Book Review – Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

The blurb says:

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

The first three quarters of the book weren’t too impressive – the pace was slow, the plot was simple and it felt a bit old fashioned (which made me check the publication date – 2011).  It reminded me a lot older “adventure” sci-fi where men were men, women were women, aliens weren’t too weird and technology was clunky.

Fortunately there was a big turnaround in the last quarter of the book – it got faster, more twisty and a lot more interesting.

I actually had no idea that this was a modern addition to an old series of books (Fuzzy), so if it’s a tribute I guess that would explain the old fashioned feel to it.  Oddly the plot of this book seems to mirror the blurb for the first book, so maybe it’s a retelling rather than an addition to the series.

Book Review – When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

The blurb says:

When Gravity Fails, the first Marid novel, is set in a high-tech near-future featuring a divided USA and USSR, a world with mind-or mood-altering drugs for any purpose; brains enhanced by electronic hardware, with plug-in memory additions and modules offering the wearer new personalities (James Bond, celebrities); bodies shaped to perfection by surgery. Marid Audran, an unmodified and fairly honest street-survivor, lives in a decadent Arab ghetto, the Budayeen, and, against his best instincts, becomes involved in a series of inexplicable murders. Some seem like routine assassinations, carried out with an old-fashioned handgun by a man wearing a plug-in James Bond persona; others, involving whores, feature prolonged torture and horrible mutilations. The problem comes to the attention of Budayeen godfather Friedlander Bey, who makes Audran an offer he can’t refuse. Audran submits to electronic brain enhancement in order to track down and deal with the killer or killers.

Like a few of the books I’ve read recently, this one’s a bit older (1986).  Mostly this is only apparent in the things about the intervening years that were the hardest to predict – computers, cellphones and the post-cold-war political landscape which at the time was fiction and is pretty different to what actually happened.  The age of the book is impossible to ignore, but it’s not really a problem.

Noir and cyberpunk are my favorite genres so this book was right up my alley, and the Arabic setting is a nice change.  I’ve read a few sci-fi books with Arabic settings (e.g. Effendi) and it always adds a nice flavor to them.

Something that was probably controversial at the time (and still is to a certain extent) is that a LOT of of the character are transsexuals.  The book is very accepting of transsexuals (and explores the consequences of technology improving to the point where sex changes are practically perfect) but conversely it’s pretty bad in its treatment of women.  I don’t know if this represents the author’s point of view or whether it was his extrapolation of Muslim attitudes.

The Kindle edition of the book has some OCR errors, which is understandable given that they probably wouldn’t have a digital version of a manuscript that old, but is disappointing because a quick readthrough of the book would have allowed them to identify and fix the mistakes.

Book Review – Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

The blurb extemporizes:

Ellis Rogers is an ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing, but when diagnosed with a terminal illness, he’s willing to take an insane gamble. He’s built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and the cost of paradise. Ellis could find more than a cure for his disease; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time began — but only if he can survive the Hollow World.

Considering it’s mentioned in the blurb, I’m not giving anything away by saying that in this book one of the first things the main character does is to take a one-way trip in a time machine.  His motivation for taking such drastic action is fairly well justified by the blurb-mentioned terminal illness, but the fact that he didn’t do an unmanned test first strikes me as unrealistic.

Never mind creating an artificial mass the size of multiple planets from domestic voltage that would have been disconnected as soon as you started using it, but this is sci-fi so I guess we can suspend disbelief.

There are a few things about this book that yell “self published” and one of them is a huge coincidence in the first quarter of the book.  I can’t help but feel that a good editor would have pointed this out and had the author rewrite it so that the demands of the story are met without resorting to the main character happening to be in the exact right place at the exact right time.

The first half of the book is reminiscent of The Time Machine – not just because the plot is fairly similar but because it has the “tourist in a strange land” vibe that a lot of that vintage of speculative literature has.

Another amateurish thing that annoyed me is that in the future everyone conveniently speaks English, and the explanation is somewhere between ignorant and imperialist (but definitely unrealistic).  Similarly a character casually mentions that all religions have disappeared because people simply “forgot” about them – this doesn’t seem consistent with either history or human nature.

I had a problem with the unrealistic attitudes of the main character until I realized that they were anachronistic because they were Boomer attitudes and I hadn’t been thinking of the character as being in that generation.  I don’t know if that’s the writer’s fault or mine.

Another unrealistic thing was that there were two thousand year old wooden buildings.  Considering that all we have of the Romans’ 2000 year old construction are the stone parts, this feels wrong (especially post-apocalypse).

The Kindle edition of this book contains two versions – a normal one and “a PG-13 version for those that object to explicit language.”  This really confused me for a while because the story was wrapping up and I was only approaching the 50% mark of the book.

Fortunately the second half of the book is a lot better – there are a couple of good twists, and the tourist schtick is replaced with an exploration of what we want the world to be and what love is.

Book Review – I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

The blurb disturbs:

What if the world’s worst serial killer…was your dad?

Jasper (Jazz) Dent is a likable teenager. A charmer, one might say.

But he’s also the son of the world’s most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could–from the criminal’s point of view.

And now bodies are piling up in Lobo’s Nod.

In an effort to clear his name, Jazz joins the police in a hunt for a new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret–could he be more like his father than anyone knows?

I guess it’s inevitable that this book would draw comparisons to Dexter, as it’s about a protagonist who is a serial killer that hunts serial killers.  The difference (at least in the first book in this series) is that the protagonist is not a serial killer (yet?) and is resisting the temptation to become one.

Like a lot of pop culture, this book makes the mistake of treating a mental illness (sociopathy) as a superpower.  On the other hand, it surprisingly concentrated more on the manipulation aspects of sociopathy rather than the mystical super-killer aspect that other books and movies do.

Having Jazz’s father be a “new type of killer” who “doesn’t have a pattern” was kind of nonsense, especially as it was shown not to be true several times in the book.  I assume this was introduced so that each book in the series could have a different theme.  Also the combination of “aw, shucks” country boy and “off the charts IQ” in Billy Dent doesn’t feel consistent (although I’m sure in real life there are plenty of smart country boys).

It feels like the author is trying to create a Dexter and a Hannibal Lecter, but so far he hasn’t succeeded.

There were a couple of things that didn’t make sense to me, but I can’t definitively say it was an error in the book rather than a misunderstanding on my part, so I won’t penalize the book on that front.

Book Review – Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The blurb promises:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

First of all I really like the cover of this book – it reminds me of classic sci-fi covers.

Considering that I’d seen this book on “best of” lists and that it’s won a bunch of awards, I was surprised to see that it was on sale.  I think this might be because it’s been nominated for a Hugo (more readers = more votes?), but maybe not.

Speaking of awards, I think one of the reasons that this book has been so well received is the pronouns.  Basically because the main character comes from a culture that doesn’t differentiate between genders, she has a hard time knowing what genders the people she meets are, and therefore which pronoun to use.  In order to show the reader this different point of view, the author has used “she” as the default pronoun, even when the gender of a character has been stated as male.  This feels disorienting and gives an alien impression (at least for male readers).  Then when the character attempts to use a pronoun and gets it wrong, it makes things more complicated because there are people whose gender the reader doesn’t know and are referred to by both pronouns.

Additionally, some of the character aren’t just individuals, they’re AIs or people connected together to form a larger person, so there are more identity issues.  Fortunately rather than being confusing this is mostly just interesting and adds complexity to the characters.

Something that did cause some problems was the fact that the names are a bit unpronounceable and some of them were too similar to each other.  Without even gender to identify the characters this made it difficult to work out what was going on sometimes.

So all in all this was a challenging book with lots of new ideas.

Book Review – City of Light by Will Wight

City of Light by Will Wight

City of Light by Will Wight

The blurb tantalizes:

Simon has spent the last six months hunting Incarnations, and has begun to realize that his power alone won’t be enough to stop a true enemy. 

Leah is queen over a nation of refugees, driven from their homes by the fury of Territories gone mad. 

Alin rules his city with an iron fist, imposing the virtues of Elysia on an imperfect population. 

Now, the three must stand united as the balance of the world shifts once more. A greater threat looms, and it has made its presence known… 

The Incarnations are missing.

My main criticism of the preceding books in the series (apart from some clumsiness at the beginning of the first book) was that although there are supposed to be three main characters we didn’t spend enough time with two of them to get to know them.  Although that’s still true, by the third book we have on aggregate spent enough time with them for this to not matter anymore, so that was good.  It was still a bit wrong when the three characters were having a “look how much we’ve changed” moment when their original relationship hadn’t really been established, but altogether it was a good attempt at fixing the mistakes of the first book.

Something that was an issue in the second book is worse in this one – it’s almost completely fight scenes.  Sure it’s the climax, sure they’re at war, but still it felt like somebody was always fighting with someone else, with only brief interludes for plot and character development.  It also suffers a bit from all of the main characters being too powerful – as we discovered in the Matrix sequels, watching invincible supermen punch each other to no effect gets boring after a while.

Finally, I was irritated a bit by the fact that not everything was tied up by the end of the book.  It’s bad enough when one book in a series doesn’t have a complete plot arc, but it’s much more important for a trilogy to have one.  I understand the desire to leave things open for a follow-on series, but it’s frustrating when you think a plotline has been introduced to be a big dramatic twist and nothing happens.

Book Review – Heat Rises by Richard Castle

Heat Rises by Richard Castle

Heat Rises by Richard Castle

The blurb says:

The bizarre murder of a parish priest at a New York bondage club opens Nikki Heat’s most thrilling and dangerous case so far, pitting her against New York’s most vicious drug lord, an arrogant CIA contractor, and a shadowy death squad out to gun her down. And that is just the tip of an iceberg that leads to a dark conspiracy reaching all the way to the highest level of the NYPD. But when she gets too close to the truth, Nikki finds herself disgraced, stripped of her badge, and out on her own as a target for killers with nobody she can trust. Except maybe the one man in her life who’s not a cop. Reporter Jameson Rook. In the midst of New York’s coldest winter in a hundred years, there’s one thing Nikki is determined to prove: Heat Rises.

Something I’ve noticed about both the Castle TV show and this series of books is that Heat (and to a lesser extent her colleagues) are waaay too ethical.  It makes sense in the context because Castle would want to portray them in a good light, but the lack of flaws makes the characters less compelling.

Like the Bones series, this book had a few times when a character is misunderstanding something another character is doing, and you can see how it’s all going wrong and there’s nothing you can do to stop it and it’s just a misunderstanding and it’s aggravating.  It makes the character look stupid for not seeing the obvious, and it gets on my nerves.

There was a bunch of corny wordplay in the book that is consistent with it having been written by Castle, as well as references to the Castle TV show, Firefly etc.  They were mostly charming.

There were some technical issues with the ebook – I think the ebook version must have come from a manuscript laid out for paper because some words were split on syllable boundaries as you would do when the last word on a page is too long to fit.

The mystery plotline is very good (as it was in the previous books) but some of the personal life plotline was annoying for the reasons I’ve mentioned.