent writing and structure.

The standout story is The Emperor and the Maula by the ancient Robert Silverberg, which steals its framing device from the Thousand Nights and a Night to tell a fine story in bite-size chunks perfect for reading on the bus. Also worth mentioning are Nancy Kress's Art of War and Dan Simmons's Muse of Fire which brilliantly combines space opera with Gnosticism and Shakespeare.

3. Corrupting Dr Nice, by John Kessel

I don't normally like time-travel stories. Authors rarely address well the issue of paradox, which has to be dealt with if you are to have a consistent story universe. Well, Kessel does deal with it. It's hard to know whether he's addressed it well - when thinking about complex things we use language, and languages which have evolved to deal with the concerns of a species that only travels through time at the rate of one second per second lack the tools for dealing simply with it - but he has at least addressed it well enough for it to not bring the story crashing down in a pile of smoking logic and twisted causality.

At its heart is an attempted rip-off and a romance. Genevieve and August are con artists who attempt to steal a dinosaur from Dr. Nice while he stops over in the Middle East around 30 AD on his way home from the Cretaceous. It's a decent set-up for a decent comedy in which con artist and mark fall for each other, are driven apart, and eventually looks like they're getting back together. There's a side story about the obscure biblical character Simon the Zealot fomenting revolution after Jesus went off to the 21st century to present a TV talk show, which could have been cut out entirely and still left a decent novella behind, but which serves well to build the fictional world in our minds.

Overall, it's an enjoyable romantic comedy of the sort that, as the book cover notes, is a staple of Hollywood. Just don't expect much Corruption. Dr. Nice is not corrupted in the book. There's not even any attempt to corrupt him.

4. Center of Gravity, by Ian Douglas

This book is Bad. Really bad. Where the prequel had a simple story this one has virtually none, and certainly none beyond what we already knew was going to happen before even picking up the book, it having been telegraphed in advance in the previous book. So why two stars and not just one like Moby Dick would get, or even none? Well, it does manage to be somewhat exciting, and Douglas does a fairly good job of imagining something that very few space opera authors bother with: truly alien intelligences. In fact, I recommend this book specifically to sci-fi authors. No-one else need bother reading it though.

5. Vacuum Diagrams, by Stephen Baxter

A year ago I reviewed First and Last Men, by Olaf Stapledon and was not particularly complimentary about it. This book is similar in concept. Baxter himself calls Stapledon's dreadful book "science fiction's greatest ascent", so it's not particularly surprising that he decided to emulate it and write something similarly epic. However, he does a rather better job. Baxter has written a few novels in his "Xeelee Sequence" series, and this is a collection of short stories in the same universe. They are framed by an overarching short meta-story, and are presented in a sequence spanning several million years, during which we see humanity in many different forms, some evolved, some engineered, but all still mentally and emotionally human. Stapledon's book barely has individual characters at all, but just about all of Baxter's stories concentrate on an individual or a handful of people. As a result, we don't learn so much about the history of his universe, but we can at least connect with those living in it. However, although the characters are clearly people (unlike Stapledon's which are mere shadows projected onto a screen) we don't feel for them, and they could do with more development, even within the confines of short stories.

My other criticism is that there's perhaps just a little bit too much time spent "explaining" the various technologies. This will be offputting for those unfamiliar with modern science, who won't understand, and I'm sure it will date very badly.

On the whole, I think I recommend this book, at least for those who are into "hard science fiction".

6. Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

I had high hopes for this book. Not only is it edited by Jonathan Strahan, whose The New Space Opera I enjoyed earlier in the month, it also has a new short story by the splendid Charlie Stross, which is always a good start for an anthology of short stories. And I wasn't disappointed. There are perhaps not as many stand-out works of genius as in The New Space Opera, but there are also fewer disappointments too. There's still a couple of stories that left me scratching my head and wondering why the hell the editors didn't reject them for being a load of incoherent nonsense - I can only assume that they build upon ideas in the authors' other stories that I've not read, and so they make sense to people who've read 'em - but the majority are clear, original and entertaining. Worth buying.

Posted at 20:01 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
Permalink | 1 Comment

I'm confused about Baxter. I've enjoyed a lot of his books, and he certainly has some interesting ideas, but I'm troubled by his dialogue, and a lot of his prose, and the fact that most of his characters seem to be no deeper a peg than he needs to hang his concepts from. He exasperates me in the same way that, say, Asimov did, but more so because he's so much better a craftsman in fiction. He's so nearly great.

Posted by Dr Rick on Sat, 4 Jun 2011 at 21:50:02

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