Sunday, December 18, 2011

The accidental time machine


Joe Haldeman
Ace, 2007 (my copy is from Ace, 2008)
Size: Short (my copy has 257 pages)
Theme: Time travel
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Matt Fuller
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This book explores the interesting concept of a graduate student who stumbles upon a particularly curious feature in a lab equipment he is assembling. Every time the reset button in the machine is pressed, it travels in time. However, he has no control over the time jumps, and is unable to understand or explain the mechanisms behind the phenomena. Unsurprisingly, he will get in considerable trouble, both in the near and in the far future. As he experiments time travel, he is thrown into different societies and has to deal with peculiar characters. Maybe the future does not always hold exactly what you would expect…

The novel is very straightforward, and easy to read. The author does not attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the physics behind time travel (which usually would mean either totally wrong or at least flawed science, and which can become very annoying). It is much more of an adventure story than your traditional time travel novel. Being very short, you won’t get bored throughout, but on the other hand many potential side-stories are barely scratched and shallow characters are introduced only to be quickly discarded. Having spent considerable time at MIT and Boston, I was able to follow the references to buildings and locations, but I felt that most readers will find those parts either boring or undecipherable. Still, the novel was quite enjoyable.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Evolutionary Void


Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 2010 (my hardcover copy is a first edition, gracefully provided by MacMillan for review)
Size: Long (my copy has 726 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: (Edeard and others)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



As the last book of a series, it was not intended to be read alone, and you should definitely read the two preceding novels, The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void (which I have reviewed before), before you pick this up. The same applies to this review; it is essentially a spoiler for someone who did not read books #1 and #2. That being said, as one could expect, the Evolutionary Void continues the epic tale of the void phenomena and the efforts by the protagonists to either stop it from destroying the galaxy or take advantage of its power to further their own ambitions.
This novel maintains the approach of switching narrative at each chapter between the events inside the void to those outside. The plot quickly kicks off with mind-numbing events: the deployment of the deterrence fleet (revealed to be in fact pure energy controlled by a single consciousness, namely Chief Admiral Kazimir), the existence of a single extremely powerful nameless ship controlled by the Accelerators, the decision by ANA:Governance to suspend the activities of that faction, followed by Ilanthe separating from ANA in an inversion core and fleeing the solar system in the ship, trapping the entire Sol system and the deterrence fleet inside a barrier based on Dark Fortress technology. All this and more takes place in the first 90 pages. Afterwards the story will also follow Aaron’s quest to bring together Ozzie, Inigo, and the second dreamer so they can try to stop the void. In addition to Justine’s attempt to reach the heart of the void, Gore Burnelli starts an alternative plan that involves the Anomine race, most of which evolved into post-physical a long time ago. Along the entire book, Araminta continues having a pivotal role, but one that will grow in complexity, as she finally decides on a path of her own that will affect how everything plays out.

Inside the void universe, Edeard is finding out how difficult it is to live a perfect life, even with all his power and the void’s temporal abilities at his disposal. We are told of his multiple attempts at getting everything absolutely right, only to be thwarted by different problems at each iteration. And, as events unfold, we find out how the ability to do whatever you want will not necessarily bring you closer to fulfillment. We also learn why Inigo ended up abandoning the Living Dream movement and going into seclusion. In this final installment of the series, the interaction between the events inside and outside the void will be much higher, and the two realities will blend in the plot.

The book was just as good as the two previous novels. I much enjoyed the narrative style, the detailed and enticing plot, the cast of characters that we had already become familiar with, and the appropriate pace. I found that the mix between highly advanced technology of modern society and the near-medieval level within the void worked very well. The author managed to propose very interesting cosmic phenomena, from evolution into post-physical to quantum states of exotic matter, and make them fit seamlessly in the overall plot. As the saying goes for all good things, it had to come to an end, but I was left totally satisfied with the conclusion of this saga.

Related work:
This is the last book of the series (#3 of 3), and follows the events from The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void. Although this story takes place in the same universe as the earlier Commonwealth stories by Hamilton, they are separate enough for those not to be considered prequels.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Temporal Void


Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 2008 (my copy is from Pan Books, 2009)
Size: Long (my copy has 746 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: (Edeard and others)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES


First, I should emphasize that you should read the Dreaming Void before the Temporal Void (which I have reviewed before). This book is #2 in a trilogy and was not intended to be read alone. The same applies to this review; it includes some details of the story which I would consider spoilers for someone who did not read book #1. That being said, the Dreaming Void continues to follow the expansion of the void at the center of the galaxy, and its potential effects on the entire universe.

The story starts off at the immediate end of the previous book. The void has just begun expanding, supposedly due to the second dreamer having refused the skylord’s invitation to lead humans into the void. While nobody yet knows the identity of the second dreamer, the Living Dream movement continues doubling its efforts to that end. As Troblum attempts to evade the factions, he is caught up by the Cat, even as Paula continues her pursuit, which ends up with them in a brief but ferocious clash of high-tech weaponry.

Meanwhile, inside the void universe, Edeard “the Waterwalker”, attempts to cope with the great destiny apparently hurled at him. But with great power comes great responsibility, and the burden of wanting to change the world around him. But he will have to excel at much more than raw psychic power, as his action bring in as many foes as it does friends, if not more. Having proven himself as a constable, and seemingly showing the gangs that things are about to become harder for them, he becomes the focus of desire of all the rich family daughters. As he succumbs completely to lust with those girls, he separates further from Saldana, even though she continues to hold a special place in his heart. The reader cannot help but wonder exactly what will he accomplish and who he will become in years to come. Obviously, we already know a bit of the very final outcome, from hints given in the core story (the outside universe), as people think - and talk - about Inigo’s dreams.

Just as the previous novel, I found the Temporal Void to be rich with details, a fast and well-paced storyline in a colossal scale universe. The characters, to which we were introduced in the first book, move along in their tasks and following their individual motivations. The different human factions continue their ancient disputes and different perspectives on how the species should evolve. Some of the characters are very endearing and you end up taking sides and creating biases. I greatly enjoyed this book, in fact as much as the previous one, and cannot wait to read the concluding third part of this great saga.

Related work:

This is book #2 of 3, and follows The Dreaming Void. The last book of the series is The Evolutionary Void. Although this story takes place in the same universe as the earlier Commonwealth stories by Hamilton, they are separate enough for those not to be considered prequels.


Monday, October 31, 2011

The Dreaming Void


Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 2007 (my copy is from Pan Books, 2008)
Size: Long (my copy has 796 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Edeard (and others )
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



The Dreaming Void starts another epic futuristic space opera (currently my favorite sci-fi theme). It actually takes place in the same universe as Hamilton’s Commonwealth saga (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), although I have not yet read either of those two books. Similarly to previous novels by Hamilton (e.g. the Night’s Dawn trilogy), there is a huge cast of characters, in an equally large universe, where we actually follow events spanning many light years. The plot switches between key characters at every sub-chapter, sometimes following a particularly important thread for an extended period when warranted. Some people complain terribly about this, whereas I enjoy it and find it prevents boredom. But unlike other novels I read from the same author, it features two major stories in the same book. A core story, which takes place in real time, and a secondary story concerning the events of Inigo’s dreams, which supposedly took place in the far past and inside the void universe.

The basic premise of the core story is the existence of a void in the center of what we would call the “normal” universe. That void is actually a pocket universe, a construct created by a very advanced alien race billions of years ago, for no currently discernible purpose. However, the expansion of the void takes place at the expense of consuming the outside universe, something its current inhabitants are not particularly fond of. Thus, not only humans (which are not exactly the most advanced race in existence), but also alien species study the void expansion and attempt to counter it. The core story takes place around the 35th century, and multiple characters, and reads much like the Night’s Dawn trilogy. There is adventure, mischief, plotting, military strategy, politics, romance, interstellar travel, and – as expected – considerable technological capabilities and human enhancement. The core story delivers as much science fiction as any aficionado would expect. Inside the void, we know only of one inhabited planet, and the story is focused on Edeard, a powerful young apprentice of one particular type of arcane magic, as he deals with terrible events around him. It is a world of mysticism, ancient lore, and psychic prowess. I have always seen Edeard as the main character, only because he is clearly so in the void universe. There are too many main characters in the outside universe to identify a single individual as such.

The link between the two universes is clear from reading only about the first third of the book (or less), and I find quite disturbing that I have seen reviews about this book where people claim there is no understandable relation between them. And if a lot seems to be happening simultaneously, it is only because indeed there are lots of characters doing different things, but all of them are linked in some way. As the plot develops, we keep finding how they relate to each other.

Even if the storyline may not be exceptionally deep to the point of leaving you pondering life as a George Orwell novel would, Hamilton delivers a fast-paced thrilling story, where characters are well developed, do not fit absolute stereotypes (although a couple are very cardboard), and that will keep you reading way past your bed time. Although each chapter is quite large (30-70 pages), you can leisurely take a break at sub-chapters. Despite the plot including about 15 main characters (and over 30 other reasonably important characters), I found it easy to follow (particularly after the 2nd or 3rd follow-up on a character). The narrative is enticing and rich with meaningful details, rather than superficial and useless long descriptions. I found this to be a superb novel and have picked up the sequel straight away.

Related work:
There are two sequels, namely the Temporal Void and the Evolutionary Void. Although this story takes place in the same universe as the earlier Commonwealth stories by Hamilton, they are separate enough for those not to be considered prequels.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dayworld


Philip Jose Farmer
G. P. Putnam, 1985 (my hardcover copy is a first edition)
Size: Medium (my copy has 320 pages)
Theme: Future society
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Jeff Caird
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This story takes places in the future, where overpopulation (a problem we already have today) has led society to two major and interrelated evolutions. The first was technical; the development of a kind of quantum suspended animation that works for both living things and inanimate objects, which is termed (not very fanciful, in my opinion) stoning. The second was societal, namely, each person now lives only 1 day per each 7 real time days. They spend the other 6 stoned, and do not feel any effect of time going by.

Taking place more than 1500 years from now, a new type of crime has appeared: daybreaking (refusing to obey the 1-in-7-days basic societal premise). Other major transgressions include littering, even beyond what a radical environmentalist would expect. And in this universe, a select few live outside the normal rules. Keeping in secret a drug that extends life expectancy substantially, some of them live 7 different lives, one per day. Jeff Caird is one of them, and arguably, the one where the concept of having 7 personalities has taken a greater hold. In the brink of having his secret exposed because of a couple of criminals with a personal grudge towards him, his different personalities will each have to try to act in their own days to save the day.

The novel follows Jeff Caird, in each of his roles, and each chapter of the book is a different day. Although that was surprising in the beginning, and I even had some slight doubts I would enjoy this style, it ends up working very well, as the different plot strands start intertwining and crossing each other as the plot evolves. The characters are well developed, and despite being very radically different for a single mind to have spawned them, an adequate explanation is provided. The fundamental concept itself is very innovative (in fact, I was eager to read the book), and the story is told in a unique way. It has a fast pace, with a lot of action, and reads very nicely from start to end (character development is probably the aspect I felt less happy with). The ending is quite interesting and leaves things sufficiently open for a sequel; which does exist. However, I was a bit put off by the seemingly ordinary world waiting for us in the millennia to come. Technology, aside from the stoning effect, has evolved very little, and even the society changes seem to me shallow in face of the huge time gap.

Aside from the little bit of violence and sex, I would recommend this book only for young adults since it seems to me that meaningful details of the plot, particularly the implications of such a different society on human psyche will be very difficult for someone very young to appreciate. Overall, I enjoyed the book and will likely read the others in this series.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke
Del Rey, 1953 (my copy is from Del Rey, 1987)
Size: Short (my copy has 212 pages)
Theme: Alien races
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Stormgren and George Greggson
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



Childhood’s End follows a very basic yet interesting concept: what if a powerful alien culture, instead of arriving to Earth to conquer the planet, nor to peaceful establish a cooperation with humans or inviting them to a large federation of planets, instead arrived to demand that the human race starts behaving. Interfering the least possible with small scale decisions, and allowing each individual to follow their own convictions and religion, the aliens dictate some major changes for humanity. Yet, they refuse to show themselves. Thus, for many years, rumors spread and, in some, distrust grows. What motivates the aliens? How far and how long will they drive the fate of humanity, and for what ultimate purpose?

As usual, Clarke delivers a robust story, where scientific details are not ignored. The plot includes a little interstellar travel, multiple alien races at different evolutionary stages (up to near-omniscience), psychic phenomena, and more. There are only a few characters of some importance, but they are well explored and convincing. The novel is short, yet provides a complete story, with sufficient detail to leave the reader satisfied (even if possibly desiring the book was several times longer). The narrative is fluid and essentially focuses on a few major events along its several decades of time span. It is divided into three key stories, and each essentially has its own main characters. Very little is explained of the aliens throughout the entire book, and only one of them is featured prominently.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The moon is a harsh mistress


Robert A. Heinlein
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966 (my copy is from Orb, 2007)
Size: Medium (my copy has 382 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space adventure
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Manuel Garcia O’Kelley
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This is one of Heinlein’s most acclaimed works. It won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. It is a tale of revolution and the will to stand against all odds for your beliefs. Not surprisingly, the novel calls upon some well-established references, such as the 4th of July in the United States, as well as earlier revolutions. Although it delivers as much sci-fi as any aficionado will desire, the story spends considerable time describing the sociological and practical implications of a lunar colony. Written in 1966, it explored some very novel concepts for its time. The lunar society, despite being largely comprised of criminals and “volunteers” exported there by Earth’s nations, evolved out of necessity to become organized and extremely self-controlled. Crime is dealt with swiftly and ignorance of common-sense rules is not acceptable.

The story follows Manuel, aka Mannie, a peaceful and generally unknown handyman, with a particular knack for electronics and programming, as he becomes involved with a small group of cohorts who despise the way the lunar colony is seen by Earth and how its inhabitants are treated. After an anti-authority meeting one wrong, right at the start of the novel, Mannie is forced to take action against the tyranny of the Federated Nations. Through his unique link to a sentient computer, who only recently had become self-aware, and who features a peculiar sense of humor, he and his fellow revolutionaries manage to put together a plan to turn the Lunar colony into a self-sustaining, independent, nation.

The novel switches very nicely from family scenes over dinner, through revolutionary planning meetings, to action-packed scenes. Heinlein is able to create a reasonably credible story of a very small nation fighting a tremendously larger opposing force, and patches some interesting means of using science and technology towards those goals; there is an obvious parallelism to the war efforts by the US at the time the novel was written. The main character is a lovable person, and is very well explored, even though a little too smart and competent. The secondary cast is equally interesting, although we always see them through Mannie’s eyes. What is most interesting is the depiction of how the Lunar society operates, and its core motto “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, TANSTAAFL). I found the pace to be enjoyable and I could not put the book down until I was through with it.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Snow crash


Neal Stephenson
Bantam Spectra, 1992 (my copy is from 2003)
Size: Medium (my copy has 468 pages)
Theme: Cyberpunk
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Hiro Protagonist
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



Snow crash is a fast-paced cyber adventure which explores some interesting concepts of the digital world, while delivering a very traditional spy/detective plot. The book has introduced a series of words and basic notions which have become commonplace along the years in computer lingo, such as “avatar”. Despite the fact that several people have said this should not be called science-fiction, but a purely cyberpunk novel, I found that there was a sufficient number of gadgets, weapons, and user consumer products to make me confortable in labeling it as sci-fi.

In a (not very) futuristic scenario, people from all over the world connect to a virtual reality called the Metaverse using special goggles and a computer able to project images on it, and control their avatars in what would be called nowadays a typical digital environment. Stephenson was able to imagine how people would act and interact in the Metaverse in a very similar way to how real 3D virtual worlds have evolved. In fact, I found uncanny similarities between the Metaverse and recent applications such as Second Life. 

The story follows Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. through a series of adventures both in the real world and the Metaverse. Y.T.’s story is almost exclusively one of the real world, where she is a Kourier and becomes involved with the Mafia when she helps Hiro with a delivery. Further on, she will interact with some of the major characters of the story, in a parallel but divergent line to that of Hiro, who is one of the best hackers of the Metaverse and an excellent swordsman in the real world. Hiro stumbles upon a plot by one of the planet’s most powerful individuals to gain even more power, destroying the hacker community in the process. As he unfolds the mystery, and he dives head on to the center of the conspiracy, he will have to push his abilities to the limit, both in reality and the Metaverse.

The plot is quite solid and very well delivered. I found the narrative engrossing and detailed. Hiro is an interesting character and is very well developed along the plot, as is Y.T. Some of the other characters are only superficially handled, but it is not difficult to identify their key motivations. The author does not abuse in the use of computer lingo, nor did he exaggerate in creating too many cybernetic concepts; just enough to remind the reader of what he’s reading. I found this to be a very interesting and worthwhile novel

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Stars My Destination

Alfred Bester
Signet Books, 1957 (my copy is from Vintage Books, 1996)
Size: Short (my copy has 258 pages)
Theme: Interplanetary conflict
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Gully Foyle
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



In the near future, out of pure necessity, a person demonstrated the ability of shifting in space, actually instantly moving from one place to another. This phenomenon was termed jaunting, and after sufficient study and trial-and-error, it was found that almost anyone could learn it to some extent. As expected, this caused major changes in society and habits.

This book narrates the tale of Gully Foyle, who through a quirk of fate, found himself isolated in a half-destroyed spacecraft for months. When his salvation seemed at hand, but he is again abandoned, he vows revenge and starts a galactic quest to find and kill those who refused to rescue him. The story is about pain and anguish, but also about revenge and reckoning. It packs as much action as it does soul searching. It is very well written and provides a self-contained story, even if the key plot is left wide open at the end.

Though the book is quite short, and there was room for considerably more character development, particularly of the secondary cast (who end up participating as very stereotypical characters), the main character is compelling enough to make the book an excellent read. Nevertheless, I would have liked this to be only the first chapter, and at least an equal amount of story be written about what could transpire after the last events told in the book. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Naked God – Part II: Faith

Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 2000 (my copy is from Warner Books, 2000)
Size: Epic (my copy has 778 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Joshua Calvert
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This book concludes the Naked God story (the last part of the Night’s Dawn trilogy). It manages to provide a conclusive ending to this great saga, with a definite wrap-up to the complex plot and its cast of characters. Also, Hamilton manages to tie several loose ends that had been opening up throughout the previous books. I found the end itself to be appropriate and sufficiently imaginative to provide a sound reasoning to events. As in previous books, the story is compelling and rich, with well explored and meaningful characters. The Universe of the Night’s Dawn saga is detailed and captivating. A couple major plots and many sub-plots set up the scene for grandiose events that span galaxies. Any sci-fi fan will find this to be a memorable story.

As the organization armies are forced to retreat to New California, more and more planets taken over by possessed start shifting out of the universe. Meanwhile, the B7 group and Louise’s small party continue their efforts to kill Quinn Dexter. Joshua and Syrinx continue their search for the Sleeping God, and start interacting with dominions in the Tyrathca home system, whose inhabitants are not exactly who they expected. The multiple groups involved in the story, including the Kiint and the observers living with them, will be brought into the forefront of the story and their role explained.

Related work:

Note that you should read this book after the previous volume, “Naked God - Part I: Flight”. The Night Dawn’s trilogy starts in The Reality Dysfunction, continues in The Neutronium Alchemist and ends in The Naked God.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

1000 page views

Hey.
Just thought I'd mark the 1000th blog page view.
I plan on keeping this up indefinately! Let us see if it works as planned.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you've found the reviews useful.

Cheers,
-SFB-

The Naked God – Part I: Flight

Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 2000 (my copy is from Warner Books, 2000)
Size: Epic (my copy has 778 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Joshua Calvert
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



In this third and last novel of the Night’s Dawn trilogy (book 5 of 6 in the two-volumes per novel edition), conflict escalates and the plot starts unraveling toward the final events. For a global description of the universe Hamilton created for this series you should refer to my reviews of previous books, particularly that of the first book of the series (Reality Dysfunction – Part I). The length and depth of the novel is nothing short of exceptional. I find this a very positive aspect of a book when the story is very good; after the initial time overhead in learning the Night’s Dawn universe and getting familiar with the characters and locations, I greatly enjoyed that there was a lot to read about it. Sometimes, short stories are frustrating precisely for the opposite reason. 

The story follows Joshua Calvert, who returns to the Confederation to inform that the Alchemist device has been destroyed, only to be tasked with joining a voidhawk crew in searching after the Tyrathca’s Sleeping God, which might be humanity’s last hope.  Most of this novel (both volumes in fact) will focus on this sub-plot, since this search involves first exploring a Tyrathca asteroid, then travelling across the Galaxy, and finally, trying to interact with the Tyrathca to learn the secrets behind their divinity. Meanwhile, Quinn Dexter manages to get on Earth and starts expanding his army there, setting up bases with satanic sects in multiple locations. We will witness the struggle by the survivors at the Valisk habitat, the Confederation plan to develop a weapon that will nullify all the possessed (and subsequently, all souls trapped in the beyond). Louise starts taking action, as she decides to go after Dexter to kill him.

Related work:

Note that you should read this book after the previous volume, “Neutronium Alchemist - Part II: Conflict”. The Night Dawn’s trilogy starts in The Reality Dysfunction, continues in The Neutronium Alchemist and ends in The Naked God. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Neutronium Alchemist – Part II: Conflict

Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 1997 (my copy is from Warner Books, 1998)
Size: Long (my copy has 580 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Joshua Calvert
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This book continues the story from “Part I – Consolidation”, number 2 of the 3 novels in the Night’s Dawn trilogy (book 4 of 6 in the two-volumes per novel edition). For a global description of the universe Hamilton created for this series you should refer to my review on the first book of the series (Reality Dysfunction – Part I). As the previous books, this novel is full of action, mystery, adventure and a bit of horror. The plot continues to plow on, relentless, as it pushes the reader forward at every page. I cannot remember ever setting this book down bored or uninterested. The plot itself and the way the narrative is told combine to create an excellent reading experience. To assist the readers who might have read the previous book some time ago, the novel starts with a list of characters as well as a list of ships, habitats, asteroids and planets.

In this book, as Joshua travels through Dorados, he is acquainted with his brother, Liol, who he did not know existed. Liol joins the crew as they argue over their rights to the ship. At the habitat that Rubra controls, the possessed continue to expand their numbers, and even as Dariat decides to join forces with Rubra to stop the collective possessed, the entire habitat is transported to an alternate reality. Joshua’s crew hunt for Mzu continues, as other players reveal themselves, including a strange powerful man called Dick Keaton. Large space and land battles between the confederation and the organization led by Capone continue to ensue. This volume will introduce new technologies (including a nifty one at Tranquility), and we learn more about the powers and motivations of the possessed, such as transporting themselves entirely to alternate pockets of reality when in relatively large groups.

Related work:
Note that you should read this book after the previous volume, “Neutronium Alchemist - Part I: Consolidation”. The Night Dawn’s trilogy starts in The Reality Dysfunction, continues in The Neutronium Alchemist and ends in The Naked God.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Neutronium Alchemist – Part I: Consolidation

Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 1997 (my copy is from Warner Books, 1998)
Size: Long (my copy has 591 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Joshua Calvert
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES




This novel is number 2 out of 3 in the Night’s Dawn trilogy (book 3 of 6 in the two-volumes per novel edition). For a global description of the universe Hamilton created for this series you should refer to my review on the first book of the series (Reality Dysfunction – Part I). As I read through this novel, I was surprised to find that the story never failed to bring in new aspects and maintain excellent coherence to the previous books. It does help that Hamilton wrote them all in sequence, but it is often underappreciated. If you go through all books as I did, even minor plot holes can hamper the fun.

This novel introduces still some new characters, some which (most) readers will be familiar with, such as Al Capone. Whereas usually novels that resort to characters such as Al Capone end up as complete flukes, this one pulls it off very nicely, and Capone actually becomes one of the major characters throughout the rest of the series, setting up an organization of possessed that will rival the schemes of Dexter, although with completely different ambitions. Here, we learn much more about the possessed, including that not all of them are entirely evil, and more importantly, that other races have encountered this phenomena before in their history, some actually having survived it (the Kiint are one such case). As the possessed grow in number, power, and spread throughout the universe, small pockets of possessed start exhibiting group capabilities. This will give rise to some very interesting sub-plots later on.

Action is not over for Joshua Calvert, who is charged with pursuing Alkad Mzu and stopping her from using the Alchemist ultimate weapon to exert revenge on the Omuta world. Louise Kavanagh and her sister continue fleeing from the possessed, helped by an unexpected character.

Related work:
Note that you should read this book after the previous volume, “Reality Dysfunction - Part II: Expansion”. The Night Dawn’s trilogy starts in The Reality Dysfunction, continues in The Neutronium Alchemist and ends in The Naked God.


Friday, July 8, 2011

The reality dysfunction – Part II: Expansion

Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 1996 (my copy is from Warner Books, 1997)
Size: Long (my copy has 572 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Joshua Calvert
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



The second volume of the Reality Dysfunction continues the story of the previous book. The narrative, as expected, follows the same structure and pace. The book is comprised of many very short chapters, each switching focus among the myriad of characters and locations involved in the plot. As such, the story continues to be extremely compelling. There is never a dull moment, nor is the author prone to unnecessary excessive descriptions. Action flows naturally but with a sense of foreboding and several adrenaline-filled scenes.In this volume, we see the (failed) efforts by the outlaw Laton to overcome the possession effect, and his flight from Lalonde. We are introduced to the Rubra personality which controls one of the Edenist habitats and his angry ex-pupil Dariat, who sets up an alliance with the possessed. We also follow Alkad Mzu, one of the creators of the Alchemist, an ultimate weapon with the power to destroy entire planets, and who has been held under guard in one of the habitats for some decades, since the war between two major civilizations from which fallout can still be observed in the confederation. Many other characters and side-plots are brought into play, most of which will continue involved throughout the other books.

As the possessed continue to take over Lalonde, they are now also spreading out throughout the confederation, leading to a ban in most space travel. Nevertheless, this does not seem to stop them, and the confederation army is engaged to destroy this menace. Also, Joshua Calvert is recruited to bring a team of specialized mercenaries to Lalonde to identify the source of the possessed infection and attempt to learn more about it.

Related work:
Note that you should read this book after the previous volume, “Reality Dysfunction - Part I: Emergence”. The Night Dawn’s trilogy starts in The Reality Dysfunction, continues in The Neutronium Alchemist and ends in The Naked God.



Sunday, June 26, 2011

The reality dysfunction – Part I: Emergence

Peter F. Hamilton
MacMillan, 1996 (my copy is from Warner Books, 1997)
Size: Long (my copy has 588 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Joshua Calvert
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This is the first book of what is commonly known as the Night Dawn trilogy from Hamilton dealing with the Reality Dysfunction universe. The story start in The Reality Dysfunction, continues in The Neutronium Alchemist and ends in The Naked God. Each of these three novels has 2 volumes (thus, depending on the edition, the series may be comprised of three or six books). You should be aware that this will likely be one of the most compelling stories, in one of the most detailed universes, you have ever read. In my opinion, it is entirely at par with classics such as Foundation and Dune, with the added advantage of having a few more decades of scientific developments to draw upon. I cannot imagine a sci-fi fan who will not be enticed by this story. After having read the first book, I immediately picked up the second, and continued so until I had finished the entire series.

The depth of the plot is considerable (my copy has 588 pages with a small font size), so you will be entertained for quite some time. This lends a truly epic nature to the universe created by Hamilton. You will likely remember the story and characters for years to come. As could be expected, in a story this broad, there are tens of characters that will come into play at different times, many locations where plot develops, and a plethora of little pieces of information that enrich the story. However, this does not create havoc to the reader, as there are two dozen or so key characters, and a dozen or so key locations, that help you quickly establish a coherent view of the entire plot. The characters are well explored and all major characters are memorable.

Note that there is gore and explicit sex throughout the series, although always deriving from the plot.
In this first book we are introduced to the Confederation and the different races that coexist in the universe (two of which human). Adamists are the traditional human, some of which have undergone physical modifications, such as mercenaries with special warfare implants. Another faction are Edenists and their voidhawks, who live in space habitats, communicate through affinity, and use biotechnology (bitek). There are also the mysterious Kiint, massive non-humanoid creatures who have extremely more advanced technology but share only limited bits with humanity.

The story could be said to revolve around Joshua Calvert, a young, intuitive, and exceptionally lucky ship captain, who is unwittingly involved in the unfolding galactic events. Joshua is one of the many people who scavenge the ruins of the Laymil civilization, a spacefaring race extinct millennia ago due to something they had encountered. Another pivotal element is Quinn Dexter, an evil youngster and a satanic worshiper. As he is placed in a settlement in Lalonde, a recent human colony, he sets up a sect and begins to conduct rituals. However, one of those rituals will rupture the frontiers of reality and force the Confederation to force the most dangerous threat it has ever encountered. In the jungles of Lalonde begins the ultimate trial; will humanity survive it?


Friday, June 24, 2011

The dragon in the sea

Frank Hebert
Tom Doherty Associates, 1956 (my copy is from Tor Books, 2008)
Size: Short (my copy has 268 pages)
Theme: Underwater action thriller
Narrative: third-person
Main character: John Ramsey
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



Dwindling oil reserves, particularly important during war time, have led countries to exert extreme measures to ensure control of underwater drilling spots. A Western subtug is directed to bring oil from one such spot, directly underneath an enemy base. However, the path is riddled with dangers, both external and from within the subtug crew. The last 20 missions have been unsuccessful, and questions arise as to the cause of their failures.

This novel follows the mission of John Ramsey, a prized psychologist from the BuPsych, who is charged with incorporating the subtug crew who will conduct this dangerous and vital mission. The four-men subtug crews have not only to contend with the extreme ocean environment and lurking enemy subs, but also with the psychological hurdle of deep sea diving. Ramsey is expected to study his three shipmates and identify if there is a spy among them or whether they are likely to crack under the pressure.

The story is packed with action and thrills at every page. The crew has to escape multiple hunters as they infiltrate enemy territory. Along the way, accidents and sabotage make their job harder. They have to improvise and outsmart their opponents if they wish to return home. But equally dangerous is suspicion and the potential loss of total trust among four men who depend entirely on each other to survive. The characters in the plot are diverse and rich, although it would have been nice to learn even more about them. The enemy faction is left entirely faceless throughout the novel, which does not really hamper plot development. The novel would have to be considerably larger in order to tackle that side of the story. Still, the narrative provides an adequate and conclusive ending, unraveling the mysteries and motivations of the crewmen, as well as setting up a likely near future for the main character.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In the Shadow of Swords

Val Gunn
Errant Press, 2010
Size: Average (my copy has 357 pages)
Theme: Medieval fantasy
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Ciris Sarn
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any fantasy reader: YES



This is the story of Ciris Sarn, one of the most reputable assassins in the world, forced to do the bidding of the ruling Sultan and his advisors. Separated from his father at an early age, and having lost his mother at birth, he was bound to the Sultan by a curse, one not easily broken. Trained in the dark skills by Fajeer Dassai, he has become a puppet in Dassai’s schemings. But Sarn has plans to get rid of the curse and begin his life anew.

Simultaneously, a plot brews involving the highest ranked officers and the most influential people in the realm. The Sultan’s sons have plans of their own regarding succession. But some of their actions have caused the books of Promise to turn up, which threaten to change everything that everyone believes about the world around them. And many will go to extreme measures to acquire them. It is a tale of conspiracy, treachery, and revenge, with many adrenaline-filled scenes. 

We mainly follow Ciris Sarn as a marked man with a price on his head, hunted by Dassai’s men and many others. Among those after him is Marin Altair, whose husband was one of Sarn’s most recent victims. Many other characters become involved in the plot, which delivers a fast-paced and complex narrative. There is plenty of action, with deceit and murder at every corner. There are arcane spells, including raising dead spirits and possession, and mysterious creatures, such as the powerful efreets, to the enjoyment of fantasy fans. The plot opens up several threads along the book, and most are closed in the final chapters. Just a few are left open to entice the reader for the next book.

Although most of my reviews tend to be science-fiction, I like to vary with an occasional fantasy novel. This story is easy to read and there is good character development, with different layers being shown for each of them. The main character is convincing and interesting to follow. Although I would have liked to hear a little bit more about Sarn’s story, I’m sure that will come in subsequent novels in this series. I very much enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to all fantasy fans.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The man in the high castle

Philip K. Dick
Doubleday, 1962 (my copy is from Vintage Books, 1992)
Size: Short (my copy has 259 pages)
Theme: Alternate reality
Narrative: third-person
Main character: several (arguably Robert Childan)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: NO



I started this book with relatively high expectations, on the one hand since I had read in several places that it was one of the author’s best works, and also that it was going to be made into a movie soon. Unfortunately, it did not meet those expectations.

The plot of the book is actually quite interesting: it presents an alternate reality society, where the Allies lost World War II, and the US has been divided among the German Nazis and Japan. We are shown how different relatively ordinary people from different ethnic groups behave under this totalitarian regime. A lot of the story is centered on Robert Childan, the owner of an antiques store, faced with the prospect of forgeries among his prized items, and trying to gain the favor of some important Japanese customers.

The story moves along quite well and the characters are well developed. The main problem with the book is that aside from a few individual story threads that are quite enticing, the book essentially leads nowhere. These could have been the first 260 pages of a 1000 page novel, and the non-conclusion provided at the end of the book only compounds this effect. It seems half finished and left me with a clear sense of wasted time.

I would not recommend this book actively, although it might be a good read for those who enjoy sociology and psychological dramas more than those who are looking for a good sci-fi novel. Unfortunately, this has been my fourth book by this author, and I have to conclude that despite having some very interesting thoughts for his time, he entirely fails to impress me as other authors from the same era have (e.g. Frank Herbert). I do not plan to pick up any other Philip K Dick’s books.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Valis

Philip K. Dick
Doubleday, 1981 (my copy is from Vintage Books, 1991)
Size: Short (my copy has 241 pages)
Theme: Psychological drama
Narrative: mostly first-person
Main character: Horselover Fat
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: NO




This book is about a schizophrenic named Horselover Fat and his descent into madness. The plot starts with his attempt to deal with the death of a girl, who had been keen on committing suicide for a while. Death and suicide have permeated his life, due to his two defects, which he has been told several times he needs to change: a proclivity to try to save other people, and his history of drug use.

VALIS stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and is supposedly an intelligence that interfaces with people for a specific purpose. The book is confusing enough that you cannot really be sure in the end if the characters have understood what is going on and what VALIS is, or if they simply made up an answer. In fact, confusing is one of the two adjectives I would use regarding this book. From start to about two thirds of the story, you are told of how crazy Horselover Fat is, his inability to cope with suicide and abandonment, and his psychological and religious ramblings. The plot hardly evolves and a lot of the text just seems to have been drafted during a sleepless night. I did not enjoy at all those first two thirds of the book. The story picks up after that, and starts actually developing some action and trying to explain some of the multiple existing loose threads, but it is too little and too late. The other adjective I would use is boring. The plot circles back on itself several times and there is really nothing new or extremely original. The characters are not deep or interesting, and the ending is less than thrilling.

I do not recommend this book at all (which is very rare for me), and would label is as marginally readable only because near the end you start feeling like there’s a purpose to it. Unfortunately, there isn’t.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick
Doubleday, 1964 (my copy is from Vintage Books, 1992)
Size: Short (my copy has 230 pages)
Theme: Futuristic drug-induced experiences
Narrative: switches between first-person and third-person
Main character: Leo Bulero and Barney Mayersons
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



In a futuristic society, climate changes and insufficient space on Earth has led to the exploration and colonization of other planets. However, this is done through a draft process, due to the harsh life of colonists. To make life easier, it has become commonplace to use a drug called Can-D, which enables people to enter a sort of trance and immerse in a virtual world. Leo Bulero is the owner of a major reputable miniaturization company and, unknown to society in general, also the owner of the Can-D business. However, the unexpected return of Palmer Eldritch from his travel outside our solar system to meet an alien race, and the fact that he has brought with him a new type of drug, Chew-Z, which seems likely will be considered legal, creates considerable turmoil. As Leo and one of his main advisors, Barney Mayerson, experience Chew-Z, reality and the virtual Chew-Z world become harder and harder to tell apart. Has Palmer Eldritch become a God, or are they immersed in a fiction they cannot tell from reality?

This is a great reality-bending psychological thriller, where the warping of senses becomes pervasive and where deep complex issues are explored, such as the concepts of God, human soul, and consciousness. Also, although the story is quite short, it is very self-contained and has a perfectly reasonable thread from start to end. Also, despite being short, it superficially tackles many sci-fi themes, which have become pervasive in this genre over the last decades, such as time travel, precognition, induced reality, and mind-bending drugs, managing to mix them together in a very satisfactory way. The ending is puzzling enough to let you ponder what in reality happened, and you are left eager to read more of this story. As with most Philip K Dick’s stories, I feel there was much more depth the plot could have gone to, if the book was several times longer. Still, it’s an excellent book and definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ubik

Philip K. Dick
Doubleday, 1969 (my copy is from Vintage Books, 1991)
Size: Short (my copy has 216 pages)
Theme: Alternate reality
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Glen Runciter and Joe Chip
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



Ubik is a psychological thriller that takes place in an alternate reality where there are many people with powers, such as precognition, telepathy, etc. There are also people able to negate those with powers, who are called inertials. As one could expect, there are multiple business opportunities associated with both sides, and there are companies which employ either those with powers or those able to oppose them. In addition, technology enables communication with deceased who are cryogenically preserved, in what is called half-life.

The plot focuses on a security company, led by Glen Runciter and by his wife (who is in half-life), and a contract they just received. As one could expect, things do not go as expected and the team is soon struggling to understand what has just happened to them and why uncanny events start taking place around them, as they are faced with shifting reality and sudden death.

The plot is very interesting in its use of the half-life concept, and the powers and anti-powers concept was also innovative when the book was written. The action is fast paced and there is mystery surrounding what exactly is going on until the very end. It should also be said that the book ends in a cliffhanger. The characters are intriguing, although only a couple of them are even mildly explored. The less positive side of the story is that, being so short, it hardly has time to explore these concepts adequately. There could be so much more done with this basic plotline. Thus, it would have been great if the story was told in 3 times the size of this book. Still, I greatly enjoyed it and highly recommend it to any sci-fi fan.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Dune: The Battle of Corrin

Brian Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson
Bantam Spectra, 2004
Size: Long (my copy has 620 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: several (arguably Vorian Atreides)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



In the third and final book of the “Legends of Dune” trilogy, we will witness the end of the Butlerian Jihad, named after Serena Butler and kindled by the murder of her baby by the intelligent machines. In the previous books we witnessed the onset and the development of this holy crusade of humanity against the machines that had enslaved them. The trilogy also addresses how what transpired two millennia before the original Dune gave rise to the background framework on which the original novel (and the later sequels and prequels) develop, and explains the formation of the Guild, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, and many other of the Dune institutions. As expected, most of the advanced technological developments that are commonplace in the original Dune novel are explained in the trilogy, although almost all have been covered in the previous two books.

Here, more than half a century has gone by since the “Machine Crusade”, and Vorian Atreides is still alive (due to his genetic inheritance from a cymek) and fighting the machines. The humans have been able to destroy the machine armies everywhere except Omnius’ main planet of Corrin, the center of the Synchronized Worlds. Despite being cornered, Omnius continues to fight back, and through his minions, is able to deliver crippling blows to the human armies. At this point, I would usually say that the question hangs in the balance of whether humanity will be able to overcome the AIs, but the outcome of this battle is already well known to nearly any sci-fi fan. Despite this, watching events unfold and witnessing how things evolve is interesting and captivating. Simultaneously, the Free Men of Arrakis are shaping themselves into a trive of fierce warriors, one that will much later become pivotal for the events of Dune and the future of the universe.

This book was a fitting conclusion to a great series and I have much enjoyed learning about these precursor events of the fantastic Dune universe. It continues the fast-paced, multi-threaded, adventure-driven plot of the previous books in the trilogy and will fit nicely on the collection of any sci-fi fan.

Related work:

This trilogy was written after the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, which came long after the original “Dune” series. The authors later wrote sequels to the original Dune, wrapping up the unfinished plotline of “Chapterhouse: Dune” (the 6th book in the original series). After that they also wrote an interquel that takes place between the original first and second Dune books. Still, I think the books work extremely well if read in publishing chronologic order, meaning the original Dune series first, then the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, then the “Legends of Dune” trilogy.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dune: The Machine Crusade

Brian Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson
Bantam Spectra, 2003
Size: Long (my copy has 695 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: several (arguably Serena Butler, Xavier Harkonnen, and Vorian Atreides)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This is book 2 of the “Legends of Dune” trilogy, which narrates the story of the old struggle between humanity and thinking machines, one of the fundamental aspects of the original Dune universe. More than that, it provides details on many of Dune’s more interesting and compelling aspects, such as the Guild, Arrakis, the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen tribes, the mentats, the swordmasters, the different Houses, and also the rivalries between them.

It should definitely be read after “Dune: The Butlerian Jihad”, since the story picks up events approximately two decades after its predecessor. After 20 years of war, and gains and losses on both sides, humanity is tired of the war and there is the need to find some creative way to push the human campaign forward. We witness the major scientific discoveries from Norma Cenva that will enable interstellar travel by folding space and the subsequent need for prescience to enable such travel. The cymeks continue to weave plans that should enable them to regain the control they lost to Omnius. But the main plot continues to be around Serena Butler, Xavier Harkonnen, and Vorian Atreides.

As expected, this book maintains multiple intertwined sub-plots, and very short and incisive chapters that shift the action continuously among the many characters. Unlike many comments I have seen on the book, it seems to me that character are adequately developed, and also that the lessened mystique compared to Frank Herbert’s stories is matched by the adventure thrills of this novel. I found the plot to be as enticing as the previous book, and it was difficult to put the book down. The short chapters enable picking it up even when there was only a short time for reading. There are space battles, assassination plots, power struggles and military campaign strategies. This is definitely an appropriate sequel to the previous book of the trilogy and an excellent sci-fi novel.

Related work:

This trilogy was written after the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, which came long after the original “Dune” series. The authors later wrote sequels to the original Dune, wrapping up the unfinished plotline of “Chapterhouse: Dune” (the 6th book in the original series). After that they also wrote an interquel that takes place between the original first and second Dune books. Still, I think the books work extremely well if read in publishing chronologic order, meaning the original Dune series first, then the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, then the “Legends of Dune” trilogy.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dune: The Butlerian Jihad

Brian Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson
Bantam Spectra, 2002
Size: Long (my copy has 612 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: several (arguably Serena Butler, Xavier Harkonnen, and Vorian Atreides)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



I have read this after I was very familiar with the Dune universe. I had already gone through the 6 original Dune novels, and also the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy (which predates the original books). In all those stories, there are innumerous references to the times of the Butlerian Jihad and the fight between humanity and the machine intelligences. The Dune universe is also full of interesting technologies and enhancements that were spawned in those early days. It was with considerable joy that I learned of yet another trilogy that would go back that far in time.

This book follows the events that led to the revolt of humanity against thinking machines and the setup of the basic background on which all the other Dune series take place. The story happens around ten thousand years before the original Dune novel, and thus, (nearly) all characters are new but, simultaneously, also familiar due to the reasons espoused above. As is usual, the story domain space is huge, with many interesting characters and multiple sub-plots. The story is rich with detail and fast paced. It has the same momentum and feel of the “Prelune to Dune”, and follows a similar narrative strategy. Chapters are as short as needed to provide a bit more information about what is happening to certain character(s) or location, and thus, action keeps moving around, which makes it impossible for the reader to feel bored.

In this first book of the “Legends of Dune” trilogy, we learn of the ascension to power by the group of titans (human overlords who realized the dependency of humans on machines, and took advantage of this to rule the entire universe), humans who moved their consciousness to cyborg bodies (termed cymeks) to achieve immortality, and their subsequent downfall as the artificial intelligence Omnius overtakes their rule and bonds them in its service. We witness the development We learn the preliminary work of Tio Holtzman that will lead to foldspace technology, the early inhabitants of Arrakis, the swordmasters of Ginaz, the growth of Vorian Atreides (a spawn of one of the cymeks), and the romance between the honorable and respected Xavier Harkonnen and Serena Butler.

This book is often portrayed as a bad literary piece of work. I might be biased as a Dune fan, but I felt all the relative lack of psychological depth, the somewhat predictable good vs evil of the human vs machine plot, as well as the fact that several additional threads could be explored, become completely irrelevant when compared to the powerful action narrative and extremely interesting perspective of these historical events. Although not superb as the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, this is still an excellent novel.

Related work:

This trilogy was written after the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, which came long after the original “Dune” series. The authors later wrote sequels to the original Dune, wrapping up the unfinished plotline of “Chapterhouse: Dune” (the 6th book in the original series). After that they also wrote an interquel that takes place between the original first and second Dune books. Still, I think the books work extremely well if read in publishing chronologic order, meaning the original Dune series first, then the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, then the “Legends of Dune” trilogy.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Dune: House Corrino

Brian Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson
Bantam Spectra, 2001 (my copy is from 2002)
Size: Long (my copy has 667 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Leto Atreides
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This book ends the Prelude to Dune trilogy, following “House Atreides” and “House Harkonnen”. The trilogy takes place a couple of decades before the original Dune novel, and provides a description of the events that led to the birth of Paul Atreides and his later rise as the Muah’Dib. As the continuation of the other 2 books in the trilogy, this is a fitting end and an excellent novel. Being written almost back-to-back, these 3 volumes read nicely in sequence. There are no obvious plot holes (often found in sequels written with many years of real time span), and a huge attention has been given to consistency and detail by the authors.
However, the main thing going against the authors from the start is that the original Dune novel is so widely known. Therefore, there is little room for originality. We know from the start how things are going to ultimately end for the main characters. But this is a common feature of prequels, and (nearly) impossible to go around. Despite this, I found the book was able to keep an aura of mystery around many events, and always keep the reader on edge about how things were going to develop. The story is again full of action scenes, exciting adventures, and a lot of new and intriguing data on the Dune universe technology.

The plot of this book is focused on the attempt by House Atreides and Vernius to retake Ix and stop the Tleilaxu/Shaddam plan of creating artificial melange, putting everything that depended on melange at peril (space travel, mentat abilities, the sisterhood, etc). The Ixian revolt is not only the largest sub-plot but also the best. Other events we follow include the return of Rhombur, Jessica’s pregnancy and the havoc it can cause on the Sisterhood’s plans, the Fremen implementation of Kynes’ vision, and the developments that will eventually lead up to the end of the Harkonnen’s fiefdom in Arrakis.

As in previous books, chapters are very short, but not too much that it would seem you’re only peeking into each story. I have always found that one of the very positive features of this series. The characters are very well developed, and Dune fans have to be thrilled with learning so much new about these (more or less) familiar characters. I think this is not only a fitting end for this trilogy, but an excellent companion to other Dune universe series. In fact, I found these trilogy better than some of the original Dune series books, although it is always very difficult and subjective to compare novels with very different framework, structure, and pace.

Related work:

Note that these authors later released another Dune trilogy about the Butlerian Jihah, termed “Legends of Dune”, and thus predating this story by thousands of years. After that, they also wrote sequels to the original Dune, wrapping up the unfinished plotline of “Chapterhouse: Dune” (the 6th book in the original series). And even more recently, an interquel that takes place between the original first and second Dune books. Still, I think the books work extremely well if read in publishing chronologic order, meaning the original Dune series first, then the “Prelude to Dune” trilogy, and only then the “Legends of Dune” trilogy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dune: House Harkonnen

Brian Hebert and Kevin J. Anderson
Bantam Spectra, 2000 (my copy is from 2001)
Size: Long (my copy has 733 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Leto Atreides
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This book continues the plot of “Dune: House Atreides”. It is the second book of a trilogy that focuses on the events taking place a couple of decades before the original Dune novel storyline. As a prequel, this entire trilogy provides a very interesting and detail-rich past for the characters of the original Dune novel. Also, as the title suggests, both House Harkonnen and House Atreides have considerable protagonism in this second book.

The story again revolves around Duke Leto Atreides, now 26 years old, who has consolidated his role as the ruler of house Atreides and all of Caladan. Shaddam is experiencing the reality of dealing with the inherent burdens that come from sitting on the royal throne, with the multiple power-struggles of the multiple Houses and other major players (the Guild, CHOAM, etc). The Harkonnens continue to scheme and aim to increase their influence and wealth. Many new characters are introduced, most never having featured in the Dune novels, but all having their purpose and role to play in the grand scheme of things.

As in the previous book in this trilogy, there are multiple plots, which develop individually, but interface and overlap at multiple points of the book. Narration skips at every chapter between these individual threads. However, most of the events are in some way connected, and have considerable repercussions (often through the 3 books). Chapters are typically extremely short, which adds to the feeling of many different things going on. It is also very interesting how the authors plant some seeds for sub-plots which only become fulfilled in the original Dune novel.

I have found this book to be an excellent follow-up to the previous book and a worthwhile addition to the Dune series. Again, the plot is fast paced, packed with adventure, twists and turns, and occasionally some emotional moments. I could not put this book down. Since the 3 books follow the storyline almost back-to-back, you will be thankful if you are able to pick the next book right after finishing each of them.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rama Revealed

Arthur C. Clarke, Gentry Lee
Bantam Spectra, 1994 (my copy is from 1995)
Size: Long (my copy has 602 pages)
Theme: Interaction with alien civilizations
Narrative: Third-person
Main character: Several (arguably Nicole Wakefield)
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This is the thrilling conclusion to the Rama series. And you will not be disappointed as you witness the final events of the humans taken to a Raman central station for interstellar travel. In this fourth and final book, the mysteries surrounding the Rama spaceships, the node, and the purpose of the Raman intelligences are (mostly) unveiled.

The plot of this last book focuses on the conflict within the human population of the Rama spaceship and the oppressive regime that has taken claim of the group, eventually resulting in the direct intervention by the intelligences controlling Rama. There is much action right from the beginning of the book, which continues the plot of “Garden of Rama” right where it stopped. Aside from the conflict between the small community of humans, questions are raised regarding the role humanity may play in galactic events.

Interestingly, and thankfully, in this storyline Clarke verges away from the human-centered view of the universe that many authors attempt. Still, the story is able to explore some of the sociological aspects that the 2 previous books have brought up.

The level of detail and rigor of the scientific explanations continues at the high standard that the author usually graces us with. I very much enjoyed reading this book, and found the entire series to be excellent, even if not as mind-challenging as some other space sagas. Also, the book is just long enough in order to have a full story, without trying to cram an end in just a few pages. It left me perfectly content, without the feeling that there should be more books to the series.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Garden of Rama

Arthur C. Clarke, Gentry Lee
Bantam Spectra, 1991 (my copy is from 1992)
Size: Average (my copy has 518 pages)
Theme: Interaction with alien civilizations
Narrative: Third-person
Main character: Several
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES



This book is the third in the Rama series. It continues the previous story about alien spaceships travelling the universe, picking up where “Rama II” has left off, namely, the three cosmonauts who are still inside one of the Rama spaceships and travelling to an unknown destination. Along the trip, these astronauts, Nicole, Michael, and Richard, sired 5 children. In “Garden of Rama”, we follow the developments inside the Rama spaceship and how this family of humans copes with their situation. At about a third of the book, and approximately 12 years after the events of “Rama II”, we witness the arrival of the spacecraft at a large central station for interstellar travel, called a node.

The book plot focuses on the purpose of these Raman space crafts, and how that might affect the human race. In the node, the humans are asked to help retrieve a larger population from Earth to be humanity representatives in the grand schemes of the Raman intelligences, and are sent back to Earth for that purpose. However, this will not be a trivial task, even because the Earth leaders have their own perspective on how to select this group in order to best serve their interests. On the way back, we witness the struggle of the small original group of cosmonauts to keep their family united.

The book keeps a veil of secrecy over several of the fundamental reasons for the Raman actions and their purpose in the universe, but at the arrival to the node, several things are explained. By slowly unveiling these mysteries, the author keeps us hooked to the story. The interactions with different types of alien species along the book are also interesting and adequately employed to reinforce our bond with the pivotal small family of humans.

As is frequent in series, you will want to read this book only after “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Rama II”. And, as in the previous book of the series, this one ends in a way that makes you go out and grab the last installment. It also continues to explore sensitive issues about the human nature, social stratification and xenophobia. I found it as good as book #2, even though the framework changed considerably.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My take on series

Today I was thinking about the concept of series/sagas and the advantages/drawbacks compared to single novels. So I've decided to put down in writing some considerations about this topic. Hopefully, this will foster some discussions. Please feel free to share your opinion/comments, to suggest an entirely different perspective, or simply to criticize my arguments!

- Story Length

One of the nice things about series is that if you enjoy the first book, you can follow up on it. How often do we read a story that is becoming extremely interesting as the plot develops, and then even when a good ending is provided, we are left eager for more? But are series that different from single novels in terms of length? Unquestionably, some series would be hard to match by a single book. Examples I can think of are the Reality Dysfunction, Dune, and Area 51. Or the longest one I can remember, Mission Earth. But many single novels are quite extensive on their own. Off the top of my head, I remember Battlefield Earth and Cryptonomicon.
There are also series that have later been printed as a single novel, compiling several individual books. The Great Book of Amber is a compilation of the 10 original individual novels (in fact, 2 main story arcs of 5 books each). This was an excellent book to read, though I took a break of a few months between the story arcs. 
In general, after I have invested some time in a story, as long as it continues being enticing and exciting, I like being able to read more on it. There is a sense of familiarity that I, personally, enjoy. So I tend to favor series and long single novels.

- Availability

Obviously, single novels offer a great advantage. If you can find it on a bookstore (physical or online), you do not have to worry about whether volume 3 is already out of print. And nothing worse for your collection than having an incomplete series just due to a single missing book...

- Usability

Handling a shorter novel is easier and more comfortable than a very long, thick, bible-sized book. We could get also into the hardcover vs paperback vs TPB issue, but I will leave that for another time. Still, having a story broken over a couple of books might make the reading easier and will also usually damage the books less after you go through them.

- Publication time

Here, having shorter novels will allow you to get your hands on them faster. While the author is still scribbling down the next arc of the story, you will already be devouring the published part. So definitely having stories published as series will speed up the time it takes for the story to reach you.

- Series vs sagas

I tend to think of series when they are sequential but each book could be read almost independently. This is the case of Area 51. Ender's Game is somewhat like that, though you will definitely want to read it straight through. And I think of sagas when you have a story that was meant to be published in several individual volumes; thus, when each book, since the first one, clearly shows that the author has further story to tell.

- When to buy the series

- Costs

Almost invariantly, will pay much less for a large story than if it is printed in 2 volumes. The same goes for compilations; they will be cheaper than the single original books. But if it is a good enough story, you probably do not weight the cost of the books as a key factor.

- Conclusions

So... Do I prefer series or single novels? Hard to say. Some of my favorites of all times are single novels, for which the author almost certainly has never planned a sequel. However, most of my favorites are series. And, in fact, the books I remember in more detail are series. In some cases, I spent so long reading about that particular universe and characters, that many years after I can remember very fine details of the plot. At the end of the day, excellence is what you want, whether it's in the form of a single large novel, or a multiple-book series that took 10 years to be entirely published.

Your feedback is much appreciated.

Cheers!
-SFB-