Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: The Sky Devil

Book Review: The Sky Devil by L. Ron Hubbard

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, because of severe shipping delays, Galaxy Press also sent the audio version.

The Sky Devil

This is another in the series of L. Ron Hubbard pulp stories reprints from Galaxy Press, a novella and two short stores.  As always, the physical quality of the book is top-notch.

The title story, “The Sky Devil”, starts with aviator Vic Kennedy fleeing retribution for his part in the failed 1935 Greek revolution.  He’s been denied asylum by both the British and French, and finds himself flying over the Sahara desert with a nearly-empty gas tank.  Suddenly, he sees a city, and upon landing finds himself embroiled in local politics.

It’s an exciting story, and features some creative use of those last few gallons of gasoline.  Hubbard loved his airplane stories, and it really shows.  There’s a love interest, but it’s kind of a lopsided victory.   I mean, you have your choice of a handsome, strapping warrior with the power of flight, or a malformed degenerate whose only claim on you is extortion of your father.  Who you going to pick?

The author is quick to point out that the locals are “white” Muslims, and it just so happens that Vic knows Arabic from…somewhere never fully discussed.

“”Buckley Plays a hunch” is set in the Southwest Pacific.  Buckley is a sailor who’s been looking for a lost scientific expedition, and has now found them.  It’s clear that they have all gone mad on this isolated island, but Buckley gets the feeling there’s more going on than meets the eye.  It isn’t quite as creepy a story as it really should be; Buckley’s just a little too calm and collected to sell it.

“Medals for Mahoney” is likewise set in the Southwest Pacific.  Mahoney is the latest clerk for a trading company.  Kamling Island has a problem with short-lived clerks and natives raiding the storehouse.  Mahoney is trying to defend the warehouse from the latest raid, but he may just possibly have the situation backwards.  A good twist in this one, and a nice bit of comedy at the end.

There’s a helpful glossary, a preview of another volume “Black Towers to Danger”, and the standard introduction and Hubbard Bio that’s in all the Galaxy Press editions.  As I have noted before, the shortness of the book and the mandatory repeated material lower the value for money if you have more than one of these volumes.  I would recommend this from the library or used bookstore, though.

The audio edition is quite splendid; it’s fully voice-acted, with sound effects.  The touted actor is Yasmine Hanani as Dunya, the love interest in “The Sky Devil”, and she has a strong cast backing her.  The actor playing Vic Kennedy came off a little bland, but that may be because everyone else was having fun with the Arabic accents.  The potted biography is in the included leaflet, which is heavily illustrated.  This has better value for money ratio, but a book is easier to pick up and read.

For other books in the series, see the “Related Posts” below this post.

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