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Altered Carbon

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Altered CarbonAltered Carbon by Richard Morgan

This is possibly the best pure Science Fiction book I’ve read in a long time. One of my big frustrations at U.S. bookstores right now is the massive preponderance of The Lord of the Rings clones. And if I can avoid those, I’m looking at Harry Potter clones. So, when I had the chance to go to a bookstore in London, I found Altered Carbon a welcome relief.

Richard Morgan’s first novel, and in some ways, it is apparent, but the pace is so quick and the ideas so fascinating, it really doesn’t matter. What’s neat about this book is the basic idea. Everyone in the world (we assume) is equipped at birth with a “cortical stack”. This stack sits at the base of your neck and records your life. Then, if you have the money, or a good insurance policy you can be brought back to life in another body (either a clone of your own or another).

But Morgan doesn’t stop there. He takes this basic idea and proposes what a society that, in essence, can’t die, might be like. He investigates criminal law and policing as well as military and wealth issues. The main character is a man who was originally something of a punk kid and is hired by the military. There he becomes a member of an elite force who is specially trained to be able to change bodies and still remain effective. But he has a change of heart, and quits. And finds that the only skill he really has is as a mercenary.

When he ends up on the wrong side in a fight, he is killed and stored until a fabulously wealthy man ships his stack to Earth and blackmails him into helping him solve a mystery. The mystery isn’t that interesting, but the twists and turns that Morgan takes you through to learn more about this future Earth and how it has adapted to eternal life (for some) is great. I don’t think I put the book down for more than 5 minutes until I was finished.

This is Science Fiction the way I always wanted it to be. Fast, fun, and full of new and mind-bending ideas. Once the obsession with fantasy is over, I hope that SciFi authors will come back to their roots of hard science fiction. But even if they’re slow, at least there is Richard Morgan out there giving me hope.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Last night I had the opportunity to see a pre-screening of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie). This was a fun, over-the-top fantasy set in the 30s, the golden era of Science Fiction. Giant robots attack New York City, and rayguns that shoot concentric circles set the stage for a journey back to the Science Fiction of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

If you’ve been reading SciFi for a long time, you will probably love this movie. It has a lot of charm and the style is very reminiscent of old-style Science Fiction. I love the ray gun. How can you not love a movie that has a ray gun?

Movie fans who loved Superman will see a lot of similarities in style to this film. There are also references to the War of the Worlds and King Kong.

If you are a fan of CGI work, this is also another good reason to go see this film. In the commentary by the director after the film, he said that every scene was composited with CGI. Items that the actors touched (like the ray gun) were real, but anything they just looked at or stood near was most likely CGI. This kept the price down, but it also meant that the actors had to do a lot of imagination just to get through their scenes. The principles worked together on set (Jolie was filmed over only 3 days), but any extras were filmed alone in front of blue screens and then composited into the shots. Sir Lawrence Olivier is even in the movie!

Go see this movie! It is fun and great scifi and you’ll love it.

A Fistful of Sky

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A Fistful of SkyA Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I first read A Fistful of Sky about two years ago, when it first came out. But they fooled me with the new cover and so I bought and read it again. Luckily, there is nothing to complain about in reading it again, it’s a fun story with a lot to enjoy.

This is the story of Gypsum, middle child in a family of witches who has not come into her powers. By the time she’s 20, everyone assumes that she doesn’t have any powers, and she becomes something of the Cinderella in her household. Because she doesn’t have powers, her siblings (and even her mother sometimes) boss her around and use magic to force her to do what they want her to do.

But this wouldn’t be an interesting story if that’s all there was to it, and of course, she does eventually get magical powers. But not of the sort that anyone would have ever wanted or expected. Gypsum has to learn to deal with magic after she’s all but given up on having any, and she has to deal with dangerous magic.

Hoffman takes a standard coming-of-age story and adds to it hope and wonder like you find in the best fantasy stories out there. This book is quick to read and fun to read (even the second time). The characters are interesting, and the problems they have are believable and funny. I entered into this book and was quickly lost in Gypsum’s world hoping she could find a way to deal with her problems and not be crushed beneath them.

This is the type of fantasy I love to read. I will happily buy this book again and again in order to get that same sense of wonder and joy that it brings.


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Survival (Species Imperative, 1) Survival by Julie Czerneda

There aren’t a lot of SciFi books about biology. So it’s interesting to read one. I first found Czerneda with her book A Thousand Words for Stranger. I was hooked. So of course, when I saw Survival I knew I had to read it.

In this story, Mac is a biologist studying salmon in a wilderness preserve in the Pacific Northwest. She is a very insular person, has never been off-world, and has never wanted to. She just wants to study her salmon and be left alone. But she’s not left alone. Instead, she’s dragged into an interstellar war that’s been going on since before Earth knew we were not alone in the universe.

The concepts and ideas come thick and fast, as you may expect from better science fiction. And since Czerneda is herself a biologist, she brings the personalities of the scientists in the story to life in a way that only someone who works with them would know.

As with all of her stories the aliens in this story are very well thought-out. That makes the whole thing that much more interesting. But unlike her earlier stories, the reason I enjoyed this one so much was because of her human characters. Mac herself is very fun and believable, and the other humans she meets are as well thought out as the aliens.

I enjoyed this book so much that when it turned out that my copy was missing something like 30 pages, I didn’t want to stop reading. So I just skipped ahead and kept reading in the car while we headed back to the bookstore to get a more complete copy. I missed some crucial parts, but nothing I couldn’t figure out and the rest of the book was worth it.

Angel: Season 1

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Angel - Season One Angel – Season One

Angel is a really good show. It’s amazing that it was cancelled, but at least it’s out on DVD to watch over and over. Detective dramas are a dime-a-dozen, and if you saw my review of Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff, you know that the “genre” can be a bit over the top even in good books and shows. But Angel is the spin-off character (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that could carry it off.

David Boreanaz plays the brooding title character, Angel, a vampire with a soul. But before you groan and click away, it’s really not that bad. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is what makes it so much fun to watch. The action is dark and can be relentless, but that just makes it more exciting.

This first season DVD set comes with extras that expand on the show and make it more interesting for the die-hard fan to watch. Some of the commentaries can be very dull to listen to, but when Joss Whedon talks, the episode is actually enhanced. He has a very clear vision for where he wants his show to go and he works hard to get it the way he wants it. If Joss Whedon is associated with a TV show or movie, you can be sure it will be good.

Smoke and Shadows

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Smoke and ShadowsSmoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff

This book was not, by any means, a difficult book to read. It took about 2 days (with time off for working) and was fun. However, often throughout the book I got the sense that I was missing something. I thought I had read the other books about these characters, but the main character, Tony Foster, wasn’t familiar to me. Normally, it wouldn’t bother me at all, but there were a lot of references throughout the book to other stories that I wasn’t familiar with.

This is the story of Tony Foster, protege of Henry Fitzroy, vampire detective. But really, Henry was nothing more than the hired muscle. Instead, the main action was played by Arra, a reluctant wizard, and Tony, a young production assistant for a third- (no second-) rate production company. When shadows start moving by themselves, Tony is the only one to notice. And when they start killing people, he steps up to the plate to save the day.

Why is it that most urban fantasy always seems to be little more than mind-candy? This book is very enjoyable, a fun read, and quick, but there isn’t much substance. Guessing what happens isn’t terribly difficult, and even the quasi- “twist” isn’t all that twisted. The only real morals I got out of this book were that Vampire straight-to-syndication TV shows are not generally very good, most actors are pompous idiots, except for the misunderstood co-star who is “a better actor than anyone gave him credit for”. I spent long segments of the book speculating if Lee was meant to be Spike (from Angel) and wondering if there were a Vampire Slayer in the background somewhere.

If you’re looking for something deep, you should keep moving, but if you’re looking for a fun read that is easy on the mind and a good romp, then Ms. Huff delivers the goods. I enjoyed this book, but probably won’t be reading it again any time soon.

Zulu Heart

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Zulu Heart Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes

Book two in the series, this is a second look into an America where Africa conquered the world, and enslaved the whites. I don’t know enough about African culture to know how much of what I know and what I read is true and how much is just stereotyping. But that didn’t deaden my enjoyment of this story.

In this episode, Kai has grown up a little more and has to deal with the death of his uncle, father, and older brother. Aidan has his freedom and has built a home for himself and his family along with a number of other freedmen. But in order to stop a war, Aidan has to go back into slavery to help his childhood friend Kai.

That was what I struggled with the most in this book. Why would Aidan, even for the love of a childhood friend, be willing to go back into slavery? Many other characters asked him the same question, often many times. I, along with them was not totally convinced by the answer he gave.

A lot of the book felt like it was re-running episodes in US history, only with the skin color changed of the primary participants. It got me very interested in both African history and history from the Civil War era.

But the real strength of this book is the way I was sucked into thinking about the characters. After the first few pages, I never gave a thought to the color of the skins and instead was cheering and dismayed for everyone. This is a book that will make anyone take a long look at the US culture and how it was built on slavery and really start questioning it.

Futurama Volume 1

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Futurama, Vol. 1 Futurama Volume 1 This is a very fun 3-disc set including all 13 episodes from Futurama volume 1. If you never saw Futurama, you should seriously consider getting or renting this DVD set. And if you have seen Futurama, well, you probably already have it.

There is so little Science Fiction on TV, so it is really nice to see Matt Groening (of Simpsons fame) putting his incredible talents to this series. It was a huge disappointment when it was cancelled. Especially when you consider the number of lousy reality shows that Fox airs in its place.

Futurama is the story of Fry, accidentally cryogenically frozen in the 90s, who wakes up in the year 3000 (or thereabouts). He meets his great-great-…-nephew and joins the Planet Express company as a delivery person. Every episode he meets aliens, deals with crazy robots, talks with reanimated heads of famous people from the 20th century and more.

This is a hilarious series and not to be missed for the true SciFi afficianodo who wants a laugh.

The Morgaine Saga

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The Morgaine Saga (Daw Book Collectors) The Morgaine Saga by C. J. Cherryh

DANG! That’s all I can really say. This book was three books in one, but it took me about as long as it takes me to read like 6 or 8 books. It was very slow reading. It follows a man who has indentured himself to a half-elven woman (okay I’m embellishing, but that’s what she felt like) who’s only goal in life is to close the gates to Elfland in all the worlds she can. Granted, it’s set as SF (so Elfland is incorrect), but her race are taller than humans, paler of skin, wield what appears to be magic, and appear through a portal into worlds of men.

What I noticed was that as the main character began to understand his liege more the books became more understandable. It was a slow and often painful process, but by the end I felt like I almost knew what was going on. It’s sad, I think I should have just quit reading it, as it was a lot to comprehend while also studying Negotiations and International Management. But I stuck it out and finally finished it on Monday night.