Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland

Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland
Published : Unwin Hyman Limited (1989), HarperCollins (1990), Gollancz (2012)
Awards Won : BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
Awards Nominated : Philip K. Dick Award

The Book :

Humanity has reached the stars, but an advanced alien race known as the Capellans has decided that they are not to leave their own solar system.  Plenty of other alien species have streamed into humanity’s little corner of the universe, and a space-based society has developed.

Tabitha Jute is the captain of her own small ship, the “Alice Liddell”, and she does what she can to break even, hauling cargo or people. Down on her luck one day, she manages to both miss her job opportunity and incur a fine she can’t pay.  Without money to pay the fine, Alice will be taken from her.  Without money to buy parts, she also can’t give Alice some much-needed repairs.

Handsome, smooth-talking Marco Metz promises to be the solution to her problems, if only she’ll haul him to the habitat “Plenty”, where they will meet and then transport his cabaret troupe.  Of course, Marco left out some key information, such as the fact that almost everything he says is a lie.  Tabitha and Alice are headed into more trouble than they could possibly have imagined…”  ~Allie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Colin Greenland.  I’ve seen a number of covers for this book, and most of them pretty are weird. I can’t argue that this one is not an accurate representation of the book—there’s a woman clearly meant to be Tabitha, and the shiny floating baby is Xtasca, one of Marco’s friends.  I have to say, though, that the book was much more entertaining than the cover led me to expect.

My Thoughts :

I would describe Take Back Plenty as a novel that seems like a combination of the space opera of Star Wars and the cheesiness of Flash Gordon.   The society has a grungy feel, like the original Star Wars, and the story focuses on people in the underbelly of society that become unexpectedly important. Tabitha Jute reminded me of a female Han Solo, especially with the financial desperation that led her to pick up passengers who ended up being far more trouble than they were worth.  There’s a lot of detail put into the portrayal of the solar system, with different ships, habitats and alien species. The universe felt very lived-in, and I liked that there was clearly an elaborate history both for Tabitha and for the development of the current state of human affairs. 

On the other hand, a lot of the aliens were pretty cheesy—there were the comic-relief otter-like Perks, some big-headed villains who dressed like Romans, and the space-dwelling cherubs (represented by the shiny flying baby on the cover).  Tabitha’s unwanted adventure also took plenty of influence from old pulp science fiction. There are space battles, a jungle Venus, alien conspiracies, and Tabitha trying to keep herself and her ship alive through it all.  Tabitha’s penchant for taking attractive people to bed was also a sort of gender reversal of the pulp hero who gets all the girls to swoon into his arms.  One thing I could have done without, though, was sexual violence towards women.  This only really comes up once, though, and the narrator seems very apologetic about including it.  Aside from that, the story was full of exciting adventure, with tons of unexpected twists, turns, and reveals. This was not always fantastic for the coherence of the story, but it was certainly entertaining along the way.  

A nameless (though very guessable) narrator tells this story of an adventure in the life of Tabitha Jute. The narration alternates with conversation between Tabitha and Alice, where Tabitha tells her ship stories about her past.  These conversations did a lot to gradually reveal the histories and expand on the characters of Tabitha and Alice.   Beyond the two of them, though, the characters seemed a little one-dimensional. The story had a lot of action, so most of the characters seemed relevant in terms of their abilities.  Some of the characters were very nifty ideas, such as life-forms designed to live in space or the remaining two clones of a clone-group, but very little was developed in the areas that I would have found interesting.  There are other novels set in this universe, though, so it is possible that these side characters get the kind of development in other novels that Tabitha and Alice see here.

My Rating : 3.5/5

Take Back Plenty is a fun story that is reminiscent of pulp space adventures.  It’s full of action, conflict, and strange alien species.  With all the sudden turns, the story sometimes seemed pretty convoluted, but it was always entertaining.  Tabitha Jute, the captain of the small ship Alice Liddell, was a very interesting protagonist to follow, and I enjoyed the development of her character through her relationship with her ship’s personality.  The other characters seemed neat in theory, but fell a bit flat for me.  Altogether, Take Back Plenty was a very entertaining old-fashioned space adventure.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts : A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
Published : Tor, 2012
Awards Won : Locus SF Award, Hugo Award

The Book :

”Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.”

This is only the second novel I’ve read by John Scalzi, though I intend to finish the Old Man’s War series at some point.  I’m reading this novel in an attempt to get through the Hugo nominees before the end of the voting period (KSR’s 2312 is still looming—I may not get that one finished in time).

My Thoughts :

The entirety of Redshirts is basically a long-running meta-fictional joke.  The title takes its name from a trope of the original Star Trek series, in which red-shirted, nameless extras were constantly killed off, usually to further a protagonist’s plot or to show the severity of a situation. These redshirts, who come into this status after their transfer to the Intrepid, are the heroes of Scalzi’s novel. They have to work together to figure out why their lives are suddenly being manipulated (and destroyed), by what seems to be a crappy Star Trek knock-off science fiction television show.  This resulted in a lot of really hilarious situational humor, as they try to use the nonsensical TV logic to their benefit.  While I did enjoy the humor, I think the story might have worked better in a shorter form of fiction.  Redshirts isn’t a long book, but the joke was already wearing a bit thin by the end.

The style of the book was also very bland, in a way that I think was intended to be a comedic take on bad science fiction.  The sentences were usually short and non-descriptive, and the story was dominated by dialogue.  The characters all had pretty similar, forgettable names (Hanson, Hester, Dahl, Duvall, Finn, etc.), and just about every line dialogue seemed tagged with “<name/pronoun> said”.  This worked well for a lot of the humor, giving the dialogue kind of a deadpan feeling, but it also became very repetitive quite quickly.  I think there is a thin line between writing deliberately badly in a parodic way, and just writing badly. I still found the story funny and entertaining, but I could see it going the other way for other readers. 

As story moves more into the meta-fictional realm, it begins to try to become a more serious kind of story.  I felt like this was a bit undercut by the writing style and the continuous jokes, but it was interesting to see how relatively normal people would react to this kind of an absurd situation.  For instance, one character comments about religious faith: 

 I mean, you know and I know that in this universe, god is a hack,” he said.  “He’s a writer on an awful science fiction television show, and He can’t plot His way out of a box.  How do you have faith when you know that?” ~p.96

There is some interesting discussion about free will, and whether one can have a meaningful life without it. The story actually draws together to a surprisingly serious conclusion for such a tongue-in-cheek novel.  The three codas don’t seem especially necessary, but it was neat to see more of how the events of the story might affect “real” people.  I enjoyed the humor more than anything else in Redshirts, but I was pretty satisfied by the way the story ended.

My Rating : 3.5/5

Redshirts, as a joke story based on a Star Trek trope, is a fast, light, humorous novel to read.  It isn’t very long, but I kind of got the feeling that the joke might have been better suited to shorter fiction.  The writing is very choppy, simplistic, and dominated by dialogue.  While this style often underlines the absurd humor nicely, it also gets old after a while.  As the meta-fictional elements became more dominant, the story took some surprisingly serious turns (given the ridiculous premise).  I can see how this is a novel that will not be to everyone’s tastes, I got a lot of laughs from its funnier moments.

Monday, July 15, 2013

New Voices: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Published : DAW Books, 2012
Awards Nominated : Nebula and Hugo awards
Awards Won : Locus Award for Best First Novel

Saladin Ahmed is a poet, as well as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and he maintains a website.  While he has a quantity of public short fiction and poetry, Throne of the Crescent Moon is his first novel. Out of his short fiction, he was twice nominated for the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer for "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela”, which was also nominated for a Nebula Award (and is available online).

Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is a sword and sorcery tale set in an Arabic world, featuring a power struggle around the aforementioned throne.  While magic is pretty common in the capital city of Dhamsawaat, the townsfolk are more concerned with the corrupt Khalif and rebellious Falcon Prince than any possible threat from ghuls or djenn.  As a result, professional ghul hunting has become a largely thankless task, though the elderly, messy, curmudgeonly hunter Adoulla Makhslood still risks life and limb to protect people from the occasional ghul.

Adoulla travels with his dervish companion, the young Raseed bas Raseed, who zealously adheres to a strict code of piety.  Chasing after a particularly dangerous set of ghuls leads them to take in a vengeance-obsessed young tribeswoman, Zamia, who can transform into a lion.  As ghul-hunt takes a more complicated turn, Adoulla and his friends must turn to allies old and new. They find themselves becoming entangled in multiple plots, mystical and political, as they uncover secrets that could have disastrous consequences for the entire world.

While Throne of the Crescent Moon has a fairly interesting Arabic setting, it feels like a conventional adventure story that could have come straight from an especially fun table-top role-playing game.  I think the novel might most be appreciated by fans of novels in the style of Weis & Hickman, provided that they are interested in adventures set in a very different campaign setting.  The character classes are different than the standard wizards, clerics and fighters, but they mostly serve the same purposes.  The action-focused combat scenes, as well as the descriptions of weapons and class abilities, also seemed particularly reminiscent of these kinds of games and novels.

The general structure of the story mostly followed these role-playing conventions as well, progressing from party formation and dynamics to the final boss fight, and it included many familiar narrative tricks along the way.  While there’s some attempt at a little bit of moral ambiguity (e.g. the Falcon Prince’s Robin Hood style morality), the main conflict is basically black-and-white/good-vs.-evil.  The novel also feels very self-contained, though it is planned as the first part of a trilogy.  I’m guessing the following novels will follow the main characters through more adventures and personal difficulties.

The characters were mostly likable, but were a little too flatly portrayed for my taste.  The dialogue and narrative often seemed awkwardly explicit, as if every person’s thoughts and feelings needed to be spelled out completely. This made many of the character’s personalities seem simplistic and exaggerated.  I think this was particularly grating on Raseed and Zamia, who caught a bad case of instant-love.  Their romance was clearly telegraphed in advance, and it never really seemed emotionally convincing to me.

Despite my several complaints, I did find the story entertaining.  I don’t think the story really broke much new ground, but it did do what it set out to do—tell a conventional fantasy adventure tale in an interesting, Arabic-influenced setting.  I think anyone looking for that kind of reading experience will likely not be disappointed.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: Fools by Pat Cadigan

Fools by Pat Cadigan
Published : HarperCollins UK, 1994
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book :

“In the future, mindplay is commonplace.  Method actors build character personalities to run in their bodies for performances, celebrity personae are franchised and sold, and memories are manipulated for convenience and recreation.  When one can purchase memories, persona overlays, and a variety of personality tweaks, at what point does the idea of an authentic ‘self’ lose its meaning?

Marceline is a “memory junkie” who gets high off of other peoples’ memories. One night, she becomes conscious at a franchiser party at an exclusive night club, with no idea how she could have arrived there.  The last thing she remembers is killing someone, but the reasons behind that murder are opaque.  Marceline is in deep trouble, the kind where she doesn’t even know what’s she’s been doing, or who she was while she was doing it…”~Allie

This is my 6th novel for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge at WWEnd.  In recent news of Pat Cadigan, she has a novelette up for the Hugo this year, “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”. This was supposed to be my June review, but the time just got away from me.  I will catch back up before the end of the year!

My Thoughts :

It’s a bit difficult to write a synopsis for Fools, since figuring out what’s going on is really part of the fun of the reading experience.  I implied Marceline was the main character, but it would be more accurate to say that she was one part of the main character.  The story mostly follows one body, but the personality in control of that body changes.  In the beginning, it’s unclear which (if any) of the personalities are “real” and which are crafted, but it’s equally unclear whether there is a difference between the two cases.  I found it especially interesting that in a world where mind manipulation was commonplace, there was still plenty about the physical reality of consciousness that was not well understood.

The story was told in first person, through a series of extremely unreliable (though very entertaining) narrators.  Different personae were separated by the use of different fonts, and there are also some verbal tics (e.g. “Migod!”) that were used to help differentiate narrators near the beginning of the story. I thought the tics were very helpful for easing the reader into the novel’s style.  They made it easier to keep track of the different narrators, before one became more familiar with their personalities.  The discontinuity of the main character made for a pretty fractured plot, but I liked that there was no way to tell where it would veer next. Marceline’s mystery murder is really only a kicking-off point for the main plot—things get much stranger as the book progresses.  

As a cyberpunk story, Fools naturally focuses on high technology and low society, with a particular interest in the interface of the human mind and technology and what that does to the idea of “self”.  The world is suitably grimy and flashily imagined, but many aspects of it are only shallowly explored.  The protagonists are all familiar with their daily world, so there are many things they don’t bother to explain.  The story also moves very quickly, and the characters are often too busy improvising to spend much time discussing the nuts and bolts of their society.  This combination of limited viewpoint and the character’s casual acceptance of their world made it feel complex without requiring a lot of detailed information.  I believe Cadigan wrote several other novels in the same universe, so I would be curious to see if some of the stranger elements of society—such as the murderous chained onionhead couples—get more of a sensible explanation elsewhere.

Even if there isn’t a reasonable explanation, I suppose the onionheads added to the general ridiculous, flippant tone of the story.  I loved the casual, conversational narration of the protagonists, especially Marceline.  The story could easily have started with Marceline worrying about her missing memories, and angsting about the knowledge that she was a killer.  Instead, she mostly just accepted her circumstances with a healthy dose of self-deprecatory amusement (“When I get fugued up, I get damn-the-torpedoes, no prisoners fugued up!”).  She was used to losing bits and pieces of herself anyway, so she just muddled along cheerfully and assumed she’d figure things out eventually.  She even started making jokes about the various habits of “us killers”. The other protagonists had very different approaches to life, but they were, each in their own way, just as wonderful fools.

My Rating : 4/5

Fools was an incredibly fun book.  I loved the humor, the flashy, grungy, world, and the characters with strong, vibrant personalities.  The conversational, hilarious narration from each of the protagonists was a real pleasure to read.  The style of the book—that it was told switching constantly through different personalities’ points-of-view—made the plot itself a entertaining puzzle to figure out.  This also made the story seem a little muddled at times, but it was always entertaining.