Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Freehold by Michael Williamson

It was only when writing my instant review for William Dietz's Freehold that I stumbled across Wiliamson's prometheus award winning book with exactly the same title. I read the blurb, noted that it was available for free download on Kindle and decided to read it.

There is good stuff in this book but there is also a lot of bad stuff  and sadly for me the bad outweights the good.

The first section filling about half of the pages sets the scene in which our heroine escapes from the corrupt Earth based UN to an idyllic libertarian society on the planet freehold. This section is painfully didactic and I found it very tedious.

Then Earth invades freehold and the story turns into a cracking combat yarn of guerilla warfare as the independent minded freeholders fight against the might of the invaders. I really enjoyed the combat scenes. It was almost enough to make me overlook the tedium first half of the book (almost).

Unfortunately the book ends with a rambling section dealing with the emotional scars of the survivors. Post traumatic stress and the after effects of rape are important subjects but they felt out of place to me in a book like this. This section detracted rather than added to my enjoyment of the novel. 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Freehold by William C. Dietz

Freehold is a very enjoyable piece of military science fiction from William Dietz. It has no connection with the later Freehold series by Michael Williamson. The plot is straightforward and engaging: Freehold is a mining colony planet on the edge of human space whose independence is under threat when powerful outside forces realise just how valuable the planet's mineral deposits are. The settlers are tough but they are no match for the space pirates or the the aliens or especially the powerful mega-corporation who want to take their planet. Their last last hope is "The Brigade" a group of space mercenaries led by Colonel Stell. The military aspects of this novel are very low key and it focuses more on space opera adventure and the underlying human interest story. The plot wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood western and the book is so much the better for that in my opinion.  

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Destination Void by Frank Herbert

Following a series of system failures the crew of a pioneering spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri realise that their only hope of staying alive to complete the mission is to upgrade their onboard computer to sentient consciousness. Previous human attempts at creating artificial sentience have had disastrous outcomes so the crew must struggle with the philosophical, ethical and technical challenges of creating artificial consciousness if they are to succeed. 

This is quite a famous 1965 novel from the author of the Dune saga that spawned its own series sometimes called the Pandora Sequence. Nevertheless I found it quite difficult to read. There is relatively little plot and much of the book is filled with rambling internal and external dialogues concerning the meaning of conciousness. The technology in the book is laughably dated both on the hardware and software side. References to teleprinters and thermionic valves are hidden in among rambling descriptions of "dilithium crystal" level gobbledy gook. An ever bigger problem is that the entire premise of the book that "only an artificial sentience could possibly guide the ship on its journey" is very hard to swallow for a modern reader who knows just how much today's computers can do without being one bit sentient. Nevertheless I found the book reasonably compelling and the metaphysical discussions about artificial sentience hold up a lot better once you separate them from Herbert's pseudo science. 

Overall I would hesitate to recommend Destination Void to a modern reader unless they were a fan of Herbert or a keen follower of historical Sci Fi. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Sacrifice: The First Book of the Fey by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Fey are a ruthless race of warlike magic user who are arrogantly determined to conquer the entire world and subjugate all others.  When an expeditionary force from this military juggernaut rolls up to the prosperous but peaceful inhabitants of the Blue Isle the outcome seems inevitable. Yet the Islanders who don't even have a standing army find help from a surprising source and a stand-off ensues.

I had never heard of this series before getting this opening novel in an e-book bundle but I am quite hooked. Rusch's characters are rich and complex and her plots are full of twists surprises. In terms of character and plot development this book bears favourable comparison to George R.R. Martin's game of thrones.  Indeed the Fey's ruthlessness far surpasses that of Martin's characters.

While the characters and plotting are very strong in the book the battle scenes and military strategy are a significant weakness. Perhaps I have been reading too much military Sci Fi recently but it strikes me there are huge gaps of credibility in the whole military aspect of the novel. The Fey for example have supposed to be a militaristic race who have conquered the known world. You would expect them to display some of the traits we have come to expect from armies and soldiers but they actually come across as quite inept soldiers. The residents of the Blue Isle were supposed to be peaceful which explains their initial ineptitude but a year after the initial attack they still haven't organised a proper army and seem incapable of implementing any form of strategy.

Regardless of the shortcoming on the military side this story has me hooked. I am determined to get the next instalment to follow the continuing machinations of those dastardly Fey.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

This is the second novel in Scalzi's highly acclaimed "Old Man's War" series and even though I haven't read the prequel I am pleased to say it stands on its own. Scalzi's universe is a belligerent place and everybody species is either openly at war with its neighbours or plotting secretly against them. In order to survive and indeed thrive the CDF representing humanity has developed an army of bio-engineered super soldiers. The elite of the elite are known as the ghost brigades: special forces with bodies that are grown at a vastly accelerated pace and whose minds come from dead recruits. When a brilliant scientist defects to enemy who is planning a genocidal war against humanity the only clue left behind as to his motives is a computer snapshot of his mind.  This conciousness is imprinted on a unwitting new ghost brigade soldier in a risky attempt to try and find out what humanities enemies are planning.  It falls under the heading of military Sci Fi but you certainly don't have to be a military nut to appreciate this story. Good stuff. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

The watchmaker rules over a perfectly ordered society where everyone knows their place and everything happens at exactly the right time. His subjects are for the most part happy to live such a controlled existence secure in the knowledge that the Watchmaker will look after them and everything will work out alight. The hero of this book is a rather accidental rebel who ends up stepping out of his pre-determined groove and embarking on a series of adventures all the while being shadowed by the shadowy arch nemesis of the Watchmaker known as the Anarchist.

Interesting story that has a tie in with an album of the same name by the band Rush.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Immortals by Tracy Hickman

The Immortals is a near future novel with a political message that was written in the 1990's. It hypothesises a new Aids like disease that is even more deadly which leads to a panicked population electing a totalitarian government in the United States. It is scary stuff with victims of the disease being carted off to concentration camps and right wing hysteria leading to condemnation and persecution of gays and other marginal communities. The book was very clearly influenced by reactions to the Aids epidemic and you could possibly accuse it of being out of date for that reason. Despite negative reactions in some quarters the final response to Aids in most Western countries at any rate has been compassionate and I think it is fair to say there is a less discrimination against the gay community now than there was twenty years ago (Western countries again). Nevertheless there is a lasting message in Hickman's book: a warning against intolerance and a warning against allowing hysteria and fear to cloud our political judgement. Perhaps the scariest concept in the whole book is the idea that a new legal status of "pre-deceased" is invented for anyone who contracts the illness. The illness is invariably fatal so this simplifies the paperwork. It also allows the state to do anything they want to individuals so declared because the dead have no rights.

Political message aside it is a well written and interesting story about a Father who gets himself admitted to one of the concentration camps on the trail of his gay son. He shakes things up a bit once he gets in. I wasn't entirely convinced by Hickman's descriptions of life inside the camp though. One the one hand it is portrayed as a hopeless place of constant death presided over by a cadre prisoners acting as willing jailors but on the other hand the control structures seem extremely loose and rather easy to subvert when someone actually tries.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth is a good old fashioned historical melodrama set in Britain during the troubled period during the reigns of King Stephen and King Henry II. The central theme involves the prior of Kingsbridge priory who is determined to build a Cathedral despite many obstacles placed in his way by baddies both within and without the church. It is an old fashioned tale in the sense that the good guys are throughly good and the bad guys are thoroughly bad but it is a rich story none the less with many layers that gives a great flavour of the times. Several well known characters put in an appearance including the various Kings and Archbishop Thomas Beckett but I suspect that the author has used poetic license in interpreting the historical record.

Pillars of the Earth was published in 1989 and was a best seller at the time spawning a television adaptation and a sequel. I certainly enjoyed reading it, particularly the historical flavour. One word of warning:  the book contains several graphically depicted rape scenes which I found unpleasant to read. They do more or less fit in with the plot but for some folks (my wife for example) this would be a deal breaker.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The book Thief by Markus Zusak

A tale narrated by death himself about a young girl caught up in the turmoil of Hitler's Germany. This is a heart warming fable of human kindness and human spirit in the face of unimaginable evil. An interesting aspect of this tale is that neither the protagonist Liesel nor her step parents are Jewish so this story tells a different side of the Nazi terror than we normally read about. While this is a strength of the novel it is also an aspect I feel a bit uncomfortable about.  This s a made up story with a contrived ending. There were so many real human tragedies in that period it seems almost inappropriate to be inventing new ones for the sake of a novel. Nevertheless it is an excellent read that will tug on your heartstrings. My wife and I are determined to see the film when it comes to our local cinemas next week.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Shadowgod by Michael Cobley

The forces of good wrested a city back from the evil shadow kings but their overall situation is still very precarious. Just about the only thing in their favour is that the Shadow Kings who each contain part of the evil God seem to have no desire to reunite and instead are bickering among themselves.

This middle book in Cobley's Shadow Kings trilogy took me a long time to read. I struggled through the first half because there were so many confusing characters and plot threads. However about half way in it all clicked for me and I started to enjoy the book a lot more. The finale was a bit rushed in my opinion but overall I enjoyed it enough to convince me to look for the final book of the trilogy.

I cannot guess what the final book will bring however because book two has already tied up a lot of plot threads.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Shadow Kings by Michael Cobley

 A former Empire lies in ruins having been over run by barbarian hordes and the evil magic wielding acolytes that drive them on. This is no mere invasion however as the hordes have all but rooted out the entire religious and magical underpinnings of the old regime. The human strife is just a cover for a war between supernatural beings. A small band of rebel warriors and mages cling to some hope of restoring the Empire but what hope can they have when even their god is thoroughly outmatched.

I believe this was Cobley's first novel but it shows no lack of confidence and is very enjoyable. I did get confused at times because the author crams a lot of characters and their respective plot threads into one novel. Cobley's later Humanities Fire saga was even more confusing in this respect so it looks like this is a trait the author has no intention of outgrowing.