Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Book Review: Soldiers Out of Time

Book Review: Soldiers Out of Time by Steve White

Spoiler Warning: This is the fifth book in the Jason Thanou series, and as such, this review will contain SPOILERS for earlier volumes in the story.  Starting with the very next paragraph, so you are on your own from here.

Soldiers Out of Time

The Special Operations Section of the Temporal Regulatory Authority has at last captured the Transhumanists’ time displacer, which they have been using in an effort to recapture control of Earth.  The hidebound Council declares that this means the war is over, and disbands the SOS.  Commander Jason Thanou isn’t so sure, but this does mean he can at last return to his homeworld and his actual military career.

But before he can actually get on the ship home, Jason and a handful of his friends are called in for a special consultation.  It seems that Transhumanist Underground operatives have been spotted on a distant alien world.  This is odd, as the Transhumanists normally have no interest in aliens.   So it’s off to investigate!

Soon Commander Thanou and his comrades are up to their necks in a Transhumanist plot to plunder 19th Century Afghanistan for slaves to create a new war world to overwhelm normal humanity.

Baen Books is known for what’s called “military science fiction”, a subgenre in which new technologies are applied to killing people and people-like objects in mass quantities.  While it can be quite thoughtful or delve into deep philosophical concerns, that’s not the primary thrust.  Generally these stories tend to feature strategy and tactics as influenced by the latest scientific imaginings, the camaraderie of fighting people, and stuff blowing up.

This volume is a fine example of the type.  In this instance, Earth was taken over by the Transhumanists in the 22nd Century, people who felt that Hitler and Pol Pot had generally the right ideas but didn’t understand that it was genetically modified cyborgs who should rule over humanity.  They were about as awful as one would expect until Earth’s colony worlds helped overthrow the Transhumanists.  The remnants of the former overlords want to come back into power, and want to use time travel to help them.

Due to the way time travel works in this series, they can’t change history–but they can work in the blank spots to create “time bombs” that will unleash their forces at The Day, a point still in the relative future.  Jason’s job has been to find these operations and stop them.  To make matters more complicated, there’s a race of aliens called the Teloi, who don’t have time travel…yet, but are effectively immortal, and believe themselves to be the rightful owners of the human race.

Commander Thanou is your typical hypercompetent protagonist, who is always more skilled/right than anyone else in the area.  The only times he is ever overruled, the person who does so will turn out to be wrong.  The main villain (an old enemy of Jason’s) does manage to get the drop on him a couple of times, but never through any fault of Jason’s/  This does get a trifle wearing.

The Transhumanists are big fans of rape (of women) and torture (of men) and show this off in the story.  There’s some period racism, religious prejudice and ethnic prejudice among the 19th Century folks, and some cultural posturing on the narrator’s part.  (Western Civilization is what let humanity survive to reach the stars, and Islam is inherently a warlike religion, which is only peaceful as a subversion.)

The story itself is exciting, and moves right along in a reasonably logical fashion, with some likable side characters.  There’s some characters that have wandered in from other stories, some of whom will be recognizable to any well-read person, and others more obscure.

Overall, this is a decent example of the military SF subgenre which I would recommend to those that already enjoy such things.  Beginners may want to consult the Baen Books free library at http://www.baen.com as the publishers have a generous selection of free stories and even entire books to download so you can see if this sort of thing is for you.  (Remember to actually buy something if you really enjoy it, print needs all the help it can get!)

Disclaimer:  I received this book free from the publisher because I am a book reviewer.  No other compensation was involved.

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015 edited by Trevor Quachri

Since its debut issue as Astounding Stories of Super-Science in January 1930, what would become Analog was one of the most influential, and often the most influential, science fiction magazines on the racks.  After I reviewed Analog  1 (a collection of stories from when the magazine made its main name change in 1960) last week, I was informed that this month’s issue was in fact the 1000th issue, the longest run of any science fiction magazine and a respectable milestone for any publication.  (It has skipped a number of months over the years, or April 2013 would have been the lucky number.)

Analog 1000

If the cover by Victoria Green looks a bit odd, it’s because it’s a “remix” of the very first cover (illustrating the story “The Beetle Horde” by Victor Rousseau and painted by H.W. Wessolowski) with the  genders reversed.  The editorial speaks about that first story (and the issue is available to read at Project Gutenberg!)

Former editors also get to pen a few words.  Stanley Schmidt talks about there always being new futures for science fiction writers to write about–no matter how many milestones are passed, there will be more to come.  Ben Bova writes of John W. Campbell and his influence on the field of science fiction (generally positive.)

Naturally, there is some fiction in this issue, beginning with “The Wormhole War” by Richard A. Lovett.  An attempt to send a wormhole to allow humans to travel to an Earth-like world in a distant star system ends disastrously.  Follow-up wormholes end equally badly, but much closer to home.  It dawns on the scientists that someone else is making wormholes, and they might not be too happy with us.  It’s a serviceable enough story.

“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare features exobiologist Becca and her alien partner Shurza helping with an archaeological dig that is developing some unusual results.  Possibly the vanished natives haven’t actually vanished–but then, where are they?  This story appears to be part of a series, and refers back to earlier events.  (One of the letters to the editor in this issue praises that another series story got a “previously on” section, but this one didn’t.)

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F. Wu is a tale of a  human/alien war told in brief reminiscences by the participants.  It is a condensed version of many war-related themes, such as the home government not living up to the principles its soldiers are supposedly fighting for, and the ending twist is not surprising if you think about it.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins may be titled like a business blog, but is actually about an artist taking on a  strenuous job because their art doesn’t pay well.  A crisis arises when his shirt stops working.  Amusing.

“The Odds” by Rod Collins is a rare second-person story, with a narrator emphasizing just how unlikely the scenario “you” find yourself in is.  It’s short, and describing the plot would give away the twist, so I’ll just say that it’s chilling.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C.C. Finlay has a misleading title, as one of the characters admits.  The protagonist is visiting a doctor to be rid of his capacity for empathy, and doesn’t think through the implications to their logical conclusion.  Perhaps it is because his empathy was already too low.

“Flight” by Mack Hassler is a short poem about kinds of flight.  It’s okay, I guess.  (Long-time readers know modern poetry isn’t my thing.)

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson involves three people who have been assigned to evaluate human colonies sent into space millenia ago to see if they are a threat to humanity, and if so to destroy them.  This is their final stop, and perhaps their hardest decision.   Is preserving civilization as it exists worth losing the potential that this new direction offers?  Disturbing.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser is a tale of a near-first encounter with aliens spun by a spacer to colonists in a local bar.  Physicists may catch the twist in the story before the end.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen rounds out the fiction with a tale of first contact gone horribly wrong.  It turns out there’s another planet passing through the Oort cloud, one that’s inhabited.  Unfortunately, the aliens aren’t  the sort humans are ready to deal with, and it’s up to a storyteller to spin a yarn that will save the day.

That first issue of Astounding.
That first issue of Astounding.

One of the things I notice reading this issue as compared to even the 1960 stories in Analog 1 is diversity of protagonists.  In the earlier stories, women are love interests and faithful assistants at best, and a non-WASP protagonist is something special that has to be justified.  Now, women, people of various ethnicities, and more…unusual protagonists are able to appear with it being “no biggie.”

The fact article is “Really Big Tourism” by Michael Carroll, talking about the possibilities of the Solar System’s gas giants for tourist visits (once we lick the problem of getting there.)

“The Analog Millenium” by Mike Ashley gives us all the statistics we need about the magazine’s 1000 issues.   There are a few surprises in here!

The usual departments of letters to the editor, book reviews (mostly psionics-based stories this month) and upcoming events are also present.

This issue is certainly worth picking up as a collector’s item, if nothing else.  I liked “The Kroc War” and “The Empathy Vaccine” best of the stories.  If you haven’t read science fiction in a long time, you might find the  evolution of the genre interesting to consider.

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 1 story by Doug Moench, art by various.

Doctor Bruce Banner was one of the nation’s top physicists, and an expert in gamma radiation, when he was drafted into creating a new kind of nuclear weapon called a “gamma bomb.”  Just before the device was about to go off, Dr. Banner saw a young man (soon to be known as Rick Jones) driving into the danger area.  Ordering the test delayed, Banner went out to save the boy.  But a Communist agent prevented the order from being received in hopes of killing Banner and crippling America’s bomb research.

The Rampaging Hulk

Rick Jones was tossed to safety, but Dr. Banner was struck by a massive dose of gamma radiation, which had a bizarre effect.  Under certain circumstances (initially nightfall, later anger) Banner would turn into a monstrous green creature of destruction that was codenamed the Hulk.  General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross became the Hulk’s mortal enemy, not realizing that the monster was also the romantic interest of his daughter Betty.

Bruce Banner had to evade having his secret revealed, while the Hulk battled the army and various supervillains.  And that was the premise of the six-issue The Incredible Hulk series.  Sales weren’t that hot, and the Hulk was rotated out for other features, not having a solo outing again until Tales to Astonish put him in the same magazine as Namor.

In 1977, Marvel Comics had started producing black and white magzines as well as their regular comic books.  These were primarily aimed at slightly older readers as they evaded the Comics Code, and were sold in stores that no longer bothered with a comics rack.  The Rampaging Hulk was a bit of an exception.  It was retroactive continuity, revealing what Banner and Jones had been up to during the period in the early 1960s they weren’t being published.

These longer tales involved the Hulk battling the menace of the Krylorians, an alien race bent on conquering the Earth.  He was aided by Rick Jones and a renegade Krylorian artist named Bereet.    The Krylorians were somewhat comical–they could disguise themselves as humans like the Skrull, but often weren’t very good at it.  They were also a squabbling, backbiting lot who barely cooperated at times.  The X-Men, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and a pre-Avengers assemblage of the Avengers made guest appearances.

That storyline ended in issue 9.  With the success of the Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, it was decided to make the magazine a tie-in of sorts to that.  The name was changed to The Hulk! though the numbering was kept for tax reasons, the setting was moved to the current day, and the series was now in color.  The stories focused on Bruce Banner as a wanderer who kept running into problems no matter where he went, and invariably wound up Hulking out.  The stories involved such contemporary issues as terrorism and child abuse (one of these stories is apparently the first one to suggest that Bruce Banner was abused as a child, which was later used to explain some of his issues.)

Hulk’s usual supporting cast was absent, although there was a brief crossover with back-up feature Moon Knight.

There were a variety of artists, from Walt Simonson to Bill Sienkiewicz (in his Neal Adams homage period).  One issue has a fill-in story by Jim Starlin that is kind of trippy.  The character of the Hulk wasn’t really a good fit for Doug Moench, but his writing is serviceable throughout.  The switch to color in later issues is lost in this reprint, which makes the art muddy in places.

This volume collects up to issue #15.  There are a few pages from Incredible Hulk #269, a story by Bill Mantlo that brought Bereet into the present day by revealing that the events in The Rampaging Hulk #1-9 were in fact her alien fanfilms, with her as a self-insert character.  This did explain a lot of the continuity glitches and a couple of other questions, but some readers felt it was a cheat.

This volume is primarily for die-hard Hulk fans; others will want to check their local libraries.

And now, some sad music.

Book Review: The Players of Null-A

Book Review: The Players of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt (Also published as The Pawns of Null-A)

Note:  This book is a direct sequel to The World of Null-A and this review will spoil elements of that first novel.  Like, immediately after this paragraph.

The Players of Null-A

With the death of the mighty Thorson, the plans of the Greatest Empire for Venus and Earth have been thwarted.  But that empire and its master Enro the Red are still active threats to the Galactic League.  As well, Gilbert Gosseyn, the man with the extra brain,  has come to the attention of the mysterious Follower.  Even with the aid of his Null-A training, can Gosseyn survive long enough to learn the true nature of his enemies?  And who is the Player who seems to be guiding Gosseyn?

This story was originally published as a magazine serial in 1948, and revised for book publication in the 1950s.  It follows van Vogt’s standard formula of short scenes and plenty of plot twists, while using psychologically tricky phrasing to slow the reader down and make them think a bit.  Still, the plot practically gallops.

One thing Mr. van Vogt did well was allow his overpowered protagonist to still feel challenged.  His training in non-Aristotelian logic gives his cortex (seat of reasoning) mastery over the thalamus (seat of emotions) so that he is able to understand his own feelings and psychology.  This has allowed Gosseyn to reach the peak of human mental and physical conditioning.  In addition, his apparently unique extra brain allows him to teleport himself and other objects without the aid of machines, as well as other minor tricks.  Oh, and if he’s killed, there are backup bodies.

But Gosseyn is up against Enro the Red, a dictator with the resources of an empire and the ability to see and hear events anywhere he chooses; and the Follower, a living shadow with the ability to predict the future.  To make things even more complicated, Gosseyn is forced into a different body from time to time, one without any special powers or training to assist him.  While if he gets killed, Gosseyn will revive in a new body, he doesn’t know where that body is stored–it could be far from the places he needs to be.

Eldred Crang, the Null-A detective, is also busy, but mostly behind the scenes with his alleged wife (who turns out to be Enro’s sister, and co-ruler of the planet…but with no power over the extrastellar empire.)

There are several competent, strong-minded women in the story, but for reasons, none of them are fully trained in Null-A, so they play subordinate roles.  There’s a scene where this book almost passes the Bechdel Test.  It seems that Enro has a childish attitude towards women, considering their primary use to be sex objects (including his sister), so Gosseyn has two of them engage in “girl talk” so that if Enro is listening in, the inanity of it will mask the men’s plot-relevant conversation.   Doesn’t quite pass the test, as none of the women’s dialogue is quoted.

The ending is very abrupt, like one of those old kung-fu movies that stops at the moment the hero lands a knock-out blow on the villain.  Mr. van Vogt was not big on wrap-up chapters, so the fate of several characters is up in the air at the book’s end.

The Null-A philosophy extracts that start each chapter can be a bit repetitious, and one has to wonder just how one leaps from them to rewiring your brain through intense training.  There’s also a lot of technobabble around the teleportation system.

You might want to read the previous book first, (try to get your hands on the 1970s revision which fixes some of the worst plot holes in World), but this is perfectly acceptable pulp science fiction that might give you something to think about.

Book Review: Conquest of Earth

Book Review: Conquest of Earth by Manly Banister

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for some major plot twists beyond a certain point.

Today Kor Danay is a Man.  It is the distant future, when Sol has become a red star, and Kor has completed nineteen years of intense mental and physical training to become a Scarlet Sage of the Brotherhood of Man.  Only six out of a class of one hundred have managed to attain the abilities of instantaneous teleportation over galactic distances, moving so fast time seems to stand still, reading minds, etc.  And Kor is the first initiate ever to survive taking the extra credit option of summoning stellar fire to the surface of a planet.

Conquest of Earth

But Kor and his four surviving classmates (one other tried the extra credit option) are bound by oath to conceal their Dragonball Z-level powers from the world.  For the Men are not the masters of Earth.  Earth, and all civilized worlds, are under the control of energy beings called the Trisz, who may or may not be multiple manifestations of a single mind.  The Trisz have been slowly draining Earth of its water, and under the guise of benevolent protection have turned humanity into a servant race.  If the Trisz knew just how powerful the Men really were, they would simply destroy Earth, which wouldn’t necessarily kill the Men, but would eliminate the People the Men want to free.

So as far as the rest of humanity knows, the Men are just philosopher-priests with maybe some holy miracles once in a while, though few people ever see even one.  Kor is shipped off to be the new head priest of No-Ka-Si, in the desert that was once known as Kansas.  There he must match wits with the treacherous Brother Set of the Blue Brethren (those students of the Brotherhood who washed out before the training became lethal) and the beautiful Lady Soma, who leads a double life.

The Trisz want Kor eliminated as their Prognosticator (a powerful computer that can predict the future but only in vague rhyming couplets) has indicated he might be a danger to them.  After some cat and mouse games, Kor makes the Trisz think he is dead and moves into the Organization of Men, the Brotherhood’s even more secret branch.  While investigating a young, untouched planet for possible colonization, Kor undergoes a shocking tragedy.

That tragedy begins a new phase in Kor’s life, that ends with another tragedy, one that gives him the information he needs to free the galaxy of the Trisz.

This 1957 novel appears to have first been a three-part magazine serial, judging by the abrupt changes between acts.  The middle section is the weakest, as it contains a lot of psychobabble philosophy while not much actually happens.  Brother Set is a fun character, but vanishes after the first part.

The idea that humans have untapped mental and physical powers that a chosen few can manifest with the proper training and mindset was a popular one in science fiction during the 1940s and ’50s, though few works carried it to this level.  The story plays with this a bit; Kor has difficulty empathizing with the humans he’s supposed to be saving due to the fact that he’s just better than them in every way.  And concealing his powers causes him issues; he could make himself invulnerable to heat and grime, but that would tip observers off that it was possible.

The romance angle is…lacking.  Apparently, a real Man just has to do whatever he was planning to do anyway, and women will be attracted to his Manliness; Kor never has to work at a relationship.  Lady Soma has some interesting potential, but tosses away her advantages to help Kor out.  After that, she’s just a sidekick who doesn’t do anything useful on page.

Once Kor really gets to unleash towards the end, the prose picks up as the author clearly enjoyed that bit.

Overall, a forgettable book with a few good scenes.

SPOILERS beyond this point.

There’s a phenomenon in fiction that comic book fans call “fridging” after a particularly notable example.  It consists of a female character dying or suffering for the sole reason of  motivating the male main character to do something, usually revenge.  In this situation, the story is not about the woman at all, but about the man’s deep pain and sorrow at losing her or having her relationship with him threatened.

Conquest of Earth is notable in that it does this twice, first by having Lady Soma randomly eaten by the Trisz, who are apparently completely unaware of who she is and why they might want to kill her.  Then the cavegirl Eldra, who is carrying Kor’s child for bonus rage points, is killed when the Trisz invade her planet.  Both women seem to exist solely to make emotional connections to Kor (doing all the relationship work themselves) so he’ll feel bad when they die.

But that’s not all!  Once rescued from Eldra’s planet, Kor realizes that he has been subconsciously manipulating probability to bring about a future in which he eliminates the Trisz.  In other words, he himself was responsible for the Trisz killing both his love interests to advance his main goal.  Kor doesn’t seem particularly upset by this revelation, either; now he can save the universe!

Book Review: The Invisible

Book Review: The Invisible by Amelia Kahaney

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there may be changes in the final product, due out 10/7/14.

The Invisible

Spring has come to Bedlam City, and Anthem Fleet is beginning to recover from the events of the winter.  The Syndicate seems to be lying low, and she no longer goes out every night to fight it.  But now a new threat raises its ugly head.  The Invisible, a group that seems to have a grudge against the wealthy North Siders, is engaging in ever more deadly “pranks.”  They also seem to have an interest in the New Hope, Anthem’s hero identity.  Things quickly get personal for Anthem, who is more closely tied to the Invisible than she could have imagined.

This is a sequel to Ms. Kahaney’s previous book, The Brokenhearted.  In that book, Anthem lost her human heart and had an experimental “chimeric” heart implanted by a black market scientist.  This gave her enhanced speed and strength, and as of the beginning of this volume, ultrasonic hearing.  This is listed as a middle grade book, but Anthem is a high school senior, and there are sexual references and drug use that puts this more in the young adult category.

There are a number of flashbacks to the time of Bedlam City’s original hero, the Hope, which eventually tie back in to the present day action.  Some background is given as to how Bedlam City became so sharply divided between rich and poor, and the Syndicate became so powerful.

Anthem is thankfully not as blindingly stupid as in the first book, though this may be less because she’s wised up and more because the nature of the plot keeps her from getting too wrapped up in her own love life.  She’s still a bit too trusting of the wrong people, who go against their own best interests to do the evil thing.

The Invisible try to come off as an Anonymous-style social movement, but it is obvious from the beginning that their expressions of regret at people getting hurt or killed are self-serving at best, and their political philosophy is incoherent.    Their leader’s plan turns out to be nothing less than mass murder for reasons that make sense, but diminish that person’s ability to attract empathy.

And even when the Invisible have been stopped, Anthem has to deal with another villain who has gone unseen by her.

One boggling moment is that the city has two separate power grids, with no way to relay power from one to the other in case of failure.  it kind of makes sense the way the background is set up, but a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Again, due to the subject matter and themes, I would not recommend this to below junior high readers, and conservative parents might want to skim the book first.  That aside, it is better than the first volume in the series and should appeal to fans of action girls.

Comic Strip Review: Spacetrawler Book 1 The Human Seat

Comic Strip Review: Spacetrawler Book 1 The Human Seat by Christopher Baldwin

The Eebs, small green aliens with strange telekinetic powers,  have been declared “less than sentient” and enslaved by the Galactic Organizational Body.    A civil rights group named Interplanet Amity, wants to free the Eebs.  Their best hope is to seek help from a planet that’s almost ready to join the GOB, but hasn’t yet become dependent on Eeb-based technology.  A small blue planet called Earth.  But is this their best hope or a horrible mistake?

Spacetrawler

This webcomic begins with a brief action prologue, then starts the framing device with a lonely old man in South America.  A fish-like alien, Nogg, lands in his yard, and after some false starts, informs the man that his daughter, Martina Zorilla, is dead.    Mr. Zorilla had suspected this, since her disappearance years before.   He insists on hearing the whole story, and the rest of the strip is that tale.

Naive Nogg and his IA colleagues, the sarcastic Krep and amiable but dim-witted Gurf, begin their plan by abducting six humans from around the world, each chosen for their special skills and qualities.  Martina Zorilla of South America, Pierrot Abdullahi of Gabon, Emily Taylor of Southwestern United States, Dmitri Sokolov of Russia, Yuri Nakagawa of Japan and Bill Landing of Australia.  Er, scratch that last one, as Nogg accidentally snags Bill’s paranoid and perpetually wrong-headed twin brother Dustin instead.

This is only the first glitch in the plan, as the Earthlings are less than enthusiastic about being abducted, and dubious about the effects of Earth joining the GOB to overthrow its economic basis.  And even after they mostly get on board, it turns out there are a lot of things the protagonists don’t know about the GOB, the Eebs and even humanity itself that throw spanners into the works.

This science fiction webcomic is comedic, but with a melancholic overtone, as we already know that at least one of the main characters won’t make it out alive.  The characters are diverse, and mostly likable (Dusty being more the Dr. Smith “guy you love to hate” type) and there’s some good character development.  Martina goes from being a bored young woman dreaming of adventure to a capable leader, for example.  Be forewarned however that not all developed characters become better people.  There is a bit of national stereotyping, the American is extremely violent, and the Japanese character is a technophile.

There is quite a bit of violence, and sexual situations, call it PG-13.

This first volume covers the first third or so of the plot, up to the point where the original IA plan completely falls apart.   The complete webcomic can be read for free at http://spacetrawler.com/ but the collected volumes come with illustrated introductions, bonus strips, and they put money directly into the artist’s pocket, which frees him up to make more webcomics.  Mr. Baldwin is now producing One Way, a webcomic about a crew of expendable misfits sent to make first contact with aliens, and their discovery that this trip is truly…one way.

I recommend Spacetrawler to science fiction fans who enjoy comedy.

Anime Review: Suisei no Gargantia

Anime Review: Suisei no Gargantia

Gargantia

In the future, Earth became uninhabitable due to extreme cold, so much of the human race took off to space.  Somehow the remainder survived through the freezing, and now Earth is a water world, where the word “land” is a legend.  The remnants of humanity live on interconnected fleets, the one we focus on being named Gargantia.  They sail the “galactic” currents, fishing and diving for salvage from the drowned cities.

The Gargantians have some minor problems with pirates, and have to avoid angering the territorial whalesquid, but mostly life is peaceful.

Until, that is, Ledo arrives.  He’s a soldier of the Galactic Alliance, the humans who went into space, only to find themselves locked in a war with implacable aliens known as the Hideauze.  A malfunctioning wormhole brought him and his intelligent combat robot Chamber to humanity’s home.  Ledo has never known anything but war, and he has difficulty dealing with the relatively peaceful culture of Gargantia.

Ledo starts bonding with Amy, a local delivery girl, and her sickly brother Bevel.  Perhaps this won’t be such an awful place to live?  But then new information surfaces, and it looks like Ledo’s not done with war at all….

This thirteen-episode anime series included in its writers Gen Urobuchi, most recently famous for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a series about magical girls that took some very dark turns.  Gargantia isn’t nearly as shocking, though it does have some interesting plot twists.  Some of the character designs are kind of fanservicey–the designer used to do porn.

The main character arc is Ledo learning how to interact with other people outside of a hierarchical military mindset, and finding his place in his new world.  One of the themes of the story is that the skills and knowledge you acquired growing up don’t always apply to the real outside world, and you have to be able to adapt.  A good amount of time is also spent on Ledo’s relationship with Chamber, who has its own, more subtle character arc.  Chamber is one of the best artificial intelligence characters in years.

Less subtle is Pinion’s (a mechanic with a dark secret or two) character arc, which feels a little forced.

There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, with Episode 9 being the most disturbing about it (and for this reason  I do not recommend the series for preteens or sensitive tweens.)

Perhaps the weakest episode is #5, which is a bathing suit episode and is annoyingly hetero-normative (no thank you for the drag queen stereotypes) and can be skipped if fanservice irks you.  #6 features belly dancing and is also pretty fanservicey, but you’ll want to watch at least the last few minutes as the plot kicks back in.

All in all, a pretty good show that should appeal to mecha and SF fans.

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