Friday, June 28, 2013


Jeff Noon
Tor (Macmillan), 2013 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Macmillan)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 376 pages)
Theme: Mind-altering drugs
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Scribble
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

Scribble and his gang members, self-termed the Stash Riders, are street junkies who have spent most of their lives attempting to steal or hustle society’s trend narcotic: vurt feathers. Vurt is a collective dream reality induced/achieved through feathers, which are manufactured by professionals who put together pieces of collected dreams. The feathers work by simply inserting them into a person’s mouth. Unfortunately, the mechanism of operation of the feathers is never adequately explained. As one would expect from any hallucinogenic, there are legal feathers, which are relatively soft and safe, and illegal ones, that range from exciting and dangerous up to elitist feathers that are the stuff of myth to the majority of the population. Scribble has lost his sister to the Vurt world, and he is willing to do anything to get her back. The novel follows his adventures as he fights towards that goal.

Vurt is much more than a story about experimenting with drugs; it explores topics such as desire, self-sacrifice, and the metaphysics of the existence in dream states. The plot is surprisingly rich for its length; nevertheless, it would definitely be possible to explore the characters in much more detail if the book was longer. There are lots of concepts thrown at the reader, but this ends up working fairly well. One never has that feeling of being completely lost; there is just enough light at the end of the tunnel to make you want to keep going. And the dream sequences are not simply random jumbling of words; it is possible to keep track of what is happening, even though some terms will require you to pay attention.

I usually dislike novels about drugs, and was skeptical when I started this. Many authors take that theme as a license to ramble about nothing in particular, and to describe non-coherent and irrational bits of a story. This is not the case. The book surprised me on the positive side. The plot is lively, daring, and fast paced. Scribble is confronted with many tough choices as the plot develops, giving us a chance to ponder on both legal and moral/ethical issues. I really enjoyed reading Vurt, and would recommend it as a break from hard sci-fi.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Count to a trillion

John C Wright
Tor, 2011 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Tor)
Size: Average (my paperback copy has 439 pages)
Theme: Alien civilizations invasion
Narrative: third-person 
Main character: Menelaus Montrose
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: LIKELY

Humanity has achieved the capability to become a spacefaring race, and an all-male crew is prepared to take the voyage aboard the Hermetic ion-driven spaceship to a nearby system, where they will attempt to study an alien artifact named “the Monument”. While there, they will collect anti-matter that would both fuel their return to Earth and have enough left over to supply the planet’s dwindling energy supplies for centuries. However, one of the scientists, Menelaus Montrose, does not believe they will be able to decipher the Monument’s inscriptions. As the voyage begins, he plans to experiment on himself in order to boost his intelligence to superhuman levels.  Almost 200 years later he awakes again on Earth, altered and with no memory of the relatively successful trip gone by. But the Monument was more than humanity bargained for, and suddenly there are more problems coming in the future than the current delicate and dangerous power struggles within the planet.

Before I read this novel I had heard it was a space opera, my favorite sci-fi genre. It really is not a space opera; despite the space theme, everything happens on Earth and with no alien contact (aside from the information from the Monument). The book has some action sequences, although it is mostly a mental exercise on future scenarios for humanity when confronted with the perspective of interaction with aliens. The narrative is very descriptive; so if you like to create detailed mental pictures about physical environments (such as the decoration of a room, paintings on walls, clothing, etc), you will enjoy the considerably long descriptions. One aspect that did not appeal to me was the verbosity, as if the author is trying to emphasize his eloquence. I quickly became convinced there was much unnecessary use of thesaurus throughout the text, instead of going for clarity, simplicity and parsimony.

Overall, it was a fun read, and I plan to go through the sequel, which will hopefully explore further the contact with alien species.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sisterhood of Dune

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Tor, 2012 (my hardcover copy was gracefully provided by Tor for review)
Size: Long (my hardcover copy has 496 pages)
Theme: Space Opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: several
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

The Sisterhood of Dune depicts the events taking place approximately 8 decades after the Butlerian Jihad. We find a universe devastated by the war against the machines, yet in rapid change and full of hope for the future. The Corrinos have since been established as the imperial family. And in the midst of the turmoil of the post-war imperium, several schools have emerged to hone specific characteristics of the human potential.

This novel narrates how each of the major factions and groups that we are familiar with in the Dune universe have been established. The mentats, the Bene Gesserit, the swordmasters, the space guild, and more, are all featured in a complex interplay of power, as they attempt to solidify their standing in the imperium. But that is not all. Familiar characters, such as Vorian Atreides, Norma Cenva, and obviously the sandworms of dune, play important roles. The plot events will start shaping the intricate relations between the families that will later spur the Landsraad Houses.

However, the most prominent aspect of the post-war Dune universe is the radicalism of Butlerians, who wish to get rid of any and all technology. After a millennium of intelligent machine oppression, most of the ravaged humanity rallies against anything they associate with sentient computers, while some individuals appreciate the potential benefits of technology and attempt to oppose the Butlerians.

As one can see, there are a lot of storylines crammed into this book. As Brian already accustomed us (e.g. in the Legends of Dune series), the book has very short chapters, each switching the focus among the different characters. I particularly like this style, since it makes it easy to pause reading and simultaneously prevents long narrations that could become boring.

This book is truly a riveting, action-driven, space opera, worthy of the Dune name. I found it as good as the Legends of Dune and the Prelude to Dune trilogies, and definitely superior to Heroes of Dune (which was a considerable disappointment). Characters are interesting and well explored. It kept me reading enthusiastically throughout; if anything, I wished the book would run longer, and I look forward to the sequel. It is a must read for Dune fans (having read through the entire Legends of Dune series beforehand is absolutely mandatory in order to understand the plot).

Related work:
The Dune universe is too extensive to simply list here. It should suffice to say this novel comes after “Dune: the battle of Corrin” (from the Legends of Dune prequel trilogy) and before “Dune: House Atreides” (from the Prelude to Dune prequel trilogy).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The last iteration of Dexter Maxwell

Matthew Hart
Capscovil, 2012 (my review copy was gracefully provided by Capscovil)
Size: Average (my paperback copy has 399 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

I have to start by saying that this was the kind of book that I read without having seen any synopsis or preview, so I had no starting expectations. In addition to that, my opinion of it changed dramatically from chapter 1 to chapters 2-3. The first 50 or so pages (half of chapter 1) felt dull and were a pain to go through. But after that, the plot twists and actually starts developing, so that soon you’re entranced in the story and eager to read more. Having said this, in retrospective, the early plot is very relevant to setup the rest of the story, and thus, by the end of the book, I no longer felt that early start was a waste of my time. 

The storyline follows Dexter Maxwell, a youngster living in Grenver (Greater Metropolitan Front Range) in the year 2113. The highly regulated society is – as expected – quite different from today, and features – as expected – a considerable social gap. Dexter (Dex to his friends), Mal (his soon-to-be love interest), Thelo, and Money, run a motley crew of revolutionary guerrilla, aiming to throw a wrench on the wheels of the regime. As the plot unfolds and the group runs into trouble, they are caught during a daring heist, and suddenly, the story changes drastically as Dexter is thrown into a time-travelling, sword-yielding, space-invasion, dire adventure.

After the 50 or so initial pages (about which I already rambled enough) the plot flows nicely and the book starts exploring a large number of different concepts that entirely change your perspective of both Dexter Maxwell and the universe as it is in 2113. The book has a bit of gore and mutilation to assure it’s not taken lightly and that you never think of Dexter as having a good time while trying to survive time-travelling assassins. Curiously, time-travel in this reality can be achieved through two different means, which adds to the story, although neither is (at least in book 1) ever tackled by the author. Characters are sufficiently developed, although nobody aside Dexter is featured prominently and one does hope that in the upcoming sequels we’ll hear more about some of them.

Overall, it was a surprisingly good read, and I highly recommend it. I look forward to reading the sequels (as this is clearly marketed as “Book 1”).

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Obscura burning

Suzanne Van Rooyen
Etopia press, 2012 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Etopia press)
Size: Short (my paperback copy has 296 pages)
Theme: Multiple realities
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Kyle Wolfe’s
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

The premise of the story is quite straightforward: Kyle Wolfe wakes up every day on a different of two alternative realities. In each of them, after a recent traumatizing event, one of his two best friends is dead, while the other survived. The shift between the two realities is taking its toll on Kyle, not only psychologically, but also physically. And a new planet – Obscura – that just suddenly appeared in the Earth sky appears to be contributing to this phenomenon. While the plot basis is not novel, the way the story is told is quite interesting, including the differences between Kyle in each reality, which entirely affects his life in that reality.

This is labeled as YA (Young Adult) sci-fi, and the story revolves around the love triangle of the 3 main characters. Kyle is Danny’s boyfriend in one reality and Shira’s lover in the other. The plot follows Kyle as he struggles to keep alive in both realities and to find out what happened, and whether he can do anything to change his own fate. The book’s sci-fi content is exclusively Kyle’s reality shifting and mind-warping experiences.

The story is easy to follow (multiple realities are occasionally tough to keep a track of, but with only a few, this is easily managed), and well-paced. The plot develops fairly linearly, but with sufficient mystery to keep you interested. Luckily, the story does not dwindle purely into sex, and has drama and crime in the mix. I greatly enjoyed reading through it (I read it during an intercontinental flight), and found it a good break from my more typical hard science reads.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The science of Dune

Kevin Grazier, PhD (editor)
BenBella Books, 2007 (my review copy was gracefully provided by BenBella Books)
Size: Short (my paperback copy has 232 pages)
Theme: Scientific and technological essay

This is my first review of non-SFF, but very appropriate since this book focuses on the science and technology behind Frank Herbert’s Dune universe. It is a discussion and assessment on the real science behind the story told in that epic sci-fi series. Each short chapter handles a different aspect of Dune, from planetary ecology to still-suits, from prescience to sandworms, from celestial dynamics to melange. In every case, the author of each chapter has extensive knowledge in that specific area, and among them there are physicists, geneticists, biologists, programmers, anthropologists, and historians. 

Let me start by saying that I greatly enjoyed reading through this, and that having a technological background (or at least being technology savvy, aka nerd), comes in handy to really follow the text. Some parts of it are quite technical while other are conceptual musings, but it reads very well and most of them actually attempt to make a bridge between the current state-of-the-art and how that can explain or support the feasibility of Dune technology. Frank Herbert was very smart in his vague descriptions of the actual inner workings of almost all Dune technology, thus allowing room for scientific credibility (at least in terms of future developments), while simultaneously enabling the reader to fill in the gaps. Scientific achievements of recent years have really paved the way for many of Dune’s technology to be feasible in the near or the long-term future, and this book will guide readers through that.

The chapters I enjoyed the most were:
- prescience and how probabilities affect events, although little was added to my previous knowledge of statistics;
- the star systems of Dune, which are described with great scientific accuracy, and about which I had never really pondered much;
- evolution, which had some redundancy with another chapter on breeding programs (I would say the latter is the only superfluous chapter in the book);
- melange and how mind-expanding drugs work;
- the lifecycle of sandworms, which also covered in general the practical limits to animal size and biology in Dune-like conditions;
- memory of ghoulas and how the brain creates, stores and retrieves memories;
- the ecology of Dune, which covers climate, terraforming, and ecosystems.

Overall, I’d say any hardcore Dune fan should go through this book and be given the chance to either think a bit more about much of what’s behind the story in Dune, or to understand better how we can (or might in the future) have similar technology in our daily life. Obviously, the book is meant to be read by Dune fans, and anyone else would be entirely out of context. I greatly enjoyed it (having read through it in only a few days), and strongly recommend it to fellow Dune fans.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Winds of Dune

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Tor, 2009 (my copy is from Tor, 2009)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 448 pages)
Theme: Space Opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Bronso Vernius, Jessica Atreides
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: UNLIKELY

Set in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, this is the second of two midquels, this one bridging the gap between “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune”. Whereas its predecessor told of Paul Muad’Dib’s Jihad, this novel covers the history of Bronso Vernius and the events going on in the Dune palace where Alia is the regent of the Empire and Jessica works on her relationship with her daughter while attempting to prevent her from losing her humanity in the difficult role she has been cast.

Bronso has a negligible role in the original Dune series, but in this novel, we are given a detailed look into why he started producing his manifestos against Paul Muad’Dib, and why he is aided several times by Jessica (who even ends up recruiting Gurney Halleck to passively assist Bronso by trying to sabotage the vigorous search efforts of Duncan Idaho). He is cast as one of Paul’s best friends ever. Their early interactions as children were described in “Paul of Dune”. Bronso, who came to be known as Bronso of Ix, was the son of prince Rhombur and Tessia. His quest to spread an accurate history of Paul Muad’Dib, as a man rather than a God, an alternative to the exaggerations that Irulan (incited by Alia) continues releasing, is shown to have been highly assisted by face dancers.

I read this right after “Paul of Dune”. While this book did not annoy me with some terrible writing as the first sub-chapters of the previous one, it also failed to impress me. Not that I was expecting anything with the depth of Frank Herbert’s writing… But this felt even less convincing than Brian’s previous Dune incursions, such as the Prelude to Dune or Legends of Dune trilogies. Both of those series were much more enjoyable. This novel also introduced guiltcasters, such as Reverend Mother Stokiah, who are capable of causing terrible psychological damage, but which is a skill not featured anywhere in the original series. Why introduce this, and not provide a reasonable explanation of why Bene Gesserit stopped using the technique?

Reading a bit more about the Dune universe, and learning about Bronso, a character that had never been explored, was interesting. However, I would not recommend this to anyone but die-hard Dune fans, and definitely only as a follow-up to the previous midquel.
Related work:
Note that this should be read after the previous midquel entitled “Paul of Dune”. These two midquels are collectively called the “Heroes of Dune” series. In addition, there are many other books set in the Dune universe, all of which intrinsically related.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Paul of Dune

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Tor, 2008 (my copy is from Tor, 2008)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 512 pages)
Theme: Space Opera
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Paul Atreides
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: UNLIKELY

Set in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, this is a midquel that bridges between the original “Dune” novel and its sequel “Dune Messiah”. It tells the story of how Paul Atreides, or Paul Muad’Dib, set in motion the Jihad that established his rule over the galactic empire. It also covers important events that took place when Paul was young and Leto Atreides was the Duke of Caladan, events that shaped Paul into the leader he would later become.

The book is divided into large chapters for the two key timelines: young Paul Atreides and Emperor Paul Muad’Dib. Narration follows the style of previous novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, namely, the storyline switches from character to character, with very short sub-chapters, which for me works very well. I find it makes the story more compelling and that it gives a better global picture of all the intertwined events that are developing simultaneously.

Reading more about the Dune universe is a treat, since it is one of my all-time favorite sagas, but this book has several shortcomings that I was unable to ignore. Although I have previously praised Brian Herbert’s “Legends of Dune” trilogy and also his “House Triology”, which had an entirely different style from Frank Herbert, but worked very well as adventure stories (on a space-opera span), I found “Paul of Dune” to be of poor design and worse implementation. The first two or three sub-chapters were bluntly written, with multiple repetitions nagging the reader about simple things that anyone would have inferred without having to be repeatedly bludgeoned with them. After a few dozen pages, I was half-expecting some side caption in bold red letters making sure we had understood the characters’ feelings (Paul, Irulan, etc). Luckily, the book does improve a bit along its length, and I eventually ended up enjoying the additional bits of story from the fantastic universe created by Frank Herbert. I would not recommend this as a single novel, but many Dune die-hard fans will likely enjoy the opportunity to simply read more about Dune. Although not impressed by the writing style or the lack of depth of the plot, I will go through the next book in the series and hope it improves.

Related work:
Note that another midquel entitled “Winds of Dune” exists to fill in the gap between “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune”. These two midquels are collectively called the “Heroes of Dune” series, although I fail to see the point of coming up with a collection title for only two books (originally they were supposed to be 4, but at the time this review was written, recent information indicated the last 2 novels had been indefinitely postponed). In addition, there are many other books set in the Dune universe, all of which intrinsically related.