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Crucible Crucible by Nancy Kress

When I first picked up this book and read the inside cover, I thought “I haven’t ever read the first book in this series, so I don’t want to read this one yet.” But something made me pick it up anyway, probably that it was by Nancy Kress who’s Beggars in Spain impressed me deeply in the 90s. It turns out that I had read the first book in the series (Crossfire), but the blurb was so different from my memory of the story that it confused me.

Crucible was a disturbing story for me, especially in the aftermath of the United States 2004 Presidential election. It is the story of a planet of farmers. They came to their new world in a colony ship with four approximately equal groups: Chinese, Arabs, Quakers, and whites. I’m not going to describe their colonization, that’s the subject of a different book and review, but suffice it to say that they lived in veritable peace and harmony for a long time. There was some relative wealth and relative poverty, but in general the society was fair and egalitarian and it seemed to work.

Then the spaceship, The Crucible, arrived from earth. It was carrying, ostensibly, a group of scientists and military who wanted to study the first non-human intelligence that had ever been found and that shared the planet with the colonists. But it turned out to contain a lot more than that.

What was disturbing to me was the similarities I saw between the leader of that ship and the elected leaders of the United States. One in particular fell in love with the planet Greentrees, and so did all in his power to protect her. This amounted to declaring martial law, because there was a possibility that the aliens could come back to the planet and destroy all the humans. Of course, this hadn’t happened in decades, but he was able, by increments to convince the populace that what he was proposing was not only necessary, but right and desirable. And the population went along with him and, in general, loved him for it.

I’m not going to spoil the end for you, but let me just say that the parallels between the U.S. right now and this book were scary to me. And I hope that the parallels stop short of how Kress ended her story.

This is a very strong scifi story with lots of twists and turns. There are aliens and space battles, and even sentient plants. But in the end it is really a story with a commentary about life as we live it today.

And as a hint, don’t read the inside cover blurb. While it is essentially accurate, it is very misleading about the true tone of this book.

Forty Signs of Rain

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Forty Signs of Rain Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

I don’t generally like books that don’t have clear cut endings. Bad guy is caught, white hats save the day, etc. Forty Signs of Rain isn’t like that. In a way, the white hats fail and the bad guy is mother nature taking back what she gave. It’s not really a story of hope. But then again, it could be.

In this election year, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and how we govern ourselves. Clearly, Mr. Robinson had that in mind with this book. He very blatantly discusses the politics of Washington D.C. and the NSF and is not terribly impressed. And as we vote ourselves more bread and circuses, I have to say I don’t particularly blame him.

But this isn’t a political novel, not really. It’s set just a few years in the future (“Phone, call Roy” is the most technological advance you see – and that’s around now) and global warming has taken a turn for the worse. The arctic ice pack has broken up and the gulf stream may have stalled causing, possibly, rapid climactic change.

This was a fascinating look at the way that politics and science collide. And while it is a disaster novel, it also has suggestions for what we can do about it. I found the references to game theory and “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” interesting, but Frank, the character who brought them up spent 3/4ths of the story a flat, boring character who was only interested in analyzing life rather than living it. Luckily, Frank was not the only character.

Charlie, the work-at-home dad who was the environmental adviser for a member of Congress, was by-far, my favorite character. His discussions with his toddler son Joe were humorous and he had very strong beliefs that he was happy to expound upon. His wife, Anna, works at the NSF and is just a little less flat than her co-worker Frank. Then there’s Leo back in California, who seemed to be introduced mostly as a foil to all the rain in Washington, D.C.

But we don’t read SciFi for characterizations either. The science is interesting and inventive, the moral is not too heavy-handed, and the destruction is ultimately quite satisfying. This book is not Robinson’s best, but it’s a fun read with some interesting twists and turns throughout. If you find yourself feeling preached at, that’s probably a common feeling, but Robinson didn’t let the preaching get in the way of showcasing how science and government collide.

For Us, The Living : A Comedy of Customs

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For Us, The Living : A Comedy of CustomsFor Us, the Living by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein is one of my favorite authors. He has been for years. I would read and re-read his books no matter where I was and always found something to love, whether it was Pixel the cat or the doors that dialate or Friday killing a man in the first paragraph of her book.

So, when I saw For Us, the Living available years after his death, I knew I had to buy it. Perhaps Virginia Heinlein had found an old manuscript or maybe this was an unpublished work from his early years. Whatever, I had to have it.

If you are a true Heinlein fan, you will recognize many of the subjects that he would cover later in his books and stories like “The Roads Must Roll”, Time Enough for Love, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and so on. What’s interesting to me is that this book was written before any of them, and before his “juveniles” and other stories. He wasn’t making up the ideas he had about money and society, in fact his ideas and discussion about economy and socialism are based on Social Credit, an economic theory.

It’s clear why this book was banned from being published, as it’s very rough. In many spots, Heinlein sounds more like he’s preaching than he sounds like he’s telling a story. But even with that it becomes clear that he’s got a lot to tell in this story. And the fact that many of his later stories seem to come from this book is not surprising, as there’s a lot here.

If you’re a Heinlein fan, you should read this book.

Broken Angels

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Broken Angels Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

After I finished Altered Carbon I wanted to read every book I could find by Richard Morgan. While Broken Angels is not the gripping story that Altered Carbon was, it was still interesting and enjoyable, and true Science Fiction, which there seems to be a lack of in US bookstores these days.

This is the continuing story of Takeshi Kovacs, a mercenary who can change bodies, or sleeves, when his current sleeve is too damaged. His mind and memories are stored in a computer to be re-downloaded. But this story is less about that, than it is about corporations and how they manipulate people.

Kovacs joins a group of archaeologists who have possibly found the ultimate prize that will make any government all-powerful or any corporation who can control it as rich as they wanted to be. But power corrupts, as they say, and ultimate power… But that would be giving things away.

This is a surprising book. I thought I had the whole book figured out and then right near the end Morgan changes the rules one final time. It was fun and interesting. But if you’re looking for the clarity and diamond-hardness that Altered Carbon brought, then you should look again. This is not a book so much about science as it is about how people use those discoveries, for good or ill.

But it’s set in a war-zone and Kovacs is a mercenary, so expect action and excitement throughout the book. I read it in about 2 days and then turned around and read it again as there is so much to miss the first time through.

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.

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.

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.

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.