Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Mindscan – Robert J. Sawyer (2005)

July 13, 2015

Mindscan-SawyerChances are that if you’ve read a few other novels from Robert J.Sawyer you may have discovered that he likes to add court room conflict to his stories (Illegal Alien, Hominids). He also likes to play around with the definition of human, or more accurately, what constitutes human souls and sentience (The Terminal Experiment, Rollback). In his 2005 novel Mindscan, he tackles both and, as always, with a special twist.

In a near future where mankind has just developed the capability to place a person’s consciousness into a robotic body, some of the affluent but elder begin taking up Immortex corporation’s new Mindscan process. Basically a snapshot copy of your brain is deposited into a robot body mimicking your own (or a slightly improved version). They idea is that your consciousness in the robot becomes an immortal instantiation of yourself. People signing up remain in their current bodies, but they go to pasture on the Moon in a specifically isolated Eden-like community to live out their remaining days. Meanwhile, their new robot selves take up the lives on Earth of the former flesh and blood versions.

No problem, right?

Of course there are problems. When wealthy young Jake who has a brain condition that may turn him into a vegetable at any moment takes the Mindscan plunge he doesn’t take into account certain factors that will make him regret his decision. Unfortunately for Jake, he soon realizes there are obstacles to coming back and resuming his own life. Is it really even his to take back? Meanwhile, his robotic self has also hooked up with a woman who has undergone the process. But when her ‘skin’ dies of natural causes on the lunar surface, her son decides that he is entitled to his inheritance, robot copy be damned.

While a precedent setting court case investigates all the science and philosophical implications on Earth to decide the issue of the inheritance, Jake is staging a showdown of his own with the Immortex cronies on the Moon.

Coming off the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hominids, Humans, Hybrids) one and the overlapping plot points, one can easily imagine that this novel was conceived while writing the latter series. The characters are interesting enough, the science is cool, but as always it’s the deeper implications that are driving factors in the story. Sawyer always provides interesting (and cool) stories even if the prospects aren’t exactly ‘near future’.

One problem I had was that those undergoing the procedure gave little thought to the fact that their current entities would indeed remain in their current bodies, thus really negating any benefits for the current ‘self’. The procedure makes a copy that lives on, but the original is left right back where they were before the procedure. Indeed, it’s clear that they are agreeing to being shuffled off (literally) to the far side of the Moon for their remaining years. This seems to come as something of a shock for our protagonist Jake which seems outlandish.

While it has a few logic flaws there is never a boring moment and with his ever present touch of Canadiana, this is another fine novel that Sawyer fans will be delighted with. Oh, and given that Rob is a devoted fellow Planet of the Apes fan, be sure to be on the lookout for a nice nod to the original movie.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Alex Irvine (2014)

November 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes NovelThis isn’t so much a novel review as it is a comparison of the novelization of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Alex Irvine to the movie. So be forewarned, I assume readers are already at least familiar with the movie.

First let’s be clear on one point.There are two distinct kinds of movie ‘novelizations’.

When a movie is based on a preexisting novel, the movie is really an adaptation of the novel and may have little (or almost nothing in some cases) in common. The movie is basically cashing in on a novel of some repute, whether it adheres to the story or not. Ironically the 1968 Planet of the Apes movie was one of those where the movie adaptation treatment which only kept the basic premise and the main characters was vastly superior to Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singes.

The other, more common novelization, as is the case here with the novelization of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is strictly an adaptation based on the movie script (or one of the preliminary scripts as the movie is still in development). In these cases there is little or no difference between the written word and what appears on screen. The studios and publishers are basically trying to cash in on the popularity of the movie, luring a few who haven’t seen the movie and simply want to read the story, but more likely targeted to the ardent fan of the subject matter, as I include myself in that category for all things Planet of the Apes.

But even with direct script novelizations authors sometime take liberties, and while not changing any scenes, they can still provide new, fresh perception and depth to the characters and give readers insight into events and specific actions. This is often provided by describing the thought process of characters or highlighting things that characters have visually singled out that may have been missed onscreen by moviegoers. In this way, a novelization can deliver a richer experience to a movie.

I was hoping that this particular novelization would fall into that latter category and provide an enhanced experience to Dawn. A movie featuring talking apes who are only beginning to grasp the concept of speech it provides an excellent opportunity to explore more. What are the apes who hardly speak  thinking? What is their unique take on events given their non-human perspective? Even the main character Caesar, while the most proficient speaker, he is not very verbose, and mostly still signs rather than speak with the other apes. So if you are looking for more insight on the characters, this novelization fails in that regard.

So what, if anything does the novel have to offer compared to the movie itself? I did find it interesting in how they handled Koba’s last scene.  Koba plunges down the skyscraper into the abyss below but there is no definitive eyewitness account of any human or ape seeing him splatter below and everybody just assumes he died in the plunge. It’s an important distinction because in the moments leading up to his death during the battle with Caesar the building is rocked and many apes lose their footing. The novel mentions apes clearly dying as a result (described as bodies laying across beams), but some, including Caesar, manage to grip onto beams and other fixtures. So it is possible, however unlikely, that Koba also managed to grip onto something on the way down. This is a case where the novel could have easily provided clarification but it did not.

There is one small pertinent addition to the novel and an important one considering what we can expect in the next movie. Some of the early movie teasers and trailers showed scenes of a battleship entering the San Francisco bay, but this footage never made it into the movie for some reason or another. This scene is included at the end of the novel, shaping a potential new heightened war among the apes and humans. Now it is possible that the scene was excised from the movie because the franchise brain trusts changed their mind and no longer wanted this to be the cliffhanger as some other direction has since been decided upon. Perhaps they just did not bother removing it from the novel or, more likely, it was too late to change because printing was already in progress. Whatever the reason for the difference it will be interesting to see if readers did get a real advance peek.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm – Greg Keyes 2014

July 11, 2014

firestormFirst off, let’s get something straight from the start. I’m a devoted Planet of the Apes (PotA) fan. I don’t mean I just like the movies and think they’re cool. It goes way deeper than that. The original series of movies were always a favorite of mine even as a kid, but as the years wore on, instead of just relegating the memories of the ‘Planet of the Apes” mania that occurred during my formative years in the 70’s to the back of my mind, the allure has grown. When discussion groups on the internet started popping up in the late nineties I stumbled upon a few PotA ones and it just took off from there. My interest has lead me to consume books, magazines, comics, fanzines and really anything that I can get my hands on. I now have just about every one of the above printed material and much more. Tapes, DVDs, Soundtrack CDs, Cups, posters, cards, super 8mm reels, and of course toys including puzzles, plastic models and action figures. (The more refined collector’s prefer the term “action figures”, but who’s kidding who? They’re toy dolls.). I’ve got them all. All this to say that when it comes to Planet of the Apes, count me in, baby! So you may want to consider that as you read this review.

Touted as a novel that bridges the events between the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Firestorm picks up immediately after the events of the first film. And in case anyone was curious, there really isn’t much for readers to summarize the story so far and what happened in Rise. So if you haven’t seen Rise, a lot of the book will be confusing (as will this book review). To recap, Caesar has led his troop of escaped apes across the Golden Gate bridge and into the Muir Woods forest just north of San Francisco. The same medicinal gas that Gen Tech was producing as a potential cure for Alzheimer’s, and which gave rise to intelligent apes, was also found to be deadly in humans.The last scene from Rise indicated people showing signs of the virus and then we got to see graphics of the viral spread across the globe as the credits roll.

We now learn about the effects of the virus as the very first victims begin flooding into hospitals and how the growing numbers become a concern. Caesar in the meantime, having reached temporary safety of the woods, must now decide his next move and what to do with his group, many of which are injured. For Caesar, it is not so much a battle with humans at this point as it is one of survival for his troops of renegade apes.

Meanwhile, there has been a whitewash by the current San Francisco mayor’s office, where most of the events of the insurrection and battle on the bridge has been downplayed or silenced altogether. Anvil corporation, a sister company to Gen Sys which developed the smart serum and released the retrovirus now afflicting the population has hired professionals in their hunt of Caesar and the escaped apes. Clancy, a female anthropologist is teamed with Malakai, an African mercenary with practical knowledge of ape psychology. But both are standout reluctant participants with the rest of the Anvil crew. At first, there are mixed messages as to whether Anvil want to capture the apes or just kill them, but they have to rely on Clancy and Malakai to find them first regardless.

As the magnitude and spread of the deadly virus grows, the apes are oblivious to what is happening in the cities and must simply contend with finding sources of appropriate food and keeping one step ahead of the humans. Eventually they clash and it becomes clear that Anvil is trying to kill the apes, who are mistakenly being blamed as the source of the virus.

A large focus of the novel is on the Mayoral race going on in San Francisco where the recently retired police chief, Dreyfuss, is a major contender. Clearly one of the ‘good guys’, helping to quell skirmishes and fomenting riots, he eventually becomes the de-facto mayor as his city and the rest of the world crumbles.

Aside from Caesar, we also share much of the story with Koba, the one-eye, slashed and bedraggled looking fellow lab specimen we briefly encountered in Rise. We basically retrace his entire wistful life via flashbacks, some of which include scenes from Rise. Koba comes to understand his augmented intelligence and learns that he must refrain from violence and revenge for the sake of the other apes. We also get a lot of interaction between Maurice, the sign language savvy Orangutan as he shares his wisdom with Caesar.

Most of the action is all about apes outwitting humans, but we also get to experience of lot of human on human violence as the city and civilization itself goes down the tubes.

While I certainly enjoyed the novel, especially the first half where we get some interesting human characters dealing with their own personal crumbling lives, the latter half was not as engaging, being more action oriented as the apes elude capture, for which the outcome was preordained.

I think ape enthusiasts like myself will certainly enjoy this novel. But you really have to have seen, and enjoyed the first movie in order to relate to it.

How much is relevant to the new movie Dawn? Without having seen it (it opens today!) I can say that it’s a pretty open ended story that won’t impact anything in the movie itself with the exception that the character of Dreyfus will be in the movie (and played by favorite Gary Oldman no less, so that alone is promising!)

Across Time – David Grinnell (1957)

February 23, 2014

Across TimeAs an avid Planet of the Apes fan I usually hear about other science fiction novels that feature sentient apes or as in this case, ape-like creatures. Some apes fans long ago pointed me to David Grinnell’s Across Time as such a novel, so this was on my ‘to read’ pile for quite some time. As has happened before, the assertion that the novel featured an advanced ape culture turned out to be somewhat misleading, but that was not really the problem I had with this novel.

Zack, a young air force test pilot is re-assigned to be a liaison for a science project when he has a troubled flight with an alleged UFO encounter. But the real problem he has with the assignment is the fact that he will have to work with his older brother, Carl, in whose shadow he has had to live in his entire life. Worse, his brother has since married Sylvia, the woman he loved, when Zack went missing during the war for a spell and was presumed dead.

As his brother Carl’s science experiment is put into operation in a remote desert, aliens in globular bodies of light interfere, and as a result of Zack’s inaction his brother and Sylvia are whisked off to god knows where. Now feeling guilty, Zack recreates the conditions of the experiment so that he too could be whisked away in the hopes that he can save his brother and Sylvia. It turns out that there are more than one set of aliens, and that they are all far future Earth life forms that have evolved from humans. But these aliens that all have their roots on the Earth are all now in distant galaxies and have undergone thousands of years of wars. While Zack was taken by what he believes are benevolent beings, Carl and Sylvia were taken from an offshoot of an evolutionary line that were not as successful and now want to change history with the help of Carl.

After the well crafted, if somewhat staid opening sequence, the novel bounces all over the place (literally and figuratively) starting off with Zack being co-opted by the Seroomi, and more specifically, a young female Seroomi and her politician father. This weird interlude includes a brief interracial love triangle the spittles off to nowhere which is almost as awkward as it reads in the story. The entire Seroomi sequence in the novel turns out to be as inconsequential as the blip on the radar Zack saw that during his initial UFO encounter. It was only once I finished the novel that I even realized that the Seroomi where the closest aliens in the novel that could be remotely called ape-like, but that was only because they had longer then usual arms. So much for this being a sentient apes story. (Sigh)

Like many novels of the time, this one comes up a bit short on the character development side, a victim of the then normal short length coming in at a mere 150 pages. The relationship between the brothers is expressed more as stated facts than fleshed out personal reflections. Even less consideration is given to the supposed relationship between Zack and Sylvia. You just have to believe him when he says he loves her and gives absolutely no history to reinforce that notion.

But the novel is not a complete failure either. Those who enjoy pure, fast paced (but not well thought out) adventure will enjoy a few thrills. The author also provides a unique take on sentient spaceships that I’m surprised has not been adopted by more movies and TV shows. I suspect it’s been used since, although I can’t think of a specific instance. You’ll have to read the latter half of the book to see what I mean.

I was kind of surprised to learn that David Grinnell was a pseudonym for reputed writer, editor and publisher Donald Wollheim who went on to create the publishing imprint DAW.

If nothing else, the novel does sport a nice cover by Jeff Jones.

Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

April 17, 2012

Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Andrew E. C. Gaska, Christian Berntsen, Erik Matthews and Rich Handley

I waited a long time for this book. I was thrilled to hear the announcement when this was still in the working stages. We were teased as some of the interior art was released as the writing was still ongoing. Then there was a 2009 San Diego Comic-Con booth promoting it. But the following year Comic-Con came and went and still no book. Then, there was talk of a change in publisher. In my darkest moments I began to suspect that this was too ambitious a project and that I was never going to see the product. And that was all the more frustrating because the released art was not only so good, but gave us glimpses of what promised to be a very interesting story.

I should warn readers that this book expands on the movie version of the original Planet of the Apes (1968), and some elements from its two first sequels Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). While readers unfamiliar with any of the movies would probably still enjoy the book as enough of the background is provided within, it really is aimed at filling in off screen parts of the story. I hesitate to state that only POTA fans can enjoy the book, but familiarity with the subject matter really does help. So if you plan to read the book (or even this very review) but have not seen the movies, I would encourage you to see them first. And really, there is no excuse for not having watched at least Planet of the Apes as it is a science fiction classic. You will not be disappointed.

Before I begin to delve into a review of the story, I simply must describe the physical book itself. To say that it is a lavish specimen is an understatement. I can honestly say that no expense was spared in putting this together and there are so many elements in the packaging itself that I have to take a few moments to point them out. We start with the cover jacket featuring a fantastic brightly colored painting by Jim Steranko. Already we are teased with apes, humans and mutants that hints at the contents. Remove the dust jacket and the hardcover is an ape glyph embossed faux leather design that would feel right at home on Dr. Zauis’ shelves. Open the cover and the jacket interior sports a fantastic blueprint of the ANSA Icarus (or Liberty 1 as it is documented for those that adhere to the name since given by Fox in the Blu-Ray release). Inside we find more than 40 interspersed lavish painted artworks, many of which are two page spreads, that depict the events in the story. Even with all those paintings, each chapter also has a small art illustration on their starting page. A lot of artistic work went into the making of this book. This is one reason that this book was marketed as much along the lines of a graphic novel as a pure text book. My one minor quibble with the presentation was the choice of glossy pages which sometimes made reading a bit tough. But a small price to pay to get those great illustrations.

Now onto the novel itself. All we really knew from the previews was that it was Landon’s story from the original 1968 movie, and that while there would be some apes we knew, there would be other new characters as well that would figure prominently. It begins with a rehash of the events of the beginning sequence in the movie within the ship leading up to the crash landing. A lot of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the movie and POTA aficionados should be able to recite the dialogue passages from memory. At least I did. After the crash, the focus is clearly on Landon during the desert trek, understandably as he is the primary character from this point on. In essence the novel depicts the same story in the movie but from Landon’s point of view, whereas the movie was Taylor’s. It gets a bit outlandish with Landon seeing illusions and hallucinations, something only touched upon briefly in the movie, but it also doesn’t quite gel with the Landon we know from the movie. While there is a definite rivalry between Taylor and Landon in the movie, it is ratcheted up significantly here. It is also at this point that we learn the first major new point not even hinted at in the movie, that there was a supposed prior love triangle between Landon, Taylor and Stewart, the woman astronaut we see only briefly asleep and then mummified just before the crash. While this is of course plausible, the resulting undercurrent of hatred towards Taylor just does not ring true to the men we know from the movie. While we sense there is no love lost between the men, there is no deep suspicion and even potential murderous tendencies between the men. Keeping so close to the subject matter of the film is a thin line the author has to thread and on this one point I found it to be a bit of a stretch.

But onto the more positive aspects and more importantly the new material not covered by the movie. The novel begins to diverge from the movie immediately after the scene of the first encounter with apes. The colony of mute humans along with the astronauts are hunted in the corn crop fields and they are all separated and rounded up. Landon soon awakes to find himself in the private home medical laboratory of Dr Galen, the chimpanzee doctor that we briefly see working on Taylor alongside Zira in the human jail-like ‘hospital’ in the movie. In that brief scene we hear the doctor complaining to Zira about “making it” in terms of professional recognition with the Ape Council. This desire we soon learn is not only personal ambition on the doctors part, but one that is pressed upon him by his socialite wife Liet. Liet also happens to be the cousin of Dr. Milo. Milo is of course the third ape to return to Earth in Escape, but also more notably the one responsible for salvaging the spaceship for that very escape. Being one of the more implausible aspects of the POTA movie saga, the answer to how Milo accomplished that feat will undoubtedly appeal to all ape fans.

Attempting to achieve a promotion and professional recognition, Dr. Galen decides to ignore protocol as well as ethical research rules and performs live human experiments in his home laboratory. In order to perform some of his unorthodox research and surgical procedures, Dr. Galen requires precision tools and he counts on Milo to make them for him. Milo is a reluctant provider of these tools and only does so to appease family obligations. Landon, being one of Galen’s absconded humans is slated to undergo human experimentation himself. But Landon’s mind in a blurred state and as we learn, under the control of the faraway human mutants. The mutants are the council we know from Beneath. While the mutants mind control abilities are touted in the movie, the fact that they can control this one human who is so far was not very plausible, despite being explained that it was a ‘group effort’. Even more implausible was the momentary breaks in control that occurred in the presence of music. While Landon’s speech is not physically impeded he cannot speak while under the control of the mutants, except for those rare occasions when he would hear music and would suddenly become lucid. Inevitably, the paths of Dr. Milo and Landon cross and Landon’s secret is revealed to a very scientifically curious and sympathetic Milo.

Without going into too many details and spoilers, Milo learns the true story behind the arrival of the astronauts, the location of the shipwreck, and manages to have a group of scientists raise the ship to the surface. He also attempts some rudimentary flight experiments with a Leonardo Da Vinci style bamboo stick and animal hide flying contraption with some comical results.

Their is also an interesting side story in which Liet has a secret lover, Mungwortt, a goofy gorilla that provides some great comic relief. The character of Mungwortt is interesting as his social disposition (borderline vagrant public servant) and geneology (definitely lower on the evolutionary scale, mentally and physically) raises some interesting points about ape society and the separation of class and status.

There are plenty of nods to other aspects of POTA fandom and real people associated with POTA over the years. I especially liked the reference to a “Templeton” as a friend of Dr. Hasselein as a nod to Ty and his Revolution comic series. Again, most fans will enjoy many other references like it.

The story of course culminates with Landon getting a lobotomy, which is how he ended up in the movie. Almost an anti-climax really since it is all about the story as to how he got there.

On a final note, it has taken me so long to finish writing this review that there is already good news to add to it. A new book, Death on the Planet of the Apes has already been announced by Drew Gaska. Currently scheduled for next year (2013), I’m already salivating at the prospect of having another fine book in the series to sit next to Conspiracy.

Can-Con 2011

September 15, 2011

Can-ConLast year’s Can-con in Ottawa was small. As a relaunch after a 10 year hiatus and with an abrupt announcement, there was some concern whether anyone would show up at all. But I was lucky enough to have found their site and made it down for the con. Being SF deprived in my home town for 10 years, I just soaked it in and enjoyed what I could. The small dealer room had four small tables and some of the panels had only 2 or 3 audience members, but I didn’t care. The one wish I had was that now that it was off the ground again, the con would grow in the future.

So I was quite eager to get back again this year to see the second year would pan out. The GoHs lined up for the event included author Julie Czerneda, media stars Liana K and Ed the Sock, and comic artist Leonard Kirk along with a smattering of other Special Guests reflecting the con’s branching out from its traditional ‘literary only’ roots. It’s a move I highly favored and expected to improve the reach to an even bigger audience. But would the low turnout last year keep some people from returning? Or would the word now be out that Can-Con was back?

It didn’t take long to find out. Even on the normally quiet Friday evening it was evident that there were more people all over the place. As per usual, I hit the dealer room first just in case there were any ‘must haves’ I did not want to miss out on. Already there was a big improvement as the dealers room had moved over to a room about twice the size that of last year. Despite my reluctance to add any more books to my vast and vastly under-read library, I could not resist to add one Philip K. Dick novel and two Richard Matheson collected stories editions. I was also happy to see a first edition “Monkey Planet” hardcover (the original title of the English translation for “Planet of the Apes”). But at $500 all I could do was enjoy holding it in my hands for a few seconds and taking a picture of it.

The panel programming ran the typical gamut of topics. Some of the more interesting ones I attended included “Trends in SF Lit”, “RPG Fundamentals”, “Future Cities and Towns: Urban Sprawl”, and “How Different Cultures view Graphic Novels”.

One of the odder panels that really piqued my interest was “The Real Japan”. As this was held during the latter part of a Heather Dale (Folk/Celtic) concert, when I got to the room I was the only one there besides the presenter, a long time Ottawa fan and current president of The Ottawa Science Fiction Society, a man who goes by the name of Starwolf. Unfazed, he accommodated his singular audience and presented a fascinating view of that exotic cultured country. Japan has always been the one country at the top of my wish list of places to visit, and this presentation just added fuel to that fire. Ironically, the panel which started with me alone in the audience ended up running late as Starwolf tried bringing the stragglers to the panel some of the content they had missed out on. As a result, I wasn’t able to ask him for a copy of the digital files he had shown us (always carry a USB stick for just such occasions!) but thankfully we were able to have another personal chat and exchange later  and our talk expanded into other favorite topics like Ultraman, Godzilla and Japanese TV shows.

I already have a personalized signed postcard of Ed the Sock framed sitting in my home office as I’ve enjoyed their company before (Paradise comic con 2009 ) so I knew what to expect from the “Ed the Sock and Liana K. Hour”. Social and political commentary with fart jokes. I especially liked how they commented on the many celebrity interviews of the past and telling us who were genuine and who were jerks. I missed out on a panel in which they recorded a podcast, but I figured I’ll just download that once it becomes available and went to another panel instead.

There was no Masquerade last year but they took a shot at one this time. MC’ed by everybody’s favorite voice actor, Larry “The Doctor” Stewart, all five brave contestants (well four and a half really) strutted their stuff. Despite the turnout, the judges needed a little extra time doing all those complex scoring computations and Larry was called upon to provide extra entertainment which he dutifully provided with ad hoc improv antics.

It was only on the last day that I had a chance to check out some of Leonard Kirk’s artwork in the dealers room. I confess that I was not familiar with his work before but the I spent considerable time going through the dazzling array of comic pages he had for sale. I hard a hard time choosing which one I liked most but finally settled on a New Mutants page I found particularly striking. (Going to have to look up the issue now and at least get the story arc). But the biggest surprise came as I discussed my special interest in all things Planet of the Apes and how I had just about every comic ever put out. Just about, but not quite. He told me he worked on the 4 issue “Forbidden Zone” series put out by Malibu in the early nineties. As it so happens I had all but one issue from the main run, many of of the 4 issue limited series (Urchak’s Folly, Ape City, Blood of the Apes) and at least one issue from the other limited series (Terror, Ape Nation). The only series that I do not own even a single issue is the Forbidden Zone series that he worked on. Sigh. I told him to be sure to check out his older pages back home should he still have one from that series to sell. I later saw him at another panel and let me tell you this guy knows his SF as well. I hope to see him again at a con soon.

All in all, it was a fun weekend and I’m already looking forward to next year and hopefully an even bigger Can-Con. SF fandon is looking brighter in Ottawa already.

Dancers in the Afterglow (Jack Chalker – 1979)

September 7, 2011

I’ve only read a few Jack Chalker novels so far, but I’m already dismayed that I’ve neglected reading him all these years. While not overwhelmingly complex or tackling grandiose stories, his scope is limited to good old SF adventure stories that have reasonably interesting characters and, more importantly a neat gimmick of some sort that propels the tale.

Dancers in the Afterglow is about a stalemated battle between humanity and an alien race called the Machists. The stalemate is breached one day when the Machists inexplicably attack a remote ‘vacation’ leisure planet, Ondine, and immediately cut off the few millions of tourists on the planet at the time. The humans only hear of odd stories about how the aliens seem to ‘change’ the captives of newly conquered planets, but initially there are few worries as everyone knows there is no way the Machists can hold onto their newly acquired planet.

While some of the humans on the Ondine manage to evade capture and create isolated settlements in remote caves, most of the tourists are rounded up and segregated into small groups of about 50 prisoners. Thousands of these groups are herded up and are forced to create mini villages throughout the planet. The Machists then have the captives go back to a rustic living style, providing just enough to ensure survival. Well at least enough for those willing to make the effort. The interesting thing is how both the captive settlements and the free settlements each fall into their own societies with very unique traits due to their respective unique situations. But before it all comes to inevitable retaking of the planet by humans that have had time to regroup and battle the Machists, the Machists have one more surprise for the captive humans.

The hero of the story, if the term really applies here, is a Daniel, an ex-figther pilot whose brain is kept alive after great damage to his body in an accident under unique circumstances. Because of the unique situation, his ‘brain’ was experimented on and it was discovered that he could control a number of robotlike bodies simultaneously. The military then ask him to help them out by placing his brain on a fake asteroid near the planet, which he can then use to infiltrate the planet by controlling a number of robot bodies on the planet. In this way he can infiltrate the free human rebel settlements and hopefully unite them all until the return of the human military forces can recapture the planet.

But the real story is all about what constitutes humanity for the captured humans, the roaming rebels, and even Daniel in his disembodied state. It “Lord of the Flies” on many levels.

I would compare Chalkers stories to a writer like Clifford D. Simak. Not from a content point of view, but from the fact that these writers each have their own very distinct style and these use recurrent familiar storyboards. Once you read one of their novels, the next novel, while different, will fit right in with their other stories. An immediate sense of familiarity and more importantly, enjoyable stories.

The Ghost Brigades (John Scalzi – 2005)

September 2, 2011

I was very enthralled when I read Scalzi’s debut novel “Old Man’s War“. The suggestions that his writing style mimicked that of Robert Heinlein proved to be accurate and I was immediately taken by the story. So it was with great enthusiasm that I jumped into the sequel “The Ghost Brigades”.

But as I began reading, my enthusiasm quickly faded. While there was nothing particularly wrong, I simply was not drawn into to story either and soon found myself just plodding along. When I passed the halfway point without any spark, I seriously considered dropping the title and moving on. And that’s when things got interesting. By the time I reached the end I was fully engrossed and yearned for more.

Unlike the science explored in the preceding novel, that of acquiring alien-like rejuvenated bodies, the protagonist in this story is a clone. But not just a clone of anyone. He is the clone of the one man that betrayed humanity by siding with an alien force capable of wiping out mankind. But these aliens are but one of many alien entities fighting one another as they colonize space, and humans, like all the other alien races, have these ‘on again’, ‘off again’ allegiances and wars.

Charles Boutin is the scientist that has turned who even created a clone of himself that he then destroyed in order to fake his own death. But the military knows that he is still alive and in order to find him they make their own clone, Jared Dirac. Jared is infused with an imprint of Charles’ memories, but these memories must be unlocked by the correct stimuli. The question, remains how much of Jared will be a copy of Charles? Will he infect inherit the same traitorous posture? Will he acquire enough of Charles’ memory to figure out where he is hiding? Have the military created a monster just as bad as the one they seek? Jared himself cannot answer these questions as he slowly acquires bits and pieces of Charles’ memory. He seems to be just along for the ride. A pawn in a great interstellar game.

Things get interesting when Jared learns the fate of Charles’ daughter, Zoe, and the military’s role in her death. Was Charles’ betrayal an act of simple revenge? As Jared tries to sort it all out he must also contend with his own creators and how many others in the ranks treat him with suspicion or outright disdain, certain that his objectives are in line with the traitor he was cloned from.

But as I mentioned, I really got into the novel as the story came around to Zoe, albeit only a small part of the novel. Small, but pivotal in many ways. Seeing as the next installment in the series is entitled “Zoe’s Tale”, I’ll be sure to pick that one up soon. I just hope that I don’t have to go through another slow start next time.

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

February 21, 2011

I’ve never been much of a fantasy fan but a long time ago I picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time based on the recommendation of a friend. As a title targeted to the young adult crowd, I hoped that it would be a bit more down to Earth. I enjoyed the earlier chapters which are more character introductions and, coincidentally, are actually all set on Earth. But once things got ‘off world’ I found it to be too mystical and magical for my tastes.

In a nutshell, it is the story about a young girl, Meg Murry, and her brother, Charles Wallace Murry, who set out to find their father who disappeared mysteriously years before. Aside from being constantly being called by his dual first name throughout, Charles Wallace is as odd a boy as you will ever encounter who seems to already live a world of his own and seems to have special mind reading abilities.

They first meet three witches, Mrs’ Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which who set them off on the journey along with another boy, Calvin, a fellow social outcast from their school. They visit an odd lot of planets culminating in finding their dad on the planet Camazots where he is a virtual prisoner of an evil entity. Using the abilities of each of the children they manage to free first the father, leaving behind Charles Wallace, and subsequently have Meg return alone to free her brother.

Peppered with poetic and biblical passages the travels beyond their home world are not in the least interesting to myself. I’m sure that having Mrs. Whatsit transform from a bespectacled, outlandishly clothed ‘witch’ into a winged centaur-like creature has some deep symbolic meaning that I missed, but to me it was just another magical sequence insignificant to the overall story.

As is often the case when religious references are used in fiction, some find offense to that content. It didn’t bother me in the least, but that’s because I’m not a good catholic and didn’t even recognize most of that content as biblical in the first place. (Yeah, I’m going to hell)

So, once again, when it comes to fantasy, I’ll stick with Pratchett’s Discworld. At least they’re funny.

Ender in Exile

January 17, 2011

Ender in Exile – Orson Scott Card (2008)

The last novel in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is a patchwork, in more ways than one. As it probably wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who is really invested in the series, I’ll recap where we are so far assuming that the reader is at least slightly cognizant of the main story lines.

After Ender Wiggin (unwittingly) conquered the aliens In Card’s original Ender series, we had Ender going off into space to visit colonies set up on the planets where humans were left after defeating the formics. So in that arc, the time travel involved had Ender going into a future ahead of the relative time back on Earth. When Card restarted the series with the Shadow arc featuring Bean, all of that series occurred on Earth in relative Earth time, so there was very little bridging the two arcs, with the exception of course of the first novels in each arc which were basically the same story in battle school, but from different character (Ender and Bean) points of view.

“Ender in Exile” largely tells the story of Ender’s first trip out to the first colony, Shakespeare, as Governor designate. As he has opted not to travel in stasis, he can still periodically communicate with Earth. But the relatively short 2 year trip on his time is a prolonged decades long time duration on Earth. While most of the story is told from Ender’s end (in the spaceship or on the planet), Card uses communications on the ansible to document ‘emails’ between Ender, Valentine and a few colonists to Peter/Locke, Hyrum Graff and Ender’s parents, all who are aging quickly.

The first part of the novel introduces a girl and her mother that join Ender on the colonizing ship. By far the most interesting character in the book, Alessandra Toscano, is presented as a potential mate for Ender while at the same time having to deal with her partly unbalanced mom. Unfortunately the potential for this character is simply set aside in a quick turn of events.

Another minor intriguing element of the story is how Ender deals with the career minded captain of the ship, who obviously wants to take on the role of Governor himself upon arrival at their destination. Again, the climactic showdown, while interesting, is over in a blink.

Another angle that plays out is with the existing colonists awaiting the arrival of the ship for supplies, and of course their new Governor. Again, relative time differential downplays the relationships established and importance to the story.

The final ‘patch’ to the novel is Ender departure for Ganges, Virlomi’s planet to deal with Randall Firth, presumable the son of Achilles. This whole sequence really seems like padding as aside from the presence of Ender to solve things, it really is something that should have been left as a stand alone short story in the Enderverse.

I think you can begin to see how the novel is more like a bunch of stories than any one main plot. That is not to say that there are not other interesting things contained in it. There are, like Ender writing Speaker for the Dead, and The Hive Queen. Its just a matter of not having a sustaining overall plot to follow.

For obvious reasons, neophytes to the Ender saga won’t have much here for them to enjoy. For those who have followed the series, it may prove an interesting read only because it does fill in a few holes. But it is hardly an epic entry in the series.