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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson.  I was completely blown away by Snow Crash.  But then, who wouldn’t be entranced by a cyberpunk pizza delivery ninja?  I was just as enamored with the Diamond Age and even Cryptonomicon both of which launched Stephenson onto my must read author list.  Then he came out with the Baroque cycle which I slogged my way through, wondering the entire time: what am I missing here?  In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t much.  I believe that this series was simply Stephenson performing a little academia fueled intellectual masturbation where he forgot the one crucial no-no of storytelling – don’t bore the shit out of your readers.

After that snorer of a series, I gave up on him for good.  I felt justified by that decision when he released Anathem which looked like more of the same.  I refused to even pick that one up and removed Stephenson from any and all novel release alerts.  Then he wrote REAMDE which people I trust said was a must-read.  It wasn’t bad.  It was similar to Cline’s Ready Player One albeit quite a bit darker.  It wasn’t good enough to restore him back on the must read list.  After losing faith in Stephenson, I don’t touch his books unless they come with a great recommendation.  Right before the holiday, I met up with my old college roommates and one of them gave the rec that the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O was worth the read.  So here we are.

The concept of the book is excellent.  It’s got all the physics nerd themes you could ever hope for.  Being a physics nerd, this really worked for me.  He dives deep into quantum theory using the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment as a starter reference point then evolves the ideas from there.  That was one of the things I loved about the book, the science was on point.

The style of writing was pretty cool.  He constantly went back and forth between journal entries, email conversations, wiki posts and the more traditional third person view.  All told, it felt more like an experience than reading a book.  This was a good, modern way to experience literature.

The plot starts in a somewhat Jurassic Park fashion with a strange military dude looking for an expert on ancient languages.  You get the clear sense very early on that Dr. Melisande Stokes, our walking anachronism, will be put to good use and quickly.  The plot doesn’t disappoint.  You quickly discover that our military dude, Tristan Lyons, is part  of some covert government group looking to understand what happened to magic.  That’s right magic.

These two characters quickly form a much larger group of scientists, operatives, and witches that dive into the mysteries of magic and time travel.  It gets weird quickly.  But it’s a good weird.  The magic elements continue to be somewhat believable especially with the strong ties to quantum paradoxes and multi-universe theories.  Stephenson does a good job of implying these scientific elements instead of forcing them on us.  This keeps all these concepts well available for non-physics nerds.

As our characters start jumping back and forth through time, Stephenson finds his groove.  He definitely gets a lot of pleasure from historical fiction but this time around he does a good job of making these forays enjoyable for the reader as well.  Historical integrity is obviously very important to him and you can tell he did his research.  Each fall back into time felt authentic and he uses the time locked characters well to breathe life into each of these scenes.

As they pass through time, they realize that there are competing factions doing the same thing.  This has the smell of a really interesting rivalry but sadly nothing ever really happens with it.  That was the impression I got with most of the book.  There were a lot of really good ideas without any great resolutions.  Except for one brilliant Vikings in a Walmart scene near the end of the book much of the wrap up was disappointing.  Even the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic.  I don’t want to ruin the ending by providing spoilers because some of those crazier scenes as well as the underlying theme still make it worth the read.  It just wasn’t one of his best.

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Planetfall

Science Fiction Book Review

This was my first read of anything by Emma Newman and it won’t be my last.  She is an expert at capturing ambiance and the overall feeling of a scene.  The plot was almost an afterthought to the character development and putting the reader in the back seat of this new world that felt like it was pulled from a Madeline L’Engle acid trip.

Our main character is a futuristic biological engineer by the name of Ren.  She is part of a community/cult of early space travelers that are chasing the dream of her messianic ex-girlfriend.  They end up on a world that contains what is known as God’s city.  Our messiah led them here across the stars to seek the age old answers that Douglas Adams so neatly summed up with the number 42.  Newman doesn’t sweat the details of the trip or the science that got them there.  The book’s focus remains on the world they ended up on and the mystery of several plot holes that she grudgingly fills in through a series of flashbacks.

The mystery drives the plot and the character development.  As each tidbit is revealed over the course of the novel, you gain more and more insight as to why the characters are so deliciously broken.  Not surprisingly, the fractures come from deceptions so big that they can and do create fissures of characters that sets up our main character as the star of her own personal Hoarders episode.  This flaw seems somewhat irrelevant to the overall plot of the book until the next reveal when it all makes sense.  Newman captures the essence of this mental split in a series of gut wrenching experiences that makes you want to crawl into a corner with Ren and slowly rock yourself to sleep.

The science Newman does feed us is a fascinating prediction of what biotech could evolve into.  Ren has the ability to build living structures.  Each structure regulates itself by biological rules.  Instead of carpet, you get moss, instead of chairs, I imagined some elaborate looking mushrooms.  Newman doesn’t take you that deep into the details allowing you to imagine it on your own which is better anyway.  Whatever Ren comes up with in her biotech architecture, she ends up printing somewhere and integrating the new print into an existing ecological system.  Very cool stuff.

One of the most interesting elements of the world was God’s city.  The city is one enormous biological entity.  Travel from room to room within this gigantic entity is done, sickeningly, through valves and sphincters.  Needless to say, mucus seems to be the primary wall decoration as she swims through rivers of snot to try to discover what it all means.  I did struggle a little with the imagery of God’s city.  I often found myself re-reading passages several times to relate a little better until I finally decided that the vagaries were Newman’s recipe to let the reader try to work it out for ourselves.

The ending was excellent and I found myself thinking about the book long after I finished.  Read it, it sticks with you.

The Extinction Cycle (Book 1, 2 & 3)

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book ReviewScience Fiction Book ReviewScience Fiction Book Review

This is my first attempt at reading anything from Nicholas Sansbury Smith and it was enjoyable.  There is no literature in any of these pages but it’s excellent plane reading or sit by the beach fare.  Reading these books is like turning on an old Seinfeld episode that you’ve already seen.  There aren’t any surprises but you know you will be thoroughly entertained anyway.

The general premise is that some shady government jackwads decided to mix an ultimate warrior chemical cocktail with the Ebola virus to create the perfect biological weapon.  Imagine dropping the bio weapons on a terrorist group, they would turn into transformed, crazed humans that would ravage their own population, then shortly die out due to the Ebola side of it several days later.  Well, it gets out of the lab and pretty much kills the whole world.  This all happens pretty quickly in the first book.  The rest of that book and the following two deal with survival and the creation of counter bio weapons that can eliminate the monsters that were created when this escaped the lab.

The primary two characters are actually pretty well developed throughout the three books.  They’re not complex at all and our author doesn’t put them into any scenarios that would stretch them into making any deeper, more introspective decisions.  Our main protagonist is Beckham, the Delta Force badass that saw this go down from the very beginning.  He is all about survival and his competency in that category is his primary trait.  He’s as American as chocolate dipped and twice fried apple pie and you don’t see him have to make any really difficult choices throughout any of the books.  Kate Lovato is our other lead and she is the doctor that ultimately cut down the population of monsters by 90% and now has the job of creating a new weapon that will eliminate the rest of them.

Not surprisingly, because after all PhDs and Delta force typically hang out at all the same bars, these two start to hit it off and eventually add benefits to their friend status.  It is the perfect PG-13 relationship and, if not for the raging death of mankind and society around them, would feel like any other budding high school hook-up.  Maybe college, but it’s no more complex than that.  Almost all of the interactions between the main characters and others are all very black and white.  There aren’t even close to fifty shades of grey in these connections, maybe two or one, tops.

The other characters in the book have a serious case of red shirt-itis.  New characters are introduced fairly often and just as often become kibbles and bits for the rage machines outside the walls.  You can sense that Smith is doing his best to create emotional attachments to these side characters before killing them off but it’s not very effective.  Without that attachment it is pretty hard to care about these deaths so they become an abstraction that fits into the ‘holy shit the whole world is crumbling’ bucket where all the other faceless deaths live.  If he wants to add more drama, he’s gotta start killing his darlings.

He does a surprisingly thorough job with the science.  He is not quite Michael Crichton level but he’s not far off.  This was one of the things that kept me going: the science is pretty plausible.  As is the idea that a couple of chicken-hawk assholes will be the ones that take us all down in the end.

He’s also got the plot thing down pretty damn well.  You are rapidly moved from page to page as if a people walker mated with a treadmill and got stuck on high.  Never a dull moment.  Take this set of books for what they are and you will not be disappointed.

The Windup Girl

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a beautiful but painfully brutal novel set in a dystopian future Thailand.  The writing is excellent but in a detached, scientific sort of way.  The characters are difficult to connect with but I think that is the point.  This is a future without food so the rules have changed back to survival of the fittest where relationships are made in a far more pragmatic way than in a world of excess.  The novel is a warning but not one that is as obvious as the cudgel used in An inconvenient truth.  All of the characters have long accepted that man has already seriously fucked up the earth and are now just trying to make their way within it.  This is much more of a study of the human condition under extreme stress than anything else.  Our generation is one without great world wars, so that is not an outlet to conveniently place our characters within to see how they react, instead Bacigalupi is forced to manufacture a setting where such extremes do exist.  It’s not pretty but it is gripping.

The novel doesn’t fit into any specific genre but that is part of it’s allure.  It’s got high technology elements to it in the form of the gorgeous windup girls that are supposedly little more than garish, Japanese sex toys.  It has elements of steam punk to it with its dirigibles and hand cranked CPUs.  It also has a bit of historical precedent to it, the riots and those that perpetrated them had a very Boxer Rebellion feel to them.  But most of all, it is dark and very brooding.

To set some context, the world has gone through tough times.  Genetically modified plants have created genetically modified diseases that have wiped out most plants to the point where almost all of the world’s food supply has been eliminated.  What does still exist of the food supply are seed banks that are jealously guarded by global conglomerates doing anything they can to stay one step ahead of the mutations of the diseases that will ultimately wipe the seeds and humanity out.  This leads these mega corporations to constantly be looking for new ways to expand their own stock to something that might permanently stay ahead of the disease curve and pull them out of this morass that their fore-bearers (us) created for them.

That leads us to follow one of these conglomerate’s agents in Thailand where he is looking for new seeds, new plants and something to help in this battle against hunger.  What he really seems to be looking for is hope in a world that is in very short supply.  He has several projects he is working through where he is forced to deal with the mundane bureaucracy of an Asian populace that is short on patience.  While he is navigating these waters, a storm of discontent fueled mostly by resentment over the loss of power and national identity is brewing within the local populace.  Things get out of hand and his mission turns into one of short term survival which quickly supersedes the global mission of long term survival.

Throughout the story we are introduced to the windup girl.  The windups are automatons that were built sometime ago when luxury was commodity.  They are very lifelike but were given herky-jerky movements to differentiate them from a crowd of humans.  The logical fear was that with this technology they could easily be used as assassins or super soldiers so adding this artifice would at least make it easier to see them coming.  In this futuristic Thailand, the windups are treated with disgust and paraded about almost like sideshow freaks.  Perhaps this is a resentment of technology that brought us to this sorry state or simply the human need to feel like we are superior to other sentient beings.  Whatever it is, the discrimination is palpable and painful to read.  In the end, her story is just another story of oppression but no less interesting because of it.

These two characters and many others intersect throughout in a stew of simmering anger and pain with a garnish of malaise that makes for some good eatin’.  Not the easiest read but it makes you think and I finished the book a changed person.  Can you ask for anything more from words on a page?

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man’s War Book 2)

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book Review

Scalzi is the new master of science fiction.  The first book of his that I ever read was Old Man’s War.  That novel took military science fiction in a cool new direction.  The central concept behind it was that when folks age to a certain point, mid seventies being most common, one has the option of trading in an old broken down husk of a body for an upgraded slightly saurian version.  The trade-off is that you have to join the military.  This gives doddering old grandmothers and grandfathers the ability to get a 1UP on life, but in a brand new game.  In that first novel, he hits all the right notes.  The characters are well done, the plot moves you forward at just the right pace and he puts the reader right next to our protagonists as if you had just joined the military yourself.  Only the greats can bring you there.  I know I’m ready to sign up once I reach the Alzheimer years.

One of my big concerns about sequels is that it just tastes like the same old crackers the second time around.  Scalzi gets out in front of this brilliantly.  We are introduced to a brand new cast of characters but this time instead of the enlisted folks we get introduced to the special forces, aka the Ghost Brigade.  Don’t want to throw any spoilers in there for those that haven’t been introduced to the series but to join the special forces requires an even greater jump than just getting old.  The ‘Ghost’ moniker should give you some idea of how they pull in new recruits.  This somewhat grizzly aspect of enlistment leads to all sorts of interesting philosophical conundrums.  These are all acknowledged and dealt with without resorting to any lazy deus ex machina shortcuts.

The thing I like most about Scalzi’s books, and this is not exception, is that they bring all the ingredients of good science fiction into a delectable stew that just doesn’t get old.  Let’s start with the technology.  Good sci-fi treats technology in the same way that good fantasy treats magic.  It’s got to be fresh and it has to take you somewhere new.  The Ghost Brigades takes you places that you could not have gotten on your own.  Their recruitment methodology and their means of communication are incredibly fresh.  The author also makes you feel a little bit of discomfort from both which is always a good thing.  Anytime I get out of my comfort zone while reading a book, I know that something new is happening.

The world building is also enjoyable.  For sci-fi you have the entire universe to play with but sadly, many authors seem to get hemmed in by those that defined the genre before them.  Not true of this universe.  We’re dealing with just a few alien races and we get the sense that these races are still in the stage of feeling each other out.  This is fertile ground to take diplomacy in to new and interesting places.

Finally, the character building is excellent.  We are introduced to a full squad of special forces folks and this is military sci-fi, so you know that the folks we start with are not all going to be there at the end of the book.  Scalzi does a great job of making each loss painfully felt.  Each loss has the added benefit of determining and hardening the characters that make it out alive.  He does his best to answer the question of ‘what would I have done if I was thrown into that situation?’  The answers aren’t all the heroic, easy way out, ones either.  This is definitely not a Disney story and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Assault Troopers (Extinction Wars Book 1)

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book Review

I’ve read and reviewed Heppner before with the Lost Starship series.  That series was a B, B-, as far as quality of science fiction was concerned.  After about a hundred pages of this tripe, I found myself looking back at that B writing in a wistful sort of malaise.  This book turned into a task for me that I felt I had to knock off the honey do list.

The premise was interesting if unimaginative.  Aliens show up above earth and nuke us all to hell.  The only survivors are those that are nowhere near cities or even villages.  Our survivors are from ultra remote places like Antarctica and nuclear submarines.  Due to their isolated lifestyles, they are pretty hardy folk with an abundance of attitude.  One would think this would make for some interesting characters, right?  Sadly, wrong.  These characters were pulled directly from the vanilla wafer box.  Read it a week ago and can’t even remember the name of the main character.

Our team of Saltines figures out a way to take over one of the ships that is hell bent on the last remnants of mankind’s destruction.  In so doing, they introduce themselves to the players on the Galactic stage, all of whom fit nicely in different flavor douche bag molds.  Our main character arranges a way to extend humanity’s existence provided that we play the role of mercenary soldier.  So, our first experience with aliens turns into a Blackwater scheme.  There is something to aspire to, yay us!

This mercenary group then goes through their training stage.  This is when I almost put the book down in disgust.  It felt like the training session in Ender’s Game but boring and meaningless.  It was similar to reading filler, like a sci-fi version of a Cosmo sex quiz.  Once we got through this painful interlude our team is sent on their first mission.  The mission is a success but every success comes with high casualties.  The problem with this is that these casualties are meaningless to the reader because they are just random numbers that have generated no empathy from the reader or from our protagonist.  This makes our main character either a ruthless psychopath or a poorly developed automaton.  Pretty sure it’s the latter.

Not going to spend anymore time on this as it’s unnecessary to get cruel.  To summarize, the characters are weak and the plot is a derivative meandering through a river of mediocrity.  If offered to read this one, even for free, take the pass.

The Lost Command (Lost Starship Series Book 2)

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book Review

This series is my first attempt at reading anything by Heppner but I don’t think it will be the last.  It’s easy reading that doesn’t ask the brain to stretch too deep into pondering life questions but for the quick getaway, this is a good series.  Like a lot of modern sci-fi, Heppner makes no attempt at going deep into the science.  Much of it is just assumed and recognized as something that will all be figured out by the time we hit that point in the future.  He does pay a a campy homage to one of the old sci-fi guard, Keith Laumer, in naming the wormhole-like travel after him with his Laumer-Points.  The science is not a necessity to the story though, and the story is a good one.

Since this is the second novel in the Lost Starship series it’s worth spending a minute to set the stage.  In the first round, our author introduces us to Captain Maddox, an intelligence officer with preternatural intelligence and reflexes.  He’s good at his job and because of that, his mentor the Iron Lady (who in my mind’s eye I see being played by Judi Dench in the movie version), takes him way out of his comfort zone and sends him on a mission to find the Lost Starship.  Dun duh dun.  The reasons are hazy at first but become clearer throughout the novel as we find that there is a new threat to humanity in the form of the New Men.  The New Men evolved from a colony of eugenicists right out of some Eichmann wet dream.  The group went on a space walkabout several hundred years ago and ended up on a distant rock in a distant galaxy.  They got to work on their embryonic alchemy and several hundred years later, they are making their way back to the Commonwealth to stir up trouble as the new supercharged Aryan bungholes.  Cool idea.

Maddox is tasked with putting together a team to go find this lost starship that has superior technology from another space faring race that existed back when we were still planting crop for the first time in the fertile crescent.  This technology is meant to give us the edge in the upcoming confrontation with the New Men.  Maddox goes out and builds a made for TV crew that have all the qualities you’d expect in building some drama.  There’s the rule following starship lieutenant that was brought up on the tough streets of Detroit, there’s the fighter pilot ace with a drinking problem, the brilliant doctor with an attitude and the sexy yet incredibly tough mechanic/muscle.

No surprises with the supporting cast.  Sadly, they were too predictable and a little two dimensional for my tastes.  Each character seemed to have one strength and one weakness.   It was like Heppner went to the sci-fi attribute wheel, let it spin, and picked one good trait and one bad for each.  He spends some time developing each of these characters in both novels but unfortunately they never get much more depth.  Maddox, our main character, on the other hand is an interesting character bit in a bit of a humble braggy way.  The flaws built into Maddox are not really character flaws but more from his mysterious genetic background.  This is interesting but at the same time a bit of a cop out.  Flawed characters are always more identifiable because of the flaws in ourselves.  At the same time, it requires a certain vulnerability from the author that the greats are comfortable with but with which others struggle.

In the second novel, our team has successfully found and turned over the lost starship, the Commonwealth has had their first skirmishes with the New Men and have been soundly routed and our heroes from the first novel have moved on to bigger and better things.  The book opens with a major battle with the New Men in which the Commonwealth gets their asses kicked once again.  This results in another call to Maddox to come in and save the day.  The lost starship stopped communicating with the governmental bureaucrats mainly because they are governmental bureaucrats, go figure, and Maddox is given the mission of not only cleaning up the mess but trying to bail out the survivors of the first round of the Commonwealth’s Alamo.

This second installment has a little more spy craft in it, a little less character development but a lot of fun plot lines and teamwork between the major players.  Heppner does a good job of keeping you riveted but not the best job of making the story memorable.  It’s catchy escapism and well worth the read and I will absolutely buy the third novel in the series.

Under a Graveyard Sky (Black Tide Rising Book 1)

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book Review

This was my first foray into a John Ringo world.  Since we are on the zombie theme, Ringo is to literature what Z Nation is to the Walking Dead.  If you don’t know what either of those shows are, you’re probably not going to be picking up this book anyway.  Reading Under a Graveyard Sky was kind of like taking a road trip in a cab, it’s dirty, you feel like you wasted too much money and when you arrive at your destination you realize that you don’t give a shit what happens to the car or the driver.  When the journey ends, you wished you flew.

Zombie-ism arrives in the form of a disease that appears to have been delivered via some underground garden variety terrorist organization.  You catch the flu it in all the regular ways.  This is not breaking any new ground here, which is ok in the zombie genre, but what I had a hard time with was the pseudo-science.  By pseudo, I’m not claiming that there are holes in the science, more that he starts off with a promising scientific premise and then makes it boring as hell.  He seems to realize it is boring as he pretty much gives up on the science halfway through the book.

The other big issue I had with the book was the lack of any interesting conflict.  In a book about zombies! All of the main characters get vaccinated from the disease very early in the book.  Then none of these main characters ever has to deal with any real loss.  Yeah, there are some hints of PTSD throughout but that is the only time you see any real emotion from any of the characters and that is flaccid at best.  Maybe we’re spoiled from the Walking Dead by learning how vicious a story can get when toying with your emotions but this felt like it had all the dimensions of a John Romero B-movie.  These characters belong in Flatland.

Ringo can write action, I’ll give him that.  He can take you from page to page like a cowhand herding cattle but at the end of the day you realize that it’s all ground chuck with not a single New York strip in sight.  I didn’t stop reading the book, so he deserves enough credit to fall into that ’80’s Schwarzenegger Action flick on late night TV that you just can’t turn away from for some reason’ category.  But sadly, the book leaves no more an impression than a late night channel surf.  I finished the book a week ago and I can’t remember the name of a single character, even the cool 13 year old ass kicking sister.

I’m going to have to pass on the next installment of this series.

Firefight (Reckoners Book 2)

Science Fiction Book Review

Science Fiction Book Review

Let’s start by saying that I read pretty much anything that Sanderson puts out.  This includes all of his novellas, those lollipop sized servings of delicious plot and concepts that keep you engaged until you realize that you took the requisite three licks and chomped your way through to the end.  I consumed the previous installation of this series, Steelheart, with a singular focus that found me growing increasingly irritated with those elements of real life that got in my way of finishing the novel, those things like kids and, you know, work.

The first book, Steelheart, had every element of Sanderson’s unique take on a genre that definitely needed one.  Even though superheroes have become increasingly complex and interesting, especially as depicted by stronger and stronger directors in Hollywood, they are still very formulaic.  Sanderson breaks the formula, twists it around, adds his special brand of voodoo and puts you in an entirely unexpected place.  The joy of his world is that the only heroes in it are definitely not super.  While writing Firefight, Sanderson even did us all the wonderful favor of putting out a little ‘tweener novella, Mitosis, that kept the cravings going.

This made it all the more disappointing when I did finally dive into Firefight.  Don’t get me wrong, the book is still good, with Sanderson’s mastery of the language blazing through every page with a plot relentlessly getting the reader through to the thrilling climax.  But it’s not Sanderson good.

The main characters move location from the shiny Steel Chicago to an over-the-top, hippy version of New York that also happens to be mostly underwater.  This lends to some pretty cool visuals but ultimately becomes a little limiting in what the characters can accomplish and too often reminded me of that disaster of a Costner movie, Waterworld.   The reason for the shift becomes immediately apparent as the primary villain is a high epic with water powers.  It was she who flooded the place and she who sets the rules.

Our protaganist, with the newly minted moniker of Steelslayer, still uses his encyclopedic knowledge of Epics to formulate a plan with the rest of his team to do their very best to take down these over entitled super-pricks.  They even use new Epic charged toys to execute the plan.  What I found disappointing was that it was nothing extraordinarily new.  Even the big reveal at the end didn’t push the envelope to anything groundbreaking.  Sanderson has set the bar sooo high on all of his books that I’ve grown to expect something mind-blowingly new every time I read one of them that just getting a continuation of the previous installment felt like a letdown.  It almost felt like Sanderson himself got a little bored with the concept.  Pure conjecture on my part but I couldn’t still that niggling thought as I made my way through Firefight far slower than Steelheart.

Will I read the next and most likely final installment of the Reckoners series?  Absolutely.  Will I go into it with the same super high expectations I take into every Sanderson book.  Absolutely.  Here’s to hoping that he meets those expectations like he did with Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive.

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