Book Review: A Feast for Crows

Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.

A Feast for Crows

While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots.  In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm.  In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance.  In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk.  In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early.  Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more.  On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader.  And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.

And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.

When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time.  But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan.  Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.

The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably.  The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book.  And back in the day, that would be another five years!

There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name.  He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!

With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters.  Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger.  With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector.  This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.

Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God.  She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?

Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa.  What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically.  Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.

Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes.  He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.

Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun.  He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken.  Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.

Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality.  If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better.  But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming.  And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country.  Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will.  It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.

(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)

Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet.  None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like.  And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.

Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.

Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.

Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne.  Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters.  Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.

Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters.  There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.

As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language.  Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.

Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones  The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.

 

 

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton edited by Roger Elwood

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) was a prolific author,  best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels marketed to the young adult sector.  (I’ve previously reviewed her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock.)  Her output of short fiction was much less, but enough good stories were available for this volume.  The hardback edition was titled The Many Worlds of Andre Norton.

The Book of Andre Norton

The introduction is by Donald A. Wollheim, the publisher of DAW Books.  He notes that he republished one of her “juveniles” with a new title and without mentioning its original marketing category, and it sold just fine, thank you.  At the time of his writing, “young adult” was still a new name for the category and felt awkward to him.

“The Toads of Grimmerdale” is about a rape survivor named Hertha.   Her homeland of the Dales has recently managed to repel an invasion, but at a high cost, with the land impoverished and the various fiefs thrown into confusion.  The man who assaulted Hertha was not one of the invaders, but of a Dalish army.  She didn’t get a look at his face, but there is a clue by which she will surely know him.  When it became clear that Hertha was pregnant, her brother Kuno offered her a choice of a dangerous abortion…or exile.

Hertha undertakes the harsh midwinter journey to the shrine of Gunnora, goddess of women, and is assured that the evil of its father will not taint her child.  But Hertha also wants revenge, something Gunnora (who only has domain over life) will not offer.  So it is that Hertha also seeks out the title creatures, which are not toads in any human sense, who do offer vengeance.  But it is said that the gifts they offer are often not to the pleasure of their supplicants.

Then  we meet Trystan, a mercenary who is no longer needed by his army, and looking for a place to settle down.  He may or may not be the man Hertha is looking for, but soon he must deal with the Toads.  But can either man or woman stand against the gods of the Old Ones?

This is the cover story, and that illustration is at least in the right neighborhood.  Of note is that the Toads do something to Hertha’s face that makes her hideous to men, though we never get a description beyond patches of brown skin.

“London Bridge” is set in a post-apocalyptic city.  It was sealed against the pollution of the outside world, only to fall victim to a plague that killed all/most of the adults.  (It’s not clear if “Ups” are the few adults that remain, driven to madness by drug addiction, or people the same age range as the protagonist who are drug addicts.)  Lew is the leader of his gang of youths and children, and is on the trail of “the Rhyming Man”, a mysterious figure who speaks only in nursery rhymes and seems to be responsible for the disappearance of the younger members of this and other gangs.   This story seems to be more fantasy than science fiction, as the power of belief is an important plot point.

“On Writing Fantasy” is an essay by Ms. Norton about where she gets her ideas and the process of writing fantastic stories.  She was a big believer in reading history and historical fiction to get inspiration and technical details, and shares a list of her favorites.  (The history books may be a trifle dated due to new discoveries and scholarship.)   She also talks about writing Year of the Unicorn, her first book with a female protagonist.  Reader response was apparently very divided–girls really appreciated Gillan, while boys did not like her at all.  (“The Toads of Grimmerdale” turns out to take place at roughly the same time as this book, but does not share any characters.)

“Mousetrap” is a short tale set on Mars.  A man destroys a priceless alien artwork and suffers the consequences.  Hard to discuss further without spoiling.

“All Cats are Gray” also starts on Mars.  A computer operator approaches a man down on his luck with the news that a derelict spaceship loaded with loot is returning to the general orbit area.  She invites herself and her cat along on the salvage mission, which turns out to be a very good idea.  Ms. Norton’s themes of bonding with animals and distrust of computers are both seen here.

“The Long Night of Waiting” is set in a new suburban housing development.  The children of the first family to move in meet two children who are very out of place.  This is despite the pair having lived there to begin with; they’ve been trapped in the land of the Fair Folk for what seems like a short time to them, but more than a century to those outside.  The ending might be happy, or chilling, depending on your attitude.

“The Gifts of Asti” is another story that blends the fantasy and SF genres; the last priestess of the title god flees her temple in advance of the barbarian hordes that have sacked the nearby city.  Passing through underground passages with her telepathic lizard companion, Varta emerges in a valley that has not seen human life in a long time, possibly because of the glass plain where a city once stood.  Varta finds a gift preserved from a time when the ancient towers were not yet built, and this provides hope for the future.

“Long Live Lord Kor!” is a novella-length work.  Mental time travel has been invented, but restricted to meddling with planets whose populations are dead in “the present” to try to bring them back to life.  Special agent Creed Trapnell is assigned to follow up a failed mission.  For reasons not fully discussed, it is only possible to be projected back into a brain that has near-zero intelligence of its own.  Trapnell finds himself not in the body of the oracle he was intended to inhabit (and why would an  oracle be devoid of thought?) and instead inhabiting Lord Kor Kenric, the son of the king.

It seems Kor recently took a bad wound to the head, and was not expected to live, let alone recover with only a case of amnesia.  Now the new merged Lord Kor must seek out the “sorceress” who is the primary agent in this time period and attempt to complete the mission before the oracle sets the planet on the road to nuclear war.  Turns out there were some important things left out of Trapnell’s briefing…but did the supercomputer ZAT deliberately conceal these topics, or just not know?

There’s some use of what used to be acceptable medical terms for people with mental handicaps, but are now considered slurs.

“Andre Norton: Loss of Faith” by Rick Brooks is a survey of the themes in her work, and what seemed to be an increasing pessimism in her books.  Many of the darker sides of her settings had been there all along, but Mr. Brooks felt they were becoming more central in the late 1960s material.

The volume ends with a complete as of 1974 bibliography for Ms. Norton.

I enjoyed “Mousetrap” and “Long Live Lord Kor!” the best; “The Long Night of Waiting” felt too “old person complainy” for my tastes.  Overall, a strong collection of stories, and it’s been reprinted several times so should be available in better used bookstores as well as libraries.

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

It is the year 2030, and after the effects of World Wars Three & Four, Japan is relatively unscathed, having become one of the world’s economic and technological powerhouses.  In particular, they lead the world in cybernetics, and various cyborg upgrades are commonplace.  Of course, this means that cybercrime is even more of a threat than in 2002 (when this series first aired) and the government agency “Public Security Section 9” is detailed to deal with those crimes, especially if they also involve terrorism.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Vol. 03

Section 9’s top agent is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a full-body cyborg, a “ghost in the shell.”  She has been in this state since childhood, and is adept at transferring her consciousness into alternate robot bodies (though she has a strong preference for ones shaped like female human beings.)  Along with her superior combat skills, this makes her a whiz at secret agent missions.

The Major and her colleagues will need every bit of their skill to battle the world-class hacker and cyberterrorist known as The Laughing Man, whose real face is impossible to see by anyone or anything with cybernetic connections, replaced by a bizarre logo adorned with Catcher in the Rye quotes.

Standalone Complex is a science-fiction anime series based on the Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow.  While it shares many characters and most of its background with the manga and previous adaptations, it is not necessarily in continuity with those, so there are some minor contradictions.  “Motoko Kusanagi” (a name rich with connotations in Japanese culture, equivalent to naming a British secret agent “Victoria Excalibur”) may not even be the Major’s real name.

The structure of the show is interesting; odd-numbered episodes are “complex” and tie into the Laughing Man plot arc, while even-numbered episodes are “standalone” and tell individual stories.

As it happens, I got the third DVD volume of the series for Christmas, so let’s take a closer look at that.

Episode 9, “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place almost entirely within a virtual reality chat room for discussion of the Laughing Man phenomenon.  This…is not a good episode to come into the series on, as it is largely just people sitting around having conversations.  And not even the main characters (except the Major in disguise) but a bunch of people who probably didn’t appear before and won’t appear again.  We do get some background on what is public knowledge about the Laughing Man (not much) and some discussion of whether it’s even the same Laughing Man from previous incidents or a copycat.

Episode 10, “Jungle Cruise” focuses on Batou, a former Army Ranger with obviously cybernetic eyes.  A serial killer is loose in the city of Niihama, who skins his victims alive in a distinctive fashion.  The identity of the killer is quickly revealed when two CIA operatives from the American Empire (World War Three was not kind to the United States, which split up into three countries, of which the Empire is the most active in world affairs) appear to ask Section 9 for help capturing him.

We learn that the killer was part of a CIA black ops mission in Southern Mexico known as “Project Sunset.”  It involved murdering civilians in particularly horrific fashion to break the will of the enemy.  Batou, as part of the UN peacekeeping forces, encountered the killer, but was unable to stop him.  The killer’s war has not ended, now brought to the shores of Japan,  Does this also mean that Batou’s war is not over?

Episode 11, “Portraitz” follows Togusa, the least cyberized field agent of Section 9 (just a “cyberbrain” that allows him to communicate with other people who have cyberbrains) as he infiltrates a facility for children  with Closed Shell Syndrome, a condition where one becomes too dependent on cybernetic communication, making it difficult to operate in the real world even while becoming a savant with computers.  There’s something sinister going on in the facility; but is it one of the staff who’s responsible, or one of the patients?

Episode 12, “Escape From” is two related stories.  In the first half, a Tachikoma (an artificial intelligence robot that serves as a small tank for Section 9) goes walkabout without orders, heading into the city and learning about the human concept of death.  Along the way, it picks up a mysterious box.  In the second half, we learn that if someone cybernetically connects to the box, their “ghost” vanishes inside it and won’t come out.  The Major must investigate, but will she too be seduced by what’s inside the box and lost forever?

This one manages to touch on some deeper philosophical topics:  death, the rapidly developing individuality of the Tachikoma AIs, escapism and artistic integrity.

Each episode ends with a short comedy skit starring the Tachikomas, usually tying in with the plot of the episode somehow.  Also included in this volume are interviews with Batou’s actor and the sound director.

The opening credits are full-on CGI, which is a bit jarring, and really showcases how silly the Major’s default outfit looks, especially from behind.  (It reminds me of the US superhero comics fad for putting their heroines in costumes that were basically glorified swimsuits.)  The music is good, though.

I liked “Jungle Cruise” best of the episodes in this volume.

Content notes:  “Jungle Cruise” does involve skinning people alive, and we see some of the results.  There’s a nude female statue in “Portraitz”, which some parents might find unsuitable for younger viewers.  (But honestly, if you let them watch the previous episode…)  The dub version may have some rough language.

Overall, I am looking forward to seeing the entire series so that I can make more sense of the Laughing Man episodes.  Recommended to fans of other Ghost in the Shell versions, and cyberpunk fans in general.

Here’s the opening music, for those who like that sort of thing:

Book Review: Windswept

Book Review: Windswept by Adam Rakunas

Padma Mehta used to work for The Man.  That is, WalWa, one of the Big Three megacorporations that own most of Occupied Space.  She was good at her job, too, despite the shabby treatment she often got.  Then Bad Things happened, and Padma Breached, breaking her indenture contract to join the Union on Santee.

Windswept

Now Padma’s a Ward Head for the Union in Brushhead, one of the neighborhoods in Santee Landing.  But now she has other plans–the owner of the distillery that makes Padma’s favorite rum “Old Windswept” is retiring, and Padma wants to buy that distillery to make sure the sanity-restoring drink remains made just the right way.  But to do that, Padma must fill job Slots for the Union, and that means finding new Breaches to take those Slots.  When a mining ship disaster kills the discontented workers she was counting on, Padma is forced to accept a deal with small time con artist Vytai Bloombeck, who knows where some other Breaches are coming to the planet.

Except, of course, that there are five Breaches (six if you count the corpse), not forty, and rival ward head Evanrute Saarien is determined to steal even those to add to his own credit with the Union.  And things just continue to go downhill from there, with disgruntled Union workers, corporate assassins and a deadly cane blight all making Padma’s life even more awful than she perhaps deserves.  The only people that might be on Padma’s side are rogue cab driver Jilly and recently Breached lawyer Banks, and that might just be because they don’t know her well enough.

This science fiction novel is set in a future that’s not the worst possible outcome, but is full of broken systems.  Yes, being a corporate Indenture means that you get many benefits, like the “pai” (never actually explained but probably short for “personal assistant implant”) hooked up to your optic nerve to allow wireless communication among other neat features.  But the Big Three tend to cheap out on the actual quality of the benefits, and every upgrade comes with more time on your indenture.

The Union is no bed of roses either; there’s a bunch of low-level job Slots that need filling, and rookies go straight into things like sewer cleaning and hull scraping, regardless of actual skill set.  Getting into better Slots takes the ability to convince the Union you’re worthy, and new Breaches coming in to take the lowest Slots.  (Bloombeck’s been stuck in the sewers for decades because no one likes him enough to find him a better Slot.)

Padma has a lot of flaws, some of which are related to the mental illness that she got during her service to WalWa.  Old Windswept is the only effective treatment she’s found for The Fear, so that’s her top priority.  Unfortunately, Santee has fallen off the main trade routes, so fewer ships are coming for the cane, molasses and galaxy’s best rum, and thus fewer Breaches to feed her kitty and let her workers rise in the ranks.  As a result of her worries about this, Padma has not kept her ear to the ground about various developing situations around the colony, and that comes back to bite her repeatedly.

Something else that bites Padma is her habit of assuming people she meets have always been what they are when she meets them.  More than one person has a secret past that has bearing on current events.  Other people turn out to be exactly what Padma thinks they are, which may be worse.

Once the ball gets rolling, it’s pretty much non-stop peril for Padma and her crew, only getting breathing space to set up more peril.  There’s a fair amount of violence, but more disturbing in its implications than graphic.

There’s no romance subplot, but Padma does have plot-relevant casual sex towards the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the happiest part of the ending is that Padma’s a better person than she was before everything happened, even if she didn’t exactly get what she wanted.

Other characters develop depth of personality only by what Padma sees them do, as makes sense in a first-person narrative.  Banks is far more complex than he initially seems, while Jilly is young and rather callow, but learning fast.  Other characters…well, that’d be spoilers.

At least one scene is designed to be in the potential movie version, as lampshaded by the characters in it talking about the movies they’ve seen and whether this is actually something that could happen in real life.

I enjoyed the book and the characters–it’s not often a battle-scarred, middle-aged woman of South Asian descent is the protagonist in an action novel.  (However, the treatment of her mental illness may not be fully accurate; I am not qualified to tell.)

Recommended to fans of science fiction action, and rum drinkers.

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Note: This is the sequel to The Lives of Tao and this review may contain SPOILERS for the previous volume.

The Deaths of Tao

Millions of years ago, the Quasing crashed on Earth.  They could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere, and were forced to piggyback inside the native lifeforms.  They managed to survive until a semi-intelligent lifeform appeared.  Since then, the Quasing have guided the humans to create a civilization advanced enough to achieve space travel so that the aliens can get back home.  However, a while back the Quasing split into two factions.  The Genjix consider the humans a servant race to be used and discarded; humanity owes everything it has to the Quasing, and must be prepared to have it taken back.  The Prophus (“betrayers”) think of the humans as partners and want them to have free will.

Now, the Genjix are within sight of achieving one of their major goals–which will have the side effect of wiping out the human race as we know it.  The embattled Prophus and their human allies must find a way to survive and if possible stop this plan–even if it means being stranded on Earth forever.

We have six viewpoint characters in three pairs.  Roen Tan is a former computer whiz who is now the partner of the title character Tao (who used to be the partner of Genghis Khan, among other things).  He’s turned into one of the top agents of the Prophus, but has gone off the reservation for the last couple of years chasing down leads to the latest Genjix plan.

Which has led to a separation from his wife Jill Tan, a Washington, D.C. political aide.  Her partner is Baji, who previously inhabited Roen’s trainer Sonia.  Jill is fighting her own battle against Genjix-sponsored legislation that fits into their world domination plans…somehow.  Something in the complex bill is a deadly trap, but what?

Meanwhile, Genjix Council member Zoras has exhausted his current vessel, and now enters Enzo, a specially-created and trained ubermensch.  Enzo has been designed from birth to be the perfect vessel for one of the Holy Ones, smarter, stronger and more ruthless than any mere human.  Unfortunately, he is well aware of this, and is determined to demonstrate this superiority, which clashes with Zoras’ master planner mindset.  They are in charge of the latest Genjix project, which is achingly close to completion, if they can just hold off the Prophus a little longer.

This science-fiction thriller is fast-paced with interesting characters and a premise that allows both good guys and opponents to show up in surprising ways.    The Quasing being behind almost every event in human history (except the rise of Hitler; that was all us) does get a bit tiring–I’d have liked to have seen that humans have some initiative for positive action.  The Genjix are even behind global warming!

The bad guys indulge in a bit of torture, as well as murderous medical experiments.  There’s also a lot of conventional military violence.

The ending really shakes up the status quo, and Mr. Chu promises that things will get even worse for the characters in the sequel–I’m looking forward to that.

Recommended to SF thriller fans and secret history buffs.

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men by Robert Silverberg (writing as Calvin M. Knox) and A. E. Van Vogt, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two books in one, upside down from each other.  According to Larry Niven, during the 1960s Ace Books was known for being particularly skinflint towards authors, so would only be sold to if all other SF publishers turned down the book, and the writer just needed some cash in hand, because royalties and overseas sales would never be forthcoming.  When Tom Doherty bought the publishing house, he didn’t talk to any of the writers who’d worked for them, but did do a two-year search for legal complaints.  There were none–because the writers had all learned that it was useless.  (Mr. Doherty reformed Ace Books’ payment policies, and a lot of authors finally got back payments.)

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing features a young asteroid prospector named John Storm (no relation) who is looking for rare metal deposits in the asteroid belt to feed Earth’s early 21st Century computer technology.  He finds a jackpot, but between filing his claim on Mars and getting to Earth to set up the funding to get it mined, the computer network somehow loses his claim.  And all of John Storm’s personal records!  Since almost everything in the future society revolves around your existence in the computer network, being “unpersoned” like this is a terrible blow.

Of course, this complete erasure of John Storm’s identity belies the suggestion that he somehow screwed up the claim registration.   A clumsy typist might have erased one record, but it would take money and dedication to pull this off.  “Why?” then is the question; even a jackpot mining asteroid would hardly be worth this much effort, including a physical assassination attempt.  John must return to the asteroid belt to investigate, and what he finds there could change everything!

To be honest, John’s struggles with the future bureaucracy are more interesting to me than the actual space adventure stuff.  Anyone who’s had to deal with a petty official declaring that it must somehow be your mistake that caused their computer system to act unjustly can certainly identify.

John’s fiancee Liz seems to have no goals outside of marrying John whether or not he succeeds (though she would prefer he succeeds), and her offer of help is rejected because space is “too dangerous for a woman.”  In our 21st Century, that would get a laugh.  She also never learns what actually happened.

There’s an alien involved who looks nothing like the picture on the cover (which is awesomely SF in its own right) and Mr. Silverberg’s fascination with psychic powers shines through.   It’s middling-grade but quite readable.

The Twisted Men

The Twisted Men is actually a collection of three longer stories by A.E. Van Vogt, too long to fit in a regular anthology, but not related enough to turn into a “fix-up” novel.

“The Twisted Men” itself stars Averill Hewitt, a scientist who has discovered that something strange and dangerous is going to happen to the sun in a few years.  Apparently he is terrible at explaining his theory, because one person taking his metaphor and saying that said metaphor is not literally possible is enough to put Mr. Hewitt in the Jor-El category.  Unlike Jor-El, however, Mr. Hewitt is able to build a full-size spaceship to go to the Proxima Centauri system to look for habitable planets.

He insists that it be staffed by personnel whose wives are pregnant, or can become so; it apparently doesn’t enter his mind that pregnant women might also have space-worthy skills.  His own wife refuses to get on board and takes the children with her.  This results in some sub-optimal personnel, including several religious fanatics and a captain who wants to marry his ward who doesn’t actually look eighteen.  Skeeviness aside, this is the only available captain, so the Hope of Man is launched.  Six years later, the ship is detected re-entering the solar system at enormous speed, and not responding to hails.

Naturally, Mr. Hewitt is tapped to try to discover what happened; what he discovers, and the implications, drive the rest of the story.  The story is heavy on the speculative science, but not nearly as forward-thinking on the social end.  There are some evocative passages as Hewitt explores the ship and struggles to understand what is going on.

“”The Star-Saint” is a planetary colonization story.  Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who are about to make planetfall only to discover that the previous batch of colonists have vanished, their village completely destroyed.  Fortunately (or perhaps not), Mark Rogan has arrived to help out.  Rogan is a mutant with strange powers and a detached attitude that drives most other men up the wall.  Oddly, women seem to find Rogan extremely attractive.   Hanley is unhappy about the help, but it’s not as though he’s got much choice.

Hanley thinks he’s figured out the problem, only to be told by Rogan that he’s actually made things much worse.  The situation is finally brought to something of a compromise point–but Hanley suspects this colony will soon have several mutant babies, including his own wife’s.  The treatment of women in this story is frankly kind of creepy, but the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the patriarchal and controlling Hanley means that we don’t know what actually happened.

“The Earth Killers” starts with America being attacked by an unknown party, which wipes out the  major cities with atomic bombs.  The only surviving witness is Morlake, a test pilot who was trying out an experimental “rockjet” near Chicago when the bombs fell.  Unfortunately, the military outpost he manages to land at is run by a fool who has him arrested for treason rather than listen to the truth.  Admittedly, the truth is pretty unbelievable–the bombs came from straight up, not in an arc.

It’s months before the remaining Americans can get around to realizing the importance of his testimony–and Morlake is able to uncover the shocking secret behind the war.

This story’s got a nice bite to it, especially since it avoids taking the easy route of making the villains Communists (as was the fashion at the time.)

The creepy treatment of women in the first two stories makes this set hard to recommend–mostly for Van Vogt completists.

Book Review: Whetted Bronze

Book Review: Whetted Bronze by Manning Norvil

Note:  This is the second book in the “Odan the Half-God” series, so this review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dream Chariots.

It is a time before recorded history, when what we call the Mediterranean Sea was fertile land, a basin between the continents.  The cities of the River war against each other, both for reasons of trade and power, and also to appease their gods.  One such city is Eresh, which worships the sword god Zadan.  Their greatest hero is Odan, son of a god and the mortal queen of Eresh.

Whetted Bronze

Odan seeks to become a full god, and this has led him to betray Eresh to its enemies, only to save it again when he realized he had been tricked.  But politics is complicated.  Odan’s feckless half brother Numutef is the heir to the throne of Eresh, but the king’s uncle wants his own son, the cruel Prince Galad, to become king.  Both Odan and Galad are interested in marrying the beautiful Princess Zenara, but this is forbidden to Odan as she is his half-sister.

Various sorcerers have their own plans, and the love goddess Tia desires to become queen of all the gods.   Can Odan’s great strength, battle prowess and mystic abilities prevail against all odds and bring him what he desires?  Or will he be led astray by his hidden desires, to the woe of all around him?

One of the fads of the 1970s was “Ancient Astronauts”, the notion that aliens came to Earth in prehistoric/early historic times and were worshiped as gods, as well as teaching the early humans all the knowledge they needed to start civilization.  The most famous book of this ilk is Chariots of the Gods  by Erich von Daniken.  Enterprising fantasy author Kenneth Bulmer (who wrote under many aliases)  mixed the ancient astronauts with the pre-existing “barbarian hero” sub-genre and wrote the Odan trilogy under the name Manning Norvil.

It’s all great fun if you don’t take it seriously.  The first chapter of this volume features a character named Kufu the Ox, a lowly shield-bearer who finds himself rallying his archery unit when it’s overrun.  Prince Odan shows up at the end of the chapter to help out, and we follow him from there on.  Odan is unsurprisingly in the Conan mold, a big brooding fellow who’s known as “Crookback” because he constantly has to slouch to talk to normal humans.  (In a hilarious bit, his mother keeps telling him to stand up straight.)

Odan was kidnapped by barbarians as a small child, and grew up learning their ways; but he also has limited magic powers from his god side.  The Zenara situation is kind of skeevy, but in fairness to Odan, he met and got the hots for Zenara (and vice versa) before he found out she was his sister.  And he also has to deal with his best friend Ankidu likewise pining for Zenara, but unable to pursue her due to his lower social rank.  Zenara is barely in this volume, being kidnapped as leverage against Odan by one of the multiple conspiracies working at cross-purposes.

One nice touch is that as the setting is a premature Bronze Age, the language used doesn’t have the words “iron” or “steel” in it, even as metaphors.  Also, there’s an appendix with a legend referenced in the  main text.

Overall, trashy fun for sword and sorcery fans.

Magazine Review: Marvel Science Fiction November 1951

Magazine Review: Marvel Science Fiction November 1951 edited by R.O. Erisman

Marvel Science Fiction started as a pulp magazine titled Marvel Science Stories that was published irregularly from 1938 to 1952.  The original publisher was the same one who eventually published Marvel Comics.  At the point this issue is from, the magazine was a digest-sized quarterly.  The line-up of authors is particularly strong.

Marvel Science Fiction

The cover by Hannes Bok isn’t related to any of the stories, but served as a caption contest.  You might want to enlarge the image to look at some of the details.

“Embroidery” by Ray Bradbury opens the issue.  Three elderly women concentrate on their embroidery as they wait for five o’clock.  This is not so much a science fiction story as an opportunity to use poetic metaphor.  As with many speculative stories of the time period, the threat of nuclear annihilation looms large over the text.

“‘Will You Walk a Little Faster'” by William Tenn continues the theme of existential dread with a tale that explains the origin of the legendary “little people.”  It seems they’re really aliens, and the rightful successors of humanity once we render ourselves extinct.  The problem is that the latest developments in mass destruction will render the planet uninhabitable if used in World War Three.  So the aliens are offering an even better weapon that will destroy humans without harming the environment, cynically counting on humans’ short-sighted self-interest to close the deal.

“The Dark Dimension” by William Morrison is another tale of humans being destroyed by their own greed, but on a…smaller scale.  Gerald Weldon, a self-educated scientist,  was cheated out of his discoveries twice, by two different men.  Now Weldon has discovered a way to communicate with, and possibly travel to, another dimension with different physical laws.  The beings on the other side of the portal seem anxious to have him visit, but having been burned twice, Weldon is hesitant.  Can he make full use of his discovery without being betrayed, or will he need to play on that betrayal to gain revenge?

“Shah Guido G.” by Isaac Asimov concerns a future United Nations that has become corrupted into a dictatorial regime that reigns from a new Atlantis.  It’s all a setup for a last-line bit of wordplay.  (The title might also be a pun, but if so it eludes me.)

“Chowhound” by Mack Reynolds takes place during an intergalactic war.  A Kraden has finally been taken alive, only for the Terrans to learn it’s no brighter than your average cow.  So the New Taos has been dispatched to the front to try to discover how such a creature could fly a starship, let alone wage a war.  It seems hopeless, especially when it appears an invisible spy has gotten aboard the ship.  Can Mart Bakr’s interest in exotic cuisine solve the mysteries?

“The Most Dangerous Love” by Philip Latham features the first rocket expedition to an extrastellar planet.  They’re aided by a young inventor who’s invented a new, more powerful scanner, able to focus on tiny areas at great distances.  Young Sidney Schofield has had no time for romance, having been so fixated on completing his invention.  It perhaps is no surprise then that when his scanner picks up a beautiful girl on the planet Del-S is headed for, he falls in love hard.  As the ship gets closer to the destination, it turns out the girl has a similar device, and soon the couple are in communication and looking forward to a life together.  Unfortunately, there is one small detail that makes them star-crossed.  There’s some Fifties sexism on display; the captain muses how grateful he is that there are no women aboard his ship, as they’d be constantly fighting and causing trouble.

“The Restless Tide” by Raymond Z. Gallun tackles the problem of immortality for a species like humans that evolved to handle a lifespan less than a century.  A husband is already tired of his comfortable Earth life, but his wife isn’t quite ready to go out to the space frontier again.  It’s ultimately something of an optimistic story; humans will always find something to do.

This is followed by a twenty-question science fiction trivia quiz.  Some of the answers are outdated.

Next up, a three-essay discussion of the question, “Should Population Be Controlled?”  The Yes position is taken by Fritz Leiber, in the form of a dialogue between two smug future people explaining the benefits.  Mr. Leiber correctly predicted the Pill (which came on the market in 1960) and the e-book.  On the other hand, he also talks about the concept of the stupid people outbreeding the intelligent people if steps aren’t taken, which is largely discredited.

No is handled by Arthur J. Burks, who argues that God intends for humanity to multiply, and Nature makes sure that we do.  Therefore, any attempt to artificially control population is doomed, so we shouldn’t even try.  Mr. Burks is also not a believer in “child-free” people.  Fletcher Pratt ties it up with Maybe, pointing out that no method of population control will be effective unless people go along with it, and known methods offend many religious people.

The letters column is the usual assortment of praise and gripes, with one correspondent (Francis J. Litz) complaining about the prevalence of half-naked women on covers of supposedly serious SF magazines.

“Mountains of the Mind” by Richard Matheson starts with a political scientist getting an electroencephalographic (EEG) reading from a doctor who’s researching geniuses.  When he sees his chart, however, he feels the need to seek out a mountain range that matches those peaks and valleys (ala Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)  And he feels the need to do so alone, ditching his fiancee from their planned vacation.  Eventually, he reaches the mountains and learns that he has been selected as one of the secret guardians of the world based on his compatible brainwaves.  He also learns that all the secret guardians must remain celibate, and he’s been manipulated since birth, which is why he’s kept putting off getting it on.  It’s difficult to get a read on the sexism level here–the story never specifically says that women can’t be secret guardians (only one other guardian appears or is named), but the only female character in the story is specifically not a genius, and works as a receptionist.

“Dover Spargill’s Ghastly Floater” by Jack Vance has the title character buy the Moon just a day before new transmutation technology makes Lunar real estate worthless.  Except that this was part of the plan all along.  His real motive was to terraform the Moon.  There’s some dodgy science to explain how the atmosphere isn’t going to evaporate off, and a businessman who fails at flexibility to the point I’m surprised he still has a company.

Judith Merrill and Harry Harrison provide the words and art respectively for a short piece on the Hydra Club, an invitation-only society for science fiction authors, publishers and interested people.  There were a lot of famous people in this club.

The back cover is a look at the first real-life space suit designed by the U.S. Air Force.

All in all, an enjoyable issue with lesser stories by good authors.

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