December 4, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga continues

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster BujoldCetaganda (Vorkosigan Saga #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Much of classic science fiction consisted of what came to be called “space opera”—and most of it was junk. With some notable exceptions, the format is rarely used today. However, the multiple-award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold has updated the space opera with a long (and ongoing) series of novels, novellas, and short stories about a brilliant military officer who happens to be a dwarf. His name is Miles Vorkosigan. He’s the son of the (now) former regent of the Empire of Barrayar, a backward planet on the fringes of galactic civilization about one thousand years in the future; the emperor is his cousin. The Vorkosigan Saga continues with book #6, Cetaganda.

In Cetaganda, Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.

The author paints a fascinating picture of Cetagandan society. Though an emperor rules, the empress (who is not necessarily his wife) wields what might be considered even greater power. She commands the Star Creche, where bioengineers have been tinkering for centuries with the genome of the ruling caste, the haut. (Think haute cuisine or haute couture.) Though the emperor reigns over the men who serve as governors of the eight satrap planets, their freedom of action is circumscribed by the haut women who are assigned to be their wives. The haut are effectively a super-race and possibly no longer truly human. The governors, by contrast, are members of a decidedly human and subordinate military caste called the ghem. 

Miles, now 22 and a lieutenant in Barrayaran Imperial Security, has been cautioned to avoid drawing attention to himself on his mission to Cetaganda. However, this is a difficult, if not impossible, assignment, since Miles is 4’9″ tall, hunchbacked, and wears braces to prevent the brittle bones in his legs from breaking. In any case, it’s not in his nature to play by the rules. It’s a sure thing that Miles will get into trouble—and drag Ivan along with him.

As is the case with all the previous novels in the Vorkosigan Saga, the action comes thick and fast from the very beginning of Cetaganda. As Miles and Ivan are docking in orbit around Eta Ceta IV, a mysterious local man bursts into their shuttle, apparently intent on assassinating them. They tackle the man and seize his weapon as well as a mysterious tubular object they’d thought was also a weapon. As they puzzle over the object, the Cetagandan escapes. Any discerning reader will be aware that this strange object will play a central role in the tale that follows. (It’s pictured on the cover of the edition I read.) Not long after arriving on the planet’s surface, Miles realizes that he and Ivan will be accused of stealing the object, whatever it is, presumably as a pretext for the Cetagandan Empire to go to war again with Barrayar.

In the complex series of events that follow, Miles becomes embroiled in a desperate search to understand why he and Ivan have been targeted, and who was behind the attack. The two cousins soon find themselves socializing with Cetagandans of the ghem caste. Although barbarians like them aren’t supposed to come into contact with the exalted haut, it doesn’t take long for that to happen, too. The story that unfolds involves a murder investigation and political intrigue of the highest order within the Cetagandan Empire. Bujold writes with a light touch. The dialogue is clever and sometimes very funny. The book is a great deal of fun.

For example, consider this exchange between Miles and Ivan:

Miles: “you have to stay absolutely cool. I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”

Ivan: “I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.” 

For some reason, when I read dialogue like this, I think of Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll enjoy my post, My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you want to access my reviews of the five preceding books in the Vorkosigan Saga, you can find them by searching for that name on this site.

November 27, 2017

Christopher Buckley’s satire on the U.S. Supreme Court

Christopher Buckley's satire: Supreme Courtship by Christopher BuckleySupreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The President of the United States, Donald P. Vanderdamp, has an approval rating barely above twenty. Congress, and politicians of both parties, despise him, because he has vetoed every spending bill that reached his desk. In retaliation, the Senate has rejected the two eminently qualified jurists he nominated for an open seat on the Supreme Court. All he wants to do is move back home to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he can go bowling as often as he wishes. His term is almost up. About all that remains is to find someone who can gain the approval of the Senate for that Supreme Court slot.

Enter Judge Perdita “Pepper” Cartwright, star of the top-rated reality TV show, Courtroom Six. While searching for a bowling show on television over a weekend at Camp David, President Vanderdamp chances upon Pepper’s show and is immediately enchanted. Now in her mid-thirties, Pepper is uncommonly facile with the English language—and uncommonly attractive. The President is convinced the Senate won’t dare reject her nomination, given her sky-high Q rating.

This is the set-up in Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley‘s satirical treatment of the U.S. Supreme Court. No reader will be surprised to learn that Pepper is, in fact, named to the Court. Then, of course, the real fun begins. The novel is amusing and even hilarious at times. On the whole, though, it’s not one of Buckley’s best.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours laughing over Christopher Buckley’s novels. Here, for example, is my review of one I loved, The Relic MasterAn irreligious take on Catholic history. My review of Little Green Men is at Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer. You’ll find God Is My Broker: A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7-1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth reviewed at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley.

November 20, 2017

Carl Hiaasen skewers newspaper publishers and rock musicians

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Carl Hiaasen is a very funny man. His comic novels about life in Florida are always amusing and sometimes hilarious. Inept criminals, corrupt politicians, and bumbling police officers populate his books. Few come off well. For example, “A disagreement over lane-changing etiquette has resulted in two motorists pulling semiautomatics and inconsiderately shooting each other in the diamond lane of the interstate.” And here he is in Basket Case (2002) writing about one of his protagonist’s ex-girlfriends: “Among Alicia’s multiple symptoms were aversion to sleep, employment, punctuality, sobriety, and monogamy. On the positive side, she volunteered weekends at an animal shelter.”

Most of Hiaasen’s novels involve the destruction of Florida’s environment. However, in Basket Case, the author wades into a subject that is clearly at least as close to his heart: the steady decline of the newspaper industry. Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald, where he has worked since 1976. Here he is musing about the damage wrought to a small-town paper by its profit-mad, self-indulgent young publisher: “Only two types of journalists choose to stay at a paper that’s being gutted by Wall Street whorehoppers. One faction is comprised of editors and reporters whose skills are so marginal that they’re lucky to be employed, and they know it. Unencumbered by any sense of duty to the readers, they’re pleased to forego the pursuit of actual news in order to cut expenses and score points with the suits . . . The other journalists who remain at slow-strangling dailies such as the Union-Register are those too spiteful or stubborn to quit.”

Jack Tagger, 46, is one of the latter. He writes the obituaries for the Union-Register, a small-town Florida newspaper. He is obsessed with death, primarily his own. Hardly an hour goes by without his thinking of some famous person who died when he was Jack’s age. He blames his mother for this obsession, because she stubbornly refuses to tell him at what age his father died. (Jack has no memory of the man, who left them when he was an infant.) He is terrified that he won’t outlive his father. However, he’s not happy thinking about anyone else’s death, either. Funerals upset him. Autopsies are much worse. All this is highly unfortunate in a man who writes obituaries for a living.

Jack’s preoccupation with death may go back many years, even before his consignment to the obituary page. But his present position “at the top of the shit list” at the Union-Register began only three years ago. He doesn’t like to talk about why an award-winning investigative journalist was demoted so ignominiously to celebrate the lives of pet store owners, insurance salesmen, and fishermen. (Suffice to say, it was a very colorful incident.) But now a familiar-looking name has turned up in a fax from the local funeral home that may give Jack a way out.

Jack is almost as obsessive about rock music as he is about death. So he quickly realizes that the deceased, James Bradley Stomarti, 39, was better known years ago as Jimmy Stoma of the superstar band, Jimmy and the Slut Puppies. Jack sees his byline back on the front page if he can keep the story of Jimmy’s death to himself long enough to gather the facts.

As Jack launches into the interviews that will serve as background to Jimmy Stoma’s obituary, he quickly comes to understand that all is not as it seems. Perhaps the young musician didn’t accidentally die while diving in the Bahamas. Perhaps the man’s 24-year-old wife had a motive of some sort to kill him. And why are she and the people around her so eager to prevent Jack from learning what really happened?

These circumstances could be the basis of a serious thriller. But Basket Case is anything but serious. (Except when Hiaasen muses about the sad story of the newspaper industry.) For instance, here’s where Jack meets Cleo Rio, Jimmy’s widow: “The club’s motif combines the exotic ambience of a Costa Rican brothel with the cozy, down-home charm of a methamphetamine lab.”

The cast of characters in Basket Case includes several of Jimmy’s ex-bandmates, who display a wide array of colorful behavior, usually involving drugs; Jimmy’s sister, who earns her living dressing up as a cop on a SWAT team and stripping in front of a webcam; Jack’s inept and beautiful 27-year-old boss at the Union-Register, whom he is attempting to persuade to leave journalism; MacArthur Polk, 88, the former owner of the paper who has been dying at regular intervals for many years but somehow always continues to rally; and Race Maggad III, the profit-obsessed head of the company that owns 27 newspapers, including Jack’s.

I’ve also reviewed Hiaasen’s Star Island (2010) at Carl Hiaasen skewers celebrities; Bad Monkey (2013) at A severed arm, a detective on the roach patrol, and a bad monkey; Razor Girl (2016) at Reality TV, African rodents, the roach patrol; and two of his young adult novels, both of which I found disappointing. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

November 13, 2017

A comic novel from the 1950s about nuclear madness

The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberleynuclear madness: The Mouse That Roared by Leonard WibberleyThe Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maybe it’s a mistake to reread books I loved as a kid. Recently, I’ve done that with several—and found myself disappointed. Just now I’ve had a similar (if less extreme) experience with a 1955 bestseller about nuclear madness, The Mouse That Roared, by the Irish-American writer Leonard Wibberley. The book was the first in a series of five comic novels, but it made a bigger splash four years later when Peter Sellers starred in a popular film adaptation of the same name. And that may be the problem I had in reading the book: I kept seeing Sellers’ face on several of the key characters in the story. (He played multiple characters in the film. More famously, Sellers was Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.) I remember having laughed hysterically when I read the book at the age of 14 or so. But Sellers overacted as usual, and the film was less satisfying.

Here’s the story . . . Nestled in the Alps is a diminutive principality known as the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Its 6,000 people live in portions of three valleys that together are five miles long and three miles wide. Founded in 1370 by a small group of English knights who broke away from the army they were serving, the Duchy has been independent ever since. Its sole source of income is the sale of Pinot Grand Fenwick, a wine that is prized by connoisseurs throughout the world. Unfortunately, a winery in California is now marketing an inferior wine called Pinot Grand Enwick, using a label that is otherwise identical to that of the real thing. So, the livelihood of the people of the Duchy is now threatened—and the only way the 22-year-old Duchess and her advisers can see to put a stop to the ripoff and raise more revenue is . . . get this . . .  to declare war on the United States and lose. Since the US is always generous with the nations it vanquishes, the Duchess figures they’ll come out ahead.

Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t take the Duchy’s declaration of war seriously—until the little country’s two-dozen-man expeditionary force invades New York City. In fact, it’s only several days later, once the Fenwickians have kidnapped the nation’s top nuclear scientist, the four-star general who heads US civil defense, and four New York cops, that the US government even figures out it’s at war. And to the chagrin of the Duchess and her advisers, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick didn’t lose. It won.

So it goes.

If you’re interested in a more recent comic novel that’s funnier as well as more timely, look to Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Buckley. Hiaasen’s Razor Girl is reviewed at Reality TV, African rodents, the roach patrol. My review of The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley is An irreligious take on Catholic history.  I found both books hilarious, as I did others that both authors have written. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

October 30, 2017

Miles Vorkosigan’s perilous rite of passage

Miles Vorkosigan: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga #5) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Miles Vorkosigan is just under four feet nine inches tall—a dwarf, by today’s legal definition. Because he was poisoned in his mother’s womb, his growth was stunted, his spine curved, and now his bones are so brittle they may break if squeezed hard enough. Miles is the son of Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, Prime Minister of the planet of Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, formerly a captain in the armed forces of Beta Colony, an erstwhile enemy. With ancestors including emperors of Barrayar, Miles carries the genes of leadership. He is a military genius whose quick wit and unrivaled instinct for strategy more than compensate for his small stature and physical weakness.

Miles is the central figure in most of the sixteen novels that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga, several books of which have won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold won the Hugo Award four times, matching the record achieved by Robert A. Heinlein—and it’s easy to see why. The space operas that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga are several cuts above the classics in that genre from the 1940s and 50s, the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They sparkle with witty dialogue and humor, characters come across as three-dimensional, they’re action-packed, and the plotting is invariably complex and full of surprises. In short, these books are fun to read.

A word of warning, though: Bujold wrote these novels far out of sequence, with the publication dates of sequels often separated by many years. To avoid getting lost, it’s wise to read them in order of the chronology of the saga, not the order of publication.

The Vor Game is the fifth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga. (I’ve now read all five, having chosen to skip the  two novellas that precede it in the chronology.) As the story begins, Miles has just graduated from officers’ training as an ensign and is assigned to the last place he would ever choose to go: a godforsaken basic training camp on an island in the frozen north of Barrayar. He’s told he will only receive a more desirable posting if he can avoid insubordination for six months. (Yes, Miles’ mouth repeatedly gets him into trouble.) Naturally, circumstances soon conspire to force him to defy the camp’s commanding general. And that’s only the beginning of this twisted tale.

The plot of The Vor Game twists and turns so frequently that some readers may grow dizzy. Summarizing the story without spoiling it would be difficult, because much of the fun is encountering the constant surprises that confront Miles. You’ve got to read it to understand it.

My review of the first novel in the series, Falling Free, is An outstanding sci-fi series. The second, Shards of Honor, is The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. You’ll find the third, Barrayar, here: The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera. Number four, The Warrior’s Apprentice, is In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey.

October 26, 2017

Ken Follett’s 16th-century Kingsbridge saga: Christians killing Christians

Kingsbridge saga: A Column of Fire by Ken FollettA Column of Fire (Kingsbridge #3) by Ken Follett

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A  Column of Fire is the third volume in Ken Follett‘s sprawling series of historical novels illuminating the history of England. The Pillars of the Earth, published in 1989, relates the story of the Kingsbridge Cathedral and the talented men who began its construction in the twelfth century. This first novel was followed in 2007 by World Without End, which picks up the Kingsbridge saga two centuries later, in the years just before, during, and after the Black DeathA Column of Fire continues the story through the sixteenth century,  spanning the years 1558 to 1606, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled England.

The first two volumes of the Kingsbridge saga have sold nearly eighty million copies worldwide. Together, these three books weigh in at a total of 2,965 pages. Each is peopled with a huge cast of characters, rich and poor, powerful and helpless, giving a richly nuanced picture of life in England over the centuries.

Again, as in the previous novels, Follett builds his tale in A Column of Fire around the defining events of the era: the bitter rivalry between Elizabeth and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots; the often-bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants for primacy on the island; the ongoing war between England and France; the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in France: the defeat of the Spanish Armada; the accession of James VI of Scotland, Mary’s son, as James I of England following Elizabeth’s death; and Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Follett skillfully interweaves the lives of his fictional characters with a long list of historical figures, including both Elizabeth and Mary, the several Kings of France who reigned during that period, and the powerful courtiers surrounding both Queen Elizabeth and the French Kings.

Two Kingsbridge families figure at the center of A Column of Fire: the rabidly Catholic Fitzgeralds, especially the brother and sister, Rollo and Margery; and the Willards, principally Ned and Barney and their mother, Anne, who are only nominally Catholic. Margery and Ned fall deeply in love as teenagers. However, Rollo and his father, Sir Reginald Fitzgerald, engineer Margery’s forced marriage to the earl who rules the county and the bankruptcy of Anne’s flourishing business, setting up the lifetime enmity between Rollo and Ned that is the central thread of the plot.

The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the violent clash between Catholics and Protestants as Protestantism spread rapidly through Europe following the publication of Martin Luther‘s Ninety-Five Theses. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I (1553-58), hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. Queen Mary came to be known as Bloody Mary. Despite an early commitment to religious tolerance, Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) ordered the murder of even more English men and women—although for treason, not doctrinal differences. Meanwhile, across the Channel, French Kings and nobles murdered hundreds of the Protestant Huguenots.

Reading the Kingsbridge saga may require a great deal of time and effort. I found the effort well worthwhile, and it was all enjoyable.

I read a lot of historical fiction. For reviews of many other engaging novels in this genre, go to 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

October 24, 2017

In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs

autonomous robots - Autonmous by Annalee NewitzAutonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You hope the world will never look like this. It’s 2144. Slavery has revived, camouflaged as indentured servitude. Theoretically, indenture is limited to a specified term; in practice, contract owners frequently refuse to honor the commitment. Millions of humans and robots alike are trapped in these unbreakable contracts. Only rarely do indentured servants escape, and autonomous robots are rare.

This is the world imagined by Annalee Newitz in her intriguing new science fiction novel, Autonomous.

Bioengineering is supreme. The pharmaceutical industry, and the lives of most of the world’s citizens, are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations. These companies produce patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. Unfortunately, officially sanctioned drugs are far too expensive for most of the world’s people. A flourishing pirate economy fills some of the gaps by reverse-engineering the most popular drugs. To combat the pirates and enforce patent law, the paramilitary International Property Coalition (IPC) sends teams of agents around the world to capture or kill the practitioners of “black pharma.”

IPC Agent Eliasz Wójcik is partnered with an indentured military robot named Paladin. They work out of a large military base operated by the African Federation. The pair is charged with hunting down a notorious pirate known as Jack, who appears to be somewhere in the Arctic. In fact, as the novel opens, Jack (real name: Judith Chen) is traveling on a submarine along the Arctic coast “beyond the Beaufort Sea.” Jack has learned that a batch of a new, reverse-engineered drug she had unloaded in Calgary is causing sometimes-lethal side effects. She is on a mission of her own—to develop an antidote. Jack knows that the small batch of black-market drugs she distributed is only a minor part of the problem: the official drug, a product of Zaxy, one of the world’s largest pharmacorps, is in use as a productivity-enhancer at large corporations that can afford to pay its high price. Jack sees it as her responsibility to identify Zaxy as the source of the problem, get the word out worldwide, and make an antidote freely available. Eliasz and Paladin are determined to stop her.

Robotics has advanced in tandem with bioengineering. Now, robots may take on an unlimited variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Biobots closely resemble humans and include both biological and manufactured materials. Other robots, only vaguely humanoid, possess human brains to supplement their cybernetic capabilities. Yet others may be configured as insects, birds, or machines. Paladin, for example, appears roughly humanoid but has automatic weapons concealed in its chest and arms as well as a human brain in its midsection. However, Paladin is much more than a military machine: it communicates both by vocalizing and wirelessly, it is curious and continuously absorbs new information—and it hopes to gain its freedom from indenture and join the ranks of autonomous robots.

Politics in the world of 2144 is as dramatically changed as economics. Climate change and epidemic disease have upended the geopolitical order, leaving the United States a backwater and Europe frozen, in the absence of the Gulf Stream. The world’s dominant powers are the Asian Union, the Brazilian States, and the African Federation, where most of the advanced biotech companies conduct their research. North America is a Free Trade Zone, with its most prosperous cities in the summery Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. It’s there that most of the action in Autonomous takes place.

Known primarily as a blogger and science journalist, Annalee Newitz is the author of five books of nonfiction. Although she has previously published science fiction short stories, Autonomous is her first novel. Newitz holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in English and American Studies and was on the Cal faculty for a time. She now writes full-time.

I have also reviewed Newitz’s most recent nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction? You might also be interested in 24 compelling dystopian novels or my own new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

October 17, 2017

From Paolo Bacigalupi, another spellbinding Drowned Cities tale

Drowned Cities saga: Tool of War by Paolo BacigalupiTool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s new novel, Tool of War, is a brilliant successor to Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, which together form a series the author may not yet have finished. The setting of all three novels is a dystopian world in what may be the twenty-second century. Much of human civilization in the past is now underwater or absent from areas that are now intolerably hot. Fossil fuels have been totally depleted. For most of the planet’s remaining inhabitants, life is a constant struggle for bare survival. Runaway bioengineering has created vicious new predators. Government has failed nearly everywhere; only a few city-states (Shanghai, Lagos, Boston) remain intact and peaceful behind massive seawalls. A handful of mighty corporations dominate world trade.

The two characters at the center of the action are familiar to readers of the other two novels: Mahlia and Tool. The latter, the subject of the title, is a bioengineered “half man.” He was designed for battle, as the book’s title suggests, bioengineered to blend DNA from the planet’s most fearsome animal predators with that of a superb human warrior. His vision, his hearing, his ability to detect smell at enormous distances—all his senses are heightened far beyond human limits. And both his reflexes and his movements are faster than any other living creature’s. Tool is a “nightmare out of humanity’s primeval past, a monster of old, a creature re-emerged from the darkest myths of protohumans, when jungles had never been razed, and when apes still cowered from darkness and struggled to master fire. A monster with its own interests and agenda.”

The story is set primarily on North America’s mid-Atlantic Coast, now known as the Drowned Cities, and in Seascape, a prosperous metropolis located inland from old Boston. The city lies behind enormous seawalls that have held back the ocean. As the novel opens, Tool has mustered a huge army that consists mostly of teenagers that has been fighting and defeating the warlords who have dominated the Drowned Cities in the past. (Anyone who lives beyond the age of thirty is considered ancient in this perilous environment.) Headquartered in the ruins of the White House, near the new shore of the Atlantic Ocean, Tool has finally triumphed. He is now the undisputed overlord of the Drowned Cities.

At just this point the supremely powerful Mercier Corporation, a militarized commercial enterprise that virtually controls a quarter of the globe, locates Tool after a years-long search. Tool somehow represents a threat to the company’s supremacy. Without hesitation, Mercier’s military commander, General Caroa, orders missiles fired from drones above the coast to eradicate Tool’s headquarters, killing him in the process. Somehow, Tool survives. Though grievously wounded, he makes his way to the shoreline where Mahlia finds him. Tool had saved her life in the past. Without hesitation, she has him carried onto the clipper ship she owns, and they set sail for Seascape to obtain medical care for him. Frustrated that his target has lived, General Caroa pursues him with all the forces at his disposal.

Tool of War is marketed as a young adult novel. But the book is so full of violence and gore that I wonder whether it’s really suitable for teenagers. I suppose many video games that are popular among young people are equally bloody. But still. (Maybe I’m just too old to make this judgment.)

I reviewed Ship Breaker, the first entry in the Drowned Cities saga, at Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. My review of the second, The Drowned Cities, is at Another great sci-fi novel from Paolo Bacigalupi. You may also be interested in the list of My 27 favorite science fiction novels.



October 5, 2017

From Sweden, a strange science fiction novel

strange science fiction - amatka-karin-tidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Historically, science fiction has mostly been identified with the United States and Great Britain. That’s not to say, however, that talented authors from many other countries, writing in languages other than English, haven’t made their mark in the genre. Science fiction novels, some of them outstanding, have come from Russia, China, and other countries as far-flung as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. Now Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, previously known for her well-received collection of short stories, offers her first novel, Amatka.

From the outset, it’s clear that Amatka is a science fiction novel of a very different sort. Anyone who accepts a literal definition of science fiction—stories that are possible given what we know about science—will consider this novel fantasy, not science fiction. At best, it’s very strange science fiction. Its premise clearly rests somewhere outside the bounds of possibility.

On an unnamed world somewhere far away, four small colonies of humans struggle to survive. Their surroundings are inhospitable. Featureless tundra extends in all directions. Ostensibly in order to ensure their communities’ survival, the colonies are governed by rigid bureaucrats who have made rules for virtually every aspect of life. Most of the buildings and almost everything else, from pencils to suitcases to furniture, are constructed out of a viscous, mud-like substance mined from the surface of the planet. And everything made of this mysterious stuff will hold its shape only if those who use it continuously remind each object of its purpose. They paint labels on every item (“door,” “building,” “bed”) and chant the word on its label to assure the object’s stability. If they don’t do so frequently enough, seemingly solid and stable items simply liquefy into goo that spreads across every surface and destroys anything else within its reach. And the bureaucrats have layered over this reality with new requirements of their own. For instance, here’s what Vanja learns in the community’s library: “One couldn’t name a book anything other than BOOK, or start the title with anything other than ‘About . . .’ Naming an object something else, even accidentally, was forbidden.”

Not literally science fiction, is it? Or, as I’ve noted, at the very least strange science fiction.

Amatka is a short novel—a novella, really. In just 170 pages, Tidbeck tells the story of a woman named Brillars’ Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja. Vanja is sent from her home colony of Essre by train (train???) to Amatka, where she is to investigate the potential for factories at home to produce hygiene products such as soap and shampoo that might be sold in Amatka. Her job is to interview prospective customers and report back to her boss in Essre. But Vanja soon begins to learn that all is not as it appears in Amatka. And she falls in love with the woman who is hosting her. Between the love affair and her increasing understanding of the truth about the colony, Vanja resigns from her job in Essre, committing herself to stay in Amatka. There, she plays a central role in the unfolding events that lead to the novel’s shattering conclusion.

In its strangeness, Amatka fits snugly into a new sub-genre that has emerged in science fiction in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed three such books by China Mieville (The City and the City), Jeff Vandermeer (Authority), and Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice). I enjoyed none of them.  

If you’d like to know which sci-fi works I enjoyed a lot more, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

September 25, 2017

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Warrior’s Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga #4), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, and if science fiction strikes your fancy, you’ll enjoy the long series of novels in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. The Warrior’s Apprentice, the fourth book in the series’ chronology, is a case in point.

In the preceding entries in the series, we learned the backstory of its central figure, Miles Vorkosigan. He is the son of one of the most senior military and political leaders on the planet of Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan, and Cordelia Naismith, a scientist and unwilling soldier who is a former enemy from the far more technologically advanced Beta Colony. In a failed assassination attempt on his father, Miles is crippled in his mother’s womb by poison gas. His life has been saved only by Betan technology and a courageous local physician. But he was born a virtual dwarf, less than five feet tall, and with bones so brittle they break when he falls or one of his limbs is squeezed too strongly. Miles compensates for these disabilities with a brilliant mind, a copious memory, and a genius for military strategy that allows him to gain the allegiance of the toughest professional soldiers.

Miles is surely one of the most off-beat and intriguing protagonists in all of science fiction. No doubt, the strange attraction we all feel to Miles explains how the author has been able to produce (to date) a total of at least sixteen novels in the series, plus a large number of novellas and short stories. And she has won numerous awards for her work.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, seventeen-year-old Miles washes out of officer training for the Barrayaran military when he breaks both legs in leaping off a wall in an obstacle course. Freed from the strictures of the military, Miles sets out on a visit to his grandmother on distant Beta Colony. His bodyguard, Sergeant Konstantine Bothari, and the sergeant’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Elena, accompany him on the journey. No sooner do they arrive than Miles manages to embroil himself in rescuing an old starship pilot. Brashly, he buys the pilot’s ship to save it from salvage—with money he doesn’t have. This foolish act triggers a series of misadventures that begin Miles’ long trek to galactic fame.

I’ve reviewed all three of the preceding novels in the Vorkosigan Saga: Falling Free (An outstanding sci-fi series), Shards of Honor (The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga), and Barrayar (The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera). I enjoyed them all, and you will, too, so long as you don’t expect to gain any deeper meaning from the experience.

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