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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Die, Spammers, Die

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Ghost Brigades

The last of the Boskone-themed book log posts for this year is John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades, a sort-of sequel to Old Man's War (same universe, different characters). I wasn't on any panels with John, but I did hang out with him a bit, and I bought the book there, so I'll add it in to the general Boskone blogging blitz.

The Ghost Brigades takes up an idea that's set up in Old Man's War, but not explored very much: the Special Forces units of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops cloned from the DNA of elderly recruits who die before they can be transferred into new bodies. It's got slam-bang action, snappy dialogue, and some interesting meditations on identity, making it a worthy follow-up to Old Man's War.

The book is set in the same universe, a place of constant violent struggle between alien species, in which humanity is forced to battle to protect its few colonies. The Colonial Defense Forces recruit elderly humans, put them into souped-up new bodies, and use them as infantry to fight wars on distant planets. There are some jobs that are too much for regular troops, though, so they have the Special Forces, the "Ghost Brigades," who are force-grown clones with artifical personalities, and even more extreme modifications. They're the troops Earth uses to do the really important jobs, and pull the dirty tricks that need to be kept quiet.

As the book opens, a Special Forces unit commanded by a reatively minor character from Old Man's War uncovers evidence of a plot against Earth involving three alien races, and a human traitor with unclear motives. In an effort to learn what's going on, they clone the traitor from old DNA samples, and attempt to imprint his personality on the clone. When that fails, he's turned over to the Ghost Brigades as a new recruit ("Jared Dirac"-- all the Special Forces troops are given random first names, and the last names of famous scientists), but the higher-ups keep a close eye on him, and when Special Forces ships start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, it looks like Jared may hold the key to saving humanity from complete disaster.

This is a very well-crafted book, with something for everyone. If you liked Old Man's War, there are a few training and combat scenes here that are every bit as good as the original. If you were hoping for more details in the first book, this volume offers intriguing revelations about the nature and motivation of the alien races, and about what's going on behind the scenes in the CDF. And if you were afraid of a carbon-copy sequel, you have nothing to worry about, because this book takes the ideas set up in the first book, and expands them in new directions.

The book would probably stand reasonably well on its own-- very little depends directly on the events of the first one-- but it would definitely help to have read the first. And, while the plot is brought to a satisfactory resolution, there are enough loose ends and sequel hooks to set up another book (a good thing, that, as Scalzi is under contract to write a third volume in the series...).

I enjoyed this book a good deal, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a good, fast-moving, plot-driven read. And I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes with the sequel.

Posted at 9:50 PM | link | no comments


Permanence

Third in the series of books I read to learn about my panelists for "Is Science Fiction Necessary?" is Permanence by Karl Schroeder. This is a few years old, now, but we had a copy on the to-be-read shelf, which I started before Boskone, and finished the day after the con.

One of the cover blurbs drops the phrase "Heinlein Juvenile," and that's not a bad description of the feel of the book. The main protagonist, Rue Cassels, is a young girl from a space habitat who steals a ship and flees her abusive brother to seek her fortune on another world. On the way, she spots what she thinks is a comet, but which turns out to be a derelict spacecraft. With the help of a distant cousin and a handful of others, she mounts an expedition to the ship to stake her claim, and succeeds through a combination of rational thought, determination, and sheer force of personality. Once she gets there, things start to get deep.

The best feature of the book is really the setting, which imagines a huge web of human colonies on planets and stations orbiting incredibly numerous brown dwarf stars. These colonies are linked by the "Cycler Compact," built around slower-than-light starships making regular orbits among the colonies, carrying news and trade from one to the next. The Compact is in danger of collapse, though, because of the recent discovery of faster-than-light travel, through a mechanism that requires a deeper gravity well than the brown dwarfs can provide. A new society is springing up around "lit worlds," those orbiting stars massive enough to sustain fusion, and provide a launching point for FTL ships. Rue's discovery turns out to have huge implications for both the Compact and the lit worlds.

This is a book that is positively overflowing with nifty SF ideas, from the brown dwarfs, to the "inscape" (where people have brain implants to let them see informative mark-up overlaying normal reality), to several species of deeply alien extraterrestrials, to the "Permanence" of the title, which refers to a religion or group of religions dedicated to the goal of re-shaping human culture into something that can survive for millennia. For the most part, these are handled very well, with the exception of the "Rights Economy" that dominates the lit worlds, and is a little too ham-handedly satirical to work for me (happily, the main plot doesn't depend on the annoying elements).

The actual plot of the book is quite good, but nowhere near as remarkable as the worldbuilding. There are a few too many points where Rue just happens to meet up with somebody who just happens to decide to help her out in some crucial way. There are some fun mysteries along the way, though, and enough exciting action to keep it from becoming dry and preachy, and enough Deep Thoughts about culture and religion to keep it from being pure escapist trash. It wasn't as much fun as Crystal Rain, but it's a good read.

We've got a copy of his first novel, Ventus, lying around, and Permanence is good enough to move it up the reading queue a bit. His latest, Lady of Mazes also sounds interesting, though I don't know that I'll be downloading the novel he wrote for the Canadian military...

Posted at 9:20 PM | link | no comments


Crystal Rain

The second book read in my attempt to learn about the "Is Science Fiction Necessary?" panelists was Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain. John Scalzi had said nice things about it on the Whatever, and I read the Prologue in the store and was hooked.

I heard Toby describe it as "a Caribbean steampunk space opera novel" or something like that, and that's a pretty good description. It's a lost colony story, set on a planet that was settled by a mix of races and cultures from Earth, and then cut off from the rest of humanity by a desperate action in a war with hostile aliens. The same act that stranded them destroyed nearly all of the high-tech machinery on the planet, so a few hundred years later, the human protagonists have dropped down to a steampunk sort of tech level, while the surviving aliens have set themselves up as gods, and created a menacing Aztec-like culture on the far side of a nearly impassable mountain range.

At the beginning of the book, the Azteca come swarming over the Wicked High Mountains, and threaten to completely overwhelm the humans of Nanagada. In addition to simnple conquest, they have been instructed by their "gods" to find a man named John deBrun, who washed up on shore almsot thirty years earlier, missing one hand and most of his memory. It seems that deBrun holds the key to something mysterious called the Ma Wi Jung, which the alien Teotl desperately want to control.

Buckell rings some interesting changes on the well-worn idea of a lost colony story. For one thing, the cultures clashing here are not your standard European-derived generic human societies-- the Azteca are creepily novel, and the Caribbean-flavored human culture of the protagonists is nicely drawn and very believable. Another touch that I liked is that the people have not, in fact, forgotten that they were a colony world-- most of the high tech is gone, but the memory remains, and there are even a few people from the olds days still running around, kept alive by life-extending nanotechnology. They're doing their best to maintain, and even improve their situation, building steam-powered railroads to link their towns, and generally struggling to raise their technology level. It's fairly obvious what the Ma Wi Jung will turn out to be, but even there, there are some surprises in store.

The plot moves along very briskly, with deBrun and a mysterious dreadlocked human killing machine named Pepper setting off on a desperate quest to the frozen north to find the Ma Wi Jung, pursued by Azteca warships, and dogged by spies. Back in the Capitol City, the prime minister Dihana and her general Edward Haidan mount a desperate defense against the Azteca armies. The action moves quickly-- a lot of events are packed into 350 pages-- and Buckell doesn't pull many punches.

There are a couple of stray bits of plot that don't really tie in to much else, and a few unsatisfying elements to the ending, but this is his first novel, so you can't expect complete perfection. And as a first novel, it's an auspicious debut. He's writing a sequel at the moment (at least, I assume that Ragamuffin is meant to be in the same world-- you can keep up with the process on his blog), and I'll definitely pick it up as soon as it comes out. He's a writer worth keeping an eye on.

(One caveat: much of the dialogue is in a mild sort of dialect (to choose an example line from a thickly-accented character: "Them man can't even test with me mongoose. I don't want the city, we protecting it. Me and you, we go have to reason things out. Things happening"). This isn't nearly as annoying as it might be, and it's actually pretty easy to read. If you're bothered by that sort of thing, though, consider yourself warned.)

Posted at 8:31 PM | link | no comments


The Steerswoman

A couple of weeks back, Kate and I made our annual trip to Boskone, where once again, I was on a few program items one of those was a panel with the slightly alarming title "Is Science Fiction Necessary?", which I was slated to moderate, no less. I was pretty worried about that one (which seemed to have great potential to just fizzle out), so I made it a point to seek out and read books by my co-panelists, so that if nothing else, I could ask them some intelligent questions about their own books.

Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman got to be the first book read, because we happened to have it lying around, as part of an omnibus with the sequel, The Outskirter's Secret-- one of a great many books sitting on the to-be-read bookcase.

Rowan is a Steerswoman, part of an order dedicated to seeking and spreading knowledge, and pledged to always give true answers to any question she is asked. Provided, that is, that the asker agrees to answer any questions she asks. Refusal to answer a question asked by a Steerswoman brings a lifetime ban-- no Steerswoman will ever again provide an answer. As the book opens, she is traveling around looking for information about mysterious jewels that have been found scattered in different places all around the land.

The world she lives in has a generic medievaloid look to it-- low technology level, hereditary nobility, barbarian tribes on the frontier, etc.-- with two mysterious and feuding orders of wizards scatttered around, capriciously ruling poorly defined domains. The jewels Rowan is seeking are described in a manner that clearly suggests higher technology, though, and there are a few other hints here and there that all is not what it seems. People are well aware that the world is a sphere, for example, and early on, Rowan uses some simple calculations to determine that an object launched with sufficient velocity will orbit the world without ever falling.

Predictably enough, it quickly becomes apparent that people linked to the mysterious wizards are trying to kill her, as a direct result of the fact that she's looking for these mysterious jewels. And predictably enough, this only strengthens her resolve to learn more about them. She bands up with Bel, an "Outskirter" from a tribal society on the edge of civilized lands, and William, a young man who wants to become a wizard, and has worked out a few "spells" of his own.

The book moves at a very leisurely pace, and is, all-in-all, a very reasonable sort of book. There are a few major fights, but for the most part, problems are solved by sitting down and thinking them through. Which is fitting, given the calling of the main character.

If you're looking for slam-bang action, this isn't the book for you. If you're looking for a pleasant read about sensible people in a fascinating setting, and the power of a rational and scientific approach to the world, this should do nicely. I realize that that sounds like an absurdly restrictive set of criteria, but it's not meant as damning with faint praise. It's a well-done book with an intriguing setting, and I'll definitely return to read the sequels.

Posted at 8:03 PM | link | no comments


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