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Sun, 30 Oct 2011

October 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In October 2011 I read the following books:

1. Out of the Dark, by David Weber

There's an awful lot wrong with this book. To start with, the setup of an alien survey of Earth done several hundred years ago, and then the invasion in the present having the crap kicked out of it because human technology evolved "unnaturally fast" has been done before, by Harry Turtledove - and as surprising as this may be, Turtledove did it better: Turtledove's aliens have far more of a back-story and they behave more like rational beings. Then all too often the book devolves into spec sheets for various weapons. There's at least a hint of Jerry Ahern's so-awful-you-have-to-keep-reading "The Survivalist" series in some of the characters. And the ending, where Vlad The Impaler and his army of vampires kills all the aliens in a couple of nights is not only stupid, it's badly executed too. Weber's vampires are so ludicrously powerful as to make what little we get of Dracula's back-story implausible.

The idea of having the undead rise up in defence of Earth - in defence of their hunting preserve - is not a bad one, but the execution is awful.

On the plus side, Weber knows how to keep you turning the pages, and it is at least entertaining. But one to get second-hand for pennies and read once, I think, no more.

2. Armageddon Crazy, by Mick Farren

After the first couple of pages I was sure I'd read this before. And I had, sort of. The setup is remarkably similar to that of Heinlein's "Revolt in 2100", and also bears resemblances to that of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale": modern America has tipped over the edge into a theocratic basket-case dictatorship. In order of publication, Heinlein was first, then Atwood, then Farren, and I'd not be at all surprised to learn that Farren had read both of the others. But that's OK. He has taken those same ideas and gone in a radically different direction, his story being far grimier and more accessible than Atwood and, unlike Heinlein, lacking a happy ending. Farren's revolution eats its children and according to the epilogue actually ends up as an even worse police state than it started.

I whole-heartedly recommend it. It's very accessible and will easily transcend the boundaries of genre. I recommend it to everyone.

3. Triplanetary, by E. E. "Doc" Smith

This is a dreadful book, and yet it is supposedly part of an "essential" space opera series. Rubbish like this in the genre's early days is what gave science fiction the bad reputation that it still has amongst some parts of the literary establishment. And that it is still praised these days doesn't help - the literati and, indeed, many ordinary readers, will take one look at it, see that it is utter rubbish, and from that deduce quite reasonably that science fiction readers are idiots and the genre is worthy only of derision.

All of the characters are utterly flat and lifeless. All of them. The reason for this is clear. Near the end Smith writes "Woman-like, she wished to dip again lightly into the waters of pure emotion". He obviously sees emotion as being something fit only for women and other lower life forms. It's no surprise then that the characters are nothing but cardboard cutouts.

His characters' actions are also absurd. In particular the "super ship" that is the heroes' ultimate weapon is trivially upgraded in flight to "the limit of theoretical and mechanical possibility". No rational person would leave that until you are in a stern chase against your ultimate enemy! And let's just ignore the ridiculous science (science ridiculous even by the primitive standards of the day) and absurd engineering (in which vast machines are completely redesigned and rebuilt in a matter of hours or days - even with wartime corner-cutting that just ain't possible).

And finally, the action is tediously repetetive. Over and over again, screens flare in various colours (which are supposed to be meaningful to the characters but certainly aren't to the readers) and "rods" and beams of "Titanic force" slash back and forth mostly to no effect. I don't mind action sequences, but I object really strongly to them being so bloody pointless and devoid of either tactics or strategy.

Don't read this book. Don't even read it if you are utterly bored and have nothing else to do. You'd be better off watching paint dry or pulling out and counting the hairs in your nostrils one by painful one.

4. A Case Of Conscience, by James Blish

Wonderfully written, with a particularly strong character as the protagonist even if the supporting cast are a bit flat, this book is let down by poor choice of plot devices.

It is also scientifically hilarious, but we will forgive the author for his paddle-wheel ship across the lunar dust seas, as he started writing it in the 1950s.

The poor plotting falls broadly into two parts. First of all, human society - or at least urbanised Western society - is supposed to have moved into fortified underground shelters because of fear of thermonuclear war. Fair enough. Unfortunately, even though the threat of that war went away a long time ago, it was still compulsory to live underground for ninety days out of a hundred until quite recently, because the Shelters were so expensive to build and so should damned well be used, and even in the time the story is set expensive permits are needed to live above ground - and much of the population feels oppressed by this even if they don't know why and low-level mental illness is rife. Oh boy is that ridiculous! The cost of building the Shelters is a sunk cost, and no amount of using them will recover that money - but using them is very likely to be more expensive than not using them. Tunnels a mile deep in the earth require significant cooling, ventilation, lighting, water pumps and so on. This silly background is unnecessary. Sure, some kind of social malaise is needed for some parts of the story to work, but there are plenty of more plausible malaises to pick from!

Secondly, the story is based on the moral struggle of a priest based around his theology. Theology is always obscure, and his theological conundrum particularly so. It hinges on "recapitulation", the observation that a human embryo has at certain stages in its development some similarities to "lower lifeforms" - such as the pharyngeal arches looking like the gills of fish - which in recapitulation theory is extended to the belief that "advanced" life forms (such as humans) "go through" more primitive forms as they develop. Recapitulation has been debunked by modern science, but the superficial similarities do exist. Anyway, according to this theology, recapitulation in utero is Just Fine, but a species which undergoes recapitulation outside the womb is obviously Satanic. This assertion is never explained, and it needs to be if the reader is to sympathise with the protagonist instead of writing him off as being a bit of a weirdo.

Theology is a fascinating subject, but at its heart it boils down to this: theology is an intellectual game in which people attempt to argue coherently from axioms which, outside the theology lecture theatre, they know to be not universally accepted and indeed which appear to conflict with observed reality. To listen to theological arguments is like listening to historians arguing seriously about King Harold's victory at Hastings. Historians do occasionally write about such things, but they do it as fiction. Theologians do it as if their "what-if" scenario were fact, and it demonstrates remarkable mental flexibility and agility to manage to do it consistently. Theologians are to be commended for this, and it's a game I'd like to play some time. I'm sure it would be one hell of a challenge. The trouble for this story is that the central character actually takes theology seriously. Really seriously. For him it isn't a game, it's real. For him, if the pope said that Harold won at Hastings, then Harold won at Hastings. People like him are about as rare as those who now take astrology or Ptolemaic astronomy seriously, and readers are likely to just find him and his problem baffling rather than be sympathetic and interested: his quandary makes about as much sense to a normal person as would a moral crisis caused by epicycles.

And the author could have avoided all of that too. Instead of a baffling argument about some weird and unexplained concern of a tiny number of priests, he could have chosen any of hundreds of other dilemmas to cause the protagonist's inner turmoil.

I desperately wanted to like this book. It's very well written, and if you can get past those two egregious errors is even well-plotted, but I just don't think many people will be able to get past them. Personally, I could ignore the economically illiterate world-building, but the theology - and hence the struggle that is the heart of the story - left me cold and I found myself rooting for the "creation of Satan".

5. Dragonsdawn, by Anne McCaffrey

McCaffrey has written a great many books in her "Dragonriders of Pern" series. The author and the publishers have always asserted that they are science fiction but I'm not entirely convinced. Stories about people riding dragons in a quasi-Mediaeval society with mainly Mediaeval technology are, to me, fantasy, not sci-fi - but then, I've not actually read any of the others and am merely summarising what I've read about them. In any case, this book seems to be a bit of a retcon, as the people are thoroughly grounded as a somewhat Luddite group of colonists from Earth, and the dragons are genetically engineered from a much smaller draconic species.

I enjoyed reading it. McCaffrey has created a mostly-believable world (the dragons excepted, of course) populated by real people subject to all the usual human frailties, and she stresses them in interesting ways so that we can watch them variously break and triumph for our amusement (with apologies to Tacitus). The only real niggle I have plot-wise is that while everyone starts in a post-scarcity society where they can just requisition what they need from the colony's stores (although being Luddites they know that scarcity will re-appear) and we see the glimmerings of the beginning of a normal scarcity-based economy, mostly based around barter, there are also tantalising mentions of credit for work done, but only the odd mention here and there. This is largely a story of how a society develops under the unexpected stress of a hitherto-unknown extreme environmental hazard, and to give only the barest of hints about such an important factor in interpersonal relationships is unsatisfying.

If you have fundamental objections to dragons (and you should - the power to weight ratio and energy budgets are Just Wrong, never mind how they manage to metabolise and exhale hypergolic fuel without blowing themselves apart) and have difficulty suspending your disbelief, then never fear, they are actually only a fairly minor irritant in this story. I recommend this for everybody.

6. Wasteland of Flint, by Thomas Harlan

This is a fine book. It has no pretensions to affecting literary grandeur, for entertainment is its raison d'être, but if you wish to entertain you must have believable, sympathetic characters, imagination, and a worthy antagonist. Here we have 'em all in spades, with great economy of writing - there is almost no wasted verbiage - and I recommend this book. The only thing preventing it from getting the full five stars is that the last third is a little spoiled by some silly mysticism. It fits well into the story and does move things along, but I would have prefered a more rational methodology from the characters.

7. Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, by Anne McCaffrey

This is a collection of four novellas and one short story. The four novellas cover a period of about 40 years starting roughly at the moment that Dragonsdawn leaves off, and the short story is set several decades before that.

It's a bit of a mixed bag.

The short story which comes first is capable of standing alone, but is the least satisfying of the lot, both in terms of plot (not much happens) and quality (the writing style seems rather less mature than the rest - it's rather more "this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. The end"). The first and last shorts fit very neatly with Dragonsdawn, the first (The Dolphins' Bell) being a filling in of some details and being contemporaneous with part of Dragonsdawn; the last (Rescue Run) covering what happens several years later to some of the colonists, and also what happened to their potentially-ruinously-expensive call for help. Neither of them are capable of standing alone. The middle two shorts, "The Ford of Red Hanrahan" and "The Second Weyr" are, from the point of view of someone reading the stories in chronological order, not particularly significant. They do a good job of showing a society changing to meet the demands of its surroundings, but the trouble is that nothing that appears to be particularly important happens. Perhaps they'd be more significant if I'd read the books in publication order instead of chronological order.

Posted at 15:32 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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