Indie Highlight: “Project Nemesis” by Jeremy Robinson

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books. This is a special edition post for Indie April!

Project Nemesis by Jeremy Robinson

Look, I’m a simple person. I like stories about big monsters. Is it too much to ask that we have more novels based upon them? There just aren’t very many. After watching the absolutely fantastic “Pacific Rim: The Black” on Netflix (which I wrote about here), I was scrambling to find some kaiju reads to fill the void. Project Nemesis was one of the novels recommended to me in a group I’m in when I asked for recommendations, and I’m glad I got it.

Based on the cover, I expected to basically be thrown into a Godzilla-like scenario with some apocalyptic creature blowing up whole cities. Instead, after a few intense scenes setting up what’s to come, readers start following Jon Hudson, a DHS investigator in a secret division tasked with investigating the paranormal. He meets up with Ashley Collins, the local sheriff, as he works to investigate alleged Bigfoot sightings. The winsome way Robinson writes these characters drew me in, and the steady stream of self-deprecating humor from Hudson makes it fun to read all the way through.

There is, of course, plenty of Kaiju action once push comes to shove, too. Here, though, our kaiju is three-dimensional rather than being exclusively a “destroy-everything” creature. I thought Robinson did a great job adding some flesh and bones to the concept of a kaiju without taking it too far. Though I’d not call the book thoughtful, it is pure fun and has more layers to it than may be expected for the genre.

This novel can also serve fairly well as a standalone, but the series is completed at 5 novels.

There are a few issues here. There are a few nods to gender norms such as a line about “throwing like a girl.” Even there, though, it’s not entirely clear that even lines like that are intended as reinforcing such norms, because contextually we have Collins subverting those expectations. I still could have done without comments like that, however.

Overall, Project Nemesis is a blast of pure fun to read. I recommend it to readers who, like me, thirst for a story about gigantic monsters with at least some thought put into it.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1972

I’m a huge science fiction fan, and, having read a list of what are alleged to be the top 200 science fiction novels, I decided to next tackle a read-through of all the Hugo Award winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1972 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.

1972

This year featured one of the more diverse arrays of styles so far in the Hugo reading list. There are two science fantasy novels (Dragonflight and Jack of Shadows), two women authors and incidentally the first time more than one woman author made the list (Anne McAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin), some radically different New Wave sci-fi (A Time of Changes and To Your Scattered Bodies Go), pseudo time travel (Scattered Bodies…), and a hauntingly thoughtful–if flawed–look at the human psyche (The Lathe of Heaven). The science fantasy books are quite different as well. Anyway, I was deeply disappointed by To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It should have been so much better, but the author didn’t change tone no matter which of the incredible caste of characters he introduced. On the flip side, A Time of Changes is the book that got me to appreciate Silverberg. I have rarely been so moved as I was by that book, and listening to the excellent audiobook is what sold me on it. It’s strange and even uncomfortable at times, but it’s great. Dragonquest looks on the surface like an easy read but has incredible depth. Lathe and Jack were each fine novels, but not as intriguing as some of their authors’ other works.

Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey- Grade: A-
The quiet nature of these books by McCaffrey belies the epic scale of her world and the place she built in Pern. Dragonquest is a science fantasy novel of the best kind. There are dragons, hints of ancient secrets, dire threats, and human striving of the best kind. What makes the novel especially poignant is that the “villain” here is not really a person but a kind of natural threat. In a world with raging pandemics and climate change, the “natural” kind of evil in this novel is especially haunting. The dizzying heights of dragon flight and characterization help offset what would otherwise be a fairly bleak story. McCaffrey’s worldbuilding is especially dense, though in the first book, Dragonflight, it’s even more dense. I expected these books to be fairly breezy reading, but they’re in fact phenomenally deep explorations of a well thought out world that McCaffrey has created. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like about the characters and plot here, too, but the real star is the world she’s created. Readers who enjoy science fantasy should consider these must-reads.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer (Winner)- Grade: C-
Farmer had all of humanity to choose from for his characters, and he chose some truly awesome figures. The problem is that he never gave any one character the time or space to develop properly and show the unique personality of each. The characters should surely speak in radically different voices, have conflicting concerns, and even see the world in quite diverse ways. But instead, each character was a fairly standard science fiction trope with a historical figure’s name slapped onto him or her. Their voices all sounded the same to me on almost every page. The book came very highly recommended from a number of sources. I’m pretty disappointed, to be honest.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin Grade: B-
I thought the premise–a man whose dreams become reality–was a bit tacky, but Le Guin is a master of prose and makes it work as a compelling piece about humanity. Really, that seems to be what all I’ve read from her is about, at its core: human nature. What does it mean to be human? What kind of fears would guide us if we had such a power? Who might try to harness it and why? These are intriguing questions that are just lightly touched throughout the book. The characters, unfortunately, end up largely being stand-ins for various philosophies or ways to explore different ideas. Unlike some of Le Guin’s other works, I never felt connected in any way to the characters. They read more like caricatures than characters. That said, it’s a thoughtful work that I enjoyed greatly.

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny Grade: C+
After reading this book, I looked it up online and discovered it was written in one draft. I’m impressed, but also somewhat dismayed, because it seems the book could have been much improved with some thorough edits and rewrites. The concepts are there for a truly excellent novel, but it’s hampered by a kind of meandering at points that means I as a reader struggled to follow along with the events. Zelazny’s talent is on display here in glimpses, but it only presents itself in fragments. The Jack of Shadows has power in the shadows, unlike many of the magic users of his world whose power relies on the light or darkness on their side of the planet. It makes for a cool idea, but doesn’t go much beyond a few lines of dialogue and some action scenes. I don’t know what it is about the book, I guess I just wanted more from it.

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg- Grade: A
I admit part of my score here is likely due to the simply phenomenal reading by Tom Parker. I listened to it from my library and was simply blown away by the quality of this narration. Parker lends the novel a kind of alien/familiar feel that reflects the dichotomies found therein. Yet even if my score is slanted because of that, there’s no denying this is a pretty excellent read. Silverberg here creates a society that sees the revealing of the self as a great crime. Only among certain relationships is it permitted to even begin to reveal oneself to others. The use of words like “I” or “me” is considered horribly obscene. Inside this society, there are priests called “Drainers” who basically act as places people can confess their wrongs and “drain” their souls of them. The multifaceted nature of this is juxtaposed with Silverberg’s central drama, the autobiographical journey of the main character as he discovers the joys of self-revealing, in part due to the use of a drug from a society most people on his planet view as barbarians. Throughout the whole book there are a number of dichotomies. Alien/familiar is the most obvious, as the people of this society are humans but act so inhumanly by denying the self; civil/uncivil is another; pious/pagan another; and the list could go on. It’s a masterfully crafted, thought-provoking science fiction novel that manages to make a rather well-worn Nu Wave sci-fi trope (drug use) into something eloquent and fresh rather than tired and dated.

Links

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Watching Babylon 5 for the First Time, Season 5: Episodes 1-4

I am very late to the Babylon 5 party. As it came out, I was a bit young for the show and the few times we tried to watch as a family, it was clear we had no idea what was going on. After several people bugged me, telling me it was the show I needed to watch, I grabbed the whole series around Christmas last year on a great sale. I’ve been watching it since, sneaking it in between the many things going on in my life. It quickly became apparent that I’d want to discuss the episodes with others, so I began this series of posts. Please don’t spoil anything from later seasons or episodes for me! 

Babylon 5, Season 5: Episodes 1-4

1: No Compromises

A new commander is on station, again. Sheridan and the new Captain Elizabeth Lochley have a brief discussion about the station and what leadership of it entails. Lochley notes as Sheridan leaves that he didn’t ask which side she was in in the recent conflict, and Sheridan just notes that she’s right. His priorities are clearly much more on healing and moving on as President of the Alliance than having anything to do with Babylon 5.

Not long after, Lochley is approached by someone naming himself Byron (a reference to Lord Byron?) who appears to have some mysterious power. Byron asks Lochley to meet him later. She does, but not on her own. She discovers that Byron is apparently a kind of rogue telepath who is seeking a place to call home for himself and many others of his kind. Meanwhile, a mysterious murder and threat against Sheridan occur as a guy who looks like the broker for the Shadows (kind of) walks around. Turns out he’s there to try to kill Sheridan before he manages to be sworn in as the President of the Alliance. 

After failing in his attempt to kill Sheridan the first time, the man manages to steal a fighter to come back around for a second attempt. G’Kar speaks eloquently on the rights of those in the Alliance and the many faiths represented by the Alliance as well even as the fighter pulls up behind Sheridan. Girabaldi saves the day in his own fighter. G’Kar summarily swears Sheridan in in a humorous moment that helps break the tension some in the meantime. 

The episode closes with Girabaldi coming back to speak with Lochley about the events while also introducing himself as the new head of covert intelligence for the Alliance. Lochley tells him she was on the “side of Earth” when it came to the near civil war. It’s an ominous start to a new era on Babylon 5. 

2: The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari

Delenn learns that Lennier has requested a permanent transfer back home. Londo Mollari is trying to bring some excellent liquor past security, but he falls down insensate once he drinks it. Please tell me we’re not losing both Londo and Marcus within just a few episodes! Lennier tells Delenn that he feels unneeded at this point–clearly a bit jealous of Delenn and Sheridan’s relationship. But he explains that he’s uncomfortable now. He does everything to suggest (but does not say) that he’s going off to join the Rangers in hopes of Delenn falling in love with him.

Mollari apparently had a heart attack. He wasn’t poisoned, but his survival is in great doubt. Delenn telepathically communicates with him (I think?) enough to set him off on a dream journey. Throughout this dream sequence, he is visited by other main characters. Vir tells him in his dream that his problem is himself–his heart can no longer bear the weight of his conscience. G’Kar then confronts him with his own guilt over teh destruction of the Narn, repeating time and again “You said nothing.” Suddenly we see Mollari placed on the whipping post that G’Kar himself endured, and it is G’Kar counting the lashes. In the “real world,” Dr. Franklin and others work desperately to save Mollari’s life. Mollari also cries out just as G’Kar did. Finally, Mollari firmly states that he does not want to die. The G’Kar figure continues to press Mollari for “just one word.” Finally, we see that Mollari’s problem is he cannot deal with the guilt and cannot bring himself to apologize for his actions. He breaks down, bitterly weeping as he yells “I’m sorry!” 

Mollari wakes, and the first person he sees is G’Kar. He says “I’m sorry” to G’Kar, and the Narn smiles, turns, and walks away. We close with Lennier leaving B5. For me, this central story of Mollari’s dream and coming to realize he must repent is extremely powerful. I was initially worried we’d be seeing some silly flashback montage like Star Trek: TNG’s “Shades of Grey” (my review of that debacle). But instead, we get flashbacks, yes, but with new material added and the struggle of Mollari to grow past himself. It’s a wonderful moment, even if it does drag towards the beginning. The payoff is great. 

3: The Paragon of Animals

Sheridan and others attempt to get the members of the Alliance to sign onto a Declaration of Principles. There’s utter chaos over the debate, and Girabaldi privately weighs in to Sheridan saying that he thinks there needs to be more force behind the alliance anyway. Then, we skip over to some people in a dire situation who voice their opinion that the only hope is the Rangers. 

Girabaldi goes to find Byron because he’s managed to sell the main Alliance members to reach out the the telepaths. He quickly gets that meeting, but then Byron summarily dismisses Girabaldi without even allowing him to make an argument, because he’s already heard it all through his mind. Immediately after this, a White Star ship shows up at B5 with a horribly injured Ranger on board. Delenn pushes to use a telepath to discover what the Ranger was doing, and Lyta reads his memories to see the Enfili desperately hoping to join the Alliance in order to get its aid and survive. From this point, I’m already thinking the Drazi are more involved than they’re letting on–it wouldn’t make sense for any people to be totally uninterested in raids on border nations that are close to their own. And we’ve seen so far that Babylon 5 usually has a reason for things that don’t make sense.

Girabaldi convinces Lyta to go talk to the telepaths and G’Kar drops off his draft of the Declaration of Principles for Sheridan. It’s a beautiful statement that ultimately culminates in the notion that “we are one.” Byron confronts Lyta’s doubts about being a telepath head-on, but frees her to think more of herself while also agreeing to provide some help to the alliance because Lyta does want that help. And, here we go–the Drazi have some huge nefarious plan to destroy the White Star fleet and attempt to throw off any possible interference from the greater Alliance. Sheridan’s thank you to Lyta, even as an afterthought, clearly has a big impact on her. She’s becoming a more interesting character, which I’m totally on board for. Also, can we talk about how much the Rangers miss Marcus!? *Silently weeping.*

The confrontation with the Drazi among all the other members of the alliance is a great, masterful stroke. I loved it. We see them all rushing to sign the Declaration of Principles as Lyta looks on, apparently pleased at the great good she’s done. The tension-breaking humor of having G’Kar come in and bring another Declaration as he rushes off to get everyone to sign the new one was another great scene. Lyta goes to speak with Byron, and Sheridan agrees to work with the telepaths. I hope this means more great things and not some more nefarious plotting!

These guys are awesome.

4: A View from the Gallery

Throughout this episode we keep getting insights from some kind of maintenance team on Babylon 5 and from the beginning I suspected there’d be something much more important going on with them. 

Dr. Franklin has a great conversation about why he cares about trying to save whatever lives he can save. Once again, it ties back into his father. Seeing his father saved by a doctor, regardless of which side he was on, is what inspired him to become a doctor. As someone who’s experienced recent loss of a close relative, this scene was extremely poignant. I love how frequently Dr. Franklin talks about his dad. And then there’s the clincher at the end–the doctor who helped his father was shot and killed by his own side for being a traitor. Incredible. 

One of the battles in the episode has one of the maintenance guys fixing the station even as the battle is going on, and the lackadaisical way he goes about it in the middle of a warzone is just so endearing. I loved it. Also, bugs eating wiring is a major sci-fi trope, isn’t it? Then, Girabaldi is torn up one side and down another by  Lochley, who is suddenly showing a lot more character than I thought she might have. 

Then the maintenance guys crawl through a warzone and meet up with the rogue telepaths. They then have a number of cryptic conversations with the telepaths before Byron basically puts Bo in the cockpit of a fighter after he says it “matters to him.” Apparently Bo appreciated the experience, but it’s hard to tell where it went from there. Going along with that, we see a conversation between G’Kar and Mollari that is absolutely delightful as Mollari complains about the universe having it in for him as G’Kar relates his own struggles with the Centauri bombing his homeworld. Then we see another hugely touching moment between them as G’Kar tells Mollari “You did not grow up, you grew old.” Their dynamic is so perfect.

The final battle culminates in the White Star fleet saving the day even as our erstwhile maintenance workers watch and talk about the impact of everything on themselves and the station. At the end, we see Mack and Bo being greeted by Delenn as she and Sheridan walk past. This episode was so heartwarming and wholesome and I love it so much. 

Links

Babylon 5 Hub– Find all my Babylon 5-related posts and content here.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dreamsnake” by Vonda N. McIntyre

Not the original cover, but the one I read and the one that will forever define the novel to me.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

I read Dreamsnake as a member of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club on Goodreads. It was selected in August 2020, and I had a difficult time tracking it down. It surprised me, because it was a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, but apparently was out of print and only available in ebook format on sites that I hadn’t used before. Finally, I managed to track a copy down through an interlibrary loan right as Amazon put the book up free for subscribers on Audible! I promptly dove into the audiobook. 

I started reading Dreamsnake without any prior knowledge of the plot or even the premise. My impression of the possibilities were defined by the cover I put on this post-a woman riding a weird looking horse on the cover of a science fiction novel. Then, I began listening to the book and discovered a world eerily familiar to our own. McIntyre’s prose was lyrical at times and haunting all the way through. The book follows Snake, a woman who heals with the use of snakes and, we discover later, through medical technology. Her Dreamsnake died in a tragic turn during one of her healings, and she is trying to find a new one. The world is apparently post-apocalyptic, as we go past a nuclear crater that causes radiation poisoning, and there is a kind of mythos built up through the novel about a city where higher technology exists. Snake, as a healer, rides the line between the pastoral, subsistence-living settlements throughout the region and the apparent affluence and easy living of the city. 

What makes Dreamsnake most remarkable is its exploration of themes that are much less common in science fiction. For example, an extended scene shows Snake interacting with a young man, Gabriel, who has issues with controlling his sexual functioning. It’s not impotence–it’s that he apparently cannot control whether he is fertile or not–a skill that has been developed in the future. This leads to a rather lengthy scene discussing sexual mores as well as the young man’s difficulties. It’s a surprisingly tender scene in the middle of a science fiction novel, and all the more surprising because it discusses fertility issues  on the side of the man. I have never run into such a discussion in a science fiction novel, and certainly rarely in fiction more generally. Snake recommends that Gabriel go seek a better teacher for his biocontrol, which gives a way out that was somewhat unexpected. The poignancy of this scene and its exploration of a topic that is almost untouched in science fiction is reason enough to read the novel.

In the same town in which Gabriel resides, we encounter Melissa, a 12-year-old girl who was badly burned in a fire. She is a prodigy with horses but the man who runs the stable won’t let her out, claiming it’s due to her deformity. But in reality, he has her trapped in a prison of child labor and sexual exploitation. It’s nothing explicit, but the horror of the situation is palpable. Snake uses her position to rescue Melissa from the awful situation, which in and of itself is a great story. But McIntyre doesn’t leave it there. Snake then directs Melissa on where to go next, but Melissa has other ideas. She insists on going with Snake, and the child and adult have a genuine conversation in which they each give their reasoning for their choices. Snake agrees on Melissa’s reasoning and allows her to come with on her journey. McIntyre here shows an enormous amount of self-determination given to a child. It allows Melissa agency when before there was so little available for her. It’s such an important theme and one about which parents and adults in general ought to take note. Children have agency, and the more we allow them to exercise that–and get in reasoned discussions with adults to allow them to determine a course of action–the better adults they can grow into. 

This also ties into the broader theme of a powerfully feminist vision of the world we get from McIntyre in this novel. It’s not only Snake whom we see exercising autonomy and being a genuine person rather than a trope. No, we also see that it is a girl–a child of 12 years–who gets autonomy of her own. Science fiction so often uses children as prodigies with either near- or actual-divine power. The field is full of books featuring child geniuses or children with wisdom beyond their years. The alternative is usually children as props for the main characters. Here, though, Melissa is a child with no small amount of trauma who still gets to voice her concerns and get listened to by an adult woman, who in fact changes her mind based on what the child expresses. It’s such a powerful moment that even writing about it after the fact has me wanting to cheer. There are several women in this book across a range of ages who are each given their chance to shine. 

The city hides a secret, though, and as readers we never get to explore it much. We’re limited to the viewpoint of Snake, who is roundly turned away from the city when she tries to enter to find a new Dreamsnake. Here we discover much more about the Dreamsnake, which apparently was developed with offworld technology. We experience only hints of this offworld society. In fact, we don’t even know enough to truly call it a society. There are just people–humans or otherwise–who live offworld and apparently have higher technology that the city relies upon. But the people of the city, Snake surmises, are hugely inbred and in need of genetic diversity to survive. In the book, we never know what happens with the city, nor do we learn more about the offworlders. There is no sequel. It seems intentional, though. McIntyre is essentially putting a limit on our knowledge, tantalizing us with glimpses of this post-apocalyptic wasteland while keeping us intimately tied to Snake and, later, glimpses from Arevin, a man who is trying to find Snake. 

The perspective, hints of a broader world, and plot all make the book read powerfully. It’s got plenty of social commentary, as seen above, but it’s also just a great work of science fiction. There’s genetic engineering, discoveries of technology, scientific endeavor, and gritty adventure. Dreamsnake is a wonderful novel, and one that I’m sure to read time and again. I adored it. 

Links 

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Stochastic Man” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back! January is here! After great response to my posts during last January and beyond, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

I found this a fascinating take on a time travel novel. Okay, it’s not actually a time travel novel, but it addresses quite directly some of the central questions that time travel is often associated with. The plot’s main workings are also very similar to what one might expect in a time travel novel. The story centers around Lew Nichols, who uses statistics to very effectively predict the future in broad terms. Later, he meets Martin Carvajal, who can actually see portions of the future–his own–but is quite lackadaisical about it. Nichols enlists Carvajal to help him win the Presidency for his chosen candidate, Quinn. The way it works is part of the similarity to time travel as well. Carvajal can see the future, but Nichols can only see the present and predict trends in the future. So Nichols, in his present, tells Carvajal things that are essential for Quinn to have done in order to bring about his election. Carvajal cannot see whether Quinn wins because he can’t see past his own death, which is apparently coming before Quinn gets elected (or not). But Nichols can use his statistical projection to estimate the long term impact of some of the actions. Carvajal then dutifully reports what future Nichols reported to him in their shared (future) present to the (real) present Nichols. Nichols then relays the information to Quinn and the team they’ve built to elect him.

As the two work together, questions of the unchanging nature of the future abound. Is Carvajal right in that they can’t change the future? His feelings about this means he never even attempts to do so, and one is left at the end of the book wondering whether Carvajal could have been manipulating events in his own way the whole time. Is Nichols ushering in a horrible future where his chosen candidate becomes a dictator? He’s predicted some of the outcomes of this and even sees them at the end of the novel when he discovers his own capacity for seeing the future. Are they, together, bringing about the future rather than predicting or seeing it? These questions are asked around a central pillar that is so subtle it might almost be missed: what would it be like to have time travel or foresight only to know that nothing can possibly be changed? It’s a question that looms large in works on time travel, but Silverberg’s spin by playing the question out in a much different way, by having a hyper-focused scale instead of expanding it out over major events in a timeline. Along with this, he addresses it in the unexpected way of having it not be true time travel involved but rather future prediction and statistical projection. This makes it a fascinating way to play ask the question, and of course Silverberg leaves readers with it as an open ended question, ready to debate on their own.

There are a few problems for this reader in the content of the novel. Silverberg’s major strengths of tight plotting and fascinating character pieces are there, but there are really only two characters that are anything more than foils for plot elements. Other than Nichols and Carvajal, there is very little interaction between characters beyond simply reporting what they are to do and a few arguments over the strangeness of some of Nichols’s advice to Quinn. No women are given any significant role. Nichol’s wife is primarily used to show some sex dynamics that are very 70s (shifting marriage-like relationships for the sake of sex, so far as I can tell). There’s a definite sense of her being the “exotic” woman because she’s non-white, which smacks of some misogyny or at least being quite creepy. She’s also used to introduce a kind of pseudo religious element into the book with a play on some Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure what it would have read like during the 70s, but now it feels much more dated and possibly even colonial in its treatment of the rise of an Eastern-inspired religion.

Looking back over most of the review, it’s easy for me to tell that it was difficult for me to convey just how compelling the central questions in the novel were. The Nichols-Carvajal interactions had me constantly asking myself questions about whether Carvajal was manipulating Nichols, why Nichols didn’t try at least once to change something, whether Silverberg was intentionally trying to say the future is fixed, or whether it was the opposite, and many, many more. The Stochastic Man the kind of science fiction that absolutely forces readers to think a mile a minute, and will leave them thinking about it long after reading the book.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

A Masterpiece of Science Fiction – “Days” by James Lovegrove

One of the most exciting parts about reading books is the ever-present possibility that you’ll encounter a book that hits you at just the right time, or one that catapults itself onto your all-time favorite lists. For me, that rare moment when both occurred with the same book over the Christmas season with James Lovegrove’s Days.

The premise of Days is pretty simple. It is centered around the world’s first (and foremost–perhaps?) gigastore, conveniently named “Days” after its founder’s last name. A gigastore, as the name implies, is a massive shopping complex in which you can buy anything you can imagine. The prestige of shopping at this store is nearly boundless. It is clear that it takes not just a credit check, but years of effort to amass enough of a stockpile of unspent wealth to assure the Days ownership one is worthy of stepping foot through the doors. The story follows several characters: the Day brothers, inheritors of their father’s fortune and–importantly–his expectations. There’s also Frank Hubble, an employee who is planning to quit after his last day at, er, Days. Then, there are the Trivetts. Linda and Gordon have spent much of their adulthood scrounging together the money to finally qualify for their Silver Days card–the lowest level offered, but it gets them through the doors. As readers, we follow these characters as they go through a day at the gigastore.

The characters quickly grab the reader’s interest. Frank’s attempt to sort out his feelings about his job makes him imminently relatable. The Trivetts have a sort of homely, everyday person feel that it is difficult not to hope they get all that they wish for. The Day brothers are so strangely out of touch that it makes each chapter featuring them a must read. There are other characters along the way, and Lovegrove makes them all seem real as well. They’re all trapped, however–they’re trapped in a nightmare of consumerism and rampant, unchecked capitalism. I’ll talk more about this in the section I’ve marked off for spoilers below, but Lovegrove has inventively thought of what it might look like if we just let consumerism and capitalism take over. It’s a microcosm of hell, frankly. The clever turns of phrase Lovegrove scatters throughout the novel bring this home. For example, in the gigastore, they will have random sales that only last 5 minutes. The first of these sales we encounter is a sale in the Dolls department, and all over the store, people who had no interest whatsoever in buying a doll are attracted to the department. After all, what good is it to miss out on an opportunity to save money!?

The best part of the book is the way Lovegrove layers meaning throughout seemingly every character tree and even each action they take. The most obvious is the constant intonation of the number 7. Each chapter starts with a note about something that happens in a 7, the obvious analogy of days of the week to the name of the gigastore, there’s the more obvious push by the founder of Days to name his 7 sons after the 7 days of the week and bribe doctors to ensure they are born on their eponymous days, and there are many, many more occurrences of this as well. But the number 7 doesn’t take over the plot or dominate the novel in any way. It’s another layer to peel away and think about its meaning.

(This Paragraph will have SPOILERS for themes and major plot points in the book.) Beyond that, it’s clear there is much deeper meaning throughout the book. Frank’s fascination with the menagerie–a kind of zoo for sale of creatures in the center of the store–gets woven into the ending sequences in which he is saved by a white tiger that he’d made eye contact with earlier. Frank’s attempt to escape Days by fleeing into true anonymity may be The ritualistic, brutal murder of Sunny–the youngest brother who is named after Sunday–by his brothers surely has depths of meaning. Is it Lovegrove pointing out the natural self-consumption and destruction that follows naturally from unchecked consumerism and capitalism in which any evil can be justified by the almighty concept of profit? Or is it an assault on religion (Sunday being a day of worship for Christians) from the realm of mammon? Lovegrove hints at the latter as a possibility throughout, as it is made extremely clear that for the Days family, the only religion is power, and its rituals are profits. Indeed, a whole exploration of the rites of consumerism to be found in the novel is possible. The Trivetts themselves serve as a study in how consumerism means self-consumption. Gordon is hesitant about the worship of mammon, seeing it as pointless to spend on things one doesn’t want or need simply because they’re on sale. But he is sucked into the consumerism nonetheless in ways he doesn’t expect. He ends up saving his wife, Linda, from a fight over Third World Instruments (there’s a lightning sale there–why wouldn’t you fight other people for the products?). It seems to impact her to the point where she gains trust in him she’d never had before, but that is ultimately undermined at the end of the book when she secretly decides to work to get into another gigastore once their Days membership is revoked.

The power of the novel is found in subtleties. It’s a slow burn, but as someone reading it as consumerism peaks in the United States (Christmas season and all the spending–along with the emphasis on the almighty sale), it was a powerful critique and even a reminder about what’s actually important. It’s a warning as much as it is a novel.

Days is a novel that I will never forget. Its incisive comments about rampant consumerism, its clever humor, its catching characters, and its depth of meaning are each features that, on their own, could capture my imagination for some time after reading it. Combined, it turns into one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dragonflight” by Anne McAffrey

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Do you remember those days before you could easily look up which books came first in a series online? You would be browsing the stacks at a library, grab an interesting looking book, and take it home, only to discover that it is, in fact, book 5 in a lengthy series (or perhaps worse, book 2 in a trilogy!). You bring the book back, and discover the library doesn’t have the other books, so you forget about it. That’s what happened to me with the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I saw one of the books at a local library many years ago and then returned it because I couldn’t get a handle on any aspect of it, given that I’d picked up in the middle of the series (and not at one of the entry points). 

More recently, my mother-in-law, who is another speculative fiction enthusiast, recommended strongly that I try the books out and even bought me an omnibus edition of the first three. I dove in, and was hooked. But I wasn’t completely in the right place to fully understand or grasp the depth of the world McCaffrey made. More recently, I started a re-read of the series (I’d read the first 9 or so before), this time on audiobook. I was blown away by the immense scope of McCaffrey’s world, even from the first book, Dragonflight.

Dragonflight introduces us to Pern, a world which faces a threat from “Thread,” a kind of mindless spore creature that destroys almost anything it touches, burrowing, eating, consuming. Every 250 years or so, these “Threads” would shoot from another planet onto Pern, its neighboring world. To combat it, the people of Pern developed a relationship with local creatures which they called dragons after the creatures of lore. The dragons could burn the Thread from the sky before it threatened the planet, but only if they were employed properly. In Dragonflight, the threat seems more remote because the irregular orbit of the neighboring world has meant several turns (approaches of the other planet) haven’t been close enough to produce Thread, and the threat is but a memory to this medieval-ish society. But now, as the dragons breed, it seems the threat is genuine, and the people of Pern must scramble to fight the Thread before it is too late.

McCaffrey’s greatest strength here is, again, the world-building, both in its vastness and its depth. It is frankly amazing to see in the first book how much detail there is built into the world, and how much history is clearly placed behind all of it. I don’t know of McCaffrey was planning on turning the book into a massive series when she originally wrote it, but the pieces for that massive series are all there in the first book. The depth front-loaded into this first book can almost be overwhelming for a series newcomer, as I was, when I first read it. But the main plot carries the book along at a clipping pace, introducing numerous characters, locales, and ideas at a brisk rate that keeps you engaged even as you try to swim against the tide of hugeness rolling over you. 

As great as the worldbuilding is, the plot is just as good. The notion of an ancient threat is always compelling to me, as is any sense of inbuilt history. And here, we have those combined with some elements of fantasy and even some time travel thrown in. The main characters are interesting, and they work to solve some of the main problems in exciting, believable ways. They’re only developed a little throughout the book, but with everything else going on in the novel, it would be almost too much to have major character development over the course of the story as well. This is science fantasy of the best kind, and its soaring heights of dragons are balanced with other, deeper ideas that are only hinted at in this book.

I think Dragonflight is improved on a re-read. As I noted, the density of the world and ideas make it almost overwhelming the first time, but the second time through, it is easier to settle in and enjoy the world and characters and plot more, all while getting a refresher on the world. It’s an intricate, delightful novel. I am greatly looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Remembering Ben Bova (1932-2020)

Ben Bova was one of my entry points to broader science fiction. I found out about his passing last night. I was struck by the loss, because he was an author who’d had a massive impact on my life and enjoyment of reading. I want to tell my story of how I discovered Bova and how his works continued to guide my enjoyment of science fiction.

As a kid, my family would frequent a Hallmark store where my mom and sister would look at the greeting cards and gifts. This Hallmark, however, was remarkable: it had a bookstore at the back. I still don’t know if it was a fluke of the way Hallmark does licensing or what, but there was just this awesome bookstore at the back of a greeting card and gift shop. The owner/franchisee clearly loved science fiction, fantasy, and heavy metal. It was where, in my teens, I would buy magazines featuring the latest pull out posters of the nu metal bands I got into. I bought bookmarks there with dragons and other fantastic creatures on them (I still own a couple!). And, I walked the stacks. The science fiction & fantasy section was huge, too. There was one set of shelves that covered about a third of this warehouse-sized Hallmark. It was filled with speculative fiction. It had a facing set of shelves also filled with more stories of spaceships, dragons, heroes, and heroines.

It was here that I discovered Ben Bova. A book on the shelf, simply titled Moonwar, called to me with its cover (pictured above). It said something about the author winning a Hugo Award. I had no idea what that was, but I knew that I had enjoyed some Newbery Medal winners (a prominent award for children’s literature). Awards were clearly A Good Thing. (At the time, and for many years after, I had no idea that his Hugos were all for his editorial work. My experience with him was–and mostly is–exclusively based on his novels.) I begged my mom to buy the book for me, and she, always supportive of my reading addiction, did so.

I devoured it. I had no idea that the book was the second in a series. It didn’t impact my enjoyment of it at all. Up to this point, the only adult science fiction I’d read was Star Wars novels and some additional Timothy Zahn books I’d grabbed at the library (I was very confused those weren’t also Star Wars novels–I didn’t know authors would write their own books and Star Wars books–but I did love them.) Bova’s imagination of the future of human society branching out from Earth and fighting a war over the Moon was vivid and captivating. I couldn’t help but think about current astronauts and how they might help set us up for a moon base that could help us get new resources and explore new horizons.

Every time I visited that Hallmark from then on, I scoured the shelves to see if there were any new books by this Ben Bova guy. Then, one day, there was! A bright red-orange cover showing me a sunrise on Mars with the title of the book, simply called Mars splashed across its cover. And there was the name I’d been waiting for–Ben Bova. I didn’t even bother to read the blurb on the back cover, I ran it over to my mom, who once again indulged my reading. As she shopped the shelves, I dove in. When I got home, I kept going, and going, until it was done.

Mars awakened me to even greater possibilities of the future of humanity. It was a humanity in which we still had major problems–tokenizing minorities was just one of them–but it was one that was also hopeful and capable of greatness. And it was a humanity capable of discovery on the grandest scale. When a major plot point revealed a monumental revelation, I felt my heart bursting with pride and joy. Bova had awakened in me a deep love for science fiction and the possible. More than that, reading Bova spurred me to read at higher levels, learn bigger words, and learn about new ideas.

From then on, I read anything I could from Bova. It continued into my college years, when I read his Asteroid Wars books. Once again, I was blown away by his use of science in the novels, and it had never occurred to me how many problems there could be attempting to get rights and wage wars for those rights in space. It was a new awakening for me in college. I hadn’t been reading much of anything apart from books for school, and reading Bova again made me realize how much I still loved science fiction. It was in those years when I began to start truly branching out and finding how much I loved the genre. And, as it had been years before, part of that beginning was due to Ben Bova.

I continued to keep up with his Grand Tour novels as an adult. After some time away from them, I saw one on the shelf at the local book store and grabbed it. The book was New Earth and I was deeply moved by it. It depicted humanity going far afield from our own solar system and discovering the unexpected, along with the discovery of a great terror out in the cosmos. It moved me so much that I even wrote three blog posts about the book on my main blog dedicated to theology and philosophy (see, for example, this post about humanity on the brink). It had been a few years, but Bova once again struck a cord in me as a reader.

I have spent more than 20 years in the universe Bova made. I have learned about the planets from him, as his books sent me online and to libraries to read about the planets he discovered. He was a great light in the world of science fiction, and he will be deeply missed.

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Humanity on the Brink in Ben Bova’s “New Earth”- I write about Ben Bova’s New Earth and what it says about humanity’s future.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini- An epic space opera that feels fresh

I mean, who wouldn’t love this cover?

I have some confessions to make as I start this review. First, I tend to scorn hype for books, afraid that I’ll be disappointed by them. Second, I didn’t really enjoy Eragon all that much. Third, I was mostly excited about this book because of the cover art. There, did I confess enough crimes against general readership? (I have many more.) All of that said, I absolutely adored To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. I’ll try to avoid them, but fair warning for SPOILERS in this review.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this novel, but I can fairly say that it subverted basically every expectation I ended up having as the novel went along. Each time I thought I’d figured out the next twist or the next turn in the story, I was surprised anew. And none of these were in ways that were annoying or contrived. Paolini has created a stunning space opera that constantly delights.

Perhaps the best part of the book is how frequently Paolini uses what seems a trope or theme from science fiction and then brings it to a surprising conclusion. Early on, when our protagonist Kira Navárez is living on a colony in love, I thought this might be a simple work of exploration and colony life. Wrong. I thought that the alien artifact discovered had many similarities to, say, the film “Life,” Wrong. Time and again, I saw inspirations from many sources of science fiction, even explicit references (a character named Ivanova as a nod to Babylon 5? I’ll take it!). Other references aren’t so explicit, but may still be there (is Kira Navárez perhaps a nod to Kira Nerys?). Despite all of these inspirations, the book never beigns to feel derivative Paolini handled them deftly and created his own huge narrative that never seems to drag despite approaching 900 pages in hardcover.

It is hard to avoid simply comparing the book to so many science fiction inspirations, because it does draw on them so frequently. A major part of the book features Kira with the crew of the Wallfish, a delightful collection of personalities and inside jokes that cannot help but bring to mind the delightful “Firefly.” But, again, it’s not as though that television series is the first or only to have an intrepid crew taking on somewhat shady jobs in space. Writing a review, though, how do I avoid making so many references? I can’t. In fact, part of the delight of the book is seeking out some of those references and debating whether they are intentional or not.

Paolini, though, is not content to give readers the warm fuzzy feelings of recognizing implicit or explicit references to other works of science fiction. No, there’s an incredible tale in this novel that continues to throw plot twists at the reader each time one gets settled in. Think that a major revelation wraps up most of the conflict in the book? Think again! What’s astonishing to me, though, is that none of these major twists reads in a way that is unbelievable or contrived. No, they make sense within the overall flow of the novel, and continue to drive the reader on. I was amazed as I read the book (and then immediately listened to it on audiobook afterwards) that I never felt the plot meandered or had pacing issues. It’s a huge book, and some lulls are inevitable, but none of these made me want Paolini to pick up the pace. The lulls were welcome respites in between the heady, galaxy-defining events happening.

The novel is also chock full of themes worth exploring. What does it mean to be a self? A certain alien species surprises when they reveal that they don’t mind their “selves” going off and dying, because an original copy exists back home. Once again, a subversion of a somewhat common sci-fi theme, but it also begs the question: how would the sense of self change if we could extend ourselves through the stars? Or, what if we could extend our physical bodies in new ways? What about moving on from significant loss? When and how is it okay to do so?

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a magnificent achievement. Paolini has created a space opera worthy of any fan of the genre reading. For readers just wanting to enjoy the ride, the impressive cast of characters, inspiration from other science fiction works, and timely injections of humor will continually delight. For those looking more deeply, there are enough themes to keep one entertained for hours afterwards. I highly recommend it.

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1969

I’m a huge science fiction fan, and, having read a list of what are alleged to be the top 200 science fiction novels, I decided to next tackle a read-through of all the Hugo Award winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1969 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees. I’ve also dropped a short reflection on the year’s Hugo list at the beginning.

1969- Ever see your own opinion on books and think you were wrong? I suspect if I re-read some books I’d have an entirely different opinion on them. One thing I wanted to talk about from the 1969 Hugos is the winner of best novella, “Nightwings” by Robert Silverberg. It’s pretty fantastic, and a superb example of New Wave science fiction. In a far future Earth the main character is assigned to watch for alien invasions while accompanied by a Changeling and a fairy-like woman. Silverberg wrote two sequel novellas, which he humorously points out Frederik Pohl, the editor of the magazine to which he submitted them, did not like. But I loved them as much or more than “Nightwings.” Together, they make a novel-length book which wouldn’t unseat Past Master as my favorite this year (see my gushing below), but would give it a run. The Goblin Reservation was a somewhat disappointing Simak book to me. But even if he’s not at his best, I enjoy Simak. Stand on Zanzibar was clearly worthy of a classic, though parts of it are nearly unreadable, and it is so heavy. Rite of Passage was forgettable. Past Master–well, you’ll see what I think below and in my extended review, but I adored it.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty (My Winner)- Grade: A+
I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, and I have to say I was absolutely blown away. He’d been recommended by a number of different people to me, and with this Hugo read-through I finally picked up Past Master to check him out. I wish I’d done so earlier. This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or any number of other major themes in the book, it’s a fascinating, fantastic ride. Longer review/overview that I wrote here.

The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak- Grade: C-
A strange, mashup book of time travel, goblins, ghosts, dimensions, dragons, and more (robots, of course!) while still maintaining a Simak-esque pastoral plot. Something about this one didn’t click for me. It was almost like a travelogue with all the strangeness of the different creatures/species being lost in the mire of normalcy that permeates even Simak’s strangest writing. It didn’t all work together as some of his other works have. The setting just never made sense in a way that was cohesive. Having these different mythical creatures all jumbled together can work, and sometimes does so beautifully. But here, Simak just seemed to be piling on the creatures for no clear reason. There wasn’t much direction to what was happening, either. It’s an okay read, but not a very good one.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (Winner)- Grade: B+
A phenomenally difficult and dense read. The style is particularly interesting, though I read that it was largely modeled after a work Brunner admired. Basically, some chapters are kind of info-dumps giving background on the setting, other chapters are more extensive background information, and still others follow a narrative. It makes the whole thing a bit of a chore to read through, and I can’t help but think that it seems a bit forced. However, the central narrative and the background context are each intriguing, and the dystopic future it envisions are, in some ways, chillingly accurate (though in others laughably quaint). In the time of COVID and other things happening, it seems increasingly, eerily prophetic. But I’m not convinced that’s the point of the story. It seems more a warning than a prophecy, and perhaps we should be concerned that the warning seems to be turning into reality. Also, I tried to re-read this book as an audiobook, and it was awful. The reader was fine–good, even–but this book is not meant to be listened to. It’s impossible to follow.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin- Grade: C
Panshin’s book is one of those that left me with an intense feeling of “oh well.” Nothing was terribly wrong with this coming-of-age story set aboard a ship, but nothing is terribly striking about it either. It just feels like a milquetoast read. There’s nothing striking about it any more, which is probably based upon reading it more than 50 years after it was written. Based on looking at its reception overall, it was apparently striking for having such a personal perspective, particularly for featuring a young girl in that role. But looking back on it, the claims that it portrays so well what “being a girl” is like seems absurd, and the plot is, frankly, boring. It’s somewhat lazy to say of a book that it shows its age, but I have to use that phrase here. This book shows its age. It may have been innovative and thought-provoking at the time it was written, but it is a chore to read today.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: C-
It wasn’t the disaster that was Dhalgren, but it still wasn’t great. I think this book is an example of an idea that was so fresh and exciting at the time that it stuck with people, but it seems overdone and rather dry in hindsight. Well done on Delany for tackling this hard sci-fi topic ahead of most (or any) other authors. But I just didn’t think it was as engaging as I’d hoped it would be. None of the characters grabbed my interest. The center of the plot was basically just a set up for talking about science in the mouths of the characters. It wasn’t awful, but it also doesn’t stand up well with time.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.