Friday, 18 January 2013

A Fall Of Moondust 9.7

A straightforward disaster and recovery story based around a tourist vessel on the moon that is swallowed during an earthquake to become trapped 15 metres under the lunar dust.

There are two parallel threads to the linear storyline based around the rescue effort and on board the stricken vessel. The characters and dialogue help to make the latter aspect work. A worrying part occurs when one of the passengers reveals his UFO conspiracy theories. As a reader I thought that the man was going to be revealed as an alien and organise rescue via some ridiculous means. Fortunately this is just another plot twist and the man is simply a crank.

The true strength of this story is the science. The reader is invited almost immediately to speculate on the outcome. How will the rescue happen? An important character is Dr Lawson, a scientist on an orbiting observatory who discovers that the vessel has in fact slipped under the dust after it is initially suspected that it was crushed in an avalanche in the hills. The scientist is rewarded for this diligence by media appearances where he debunks methods of rescue suggested by the public. This is where Clarke toys with the reader and shows off his fine logical/engineering brain and it makes this a fine, fine piece of SF. When the rescue finally occurs it is quick, dramatic and matter of fact. A two page epilogue then escorts us out the door. Bang.

What works here is that the story is so tight. There is no flab. The tension is kept constantly high by events that threaten the recovery effort. A sci-fi thriller par excellence with a completely plausible plot and, rarely for Arthur C. Clarke, dialogue and characters that work.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Red Mars 6.9

Red Mars is the near-future history of the colonization and early terraforming of mars. We follow a team of carefully chosen specialists as they begin to set up home and tame the planet.

The novel comes highly recommended and has won numerous awards. The praise is due for the scientific realism of the story and the pragmatic way in which events unfold.

The writer is obviously a fan of Arthur C Clarke (there is even a space elevator) and has been careful to avoid some of Clarkes weaknesses in character development and dialogue. Unfortunately, the author errs by going too far in the other direction. We get pages of relationship gossip and description of the sex lives of the crew.

The main impression I got was of plodding boredom and little tension. There is a passage of hundreds of pages where the main character John Boone drives around in a slow land vehicle visiting people and talking about sabotage and politics. This bored me to the point of almost not persevering. The descriptions of the features of the martian landscape are over full at times. I found myself thinking "OK, we get it. You've done your research. Now get on with my story!"

The manner in which the vested business interests back on Earth treat the growing independence movement is treated well but overall there is too much sociology and political lecturing. I feel that the big US awards were given for the parallels with the history of US independence and not for the quality of the writing and plot.

A good editor could have tightened this up to become a classic. Alas life is too short for me to continue trudging through this uninspiring geology lecture. Don't believe the hype.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Up next....

In honour of the Mars Curiosity Rover I've decided to tackle the Mars trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson next.

11.22.63 9.2

This is a Stephen King novel about time travel and it doesn't really fit into the list of top SF books ever that I'm trying to read and score. It is speculative fiction though and I'm going to put it on the blog because quibbles aside it's a bloody good book.

Our main character Jake is shown a magic door back in time that takes one to the same date in 1958. If Jake returns to the present he can bring material objects with him but if he then returns to the past the clock is reset and people in 1958 he met last time won't remember him.

And that's the premise. One of those great what if? stoylines. The plot develops because the man who shows the door to Jake is dying of cancer and was trying to prevent the Kennedy assassination in 1963 but feared he wouldn't live long enough to last the five years in the past. He shows Jake the door and convinces him to complete the task.

The best thing about this work is that it sets the imagination racing. What would I do if I went back to 1958? Also, all through I was speculating on how I would end the book and couldn't wait to see how Stephen King would settle it.

The work benefits from the impressive amount of background research that really helps the reader feel like they are in 1958. The unintended consequences of time travel are also treated well. The emotional heart of the book is a heartbreaking love story which reminded me a lot of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

The main issue I have with 11.22.63 is that it is based on factual events and yet it chooses to ignore a lot of the facts about what happened at the assassination. He decides early on that Oswald was a lone gunman and fits that into the plot and nothing else is considered (the character in the book finds proof that Oswald acted along which means the internal plot is consistent). To be fair Stephen King does justify this in the afterwords and the story would have been very difficult to write with this extra complexity.

Another issue is that there are heavy overtones of the film Back to the Future here especially in how the character takes a list of sports results back the past to make money from bets. And the idea of returning to the future to see the effect of actions in the past. I'm sure there are other time travel books that have been pinched from too. It isn't a new premise.

The problem I have with deciding on a score is that it's a Stephen King and very exciting and readable. I mean the guy just has such a lovely flowing style that is very gentle. And his characters (told in the first person) do real things like have a meal and take a shower.

All in, a great read. I want to give it a higher score because it has charmed me with its easygoing manner but I must be logical about things like plot and structure and consistency.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Naked God 6.7

The final part of the trilogy. The grand finale. Except that it isn't. We get closer and closer to the end with no sign of things being wrapped up until Joshua finds the naked god who bestows him temporary powers and he sorts it all out. It reminded me a bit of the q continuum from star trek without the wit.

The rest of the book is just spinning out the logical consequences of the events in the first two books. This Hamilton does very, very well. The worldbuilding and plotline domino effects are what make the series worth reading.

Ultimately, I feel like this story could have been much tighter. 6000 pages could easily have been 4000.


Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Blue Nowhere 9.0

I really enjoyed reading this cyber thriller on my holidays in California at the end of last year. A super hacker has become a serial killer and only another criminal hacker can catch him.

What I really enjoyed was the plausibility of the hacking and computer bits. They use a linux terminal! They use ssh! The author has done some research! Rejoice! Compare this to Neuromancer and Dan Browns Digital Fortress (which is a good thriller but not very plausible).

The exposition could clog the flow of the book to death but the author and the editor have done a sound job here. A detective thriller as much as a computer hacking story. Not really science fiction so I won't put it in the league table but it deserves a solid 9/10. A great holiday read. Bravo!

The Neutronium Alchemist 9.4

Book two of the nights dawn trilogy and the action goes straight in. The possessed are now off planet Lalonde and they begin to spread the possession across the galaxy.

The way in which the possession spreads across the confederation is done superbly and it seems very plausible. Of course things would unfold this way.

The action sequences are done very well too although they don't really convey much tension. (spoiler coming) When the alchemist is finally deployed I felt indifferent. The scenes inside the shed where Mzu is cornered are also a bit flat even though an asteroid sized lump of metal is about to drop out of the sky.

I also felt a bit indifferent about Al Capone. How on earth could he take control of an advanced civilisation. Surely people with a better grasp of the technology could outflank him.

Small gripes asides the sum total here is just superb. Quinn Dexter continues at his evil best. Fletcher Christian is his noble opposite. Joshua and Ione and Louise are here throughout and the three corners of the triangle stay mostly apart.

After putting in all of the hard work in book one part two felt like a reward. I enjoyed plodding my way through. The intricacies of all the various planets and asteroids/arcologies are like a complex buffet banquet to be nibbled on. I will read the final part (in fact I've already started it) because I'm desperate to find out what solution they find (especially since the Kiint and the Tyrathca have hinted that there is a solution).

It gets a massive 9.4 from me. Sophisticated, detailed and never ever boring.