Dave's Free Press: Reviews

being why I think things suck and/or rock


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Thu, 11 Jul 2013

Breakthrough, by Michael C. Grumley

This is, I think, the author's first book, and is self-published. I have to be honest, it shows that it's his first, with some fairly elementary and annoying errors.

He says on his website:

[I] dreamed of writing action thrillers the way he thought they should be written; stories with unique plots that move and keep the reader guessing until the very end. Enter Breakthrough, a story with a fascinating plot which takes the reader on an exciting ride and makes it virtually impossible to guess the ending.

and he does a pretty good job of achieving that. This book's plot does keep moving and keep the reader guessing, it is an exciting ride, and the ending is unexpected. He's definitely got the right idea, but needs to work on the execution.

Here are some of the execution errors that I noted in the first few pages.

Much of the action occurs near the Bimini islands of the Bahamas. The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean, but in the North Atlantic, but I could live with that if he said they were in the Caribbean or in the Caribbean Sea. But we get the Caribbean Ocean. A speed is given in knots per hour, but it should be just knots. A vessel is described as a "nuclear class submarine", which is incorrect. There are many classes of nuclear submarine, which have class names like Trafalgar or Astute or (for the Yankees) Lafayette or Los Angeles. These are all little things. Tiny, even. But they're like midges - tiny, obviously wrong, and bloody irritating. An editor should have spotted them.

I have a much bigger bone to pick with some of the science. One of the characters has her scientific reputation besmirched because people don't believe her "calculations" that sea level is dropping. It really is dropping in the story, dropping substantially, and it would be utterly trivial to measure it, but apparently no-one thought of, oh, I don't know, looking at a tide gauge. What happens near the end at Tristan da Cunha is ridiculous in itself, but its effects are even less believable. But my biggest beef is with a couple of little aspects of the story itself. The main bad guy is a silly cardboard cut-out. But worst is (and I can say this without actually giving away anything that matters) the way all the dead good guys come back at the end. Laughable.

So, having ranted and moaned for 400-odd words, what do I think of the book? I think surprisingly well of it actually, partly because I didn't spend much money on it. It's only £2 on the Kindle. And for your coupla quid you do get a decent story that whiles away a few hours, which is the raison d'être of fiction. I hesitate to recommend it, but neither can I say you should avoid it. And, in the hope that the irritations will go away as Grumley gains more experience as a writer and publisher, I'll keep an eye out for his next book.

Posted at 00:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Thu, 4 Jul 2013

Intrusion, by Ken Macleod

This horrible dystopia sits firmly in the tradition of British science fiction from the 1930s to the 50s. It's an exploration of a society that, while being on the surface far less intrusive, is actually as controlling and conformist as anything Huxley imagined in Brave New World. And while there's no Armageddon, it's concerned with the little people, the middle class, their family life, and their un-looked-for struggle to survive against overwhelming events, in the vein of John Wyndham and John Christopher's "cosy catastrophes". And to cap it all there's even a touch of Orwell's 1984 as the protagonists are tortured into conforming.

One of the most important things to take from it is the idea that what might seem like restriction and control of just one section of society and so not something for everyone to be overly concerned about is actually a symptom of a far deeper rot and so we should all care. In this case it's women who are most obviously repressed, with an alarming lack of bodily autonomy and restricted from most workplaces because of the "dangers" of "fourth hand smoke" leeching out of the walls having been put there by smokers decades ago. The restriction is for the sake of their unborn, nay as-yet-unconceived children. This is, of course, justified. Using science! And that is my biggest gripe with the book. The justification is nonsense, and Hope, the protagonist, is supposed to be well-educated but blithely accepts it:

'But working in offices where people once smoked thirty years ago doesn't seem so risky [as compared to mining].'

'Oh, it isn't', said Crow. 'But it's still risky. That foul stuff leaks out of the walls and floors for decades.'

'Only in tiny amounts,' said Hope.

'Yes!' said Crow. 'That means it's actually riskier than smoking itself, because the amounts are so tiny. I mean, we're talking about femtograms per cubic metre. You know how small that is? It's smaller than a subatomic particle! When you had actual smoke particles in the air, you could at least cough ... these nano- and femto-particles can slip right between the molecules and into your lungs and bloodstream.'

'Yes, well I do understand that', said Hope.

This is especially ridiculous when we see that the society of the novel has a good grounding in physics, physical chemistry, and the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles.

As the story unfolds we see that while the repression of women is the most visible repression - official policy even (although, of course, the state wraps it all in a veneer of deep concern for womens' welfare just as in the 19th century) - everyone else who dares to rebel even a little bit is also targetted eventually.

So much for the synopsis and my political ranting. I suspect that, as is often said of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, you can find something to suit your own pre-conceived notions (I'm too polite to call them prejudices) in any dystopian or utopian novel.

Of course, to be a good novel we need more than a sound political basis and auspicious antecedents. We need an entertaining story whose world and plot make sense, and we need it to be inhabited by people. Macleod, as expected, does just fine. I have minor quibbles about a couple of points in his world - the unwarranted acceptance of ridiculous pseudo-science mentioned above, and the efficacy of "The Fix", the seemingly magical pill whose acceptance the whole story revolves around. And, again barring the above, the characters are people, not just puppets obedient to their master's will. They have doubts, fears, love and joy, and they behave and speak believably.

I have no hesitation in giving this book top marks.

Posted at 22:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | sci-fi | thriller
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Sun, 19 May 2013

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

This fourth book in Stross's Laundry series is, apparently, like the previous ones, written in a pastiche of some other author's style, but this time it wasn't one that I recognized. It's also a damned fine read.

Many series get tired after a while, as the characters stop developing or worse, develop into one-dimensional archetypes. This doesn't happen here. We learn and see more of both the characters and institutions. We also have a well-developed antagonist, one who is (of course, this is a Laundry book) utterly evil, but for the best of reasons and thinks he is on the side of the angels.

However, I feel that the ending was rather rushed and not particularly believable. No sensible bad guy would leave one half of his Doomsday Device utterly unguarded, especially when he knows that the opposition are in the field. And the idea of the double double-cross and subtle but quick manipulation by the Black Chamber of institutions and individuals is frankly silly. For that I deduct one star. I'd deduct more except that the rest of the book is so gloriously fun to read, deftly combining horror, action and comedy as we have come to expect from the series.

I recommend this book, provided that you have read the previous installments. If you haven't, then you should read them first.

Posted at 19:07 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | comedy | horror | sci-fi
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Mon, 13 May 2013

Rule 34, by Charles Stross

This is a sequel to Stross's earlier Halting State, although you don't need to be familiar with the earlier work to make sense of this one.

It's a page-turner alright, filled with believable characters having an awful time for our entertainment, and the text sizzles with humour. You'll have to be a geek to understand all the little jokes, but that's not a pre-requisite for enjoying the book, you'll just get more out of it if you're from the right background.

Unconditionally recommended for all but the most puritan of agèd aunts, as it gets a bit nasty at times.

Posted at 19:50 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | crime | sci-fi
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Sun, 5 May 2013

The Martian, by Andy Weir

"I'm pretty much fucked. That's my considered opinion."

That's how this book begins, and it is, unfortunately, how you are too if you want to read it. It was available on Kindle, astonishingly cheaply, but is no more, as Weir recently sold publication rights to Random House. It is scheduled for re-release in February 2014.

[update: 2014-04-28: and lo, it is available from the nice Mr. Amazon.]

It is the tale of how, after an accident on a manned mission to Mars, one astronaut is left behind, his fellow crew members believing him to be dead, and how he survives. Our Hero, Mark Watney, is primarily a botanist, but has also been cross-trained as a mechanic and has some background in chemistry, and it's a simple story of how he uses these skills to overcome problem after problem, difficulty after difficulty, to survive, regain the ability to communicate, and eventually to be rescued. It is a paean to creativity, stubbornness, and to having paid attention in school.

For the vast majority of the story Watney is the only character, and thankfully he feels like a real person. The few other incidental characters are also fleshed out enough that we can sympathise with them. The story bounces across the Martian landscape at a steady pace, and it's hard to put the book down. And Weir has a wonderful turn of phrase:

" Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped. "

I loved this book, and if only you could read it you would too. Make a note in your diary so that it reminds you to buy a copy next year when it becomes available again. In the mean time, Weir has several other works available on his website.

Posted at 14:03 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Fri, 3 May 2013

How Firm a Foundation, by David Weber

This book starts terribly. We are treated to sixty pages of incomprehensible gibberish in which sailors desperately thwart the top-gallants and abaft the mains'l while the sea larboards the weather side. Yes, we get the idea that they're in dire peril, but for God's sake GET ON WITH IT. At a 'mere' 800 pages for the whole book, far fewer than its bulky predecessor in the series A Mighty Fortress, which weighed in at over a thousand, this is approaching 10% of the book, and much of this nautical nonsense serves little purpose. Yes, what little of it is comprehensible to people without peglegs and clavicular psittaciformes is exciting, but it doesn't advance the story much, and certainly not by nearly 10%.

Thankfully, normal service is soon restored and as well as interludes of exciting local action as navies smash each other to bits, the global story is significantly advanced. One particular advance opens the way for what I'm sure will be very dramatic events in the next volume in the series.

Returning to my criticisms of the previous volume, the cover art is far less awful - it's still not great, but at least it's not offensively bad this time - and the internal monologues are kept under better control. They're still there, they're there in everything Weber writes these days, but at least they don't distract too much from events. The stupid names? Well, yeah, they're still there. It wouldn't really be possible to fix that now. But I still hate them.

If it wasn't for the meaningless interludes of ahoying of spinnakers and the stupid names I'd just about award this five out of five shiny gold stars. It's not a great book, but it is at least thoroughly enjoyable, which matters far more to me than all the literariness in the world. Of course, this deep into a series it will make little sense if you've not read all the previous volumes, but with those caveats I recommend it.

Posted at 23:52 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Force Cantrithor, by Michael McCloskey

Another month, another self-published novel from Michael McCloskey. He don't 'alf work 'ard guvnor. And again, he sent me a free review copy. I have been most remiss in reviewing it. He sent it to me in February, I read it at the beginning of April, and only now, a month later, am I writing my review. Bad David!

First impressions were not good. In fact I'll go further than that. They were downright bad. It wasn't at all clear who the protagonist actually was, his role was unclear, but worst of all was the damned mind-reading. Telepathy smacks too much of magic, something I'm not particularly keen on in fiction, and especially when mixed with science. It's also far too easy to take telepathy too far and end up with an unfeasibly powerful character who is somewhat flat and one-dimensional. I've got a bit weary of telepathy in a science-fictional context from reading David Weber's series of Honor Harrington novels and so I was glad after a few tens of pages to realise that McCloskey doesn't make much use of it, and later on when he does use it there has been a plausible explanation.

I was also glad that my initial confusion about who the hell the protagonist was was soon cleared up just enough to stop me throwing the book down in disgust. Well, from deleting the ebook anyway. In fact, his process of discovering who he is, what has been done to him, and what he can do is a large part of what made the book worth reading. Here we have a character who develops before our eyes, warts and all - and there are oh so many juicy warts!

As usual, McCloskey does a great job with The Other. There are two of them: Our Hero, whose mental state is truly odd, and the evil looking beasties in the cover art.

This isn't to say that the book is entirely without flaw. Some parts of the story are brought in very suddenly and don't quite fit, a sign that a bit more time may be needed on editing - I'd be willing to wait a bit longer between books for this. And I found the female psychiatric assistant Mcclaren to be quite hard to believe. But despite those, McCloskey tells a good exciting story, and mostly tells it well. When you take into account the low price I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this book.

Posted at 22:27 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Fri, 22 Feb 2013

Euclid's Wall, by Michael McCollum

Michael McCollum has been self-publishing for many years - since at least 1997 - in both paper and alectronic formats. His books (this is the tenth I've bought) are mostly space opera. They don't really stand out from the crowd, but are entertaining enough. This, however, is a bit of a departure from his norm, being set on a post-Apocalyptic Earth.

After an experiment into novel new energy sources went horribly wrong, Earth was wracked by terrible earthquakes and beset by huge tsunamis and civilisation fell. But as the years passsed, things calmed down, the survivors regrouped, and society is at roughly the level of the late 17th century by the time of the tale. The tale is one of exploration and a search for resources and information about the calamity that befell the "high civilisation", which turns into a desperate scramble to save the world. How convenient that European civilisation had managed to claw its way back up to a level at which it could save the world with an expedition half way around the globe, and at just the right moment!

The coincidence that allows our heroes to be heroic is ridiculous, of course, but that is the nature of books that have heroes. Heroes are never believable. Everything else is plausible (fanciful, perhaps, but at last plausible) and it's a rollicking good story that you will want to polish off quickly, and so I recommend it.

And the world he creates for this book would easily support a host of other stories, either in series or stand-alone. I hope that he writes them.

Posted at 23:17 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Thu, 21 Feb 2013

The Trilisk Supersedure, by Michael McCloskey

This is the third book in an ongoing series, self-published by the author and available on the Kindle and also for other e-book platforms via Smashwords. The first in the series was cheap n cheerful fun, but with poor characterisation and dialogue. The follow-up was an improvement, and still jolly good fun to read, and while the author had sent me a review copy for free I would have been happy to pay for it.

So what about this one? Again, McCloskey sent me a free copy, and I'd be happy to have paid for it. His people continue to improve - dialogue is more natural and characters, even minor ones, feel more solid - and he still does a fabulous job of creating alien aliens and ecosystems, and to a certain extent this is what saves this book, with some deliciously cynical back-stabbing and contingency planning on the part of the alien character who we're never sure is an antagonist or protagonist. However, I found the story a bit confusing. It wasn't clear to me what the relationships were between some of the factions that Our Heroes ran into and what they were doing there, even once I'd got to the end of the book, and at one point I almost just put the book down half finished in irritation. But I persevered and by the end my confusion was irrelevant.

That lingering confusion leads me to marking this book down slightly from its predecessor, but it's still an enjoyable read (especially given the low price), and I recommend it if you've read the previous volumes. If you've not read the previous volumes, you won't get anywhere near as much out of it, but the stories are short and cheap so you can easily catch up first.

Posted at 22:37 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Mon, 14 Jan 2013

Bitter Harvest, by Michael R. Hicks

Bitter Harvest begins a year after the end of Season of the Harvest, with little in the way of introductory material for a reader who didn't read the prequel, and follows the same heroes as they find that they weren't quite successful enough in the previous book. This time round there's more action - a lot more shooting and blowing things up, at the sort of level that you might expect in a Hollywood vehicle for washed-up actors who need to come out of retirement to pay an unexpected tax bill. Something like The Expendables.

And like The Expendables, it requires very little mental effort to consume, probably required little to write, and after a while starts to feel as if you've read this page before. There's just too much shooting and blowing stuff up. Unlike The Expendables, however, I doubt it'll be much of a crowd-pleaser. That dreadful film did pretty well at the box office, but yer typical cinema-goer has lower standards than yer typical reader.

Even at £2.49 on the Kindle I can't in good conscience recommend that you read this, although I hesitate to tell you not to read it unless you've also not read the prequel. There's a third installment on its way called "Reaping the Harvest", according to the author's website but I'm not sure I'll bother. This installment in the trilogy left some unfinished plot lines, of course, but I wasn't left panting for more.

Posted at 18:56 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Rapture of the Nerds, by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow

I thought that Charlie Stross was like Christopher Lee: incapable of error. Oh how wrong I was.

Revisiting what used to be an old theme of his - The Singularity - and in collaboration with Cory Doctorow, who is one of the great up and coming writers (supposedly - I've not read any of his solo stuff), this should have been not just entertaining but a good read too. Unfortunately it ain't. While it's chock-full of ideas, they're not used well, being just splattered onto the page with apparently little concern for the results, amongst cartoon-like one-dimensional supporting characters and leading to slapstick results. I came very close to not finishing the book.

On the plus side, much of the writing is tight, clear and inventive, as you would expect from two established professionals, but that can't lift a badly plotted story. Not recommended, not even as a legal free download.

Posted at 17:17 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Season of the Harvest, by Michael R. Hicks

Mr. Hicks is another of those self-published authors that the Kindle is so good for, and, as many of them do, he has released this, the first book in a series, for free. He has a few other series too, which also have the first installment available for free.

Season Of The Harvest starts off as a crime thriller, in which a policeman's best friend - another policeman, of course - is killed while investigating a subversive group. Our Hero is told not to investigate the crime - he is, of course, too emotionally involved. But predictably, he does, he unearths corruption and then conspiracy, before being rescued from The Conspiracy by the very group he thought he was investigating. Of course, it turns out that that group are the good guys, he joins them, and saves humanity.

So far, so not particularly original.

It turns out that The Conspiracy that they are fighting against is very old, very evil, very powerful - and infeasible. There are only a dozen or so in the inner circle, with a large number of useful idiots working for them, and I do not believe that such a setup can be stable. Conspiracies always fail, because people are no damned good at keeping secrets, and doubly so when they know - and they know because they are being bribed or blackmailed - that the secret they are keeping is Bad and Naughty.

But I can brush that under the mental carpet, as Hicks tells his story so very well. It's a real page turner, running at just the right pace to make you want to keep turning the page until oh dark thirty in the morning without resorting to vast amounts of spurious shooting and explosions, and even though the nature of the conspiracy, and much of the science underpinning it, is preposterous (the science is so silly that I thought quite hard before tagging this review as sci-fi), I very much enjoyed this book. It's trash, quite predictable, but it's very enjoyable trash, and at the price you'd be a fool not to read it.

So why not five stars? The science. And more particularly, the anti-science diatribe in an afterword, in which he attempts to paint genetically modified organisms in the blackest of black, and of course wants to associate them with the fictional evil conspiracy his heroes have just averted. I don't particularly object to science and technology being a bit silly in a fictional work, but I do object when it is either so wrong as to mislead people about the real world, or the author is trying to push a (wrong) agenda. Here, he does both. And for that, just like I did a while ago in my review of Nevil Shute's "On The Beach", I deduct one star.

Posted at 00:02 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Sat, 22 Dec 2012

Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi

Many years ago H. Beam Piper wrote "Little Fuzzy", a fine tale that has now, along with its sequels and its author, slipped into relative obscurity.

Last year John Scalzi, with the blessings of Piper's heirs, released this "reboot", in which he tells broadly the same story with just a few little tweaks for a modern audience. There is more corporate wrong-doing and less government in Scalzi's version, for example, and more of people figuring out stuff on their own instead of government scientists.

Scalzi's re-telling of the story is a fine piece of work, as I expected from reading some of his previous stories, and I recommend it to you.

Posted at 15:29 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Fri, 7 Sep 2012

Wool, by Hugh Howey

This is an omnibus edition of what was originally a series of five linked short stories. It shows, with four clear, evenly-spaced cliff-hangers, all obviously intended to squeeze another few quid out of the addictreader. It is a story of how hope and the human desire to explore can never be completely suppressed, and has strong similarities to Arthur C. Clarke's "The City And The Stars": both are set in worlds where the urge to explore and to push the boundaries has been almost eliminated; both have a population that is kept under control by limited information and fear; both populations consist of people whose roles in society are largely pre-determined. In Wool that fate emerges from a quite literally stratified society where moving up the social ladder is not only socially difficult (those from lower down are seen as very much the lumpen proletariat) but is also physically difficult.

The people of Wool live in a gigantic underground silo, sealed off from the rest of the world which has become inhospitable to life. It's a huge silo, split over 140 levels, but I get the impression that each level in turn consists of several floors, giving a total of around two miles from top to bottom. And, because the place was designed with limited social mobility in mind, there's no lifts. And while there is electronic communication, it is deliberately made phenomenally expensive so people have to rely on porters tramping up and down those miles to deliver hand-written letters - written on rare, expensive paper. Science appears to not be practiced at all, with advanced technology not really understood by its users. It's really quite a nice little authoritarian setup.

Howey does a great job putting you in other peoples' skin. He does it in "I, Zombie", and does it here again with great characterisation. He communicates bone-weariness, terror, pain, longing, and everything else that separates us from the machines that some characters wish people were.

It's not perfect, of course. I question whether a small population would be capable of maintaining its technological level with only very limited access to raw materials - what they can filter out of the poisoned air outside and what they can mine beneath their silo. Only a handful of minerals will be available, and I don't care how good your recycling facilities are, you will not be able to re-use things for ever. There is a glaring error, in that the temperature is described as going down the deeper you go, and so they use artificial heating for the deep levels. In reality, two miles down and the temperature is something like 75°C higher than at the surface and they'd need some monster air-conditioning. Both of these are a bit irksome, but don't detract from the story and the fine writing.

But the biggest flaw is in the last few pages, where The Conspiracy that created this world in the first place is revealed. It's a conspiracy that doesn't make an iota of sense and manifestly doesn't even attempt to achieve what the conspirators wanted. And so I deduct one star, for the dodgy ending. I can see ways in which Howey could have set up exactly the same world with a different conspiracy that actually made sense. But despite that it's a fine book, well worth reading.

Posted at 22:44 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Sun, 2 Sep 2012

The Trilisk AI, by Michael McCloskey

A few months ago I reviewed several of McCloskey's books, including the prequel to this one, The Trilisk Ruins. I was not entirely complimentary - the book was flawed, but was also cheap and entertaining, so I gave it three stars and recommended that you read it. Recently, the author contacted me, having read my reviews, and asked if I'd like a review copy of the sequel. Well, of course I would! I ended my last review by saying I was looking forward to reading it.

McCloskey said in response to a negative review written by someone else "if you give me a bad review, so be it. Authors have more to fear from obscurity than anything else" - and then sent the reviewer a copy of another of his books. I've found this to be a refreshingly common attitude amongst the new breed of good self-published e-book authors - I confess that the first time I ripped into one of their works I was half-expecting to have to ignore a whiney response, but so far all I've heard from authors has been things like "thanks, you made some good points, I'll upload a version that fixes some of them soon", and "thanks for the review, would you like a free copy of the sequel".

Damn all you authors for stomping all over my cynicism gland!

So, on to the book - is it any good? It's better than the previous volume in this series. Dialogue is improved, as is characterisation, although both could still do with some work. For example, when Our Heroine says "Big gold centipede-things scurrying around here. No idea how many. They scare the shit out of me" that's just it, she's saying it. Possibly in a robotic monotone. Even in context it's hard to get pant-wetting terror out of this sequence.

There are also a couple of minor inconsistencies, things which the characters really should have - and would have if they were real - thought about. Not that those really matter. It's a good story, well-paced, we can empathise with all the characters, even the one designed to be thoroughly un-human (I've said it before - McCloskey absolutely nails aliens), and it sets the main characters up with a Mission that will do nicely for at least one more and perhaps several more books. I'd happily buy this book.

Posted at 19:22 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Tue, 28 Aug 2012

The Martian Race, by Gregory Benford

Benford is a director of The Mars Society, an organisation set up by Robert Zubrin in 1998, just a year before this book was published and two years after Zubrin published "The Case for Mars". In that non-fiction work (which I recommend) Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, sets out why he thinks government-backed space agencies will never make any more meaningful moves for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit, why manned flight to Mars and beyond is essential, and then shows how it can be done using existing technology for not much money. When I read Zubrin's book, I was enthralled and was immediately convinced by his arguments. Benford obviously was too, because as well as serving on the board of the Mars Society, he uses Zubrin's "Mars Direct" mission design in this near-future fiction.

What Benford wrote as fiction is becoming fact: the X-Prize, for the first private organisation to demonstrate a reusable manned sub-orbital spacecraft was won in 2004; we are on the cusp of private manned orbital space flight (SpaceX's Dragon capsule passed all the necessary tests less than a month before I read The Martian Race); and there is even a proposal for a manned Mars mission funded by, believe it or not, advertising and "reality" TV. The Martian Race's mission really is funded by investors hoping to recoup their capital investment by winning a prize, and making a profit and meeting operating costs through advertising and TV rights.

So on the large scale, Benford's "fictional" world isn't just believable, it's true. On the smaller scale he also does well. It's full of the little details that make a world not just believable but real, as if you can touch it: little things like the danger of frostbite in your toes when standing on the Martian surface.

Most of the book is a strait-forward story of the putting together of the mission, and the months spent exploring the new frontier. It really is a race betwen two teams to get there and back and do certain experiments on the surface. There's a second race too, the natives, who at first seem like primitive microbes but turn out to be a lot more - whether they're actually intelligent isn't clear, and I think it's right that it isn't clear. Intelligence is hard to define, and it's not obvious that we would even recognise it when we see it. The end of the story is perhaps the weakest part, with the competing crews suffering disasters and the survivors having to pull together or all perish, no matter what their commercial masters back on Earth say. In the last few pages we get a tantalising glimpse of a potential third Martian race, as (and I predicted this very early on, as would anyone who has read Zubrin) not everyone can go home - two remain as the first homesteaders on Mars.

I recommend this book, especially as a follow-on to reading The Case For Mars, but deduct one star for the somewhat unsatisfying ending.

Posted at 21:23 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Thu, 23 Aug 2012

Halting State, by Charles Stross

Stross has written several times in his blog of the difficulties in writing near-future science fiction. By the time a book has meandered on its way through being written, edited, and published - a process that can take two or three years - it can be out of date as the real world catches up with the world and the gadgets that the author imagined, or wanders off in a direction that makes the author's imagined world inconceivable. In fact, that happened to Halting State's sequel, so badly that he had to throw it away and start again. And then nearly had to do it again.

In the four years since Halting State was published, the real world has indeed caught up in some respects. In particular there is now a thriving market in virtual goods from video games, and there really have been crimes committed - real world crimes - in video games. But it doesn't matter to the reader that this science fictional story isn't quite as science fictional as the author intended. Science fiction doesn't have to be about our future to be entertaining (Jules Verne is still a good read) or about wondrous technologies (Earth Abides has none), it's about modern (post-Enlightenment) people doing or creating plausible things and may explore the ramifications of technology and science (as does A Canticle for Leibowitz). Authors worry about their technologies and the characters' situations being novel because they don't want to appear - at the time of publication - to be incapable of coming up with new ideas, but readers should care mostly about whether the book is entertaining. And this one is. Stross rarely fails to deliver.

I only really have one nit to pick. The political arrangements of Scotland, England, the UK, and the EU are obviously a bit different in the book than they are in our world, with Scotland having rather more independence, but also being somewhat tied to English apron-strings - and both are rather more subservient to an apparently federal Europe. The lack of clarity here was a bit irritating, and more irritatingly it could have been done away with entirely. Every single bit of that, even Scotland's greater independence, isn't particularly important to the story and the politics's role in the story could easily have been taken by purely domestic bodies.

But that's a very minor concern. The book is great fun, and you should read it.

Posted at 21:06 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | crime | sci-fi
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Sun, 12 Aug 2012

The Meat Tree, by Gwyneth Lewis

I'm a Londoner, and so I avoided the Olympics. I avoided them in north Wales, and on on the way there I needed to stop for a pee. I pulled over at the next place on my route that looked like it had a bog, the Erwood Station Craft Centre. It's a typical trashy little tourist-trap selling ugly, overpriced knick-knacks, and uglier, overpriceder bad art. But, having used their bog I felt it would at least be polite to have a cup of tea and have a quick look to see if there was anything worthwhile there. I was quite surprised to find that there was. Amongst dreary books about Welshism there was a small series of books which stood out by dint of having had an actual graphic designer work on their covers, and one of them in particular grabbed my attention because of its bizarre title. A quick glance at the cover blurb and a read of the first couple of pages sold it to me.

Just about the only piece of Welsh literature of any significance is "The Mabinogion", a collection of mediaeval tales and myths, first translated into English in the 19th century. I've actually read it, and I can tell you that it ain't that great. It's not awful, just ... not great. It's so mediocre and hum-drum that while I do know that I've read it, I don't remember a single thing about it. "The Meat Tree" is part of a series supposedly re-telling the tales from the Mabinogion in a contemporary way, and is a science fiction short wrapped around the tale of "Math, son of Mathonwy". The original tale seems to be (based on a synopsis I read on Wikipedia) mostly present, and doesn't really make much sense, but the way that it is presented here works around that problem. In Lewis's tale, a badly matched pair of "wreck inspectors" board a derelict space craft and attempt to figure out where it came from and who its missing crew were. There's no sign of them, but there is a VR entertainment system, which just happens to have this weird mediaeval tale loaded into it, which they play in an attempt to find messages from the original crew - with awful consequences.

Lewis is primarily a poet, not a novelist, and her excellent command of language shines through. And in an authorial afterword she enthuses about science fiction and how she'd wanted to write it for so long. She makes a couple of elementary mistakes that any fan of the genre should spot, but I'm not surprised that the publisher didn't spot them, as they mostly seem to publish poetry and Welshism. This is an excellent first work of science fiction, and I hope that Lewis stops wasting her time with Welsh poetry that will be read by no-one, and uses her prodigious talents to write more stuff like this, stuff that normal people will read.

Posted at 22:24 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | sci-fi
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Wed, 30 May 2012

Gentle Reminders, by Martin Perry

Let me start with a very brief precis. While the good ship Annie is docked and undergoing repairs, a small group of the crew go and get drunk. One of them Mysteriously Disappears, and wakes up to find he has been kidnapped and tortured, but he has no idea why or by whom, and no memory of the event. He escapes from his kidnappers' underground lair through the sewers, is found by a crewmate, and returns to the ship. There is a brief flashback showing us why the ship is undergoing repair - it was attacked by pirates. Just before our brave crew continue on their journeying, the same group head into town to pick up some supplies, and to try to find out what happened earlier. They are ambushed, have a fight, win, and find out a Clue. They set off with a cargo to deliver to another port, which they do, but when they leave that port they are sabotaged by a stowaway, are wrecked on an unknown shore, and have to contend with Monsters. They learn from the stowaway that The Conspiracy is after something that the first crewman unwittingly has, and that his family are now in danger. The crew is like family, so they head off to defend their crewmate's family, discover what it was that the conspiracy was after, and beat off an assault by The Conspiracy that was chasing close on their heels. The End.

Now, what genre do you think this falls under? Sounds like a maritime thriller to me.

Well, I lied, just a little bit. One word of my precis is untrue. Change 'shore' to 'planet' and it's bang on. So while the setting of Gentle Reminders is indubitably science fictional, this is really quite a traditional tale of derring-do on the high seas space lanes, and it's a jolly well executed one too. It's a simple tale that is nice and evenly paced with a good mixture of page-turning excitement and character development, and the stars of the show are allowed the space to have personalities and relationships. There are a few lovely turns of phrase - one that particularly sticks in the mind is "they lay giggling in a pool of their own disgraceful behaviour". The only significant criticisms I have are that the antagonist organisation, and especially their leader, are a bit too cartoony and stereotyped; and I feel that the superhero ending was completely unnecessary. I understand, however, that there are sequels that are specifically to do with the superheroism and that this was just an introduction.

There were, as I moan about with just about every cheap Kindle book, a few minor spelling mistakes and other linguistic errors that jarred a bit, but I can let those go. At just £1.02 for the equivalent of 400-ish pages, it's an enjoyable bargain.

Posted at 22:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Fri, 25 May 2012

Double Share, by Nathan Lowell

Back in November last year I read and reviewed the previous three volumes of this hexalogy, giving them three stars, and I've been looking forward to the publication of this volume. After a hiatus caused by trouble at the publisher, this was recently released. "Double Share" continues the story of Ishmael Wang, having skipped over a few years of what was no doubt tedious study not worthy of turning into a story. He is now a very junior officer in the merchant marine, just starting his first job after graduating from merchant navy officer school.

The story is, as seems to be usual with Lowell, a good bit of entertainment. The setup is, I think, rather contrived - it seems highly unlikely to me that in a world where adherence to regulations is apparently enforced enough that the regulations actually matter, the sort of breakdown of law and order that plagues Wang's new ship could possibly go on for as long as it has, and the notion, that we learn right at the end, that a ship's captain can't be fired by the ship's owner except for breaches of technical regulations is just plain daft. It has always been the case, throughout history, that managers can be relieved of their duties by an employer, and especially so when they preside tacitly over active criminality. But I can ignore that. Wang is an archetypal hero, and so for his story to progress he needs an environment in which he can be heroic. And he is. Absurdly so, maybe, but no more absurdly so than in his phenomenally quick rise through the non-commissioned ranks in the previous books. And anyway, fiction about boring everyday people doing reasonable boring everyday things wouldn't be worth reading!

Three stars, again, because there's still nothing new here, but it was still entertaining to read. I recommend the entire series so far to you.

Posted at 18:46 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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The "Synchronicity" Trilogy, by Michael McCloskey

I bought the first book in this trilogy on the strength of reading the author's "The Trilisk Ruins", and am reviewing them all together, as they are just three strands of the same story. If you read only one you won't fully appreciate it - indeed, the individual volumes don't work as well on their own, either not being properly resolved or not having a proper beginning. Thankfully, as with The Trilisk Ruins they're dirt cheap.

They appear to be set earlier in the same universe as The Trilisk Ruins - the authoritarian government is present here too in a somewhat less overbearing form, and personal and military technology is similar too. While these books appear to be set earlier, I believe that they were written later. The writing is definitely more mature, with less hammy dialogue and more time taken to make the characters into people, and there were no immediately obvious plot holes.

The three books largely run in parallel, with each one finishing a little later than its predecessor, each telling the story from a different point of view. It's a surprising device, but one that I found worked very well. It leaves the reader wondering at the end of the first and second volumes, but with good solid conclusions in later books to fill in the gaps that were left. Obviously this means you should read them in order: Insidious first, then Industrious, and finally Ingenious.

While I have rated the series as a whole with four stars out of five, there are large differences between the volumes. The first is by far the worst, consisting too much of rather repetitive action sequences, but it is rescued by the second and third volumes which are much better. The third is particularly good: the antagonist (whose viewpoint we have in this volume) is unlike any I've seen before (McCloskey seems to do aliens well, the one in The Trilisk Ruins was good too) while still being something that humans can empathise with; and the final conclusion comes as a surprise, but is also consistent with everything that has gone before.

Finally, McCloskey deals well with his over-arching themes of the dangers of AI and virtual reality. Never mind whether you agree with that or not, he still addresses them thoughtfully and humanely.

Posted at 18:14 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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The Trilisk Ruins, by Michael McCloskey

This is another of those cheap n cheerful books by an unknown author that the Kindle is so good for. It, like most of his other books, appears to be only available as an e-book.

As is typical of books like this, the writing is not of the best. Dialogue is wooden, there are a few minor inconsistencies in the plot, and characters are very flat. But, as is also typical of these cheap self-published (I assume) e-book only stories, it's a decent enough piece of light entertainment, and so gets three stars. It would get less if it had all the extra costs of "proper" publishing, but as it is you can still just sit back and enjoy the story.

Oh, and there's an obvious setup for a sequel, which I look forward to reading.

Posted at 17:45 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Sun, 25 Mar 2012

Fallen Angels, by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn

In my review of the Kindle I mentioned Baen books's enlightened attitude towards Digital Restrictions Management, for the e-books that they sell are blessedly free of DRM, even those of other publishers that they sell through the Baen website. But they're even more enlightened than that. They also give some of their older books away for free in unrestricted digital formats, including this one through the Baen Free Library. The library's manifesto makes it clear that DRM is a solution in search of a real problem, and that giving away selections from the back-catalogue is a very effective way of both selling more books but also of introducing readers to new writers. If on the strength of my Kindle review you then use it to read lots of DRM-free books from Baen and Project Gutenberg, authors and progressive publishers will thank you!

So what's this book like? It's a comedy in which Our Heroes get into and - of course - escape from all kinds of scrapes while being hunted by a parody Green movement in a Luddite dystopia. It is not, as some say, an attack on the Green movement, but only on its more extremist members and on authoritarians in general. But more importantly, it's a panegyric to science fiction readers, personified in the attendees at a sci-fi convention. I don't go to cons myself, and they really don't appeal to me, but I do recognise what it is that makes people go to them: shared enthusiasm for a topic, camaraderie, and most importantly fascinating conversations with interesting people all of whom can teach you something.

It's one of those books that, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I recognise that it's also trashy. I recommend it for hardened sci-fi readers, but not for mundanes.

Posted at 21:47 by David Cantrell
keywords: baen | books | sci-fi
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Fri, 23 Mar 2012

A Rising Thunder, by David Weber

Yet another Honorverse installment, and again, it's competently written and entertaining for those who've read the series and its spin-offs up to this point. The importance of the spin-offs is made especially clear on the author's own website, where the series up to "Mission of Honor" are listed in their own section, but this one, which follows directly on from Mission is listed in a separate section along with the spin-offs that I talked about in my review of Mission. In my opinion, Mission should also be listed there.

And unfortunately (but as expected) that ridiculous Conspiracy that I railed against in my review of Mission is still there, still playing the puppet-master.

Posted at 20:34 by David Cantrell
keywords: baen | books | sci-fi
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Wed, 14 Mar 2012

Mission of Honor, by David Weber

Weber's long series of books set in the "Honorverse" (NB: link may contain spoilers) is thoroughly enjoyable if you like "military science fiction". That is, if you like mind-cheese with lots of stuff blowing up. Unlike most other authors in this sub-genre, Weber even manages to make his characters believable and sympathetic, to sometimes have realistic conversations and motivations. And the universe he creates is, on the whole, consistent.

The series went through a bad patch a few books back where there was lots of "jaw jaw" and very little of the "war war" that made the series so exciting. But I'm pleased to say that with the previous installment (At All Costs) and this one, he's back on form.

I have three criticisms. The first is that the books will make little sense unless you've read the previous installments. That's fair enough. Authors writing series have to strike a balance between making later works accessible to newcomers and annoying their established customers with repeated material. In a short series, a bit of repetition won't do any harm, but in this one - 12 books so far, with at least two more in the pipeline and quite probably more to come - it would be actively harmful.

The second is related to the first, but is, I think, rather more important. There are several spin-off series, also set in the same universe, which some readers may not have bothered with. Unfortunately one of them, the "Wages of Sin" series, turns out to be of vital importance, and the "Saganami Island" series is also of some relevance to this book and, to a lesser extent, to the previous one. Keeping track not only of a long main series with several parallel interacting plot threads (but at least they evolve alongside each other in a single series) but also of at least one and potentially several other series at the same time is hard. It's worth doing, but hard.

And finally, remember how I said that the universe Weber has created is mostly consistent? The big economic inconsistency is beginning to bite, hard. He knows it - he even has some characters talk about how it makes no sense. He tries to justify it as being a front for a huge conspiracy, but huge conspiracies just don't work. The one he's written involves literally millions of people, at least thousands of whom are scattered all over the place amongst other polities and societies, and they're actually multi-generational sleeper agents. He expects us to believe that the children of sleeper agents will be content to be brought up as normal people (you can't trust young children with such secrets, after all), to form friendships, perhaps fall in love with members of the host society, and, when you inform them of their family's hidden role for them to just accept it. Even if somehow most of them held it together, all it would take would be for a handful to blow the whistle and, given how many there are, this must happen - and yet it doesn't for hundreds of years, not until narrative imperative compels it. I can ignore this, I read lots of sci-fi, much of it in the "bad but entertaining" mould, and so my suspension of disbelief muscle gets a regular workout. But even so, it is irritating.

Those last two niggles, plus the entire series's utter lack of anything approaching literary value means it gets only three stars. I recommend it for those who are already Honorverse fans (not that there's much point in recommending it as you'll all buy it anyway) and I recommend the Honorverse as a whole to all sci-fi fans, but I have to insist that you read the books in order. Specifically, in publication order, so that you get the other series at the right time.

Posted at 19:16 by David Cantrell
keywords: baen | books | sci-fi
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Sun, 12 Feb 2012

Land of the Dead, by Thomas Harlan

On to book three in this series and series-itis still fails to rear its ugly head - indeed, it's probably the best of the lot so far. We get some more background on the world the characters live in and why it differs from real history, and for most of the book it is refreshingly free of mumbo-jumbo. However, it will again fail to stand on its own, even more so than book two - this one pretty much starts at the point the previous one ended, and gives very little personal background on the major characters. Some of those characters are developed some more, which is nice to see, but even so the author assumes that you already know who they are and what they've done previously.

Remember how I said that for most of the book it is free of mumbo-jumbo? Well, unfortunately it really falls on its face in the last few pages. Sure, it's dressed up in rationalism, but if you are in the least bit sceptical, then you will just be plain annoyed at how the author seems to think that so many peoples' actions can be so carefully manipulated to make individuals do exactly what is needed. I'm afraid that that holds no water whatsoever. You can, of course, manipulate the actions of large numbers of people, giving them little pushes onto a new course - advertisers and politicians do this all the time - but to spend the last few pages of what had been an excellent story up until that point attempting to list all the people whose actions had been chosen in advance by the man behind the curtain is just silly and leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Not only is this explanation of what's been happening annoying, it shouldn't really be necessary.

Harlan clearly needs to study human behaviour a bit more. I recommend Seldon's papers on the subject.

Posted at 18:02 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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Sat, 21 Jan 2012

Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Kindle edition

Magazines are one of the staples of science fiction, with many authors getting their first break from them before going on to writing full-length books. Trouble is, they're almost impossible to get hold of. Newsagents don't carry them. Some bookshops do - not many, but some - but they never promote them, instead on the rare occasions that I've found them they've been hiding amongst a load of fashion rubbish. Just about the only place you can reliably get them is in sci-fi specialists like Forbidden Planet, but even then you have to make sure you get to the shop on the right day every two months lest they sell out before you get there - and you have to put up with going to Forbidden Planet too.

So when I saw that Amazon were doing magazine subscriptions on the Kindle, and that one of those magazines was Fantasy & Science Fiction I didn't really have any choice, I had to buy it. And given that Kindle magazine subscriptions include the first copy for free it's a no-brainer.

And I'm so glad I did it. My first copy was chock full of well-written short stories. If one or two were a bit sub-par that doesn't really matter, especially given that once I start paying it'll only be £0.99 a month, about a third of what it costs on paper - it's an absolute bargain, and you should subscribe immediately.

Posted at 14:29 by David Cantrell
keywords: fantasy | kindle | magazines | sci-fi
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