Monday, April 20, 2015

An interview with John Wright (author of the "Eschaton Sequence" series)

I recently had the opportunity to ask some questions to John C. Wright, author of the "Eschaton Sequence", a series that includes "Count to a Trillion" and the newly released "Architech of Aeons", extremely inventive sci-fi books, some of which I already reviewed earlier a review link is provided at the bottom of this page). John was kind enough to answer a few challenging questions about his work, and I am delighted to share the interview with all of you...


---

SFB. What inspired you to write a space opera series? 

JCW. Love and ambition.
The simple, juvenile, absurd and unabashed wonder of E.E. Doc Smith and his many imitators are beloved to me. I like the gigantic scale, the Wagnerian thunder, the action, the destruction of planets, men like gods engaged in Ragnarok. What Mr Smith did in his Skylark books, and, later, more successfully in his Lensmen books, is put across something of the sense of the real scale on which astronomical events take place. In his plot-writing he was careful to build each act of the drama onto a larger and larger stage as the action ramped up, first planetary, then interplanetary, then interstellar, then intergalactic, and so on.
More to the point, Olaf Stapledon in his book STARMAKER likewise places his action on an ever increasing scale, the early timelines in his book going by year, the later by century, and then by millennium, eventually reaching to the Eschaton, the end of time itself.
My ambition was to see if I could pen a hard science fiction story on the same ever rising geometric scale, running from the current day to the end of the universe, using nothing know known to current science or solemnly speculated by current scientists (such as the negative mass particle which appears in VINDICATION OF MAN, the next volume in the series).  There is no faster than light drive, no time travel, no psionics in my universe. For a man to go from here to Andromeda galaxy, at two and a half million light years away, takes two and a half million years earth-time.
Moreover, I have been so awed at the real astronomical marvels real astronomers have discovered, that I swore a great vow never to invent a marvel when I wanted to impress the reader with the wonder of the universe. Example: A diamond weighing 10 billion trillion trillion carats is at the heart of a dead white dwarf star fifty lightyears from Sol form the central plot point of the first volume in the series.
Example: Mira is a giant Mira is a red giant star 300 lightyears away at the end of its life, moving fast enough (291,000 miles per hour) to create a tail of material behind it 13 light-years long. This is mentioned in passing in the current volume.
Example: Andromeda and Milky Way are going to collide in a few billion years. This comes up in the final volume.

SFB. In what ways would you say The Architect of Aeons differs from the previous books in the series?

JCW. Since I conceived of the story as a unit, merely broken into several volumes due to its length, this is an impossible question to answer. It is like asking a playwright in what way Act III differs from Act II and Act I.
ARCHITECT takes place on a larger stage – the action is interstellar rather than (in the prior volume) interplanetary -- and covers more time than the previous volumes, it grants the characters additional depth and development (since Blackie and Montrose are forced, despite their mutual hatred, to work together) and the first major information about the Hyades aliens and their remote inhuman purposes for enslaving the human race come onstage.

SFB. Your main characters, Montrose and del Azarchel, are both friends and rivals and are in love with the same woman. How do you balance this dynamic between characters? Do you think Rania affected significantly the course of the story?

JCW. A puzzling question, one which I am at a loss to answer. I am not sure what you mean by 'balance' nor by 'dynamic'. The hero and villain cooperate when a greater impending threat forces them to do so, and otherwise they seek to murder each other honorably, according to the custom of the Code Duello, the code of duels, of their home century and culture. Each character acts according to his own interior logic as established by his past upbringing and future ambitions.
Rania is the main plot driver of the story. It is her decision that shapes all history both for Earth and for the Milky Way, and for the local Virgo Cluster.  For better or worse, the Lorenz contraction of her protected starfaring means that character suffers only a few decades of passing time while events on Earth continue onward for sixty six millennia, and so her time onstage is remarkably limited.

SFB. Who are your main inspirations and key reference authors in sci-fi?

JCW. Only inferior authors have inspirations: genius robs. In this case, I have robbed ideas, themes, names, and situations from E.E. Doc Smith and Olaf Stapledon.

SFB. What can readers expect regarding the end of the novel? Will there be twists and turns?

JCW. This novel is not the last. It is merely the fourth in a projected six volume series.
My story concerns a cosmic mystery, and, naturally, the essence of mystery is that the ending when it comes be logical in hindsight yet unexpected in foresight.

SFB. What is the most challenging aspect of writing a multi-part story? And the most rewarding one?

JCW. The most challenging aspect to me as an author is persuading reviewers that it is one story, meant to be read as a whole, not six separate stories with six different beginnings, midpoints, and endings. Reviewers unfortunately are required by the needs of publication and marketing to review each volume as it comes out, and render a judgment on each sixth separately.
There is greater difficulty than a short story in maintain a consistent character voice, thematic elements, plot continuity and props.  My file of notes is longer. Just the five timelines, each on a different scale, take up a score of pages.
One gaff I made, for example, is that in one book I listed the weight of Montrose's firearm (six pounds) as the weight of his dueling armor (forty pounds). It is slips like that which annoy readers. They more easily creep into the text in larger stories.
Even Homer nods because Homer write things the size of the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY .
The reward is, of course, that a truly massive canvass gives a wild imagination plenty of elbow room to create something of like magnitude. Readers enjoying the story can submerge into the imaginary cosmos for longer than a short story or a novel: it is the difference between swimming in a lake versus swimming in the sea.

SFB. In this book, Montrose and del Azarchel try to map out a future that stretches beyond millennia. Is it hard as an author to think on such a scale yourself? 

JCW. If it difficult to write on this scale, I am unaware of it. One gets a sense of how much changes in human life in such magnitudes of time by looking at the past, and extrapolating accordingly.
It is certainly fun for me. I hope for the readers as well, but one must direct that question to them.

SFB. What is the most rewarding aspect of writing this type of novel where you are allowed to imagine what the future will be like and create worlds? What is most challenging?

JCW. All science fiction writers, even the least imaginative, imagines the future and creates worlds.
The most rewarding aspect and the most challenging aspect are one and the same: a science fiction writer has to perform all the same tasks as a mainstream, muggle writer, an invent plot, characters, theme, setting, props, dialog. But then there is one task , the crucial task, which the mainstream writer must avoid at all costs and the science fiction writer must embrace at all costs. Our world must be different from the visible world of the reader, the here-and-now. Even writers of historical drama cannot invent new periods of history, but writers of alternate history must, or else they are not writing alternate history. Likewise, science fiction must either take place in another time and place outside the known world and current year, or an element from the outside must intrude in.
Because we invent new universes beyond the known universe each and every time we do this, the science fiction writer invites the reader to observe the basic and fundamental truths of the universe by comparing it to his imaginary universe where at least one fundamental is different. Even something as lighthearted as STAR WARS cannot help but do this: by introducing talking mechanical men, the reader cannot help but wonder what makes humans human. In the wire-fu cyberpunk yarn THE MATRIX, deep questions about the nature of truth and reality float to the surface.
No matter how profound books like GONE WITH THE WIND or WAR AND PEACE might be, they cannot address the question of whether machines have souls or whether reality is objective because no alternative to our current reality can be addressed. On that level, even the most juvenile and shallow issue of MACHINE MAN comics penned by Jack 'King' Kirby or the most mature and majestic prose penned by blind Milton in PARADISE LOST, because these deal with nonhuman robots or superhuman angels, must address issues more fundamental than the deepest issues pondered by Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Steinbeck and the other luminaries of this mundane world.

---

SFB.
PS: The fourth installment, "The Architect of Aeons", has been released on April 20, 2015. I will review it at a later time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Judge of Ages

John C Wright
Tor, 2014 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Tor)
Size: Average (my paperback proof copy has 380 pages, but final version might differ)
Theme: Evolution
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Menelaus Montrose
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: LIKELY



As the third book in the “Count to a Trillion” series, this is the sequel and the mandatory companion to “The Hermetic Millennia”. It picks up straight from the end of the previous book and continues narrating the story of Montrose, the “judge of ages”, awake from his hibernation slumber in order to deal with a major threat to his tombs system, which have been raided and are being plundered. Still unrecognized by his captors, he continues to attempt to regain some control over the tombs’ security systems, working together with a myriad of thawed people from different epochs along the last ten millennia. As expected, the pace and style are the same as the 2 previous installments in the series. The story continues being very one-dimensional. But in this book, it seemed to me that the author does a better job grabbing the attention of the reader and keeping him motivated to find out how the story will develop.

I have to say I enjoyed this book more than the previous one (and in fact, more than the first one as well). This was due to two aspects: first, there is more action and story development and less chatter (the latter being the worst aspect of this series), and second, the author comes up with a feasible way near the end of the book to explain a lot of the events which had only been hinted at. John Wright clearly has a tremendous imagination, which is the strong feature of this series. The described events are as imaginative as compelling, although a little bit too ambitious in scope and magnitude which renders this future scenario very hard to accept even in the realm of sci-fi. Unfortunately, there is still one major flaw persisting from the previous book: despite the fact that the characters are from different races and lived hundreds or thousands of years apart, many of them apparently (and unbelievably, in my opinion) share a peculiar sense of humor. I also have trouble accepting that a post-human as Montrose can exhibit brilliant projections on some issues and total lack of insight on others. But his weird sense of humor (and of some of the cast around him) was really what put me off the most while reading the novel.

I’m actually eager to read the final novel in the series, since I have the feeling it will either be a very good caper, or a monumental failure. Time will tell, but I’m really keeping my fingers crossed for the former.

Related work:

This book is the sequel to “The Hermetic Millennia” and should not be read before the first 2 books. A fourth and final book in the series has just come out.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Farside

Ben Bova
Tor, 2013 (my copy was gracefully provided by Tor for review)
Size: Average (my hardback copy has 367 pages)
Theme: Sci-fi thriller
Narrative: third-person
Main character: several
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



There is a side of the moon which is perpetually facing away from Earth, making it a prime location for placing an astronomy observatory to explore space without interference from all the ambient light that exists in any place on Earth. However, as a set of huge telescopes is built there, a competitive endeavor is attempting to setup an array of mirrors in solar orbit which would function as an optical interferometer with unprecedented capability to observe deep space. As problems start arising in the lunar colony observatory, the race for who is able to first visualize and analyze an apparently Earth-like planet - dubbed New Earth - will soon turn into a struggle for survival in the inhospitable conditions of the moon.

This novel is a thriller with a dash of sci-fi. It includes some current topics, such as nanomachines and human performance enhancement, but it is not hard sci-fi, and the technical details and descriptions are easy to follow. There are a few space walks and short rocket trips, but most of the story develops within the observatory. There are half a dozen main characters around which the story revolves, and they are reasonably well explored, although the story being short does not leave much room for great insights into each of them.

It was the first novel by Ben Bova that I ever read, and I quite enjoyed reading it. However, given the fame of the author, I was expecting a more vibrant and complex story. Although nothing is very unique about the plot, the narrative is successful. At times, the pace is a bit slow but did not get to the point of boredom. Overall, it works very well as light reading. I would recommend it to sci-fi fans, particularly those that like space thrillers.

Related work:
This book is part of the Grand Tour series, which deals with space exploration and colonization. Although the story can be read independently, it can be said to have a follow-up in the book New Earth (already available).


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Invisible Library

Genevieve Cogman
Tor, 2015 (my copy was gracefully provided by Pan Macmillan for review, in an exquisite binding)
Size: Average (my paperback copy has 329 pages)
Theme: Fantasy mystery
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Irene
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES


Irene is a Librarian, part of an organization that exists beyond the borders of our world. The Library connects multiple planes of reality, and has the goal of collecting works of literature from all those realities. The Library is a realm of order and its agents have to fight the forces of chaos, which create unnatural events and impossibilities. In this story, Irene is tasked with finding a specific book in an alternative London, but that reality is festering with chaos influences, which includes supernatural creatures such as werewolves and vampires, but also a combination of magic and technology often acting unpredictably.

The story is compelling and rich in details, with a smooth narrative and a fast pace. The plot has several twists and yet maintains a strong grip on the main storyline. Characters are very well developed, and we learn much about them from their conversations along the book, discovering more at each page turn. I very much enjoyed reading it, being a welcomed change from my more usual sci-fi. And, having no prior expectations set, it was an unanticipated pleasure.

The “Invisible Library” looks like the very promising start of a new saga. The world created by Cogman is teeming with possibilities and promises of many more adventures for Irene and the Librarians. Thus, I am looking forward to a follow-up novel, and highly recommend this first installment.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Book of Truths (Area 51: The Nightstalkers series)

Bob Mayer
47North, 2013 (my copy was gracefully provided by 47North for review)
Size: Short (my paperback copy has 258 pages)
Theme: Military sci-fi
Narrative: third-person
Main character: The nightstalkers team
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES


Continuing from the first “Nightstalkers” series book, we again follow the operations of the US covert special-ops team. This time there is no looming alien threat. Yet, a truth serum is on the loose and as it starts infecting more people (and ones with considerable power within the military ranks), an impending nuclear disaster is at hand and it is up to the nightstalkers to stop it. But as they tackle this threat to the nation – and in fact the entire world – we get to know other players from the secret operations world. As the truth starts being spit out all around, we learn some of the nation’s best kept secrets, and the entire world might be at stake.

The second book of this series keeps the pace and decisive action of the first. Mayer continues to grip the reader tight to the story. The team plays a much smaller role though, as new characters are introduced and other agencies involved.  It is much less sci-fi than its predecessor and more like a thriller fiction… I much enjoyed reading it and would recommend as a continuation of the previous book. If anything, I have to say I wished the story was longer and we got more details throughout.

Related work:

This is the second book of the series, after “Nightstalkers”, and will be continued in “Nightstalkers: The Rift” (already available).


Friday, January 16, 2015

Nightstalkers (Area 51: The Nighstalkers series)

Bob Mayer
47North, 2012 (my copy was gracefully provided by 47North for review)
Size: Average (my paperback copy has 311 pages)
Theme: Military sci-fi
Narrative: third-person
Main character: The nightstalkers team
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



The Nightstalkers are a covert special-ops team, operating from near Area 51, and dealing with extremely dangerous threats to the nation, particularly nuclear, chemical, biological, and alien threats. And, as their leader would put it, ‘things that go bump in the night’. With extremely high clearance for intel, access to absolutely all equipment and weaponry in existence, and discretion on the level of force required to get the job done, this small team recruits only the most exceptional individuals. In this book we follow them on a couple of missions related to a strange phenomenon: strange man-made rifts which are thought to bridge between our world and either a parallel dimension or an alien world. These rifts represent a significant threat and are not easily dealt with…

The plot is well defined, and characters are interesting and well explored. The pace is quite nice, and there are no useless plot fillers; every page contributes to the overall story. Bob Mayer is the author of the Area 51 series, a great series I have read a few years ago. The ‘Nightstalkers’ series follows the same style he imprinted onto the Area 51 books.

This is excellent military sci-fi. There is just enough detail on the military aspect to make you feel you are part of a real covert-ops team, yet not abusive to the point where it seems like you are reading a tech-spec. Yet, it is the action adventure side of the story which grabs you and does not let go. I went through the whole book very quickly and immediately started reading the sequel. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans.

Related work:
This is the first book of a new series, and at the time of this review, books 2 and 3 are already available.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Hellhole Inferno

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Tor, 2014 (my paperback ARC copy was gracefully provided by Tor for review)
Size: Average (my paperback ARC copy has 446 pages)
Theme: Space Opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: General Tiber Adolphus
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES


The story picks up right after the events of Hellhole Awakening, the previous novel of this series. Thus, this really works as a continuation of the ongoing story rather than as a single novel by itself. And, as one could expect, the writing style, the plot flow, and the pace of the story continue in line with the earlier books. That being said, I should remark that Herbert and Anderson maintain their usual option of multiple plotlines developing simultaneously and the story switching between locations/characters to follow where events are unfolding.

The main plot is now around a renewed attack by Commodore Percival on the DZ planets, by order of the new Diadem, the continued attempts of the Xayan alien species to reach their Ala’ru, and the asteroids which are en route to Hellhole. With the previous army of the Constellation under guard at Hellhole, the power balance has shifted, and the confrontation between the Commodore and the General will change significantly. Also, the book reveals exactly what Alu’ru is and why it has caused rupture among the alien race.

I enjoyed the book and felt it concluded the series very successfully. The events are not blown out of proportion nor are there out-of-character actions (which I’ve seen a lot when trying to end a novel). Although some might say the series is shallow, for me this was light and entertaining reading and, when taken that way, I’d say the books are definitely worth the time.

Related work:
Hellhole Inferno concludes the Hellhole trilogy, after Hellhole and Hellhole Awakening.


Monday, December 8, 2014

An interview with James A. Moore (author of "Seven Forges")


I recently had the opportunity to ask some questions to James A. Moore, author of "Seven Forges", a great fantasy novel, and the start of a series, which I reviewed earlier this year (a review link is provided at the bottom of this page). James was kind enough to give us some insights into his writing style and philosophy. Thus, I am delighted to share this interview with all of you...

James A. Moore

- - -

Sci-fi bookworm: 
First of all, when did you first start thinking about the concept behind Seven Forges, and how much did it evolve since then?

James A. Moore: 
I spent almost a year playing with the notion of doing a fantasy series before I ever started writing anything down. I've always loved fantasy, but I hadn't even read any in years. I was focused primarily on horror and crime fiction for a long while. A friend of mine was talking about old sword and sorcery favorites and that got my mind cooking on the notions. It was around a year later I worked out the outline and first few chapters and then approached AR.

SFB: 
Where did the inspiration for this novel come from? Are there some key writers that you feel have - in some way - molded your approach to writing fantasy?

JAM: 
Fantasy was my first love when it comes to fiction. I read it voraciously when I was younger. So it was really always back there in the back of my head and I enjoyed the genre, I just never really got around to writing in it until I found a story idea that wouldn't leave me alone. I wanted to write something I hadn't already read.

There are so very many. Off the top of my head the writers who influenced this the most are Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. Stephen King's DARK TOWER books were eye opening when it came to breaking away from the standard mold, but another influence I cannot emphasize enough is Tim Lebbon. His NOREELA books were the first I looked at in fantasy for a very long time and they were so very different from what I'd run across before that I started thinking about fantasy as a real possibility again.

SFB: 
How is it to write fantasy adventures when a few stories in this genre have been getting huge media attention in the past few years, such as "The Game of Thrones"? Does it end up being motivational, or hampering creativity?

JAM: 
Oh, I always look at the popularity of another writer's work as a challenge. I love GAME OF THRONES and I can't get enough of Joe Abercrombie. I'm reading HALF A KING right now and it's a damned impressive work. As far as I'm concerned, that level of success (and talent) just makes me want to try harder to do it right.

SFB: 
Which character was harder to build and explore? And do you think any of your characters felt neglected?

JAM: 
I think the hardest character for me was probably Swech. I wanted to her to be different from any of the characters I've run across before. I needed her to have a certain level of naiveté and at the same time I needed her to be an absolute killing machine. More importantly, I needed her to be believable. I think she turned out pretty well, actually, I think MOST of my characters tend to feel neglected, because, honestly, I always want to spend more time with them and the nature of the beast is that I really can't. These books aren't about Merros Dulver or about Emperor Pathra Krouse, much as I want them to be about each of them. These stories are about a world being changed. The one i wanted to spend more time on the most? Drask Silver Hand. He has a lot to say.

SFB: 
Finally, what word of advice would you give to someone starting to get into the fantasy genre?

JAM: 
As a writer? Read voraciously. Read horror. Read science fiction. Read westerns and romances and murder mysteries. Read history. Read the news. Watch the news. Watch people. World building is a big part of fantasy, and in order to build a world that makes sense, you have to look beyond your comfort zone. The world is a massive place, and there are levels and levels of politics, military powers, ecology and economy that should be understood to one degree or another before you try building a world, because you can't really fix all of that as easily after the fact.

And, of course, write every day. Every day. Write it first. Edit it later. Write.

- - -

SFB note: 
Book 2 of the series has already come out! I have great expectations on further books by James.

[full review of Seven Forges]

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hellhole Awakening

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Tor, 2013 (my hardcover copy is a first edition, gracefully provided by Tor for review)
Size: Long (my hardcover copy has 527 pages)
Theme: Space Opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: General Tiber Adolphus
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



A worthy sequel to Hellhole, the story picks up right where the earlier book had left us. It actually felt more like a space opera than the previous book, and a considerable part of it occurs in space. The plot will involve several twist and turns, quite well put together, and finally feature some space warfare.

As a powerful Constellation fleet travels towards Hellholm to fight and capture the rebels, General Adolphus has plans for a trap that might render them helpless. Will he be able to flip the tables on the corrupt Constellation government and take command of their fleet instead? Diadem Michella’s extreme fear of the aliens and rage against Adolphus continues to prompt strong and violent reaction from the Constellation on several fronts, which will eventually backfire as the rebels and aliens are forced to take desperate measured to ensure their safety. The human-alien hybrids continue to build up their colony and will play a major role in the main storyline. Yet, it appears the Constellation is not the only enemy to account for, and the novel will unravel much more about the history of Hellhole and its inhabitants.

The multi-line plot and the fast pace are similar to Hellhole, as is the depth of characters and the scope of the saga. I quite enjoyed reading it, but there was one annoying aspect: as the story shifts focus to a different plot line, the authors repeatedly remind us of the character’s motivations and current status, like a nagging banner that you have seen too often.  Nevertheless, if you like military space operas, you should find yourself immersed in the complex universe of Hellhole.

Related work:

Hellhole Awakening is the second novel in a trilogy; the story started in Hellhole and will draw to a conclusion in Hellhole Inferno.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Hellhole

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Tor, 2011 (my hardcover copy is a first edition)
Size: Long (my hardcover copy has 532 pages)
Theme: Space Opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: General Tiber Adolphus
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES


Hellhole is an epic space opera taking place in a universe where humans travel between many colonized planets, using technology that exceeds faster-than-light travel. In this Constellation society, the government is centralized around a cluster of planets, the Crown Jewels, which dominate over a larger group of distant planets on the outskirts of the galaxy, the Deep Zone. For years, the Deep Zone planets have been paying tribute to the ruler of the Constellation, currently Diadem Michella Duchenet.

On one of the Deep Zone planets we find General Adolphus, exiled after his failed attempt at overthrowing the corrupt government of the Constellation and deposing the Diadem. We find Adolphus confined to the blasted planet Hallholme, where the ruined remains of an alien civilization spark only some curiosity, and where convicts, loners and misfits travel in order to disappear or to start a brand new life. However, Adolphus has not given up on his goal of saving the Constellation, and spectacular events unfolding at Hallholme might play a huge role in the future of the human race. And significant changes are at hand, as the Deep Zone planets reconsider their role in the Constellation…

This novel has a nice plot and the story unfolds in a fast yet comfortable pace, through multiple interweaving storylines. There are several concepts reminiscent of Dune, with an apparently worthless and desolated planet becoming a pivotal point in the universe. The characters are a little bit stereotyped but the major ones are still adequately explored. I felt that the interstellar travelling technology, being so exceptional, merited some attempt at an explanation or at least a better description. However, I know that getting into details is a gamble, and in fact Frank Herbert has shown us the power of leaving some mystery behind such aspects.

In my opinion, this novel is not at the same level as Hamilton’s Confederation or Commonwealth storylines, and is far from the complexity and layered narrative of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but it is still rather interesting and intriguing for space opera fans. It follows the style that Brian and Anderson already employed in their Dune “midquels” and “prequels”. Overall, I much enjoyed reading the book, which left me craving for the sequel. Luckily, since I already had books 2 and 3 when reading the first one, this is not an issue!

Related work:
Hellhole is the first novel in a trilogy; the story continues in Hellhole Awakening and concludes in Hellhole Inferno.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Second Harvest

Matthew Hart
Capscovil, 2013 (my softcover copy was gracefully provided by Capscovil for review)
Size: Average (my copy has 366 pages)
Theme: Time travel
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Dexter Maxwell
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES


This is a sequel to “The last iteration of Dexter Maxwell”, and continues following the intriguing time-shifting (and now space-spanning) adventures of Dexter and his cohorts. This novel works perfectly as a sequel, since it fills in a lot of blanks that had been left in the first story, and adds to the complexity of the plot. In fact, even though the first novel already featured a detailed storyline, in the second book we find out much behind-the-scenes scheming that had only been hinted at. The role of the families in Venus, what the second harvest is (or is claimed to be), and where Ashion came from, are all finally revealed.

In this novel, Dexter struggles to control his shifting abilities as he attempts to fold Ashion’s plans and prevent doomsday for the entire population of Venus. The book is divided into 4 parts. The first exclusively follows Ashion in the year 3027, as he sets in motion several plans related to the upcoming second harvest. The second is focused on Dexter and his allies, and varies between events happening around the 26th century and those of the 31st century. The third occurs after Dexter goes to Venus, and interchangeably keeps track of both Dexter and Ashion. The fourth and final part concerns the events taking place during the week before the echo effect. There is a big momentum building up to the time of the echo effect, of which we learn much during the earlier parts of the book. In fact, everything essentially revolves around this phenomenon, which has driven the actions of Ashion and the families.

Although the entire book keeps a very nice pace, with events unfolding rhythmically, I did struggle with all the characters and names during the first part. Having read the first novel several months ago, I did not remember some details, and I felt that I was missing out on some subtle but pertinent aspects because of that. I think the author could have provided some hints on what was going on for readers who had either not read book 1 or did it some time ago. Because the families are almost absent from the first book, I felt it hard to keep up with the story at some turns in the first part. However, starting with part 2, that no longer was the case, and it was a very enjoyable read. Maybe I should have spent some time on the character list at the end of the book, but I prefer learning the characters from the plot itself. In any case, the story is compelling and very well written. Readers of the first novel will thrill through this sequel, and left eager for the third novel of the series.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Great North Road

Peter F. Hamilton
Pan MacMillan, 2012 (my softcover copy was gracefully provided by MacMillan for review)
Size: Epic (my copy has 1087 pages)
Theme: Detective drama involving alien species
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Sidney Hurst, Angela Tramelo
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES




The sci-fi mystery genre at its best... I start any book from Peter Hamilton with a very high (possibly unfair) expectation, having read so many great books from this British author. Those previous books were all space operas, in fact my favorite genre, so I was unsure if Hamilton would keep his storytelling style and level. But alas, the Great North Road does not disappoint. Hamilton gives us a detail-rich universe, combining aspects of traditional detective stories with futuristic space-faring adventures in alien worlds.

The main plot is based on the assassination of a member of the (vastly wealthy and unorthodox) North family. And while the level of sophistication and professionalism of the cover-up operation could in principle be attributed to corporate rivalries, similarities exist to a murder from 2 decades before, one which has such unbelievable circumstances that the single witness had been in jail ever since. Now, Angela Tramelo might actually be a key factor in the investigation, if they can get her to cooperate. Under the scrutinizing gaze of many around him, detective Sid Hurst will attempt to find the truth behind this complex – and potentially dangerous – situation. Meanwhile, events will unravel in a way that will forever change the human colony in St. Libra, and the migration of the human race through the known universe.

With a vast expanse of locations, characters, and events, the book slowly unveils layer upon layer of the plot, until a convincing conclusion that provides a complete vision of the complex web of interrelated narratives. As in previous novels, the narrative keeps switching between different story-lines (often also revisiting events in the past), through a large number of small chapters. This is very easy to follow and never gets boring. Several twists add to the depth of the story. The action is fast-paced. The main characters are very well explored. Reactions and attitudes are credible. Overall, this was extremely enjoyable to read, and I highly recommend it, both to newcomers to the genre as well as to sci-fi veterans.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes
Harvest, 2004 (my copy is from Harvest, 2013), although copyright is from 1959
Size: Average (my TPB copy has 311 pages)
Theme: Human cognition – enhanced skills
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Charlie Gordon
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



I picked up a copy of this book because it was on a top 100 sci-fi list that I’ve been slowly collecting for a few years. Having been written in the 1950’s, the book is a precursor in terms of human enhancement through science. It should also be analyzed as having been written that long ago, during the primordial ages of classic sci-fi. The concept behind the story is based on a group of scientists that develop a technique, mixing psychology, neurology, and biochemistry, to boost intelligence. After testing it successfully on a lab mouse named Algernon, they move on to human trials. Charlie Gordon is picked as the first human subject, due to his mental disabilities coupled with a great motivation to learn and become smarter. Everything appears to have gone successful as Charlie quickly becomes more intelligent than all those around him, to the point where he can no longer have a challenging conversation with anyone. However, as Algernon’s mental health starts declining, the question becomes whether the same will occur to Charlie…

The book is told/written in the first person by Charlie. A brilliant writing style allows us to feel how the character is changing along the plot, since in the first few pages Charlie has horrible spelling and grammar, and displays a lack of complex reasoning and a child vision of the world around him, but as the book progresses, he becomes more eloquent but also more self-assured, and later more aggressive. Sadly, once Charlie is truly explored as a character, and one is left with the feeling that much more could have been tackled from the perspectives of Alice, the two main scientists, and even some of Charlie’s acquaintances. As in many other books I have read, I would not have minded having 200 more pages to go through.

This novel is loaded with layer upon layer of significance and food for thought. Charlie’s early innocent thoughts make him a friendly person, and he is never aware of how people make fun of him or put him down. As his awareness expands, so does his perception of how cruel and dishonest human beings can be. He learns about fallacies of the society and struggles to cope with his expanding feelings. Have we not all felt like our eyes being open to a new reality? For certain, the famous sentence “Whereas once I was blind, now I see”, is not very often a positive change. Do we not realize how in our child years, there was a shroud in front of our eyes, and how everything looks different now that our eyes are “open”? And how, as honored and adults, do we look down at the “innocent” and the “different”? In a way, Charlie’s trip from mentally handicapped to highly intelligent reflects all of us, as we travel from child to adult and then to elderly person (given enough time, plagued with senility). It is the cold hard reality of it all that speaks very close to an attentive reader.

The book has no hard sci-fi, nor advanced technologies, but it’s a beautiful tale of human achievement and human relations. Maybe if children had this as required reading in school they would not be so cruel upon others. Or maybe that is just wishful thinking. Would I suggest this novel to any sci-fi reader? Most definitely yes!


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Seven Forges

James A. Moore
Angry Robot, 2013 (an advance proof was gently provided to me by Angry Robot)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 332 pages)
Theme: Adventure fantasy
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Captain Merros Dulver
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



After several recent sci-fi novels which failed to meet my expectations and made me stop reading for a while, this fantasy book was a breath of fresh air. The story follows Captain Merros Dulver’s quest to the inhospitable and icy region of the Blasted Lands, with the goal of reaching the seven forges, a mountain range from where no expedition has ever returned. Under the orders of the emperor’s sorcerer and right-hand man, he wonders if he will be able to take advantage of the promised reward. Right from the start, things become tough, as in the midst of storms, they are attacked by Pra-Moresh, monstrous wilder beasts known to roam the blasted lands. However, as soon as they are saved by a tribe of people that unbelievably come from the seven forges, the fantastic invades Dulver’s life. What are the real intentions of these people? What impact will this have on the empire? And why does it seem that he will play a huge role in the upcoming events?

The story has a very nice blend of action/adventure and magic. In this first book of the series, only a bit of the veil is lifted, and as we move through the pages, we learn a bit more about the Sa’ba Taalor, their rituals and their motivations. A series of other characters are well explored, and a set of secondary storylines. From the start, I never found the book dull; it keeps a nice pace, while still describing sceneries and exploring some character’s inner thoughts.

Overall, the book was a pleasure to read, changing a bit from my more typical technology-driven sci-fi. I am looking forward to reading where the next book of the series will take this very interesting story…


Friday, July 4, 2014

The Goliath Stone

Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington
Tor, 2013 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Tor)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 314 pages)
Theme: Nanotechnology
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Toby Glyer
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: UNSURE



The concept behind this book appears to be quite simple: a large asteroid is on its way to earth, with its course continuously shifting so that it seems increasingly likely that it will collide. Several years ago, nanotechnology had reached a progress level that a mission was setup to send nanomachines to harvest a small asteroid. In practical terms, the plan was to divert its course so that it would orbit earth and could be mined. However, all contact was lost with the mission, which was abandoned. It appears now that maybe the nanomachines are involved in the recent change in course of the large asteroid. The question is whether they are still trying to perform their initial goal, or whether they are aiming it to destroy earth.

This is not a particularly innovative idea, nor is most of what takes place during the relatively short story. Although I enjoyed it as a light read, the novel is sort of a blunder. In fact, given Niven’s reputation (note I have not yet read the Ringworld acclaimed series, although it is in my to-read pile), I was expecting much more. Characters are shallow and one-dimensional, one of them featuring the archetype of superhuman intellect and capabilities. Subtle hints at the authors’ political views are pressed into the story. The main characters actually did not have to exist, as most of the events would have happened the same without them; I can hardly remember a book where the characters do not influence the result (earth’s destruction or not) in any way. It is also surprising how nobody really stresses out from the fact that the world is about to be destroyed, so apparently all those movies and books where people panic and riot are just pessimistic. What I enjoyed the least was the annoying and impossible to believe dialogues full of witty remarks and comebacks, full to the brim with what I guess the authors must have thought were clever references to sci-fi literature. Curiously, the story ends up being as much on the asteroid as on how the main characters are involved in nanotechnology reshaping humanity, again in an excessive and unfeasible manner.

I’m going to have to call this casual over-the-counter literature, and definitely not to be mentioned in the records of sci-fi. Once you take it as something just to entertain you for a few hours, and to be forgotten afterwards, it’s fine. Just do not have higher expectations than that.