Is the Magic Gone?

I recently finished Terry Pratchett‘s Raising Steam, the latest installment in his [fifth-]elephant-sized Discworld series, and I fear the magic may be disappearing in a couple ways.

Story-wise, there are only a few things that happen that can be directly attributed to “the light fantastic”, with the vast majority of the plot dealing with technological changes intertwined with social changes. In and of itself this is not necessarily a good or bad thing; but when you pick up a book that is part of a fantasy series, you tend to expect, well, fantasy.

On top of that, I found the actual story-telling to be somewhat heavy-handed in its parallels to modern society, with Sir Terry seeming to spend too much time telling us instead of showing us what is going on. This may in part be due to having so much he wanted to say in combination with perhaps a few too many characters, leaving this reader feeling that I never had time to really relate to any of the several important characters. Unfortunately, I also can’t help but wonder how much the writing might be affected by Mr. Pratchett’s early onset Alzheimer’s, both its effect on the mechanics of writing as well as mental processes involved.

All that being said, it’s not a bad book: I just did not find it to be an exceptionally good book. For me it was in that range where I’m glad I read it, but doubt that I would ever have any real interest in re-reading it. (Note that I am the sort of reader who is more than willing to re-read books I loved or really liked, not the sort who almost never re-reads anything.) All in all, it’s probably a must-read for hard-core Discworld fans, but if you are new to this world, I’d suggest starting out with one of the earlier novels.

Hal Spacejock: Mindless But Fun

Hal Spacejock, by Simon Haynes, is a fast-paced, light-hearted romp centered around the pilot of a tramp space freighter with the unlikely title name. He falls (often literally) into one hapless and hopeless situation after another, along with assorted robotic (and about equally inept) friends while being chased by assorted do-badders with an almost equal degree of ineptitude.

While the writing is generally fine and easy to breeze through, the lack of any meat on the bones in terms of satire or some underlying theme left it feeling like empty calories to me. (Hmm…what’s up with the recent food metaphors and me?). While our Hal is not an anti-hero, he really doesn’t have any particularly redeeming features, either — other than being basically good (though not averse to breaking the law when it won’t hurt anyone else who doesn’t deserve to be hurt). With the humor being mostly slapstick or otherwise fairly sophomoric (sorry any 2nd-year high schoolers, nothing personal), it felt closer to Benny Hill or The Three Stooges than the more sophisticated satire of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Mind you: Benny Hill used to be a regular guilty pleasure of mine, though I never got into Larry, Moe, or Curly.

If you like your humor quick, easy, and cheap (it’s free right now at Amazon, anyway — presumably to suck you into the sequels), give it a shot. I, however, probably will not be partaking of any second course.

A Taste of Eastern Cuisine

I was emailed by someone representing the English editions of Chinese author Liu Cixin to see if they could send me a free e-book so that I’d review it here. The idea piqued my interest, but since his short story The Longest Fall (or is it long enough to be a novella…I’m not sure what the demarcation is) was available for free at the time, I decided to read that, instead, as a quick taste that would not have me feeling in any way beholden to them (not that I really would have, mind you).

Anyway, I found it to be quite an enjoyable little read, reminding me to some extent of Asimov in its efficient prose and explanatory dialogues, if perhaps a bit darker in tone. Of course, I don’t know how much of the style should be attributed to the translator, Holger Nahm, but I will say that he or she did what appears to be a very good job: there was maybe one or two minor glitches that looked to me like a possible mistranslation, but most of the time it seemed seamless to me; the only clues that it was originally in Chinese being most of the proper nouns and some of the political subtext.

I’m not going to waste your time talking a lot about the actual story, since you can read it yourself in about the same amount of time it will take me to write this post (probably only a slight exaggeration for the faster readers). Here’s the blurb:

It was an idea right on the thin line between madness and genius: Penetrate the Earth and build a tunnel through its core. Using nothing beyond gravity and inertia one could now travel from the eastern to the western hemisphere in less than an hour. The future of travel was not the sky, it was deep below the earth. It all came crashing down when its inventor was accused of crimes against humanity. With its creator a monster in the eyes of the world the tunnel has fallen into disuse, but now it will be used once more …

For me, it was a spicy little appetizer that has me interested in trying one of his novels as an entree. As it appears they are all available for free via the Amazon Prime lending library, I suppose I could further extend the metaphor with some crack about getting more for your money than a Chinese buffet…but I shall resist the temptation.

40 Years Later: “The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets”

As I mentioned recently, Lloyd Biggle Jr.‘s The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets is now enKindled, and I had a chance to re-read it this week after first reading it right around 40 years ago when I was in high school. I thought it held up pretty well all these years later, though it felt just a tad dated, perhaps.

The blurb:

The IPR Bureau (whose motto is “Democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny”) works to bring newly discovered planets up to the point where they have a planetary democratic government and then induct them into the galactic federation. Unfortunately, the planet Furnil offers problems. The continent of Kurr has a well-entrenched monarchy, and the citizens seem little inclined to change. In fact, they immerse themselves in art rather than politics…and have been doing so for more than 400 years! So what’s a poor IPR agent to do…?

It’s not just language and style that differentiates it from today’s descendants, but its size, too. In a time when novel writers seem to be compelled to write books that are at a minimum 600 pages long with at least 3 different major plot lines and more important characters than a standard keyboard; it was like a breath of fresh air to read a novel that barely fills out 200 pages, has only one plot line, and does not require a scorecard to track all the characters. Not being a speed reader by any means, I was still able to finish it in three evening reading sessions (a sharp contrast to Pandora’s Star, which was the last book I read and about five times as long).

I think “Trumpets” made a bigger impression on me the first time I read it, as at that time it was possibly the first science fiction book I read that was not about rockets, robots, and technology; but was instead more centered on social sciences, so to speak. The only descriptions of any detail about hardware were the descriptions of musical instruments (acoustic, not electronic), architecture, and paintings. Sure, there is mention of interplanetary travel, at least one “ray gun” makes an appearance, and a stealth airplane of sorts plays a role: but mostly it’s just people and, eventually, trumpets (for which I have a soft spot). If a quick, somewhat retro read sounds like fun to you, then I highly recommend it; while if you really prefer long tomes with intricate plots and character interactions along with verbose descriptions of scenes and science, you might find it too terse and simplistic.

“Pandora’s Star” a Good Reason for e-Readers

I finished Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star last night, and I guess the good news is that it’s the sort of book that would make me stay up way past my usual bed time in order to finish it. The only bad news of sorts might be for anyone who has not yet made the jump to e-books, as in paper form it’s about 1000 pages — the kind of thing that can give you hand/wrist cramps if you’re not careful. I also found it to be an almost refreshing alternative to a lot of current science fiction which seems to center around a relatively near future dystopias and/or virtual reality becoming more important than, umm…, real reality. Instead, Pandora’s Star supposes that some critical scientific and technological advances (in particular the ability to travel across interstellar space via generated worm-holes) have led to a relatively benign human society, perhaps somewhat matured by the fact that people are able to live for hundreds of years and thus developing a different perspective on life and assorted social issues.

That’s not to say that virtual reality does not play a part, nor that there aren’t societal problems — one of the main characters is a “serious crimes” detective, after all. Overall, however, there is a sense of not needing to fear the future; though like today we’ll still need to watch out for the rich and powerful (which generally go hand in hand) trying to become richer and more powerful at the expense of others. And, as any good sci-fi story of this sort demonstrates, we’ll need to look out for alien races who can’t just get along; not necessarily because they’re evil, per se, but because they may have evolved in a way where what we consider to be “right” makes no sense to them. In this sense Pandora’s Star harkened back to the so-called golden era of science fiction when many of its practitioners looked to the future with anticipation rather than with trepidation.

My only real complaints are that I found some of the underlying scientific and technological ideas to be more on the convenient side (for storytelling) than on the side of what I suspect is more realistic (the aforementioned wormhole generators, for one), and the ending was a bit of a disappointment for me, as it ended on a literal cliffhanger. Even though I knew there was a sequel (Judas Unchained), after reading a thousand pages, I want some sort of ending with a certain sense of resolution, even if I realize it’s not the end of the story. So be warned: if you read this book, you’re likely going to have to read at least another 1000 pages. (In fact, there are more books in the series, but my understanding is that the second book does conclude the story started in the frist, so you could comfortably stop there — or at least take a hiatus before coming back to the series later.)

Sir Terry’s Back in Stride with “Dodger”

After the relative disappointment that was The Long Earth (which may have suffered from being a collaboration that just didn’t work), Terry Pratchett seems to be back in fine form with his latest novel Dodger. This is a departure from his highly popular Discworld series, instead being a dip into the historical fiction waters (or “historical fantasy” as he calls it, though it certainly is not a member of the fantasy genre), probably closest to his YA novel Nation, though perhaps not quite as YA.

The story takes place in Victorian London, where our hero Dodger, a young “tosher” who up until now made his living by scavenging in the sewers, starts by saving a damsel in distress and ends up interacting with numerous historical (and at least one fictional) characters, including “Charlie” Dickens, while looking to solve a mystery and make said damsel safe for good. Along the way, this reader, at least, learned a bit of history — being able to jump onto Wikipedia and Google on your e-reader can make this sort of book even more fun/educational. I found Sir Terry’s writing to be right up there with the best of his books, a welcome return from the much drier and less image-generating text of the aforementioned The Long Earth. Probably the only things that did not completely click for me were the title character being perhaps too good at too many things, and there being not much of an underlying theme: more of just an exposition on how the divide between lower and upper classes was probably greater back then.

Nit-picking aside, anyone who likes Victorian era historical fiction should enjoy this, as will any Pratchett fans willing to step outside of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi genres.

Kindle Paperwhite: Initial Impressions

I received my new Kindle Paperwhite yesterday evening (WiFi-only with “Special Offers”). Unfortunately it turns out mine is defective, but I have not seen anyone else reporting my problem yet, so hopefully I was just very unlucky. My problem is that the touch screen malfunctions whenever the power/USB cable is attached. When not attached it works fine and I quite like this new e-reader, so I’ll be having a nice chat with an Amazon rep soon to discuss an exchange.

I like the lighted screen and increased resolution, and the touch screen both feels and responds better than on my Touch (when no cord is attached!). While there is a bit of blotchiness (is that a word?) at the very bottom of the screen when the built in LED lighting is in effect, it does not extend up into the actual text of the book (or only very marginally so) and as such does not bother me, though I’ve seen other first-day customers displaying displeasure about this. (Unfortunately, my cheap point-and-shoot camera cannot provide a useful illustration of what I’m seeing on mine.)

The Amazon leather case cradles the Kindle snugly and with a minimum of additional bulk. If the Kindle is in sleep mode, it automatically turns on when you open the case (I’m assuming something is triggered by the magnetic clasp in the cover?). Since I have a “Special Offers” unit, it initially displays a full-screen ad at that point, but a simple finger swipe on the screen takes you to wherever you were when it went to sleep. Again, some initial responders are irritated by having to do this quick swipe after opening the case, and some have decided paying $20 to remove the special offers is worth it. For me, it’s no big deal, and I actually take advantage of the special offers from time to time.

I’ll have more info here soon (and maybe some photos), but I wanted to get my first thoughts posted. Overall it’s probably more evolutionary than revolutionary, though for those who like to read in the dark, it may, in fact, be revolutionary.

“Long Earth” a Bit Long on Explication

I finished Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth last night, and it was, unfortunately, a rather mediocre experience. While I did not really expect this collaboration to hit all the high notes that Sir Terry and Neil Gaiman did in Good Omens, I had hoped for something better.

The novel does score a lot of points for originality in terms of its “multiverse” concept involving many, many parallel Earths, of which ours seems to be the only one that has homo sapiens. While aspects of this concept were intriguing, in general the characters were not. On top of that, the authors seemed to interpret the idea of “show me, don’t tell me” by having much of the story, well, told to the reader via dialogue, often verging more on monologues with one character explaining things to another in long and often multiple paragraphs.

In 20/20 hindsight, I think a better approach would have been to center the story around one of the minor characters, a Madison WI police officer, letting her discover and dig up the facts instead of them being told to us. I suppose that might seem like self-plagiarizing of Pratchett’s Sam Vimes character from some of his Discworld novels; but then they duplicated Good Omen’s use of nuns as sometimes humorous characters and the re-use of the character name “Lobsang”, so why not?

If you enjoy parallel universe stories, this may be worth your time; but if you need great character development and scintillating writing, you may want to pass on it — as much as it pains me to say that about anything by Mr. Pratchett.

I’m Not Dead Yet

“I’m getting better.”

Okay, sorry to any of you who are not fans of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I’ve not been updating this blog lately (“Lately?” you ask sarcastically), but I hope that will change before much longer. In the meantime, I plan to post a couple quick reviews just to prove that I’m still reading e-books (though not as many as I’d like to be reading). Without further ado:

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, is a sci-fi classic I’ve managed to miss reading since…well…since I was born. Triffids was written in 1951, yet I found it had aged better than many of its contemporaries, probably because it did not dwell too much on technology, instead focusing more on the people.

This is a post-apocalyptic tale told by one of the survivors, where “survivors” in this case are those who were not rendered blind by some generally unspecified cause, which the author speculates was the result of some sort of human-built space weapons. A side effect of this catastrophe is that it allows the Triffids, a kind of mobile, bio-engineered plant, to get loose and start causing problems. (Note that this deviates from the movie adaptation, which suggests these problems originate from some alien source beyond Earth.) The bulk of the novel then follows the attempt of the narrator to cope with the situation along with others he finds, including one he falls in love with.

I’m glad I finally got around to reading this. It may not be the best sci-fi novel ever, but I found it to be compelling, easy to read, and surprisingly modern in some respects. Four thumbs up out of five.

“I think I’ll go for a walk.”

“Spin” by Robert Charles Wilson

I just finished reading Spin by Robert Charles Wilson and found it to be a mixed bag for me: definitely worth reading but not likely one I’ll re-read. The story is centered around a time in the near future when an unknown alien technology is used to essentially wrap the Earth in a shell of sorts: the “Spin.” This shell effectively isolates the Earth from time along with any external dangers. The main characters: a brother and sister and a friend who grew up with them (and is the story’s narrator) then become involved in one way or another with the process of trying to understand what has happened and form some kind of response. I’ll stop any further description at that point, so as not to spoil anything.

The main plot was interesting, creative, and held my attention; but the melodramatic sub-plots and characters left me feeling at times as if it were a Hollywood script, where a handful of people in one country (the US, of course) were seemingly the focal point of a global phenomenon affecting everyone on Earth.

Wilson’s writing was at times inspired, but at other times left me flat, too often drawing attention to himself and pulling me out of the moment. On the large scale, the flashback technique switching between the final plot line and the back story (the latter being the majority of the book) felt a bit contrived — a sort of false sense of suspense. On the small scale, many of Wilson’s similes seemed forced, as if he felt that after every so many words it was time for another one. On the other hand, there were more than a few metaphors that were strikingly effective — so again, a mixed bag.

All in all, a decent book that I guess I’d say is on the soft side of “hard” science fiction, having a fair amount of character-driven content, though I found those characters and their mutual interactions a bit too contrived for my tastes.