Books: Star Wars – Scoundrels

In Brief:  Set right after Episode IV, Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels finds Han Solo and Chewbecca looking to score some bank from a heist of a local crime lord.  Of course it’s more complicated then that, especially when Lando shows up…

Pros:  Zahn’s done his homework on plotting – anything from The Sting to Sneakers to Oceans 11.  He also knows the Star Wars universe well enough to add some easter eggs for the hardcore fans and has a good sense of dialogue for the established characters.

Cons:  Any good heist story involves a lengthy setup and establishment of the rules of the target.  While Zahn does a solid job here, especially with incorporating the tech of the SW universe, this may cause the book to drag for some readers.

Review:  Your devoted Star Wars geek knows of Timothy Zahn, long considered one of the best novelization authors out there.  His Heir to the Empire series, which takes place soon after Episode VI, was good enough to draw me in to several more of Zahn’s books.  With that history, the Scoundrels premise (and cover) grabbed me as soon as I saw it in the store.

Scoundrels has Han and Chewie looking for work in the months after the destruction of the first Death Star.  Han has already lost his reward from the Rebel’s victory at Yavin, and Jabba’s bounty hunters are moving on him again.  An encounter with a young man called Eanjer opens up an opportunity. Continue reading

Books: House of Suns

In Brief:  Alastair Reynolds’ epoch-spanning, pan-galactic novel features very intelligent, very human characters questing after universal mysteries while confronting the seeds of violence and intrigue sowed from within their own neo-utopian society.

Pros:   Reynolds, who worked for years as an astrophysicist with the EU Space Agency, has an unwavering command of the scale and breadth of his galaxies.  His ideas can be eye-popping and wondrous, and yet they come across as grounded in scientific reality.  The plot is fairly tight, the lead characters approachable (for post-human clones).

Cons:  Reynolds sometimes writes with the detached sterility of an astrophysicist.  The front-loading required to get the plot moving in the first 50-75 pages may require some patience.

Review:  Alastair Reynolds has received good pub on his science fiction novels for more than a decade.  He’s an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile, having started but put down one of his earlier books.  I picked up House of Suns after seeing several good reviews elsewhere; I’m glad I did.

As with any new sci-fi novel or series, the first points the author needs to establish, in addition to the characters, are how the technology works and its relative level of advancement.  We get an early glimpse in HoS with lead characters Pursulane and Campion building and deploying a star-dam for a grateful civilization.  The star-dam is a series of interlocking fields designed to keep the star in place, regulating its energy dispersal as it goes nova, thus giving any nearby inhabitants millions more years to live in the region.  Cool concept, expertly described here.

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Books: Redshrits

In Brief: In Redshirts, John Scalzi cleverly riffs on the Star Trek universe and its many imitators from the point-of-view of the junior crewmen.  You know, the guys with short life expectancies wearing the red shirts.

Pros:  The book has some laugh-out-loud funny parts, and Scalzi’s economy of language and ability to set up characters and scenes makes for smooth reading.  The story also toys with ideas of creativity and the overused sci-fi paradigm of alternate universes in a smart and entertaining way.

Cons:  If you don’t like Star Trek or have some familiarity with some of the tv series, you won’t get the full extent of some of the humor and scenarios.  Conversely, if you’re an overly sensitive Trekkie who takes umbrage at any implied criticism of the Enterprise and its continuing missions, you may want to duck and cover.

Review:  Last summer we heard John Scalzi plugging Redshirts on a radio interview and the book immediately went into the reading queue.  Here’s the premise, straight from the novel’s back copy:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that 1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, 2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and 3) sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs.

Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Having read and enjoyed some other Scalzi books, it didn’t take much to get me on board.  What I recall from the radio interview was how much fun he obviously had writing this project and describing, as well as how much fun the interviewer obviously had reading it.  Throw in the fact that Scalzi worked as a writer/creative consultant on the Stargate: Universe tv show, so know his mass market and media sci-fi.

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Books: Leviathan Wakes

In Brief:  Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is good science fiction/space opera set in our solar system.  The first in a trilogy (naturally), this book provides strong characterization and a mix of detective fiction and military sci-fi.

Pros:  Corey’s two main characters are interesting dudes with problems who also give us a solid foundation of the book’s universe.  The belters vs. inner planet politics and conflict is very well done, and the pacing and basic writing are effective.  We also dig the old-school cover art.

Cons:  A couple of overly familiar themes lie at the heart of this book:  a first contact scenario (albeit a different take on it) and the evil and greedy military-industrial corporate antagonist.  However, these are relatively minor issues.

Review:  A reasonably plausible future setting with space travel, inter-planetary politics, ship-to-ship battles…  Add elements of mystery and possible extra-terrestrial contact.  Sounds like space opera, which is where Leviathan Wakes firmly plants it flag.  Along with time travel stuff, space opera is the subset of science fiction I enjoy most, but man, oh, man is this a subset that can be (and often is) done poorly.  Fortunately that doesn’t happen with this book.  James S.A. Corey (pen-name for the collaborative duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) knows the pitfalls of the genre better than most.

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Books: Use of Weapons

In Brief:  Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons comes highly recommended as well-constructed intelligent Space Opera.  The story centers on Cheradenine Zakalwe, a foremost covert agent working on behalf of a vast (mostly benevolent) intergalactic body known as the Culture.

Pros:  Zakalwe is a truly memorable character – the spy/agent who does the dirty work, always a step from the edge, always in reach of redemption.  Banks writes well and explores the big ideas of a faster-than-light society mostly concerned with helping the less advanced branches of humanity.

Cons:  Banks’ choice of a somewhat obtuse narrative structure certainly helps produce a big pay-off at the end, but it could have been done more smoothly.

Review:  Imagine and advanced post-human society, employing faster-than-light travel, advanced artificial intelligence, and the kind of hyper bio-engineering that extends the life cycle into centuries.  Known as the Culture, this society espouses the acceptance of non-human alien life, embraces computer intelligence lifeforms as fully “human” citizens, and rejects the aggressive notion of property/resource acquisition.  Warfare, then is certainly to be avoided.  Helping less developed human and alien cultures advance to a similar elevated state is a goal.

But the Culture has learned that too much interference leads to even worse conflict and strife.  You can’t, for example, provide advanced nano-technology to a pre-industrial society.  Yet other advanced inter-stellar groups do precisely this – to curry favor, enlist allies, and acquire resources.  So in spite of their best design the Culture must employ agents to counteract their less-advanced rivals and try to steer the ship towards the light. Continue reading

Books: The Killing of Worlds

…by Scott Westerfeld.  The Killing of Worlds completes the ‘Succession’ series begun in The Risen Empire (see Beemsville review), which is New Space Opera at a breakneck pace with smart, compelling characters.

The book is set in a galactic empire in which people can achieve an undead kind of immortality (through introduction of a symbiant) by serving the Emperor, who discovered this process centuries before.  Now the Empire has been threatened by the Borg-like Rix…  Or has it?

In TKofW, Westerfeld brings Captain Laurent Zai, Senator Nara Oxham, First Officer Hobbes, Rana Harter, Hrd, and others  from the first book into more of the tasty political and philosophical conflict from Book 1.  It’s actually a continuation of that book, picking up immediately with the space battle we did not get at the end of Book 1*.

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Books: The Risen Empire

…by Scott Westerfeld.  The Risen Empire is a book identified with ‘the new space opera’, which is exactly why I bought it.  That and a friend’s recommendation for Westerfeld’s YA writing on his Uglies series (which I’ve not yet read).  People are writing theses and dissertations on just what the ‘new’ Space Opera is and means, but since I liked the old version, and since I’ve recently read and enjoyed some other books that seem to fall under that label, I wanted to give this one a shot.

The Risen Empire begins at a breakneck pace, with no less than the Emperor’s younger sister held hostage by the borg-like Rix in a far-flung corner of the empire, Legis XV.  In a few short chapters, we meet several crew members of the starship Lynx, commanded by Captain Zai, and learn of the serious political ramifications of this incident.  The action come fast, with just enough explanation of the technology and culture to clue you in, peopled by the kinds of familiar archetypal sci-fi characters that don’t require elaborate biographical digressions.  These are short chapters from the p.o.v. from a host of different characters, and they prove effective not only at advancing the plot but also at gradually painting in character details while hitting some serious world-building.  What you end up with is a masterful first 100 or so pages.

As the book unfolds, the main characters – Captain Zai, First Officer Hobbes, Senator Nara Oxham, and the Legis XV Compound Mind – emerge.  Zai and Nara, the military man and the empath minority-coalition politco, present an interesting star-crossed romance.  Zai, we learn, is a war hero, who attempted to sacrifice himself for the benefit of his crew and found himself subject to tortures that make waterboarding look like the slap-and-tickle.  Nara grew up on a sparsely populated agrarian world, which partially masked her telepathic abilities until her first trip to the big city, at which point she lost her sanity (in the classic X-Men theme, wherein she cannot shut out others’ thoughts); however, she recovered and managed to get elected to the Imperial Senate, where her empathy and intellect make her a political dynamo.  Hobbes is interesting as the outsider within the Imperial Navy.  She comes from a ‘Utopian World’ rather than some far-flung colony or traditional military family and provides context and insight on the highly traditional military structure the author has constructed.  The Compound Mind, and later, its Rix-Surrogate Commando, don’t get many chapters, but they’re all quite good and give Westerfeld his podium for exploring and Artificial Intelligence-based culture.

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