Tuesday, September 19, 2017

32. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

My brother-in-law got me this last xmas and I had put it away for a time when I was ready for some good, modern sci-fi.  I actually got started on it this Spring, but couldn't get into it. In my current new reading resurgence, I jumped right in.  On the back of the book, the blurb says it is hard science fiction.  I think that is a mischaracterization.  It's definitely high-level, with some technical ideas that require a bit of understanding (like public private key encryption).  I would consider it more transhuman.  We are out in space with quantum nanotechnology that allows people to take over different bodies and space battles that are complex combinations of nuclear firepower and code attacks.

It takes a while to figure out what is going on.  The protagonist is a thief who gets sprung from a space jail where he keeps having to engage in a prisoner's dilemma with the other prisoners (and keeps dying).  A space warrior chick working for a goddess needs him to do a mission on Oubliette, which is the civilization on Mars.  Things there are really complicated and I won't even go into it, suffice it to say that it's pretty cool if you are into that kind of thing.

I'm just a little old and lazy now and while I appreciate the author not explaining a lot of things, it also made it harder to get into.  In the end, I think I more or less figured out the major plot.  Stories where technology is so advanced can sometimes lack emotional connection with the characters, especially when they are constantly rewriting their own identities and memories.  I found that to be the case here.  Nonetheless, the situation and tech was so cool that I quite enjoyed it. Of course, it turns out to be a trilogy and probably one I will have to eventually seek out (at which point I will have most likely forgotten what happened in the first book.  Sigh.)



[Completely irrelevant side note: the title of this book is accurate and it makes me think of another title that totally bugs the shit out of me, the movie Quantum of Solace.  What the fuck does that even mean?  I don't dislike Daniel Craig but his Bonds are probably the worst of them all and that stupid, meaninglessly pretentious title perfectly exemplifies why.]

Friday, September 15, 2017

31. Tigers of the Sea by Robert E. Howard

I believe it was Cormac Mac Art that my friend Jason first discovered way back in the day when we were nerdy teenagers and told me that there were characters other than Conan written by Howard.  It was quite a revelation at the time!  However, I never actually read anything other than Conan in all these years, so I was glad to find this book (and a Bran Mak Morn one as well to be read soon) at my local thrift store.

There are good and bad elements about reading a series of pulp stories about the same character.  It's cool to have it as a historical artifact and its very existence is thanks to Richard L. Tierney.  He put the collection together and had it published in 1975. He also wrote a very helpful introduction that is a survey of all the various characters that Howard created in old Europe and how they connect together in various historical periods.  I would have liked a bit more detail on the actual publication dates and sources, but the history is really helpful to ground the stories and give you clues to hunt down his other books.

On the other hand, there is a certain sameness to three of the stories here.  Cormac Mac Art is a badass Erin warrior who has travelled and warred all over the post-Roman British isles who is also very clever.  Each story has him and his pirate chief Wulfere sneaking into some enemy camp, either with physical subterfuge or in disguise, getting involved in some greater conflict, kicking a ton of ass and then getting out with the booty.  The ass-kicking is rip-roaring, heavy physical stuff (gigantic axes smashing through helms kind of thing) which I really enjoy.  After two stories of it, though, one needs a bit of a break.  It pains me to write this but I was even slightly bored at a couple points (sorry, sorry, Robert E. Howard).  It's like three pot roasts in a row.  Ideally, you have had a shitty day at work dealing with the whinging and the incompetent and you go home, have an ale and read one of these stories about how one really deals with lesser men to get your head straight again.

The last story, "The Temple of Abomination" was not completed and was a breath of fresh air from all the vikings and their stockades, with an ancient dark druid and the fetid, corrupt creatures he commands. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

30. First on the Moon by Jeff Sutton

Golden Age sci-fi is not totally my bag.  I can't remember where I got this book but I really liked the bold, colourful cover and it was in good condition.  I thought it was going to be a fantastic gee-whiz space story, but it is actually much more akin to a hard sci-fi attempt to realistically imagine in 1958 what a race to the moon would look like.

It takes place during the height of the cold war and is told from the perspective of an elite pilot brought into a top secret training program.  Paranoia is everywhere, to the point that he is pulled from his last date before launch because two previous pilots were killed in staged accidents.  He and his date are replaced with doubles (whom we later learn are also killed).  He is then led to the real rocket (the one he had been training on turns out to have been a duplicate to further fool the enemy) and meets his crew of three.  It's a tense, steady read.  A bit dry at times, but with enough suspense and even some characterization to keep me hooked.  They go to the moon, have to deal with all the very real issues of survival there as well as the commies who do all kinds of dastardly things.  They send a missile while they are in flight, they send another rocket themselves.  The whole point is that the country that first establishes a succesful person on the moon gets to claim it for their own in the eyes of the UN.  Once on the planet, the commander also learns that one of his men is a double agent who is sabotaging the mission.

It kind of felt like what I imagine The Martian was like, but from a 1958 perspective.  Jeff Sutton did many things in his life (including writing quite a few science fiction novels), among them working on survival issues for high-altitude pilots, so he knew his stuff.  Solid read.

Monday, September 11, 2017

29. The Case of the Vanishing Boy by Alexander Key

When I was a kid in elementary school, Escape from Witch Mountain came out.  I'm still not sure if it was a movie or a TV special, but everybody was talking about it.  I somehow saw at least an image from it and remember having a powerful crush on the girl.  I never did see it.  We didn't have TV and for some reason it never got on my parents' radar, but like a lot of media that I didn't see, I pretended that I had to be part of the conversation (Mad Magazine parodies were the best for this).

I don't remember where I found this book, but I thought I should check it out.  I wouldn't be surprised if there is some small re-discovery of Key's work, because this stuff falls squarely in the same genre as the successful Stranger Things series on Netflix.  Adolescent kids with powers who discover malfeasance among nasty, scientific adults and have to deal with it mostly on their own.  In this case, there are also some good adults, who are of course, self-consciously non-conformist. 

This is actually Key's last book (he died in 1979).  The story here is about Jan, a boy who wakes up on a commuter train with no memory of who he is or where he came from but that he is running.  He meets a blind girl on the train who spots him as somebody in trouble and the adventure begins (or continues).  I really enjoyed the in media res beginning.  I sort of figured most of the mystery out (minus the details) quite quickly.  It's a tight read, quite thrilling and enjoyable with real stakes and action.  I will see if my 12-year old nephew finds it interesting.  I think I would like to check out Escape from Witch Mountain and maybe even the original movie, just so I can talk about it without making stuff up.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

28. Thongor of Lemuria

Part two of the Thongor saga, which is not always easy to know as the titles all kind of sound the same.  I need at some point to make a reference list.  The first one is called The Wizard of Lemuria and the second Thongor of Lemuria and on the back of the edition I have, where they list the other titles, they don't specify if they are in order (and they call it "the saga of Thongor of Lemuria" but that isn't the name of the first book, argh!).  I remember as a young nerd in the late '70s and early '80s how it was so hard to find out any info on things (like which Star Trek episode came from which season, or what all the Star Wars cards were and so on).  On the one hand, this lack of information probably is what gives me my book-hunting drive today.  On the other, it seems damned lazy and cheap by the publishers at the time, who knew they were marketing to anal-retentive nerds and should have given us the data we needed.

Anyhow, this is another chapter in Thongor's ass-kicking life.  It starts off immediately after where the last one left off, with Thongor, the hot babe Sumia and his less extraordinary but still capable soldier friend Karm Karvus on the airship.  They hit an electrical storm and fall into the ocean and all kinds of shit happens.  It starts out at first with them being on an unknown jungle isle, fighting local flora, fauna and primitives, but we quite quickly get back to the bigger geopolitical plot of decadent, evil men taking over kingdoms and cities and fucking with Thongor.

Like the first book, at first I was a bit bored and found it all too simplistic and derivative and then things got quite weird and excessive and I was once again in for the ride.  I do find disappointing the depiction of the jungle savages.  It's not quite as blatantly racist as Howard, but still has the boring trope that being primitive means not only being less civilized but also arbitrarily crueler and genetically inferior.  Plus, they are dark and apelike.  I get the sexism in these books, written in 1966, but you think Lin Carter might have been just slightly more aware than the pulp writers of the thirties.  Sentences like "Scores of the shaggy Beastmen and their unlovely mates and equally repulsive cubs crawled from the huts to watch the procession" bum me out.  I'm not expecting a post-colonial deconstruction of the native "other" here, just maybe a bit more sense that a bunch of natives living in the jungle might actually have a reason for doing what they are doing.

The more civilized badguys in this book are, on the other hand, quite entertaining and creative and their evil is due to their own character flaws (greed, ambition, etc.) rather than any innate genetic characteristics.  The torturer whose body is bubbling with disease, the corpulent scientist vampire who sits naked in his techno-chair feeding on the blood of his people, these guys often have weak and cruel lips.  Good stuff.

I am just going to keep on cruising through this saga.  I found a bunch of Thongors at Chainon from Tandem, a British press.  The image above is my scan. Oh yeah, there re so many names of beasts, places and especially characters and they all kind of use the same structure that I couldn't really keep them straight. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

27. The Furies by Keith Roberts

I found this at Chainon, a thrift store here that is a fundraiser/job provider for a woman's shelter (called Chainon) and support organization.  They have a small but decent english fiction section and while it doesn't change much, every now and then you can find a few gems there. They re-arranged the place earlier this year and right afterwards there was a minor treasure trove of old paperbacks, including a bunch of Thongors and this book, which I grabbed almost purely because it was such a beautiful old paperback.  I did not have high expectations.

The subjet matter is certainly in my wheelhouse.  Gigantic wasps take over the world.  It also is a pretty good book.  I would have been happy to have found it even if it were more trashy and less well written, simply because The Furies definitely can be categorized as a post-apocalyptic book.  Happily, it turned out to be a pretty good read.

The hero is an illustrator who recently bought a place in the country and has a pretty good life, kind of just enjoying things including a not-expected professional and financial success (that allowed him to buy the house) and a great dane.  He also meets a young girl who is vacationing in the area and they become friends, taking the dog for long walks. Then giant wasps start attacking in the area.  At first it is sporadic, but then it turns into an all-out assault.  At the same time, there are two major nuclear tests that set off massive global earthquakes.  The end result is a split and ruptured england and gigantic wasps everywhere, killing humans as efficiently as possible.

This is already a lot of fun but it gets a lot deeper and weirder.  I won't reveal too much more of the plot, but there is great survival stuff and rich exploration into what the wasps are doing.  It's quite tough.  Punches are not pulled, though it is all done with a lot of British stiff upper lip.  It's really quite epic.  This paperback had small type and small margins so it was deceptively thin, but really could have been a much thicker book.

It's not perfect. There is a bit too much of jumping into omniscient explanation of what is going on.  These explanations satisfy one's curiousity, but feel a bit unnatural and take you out of the flow of the survival narrative, which is otherwise quite gripping.  Still, I am very happy to add this to my library.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

26. The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson

A neat little fantasy novel from 1976 about a boy priest (named Tron, 6 years before the movie) in an isolated religion-bound kingdom.  He gets a sign from the gods at an important ritual which he distrupts, thus dooming the king to death.  He feels compelled to take the hawk that was to be sacrificed for the king.  As it turns out, he was actually being manipulated by the cabal of elderly priests in their machinations to maintain their political strength over the king and the military, who want to open the country up.  It's pretty neat as you the reader and the boy discover the world and the political machinations as well as starting to see that while he was manipulated, it's not clear if it was the priests or actually the gods themselves who may be playing a very different game.

Very cool story for young and old alike.