Category Archives: science fiction

Books in the science fiction genre.

Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, on the meaning of life, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Frederich Nietzche said, “If we possess a why of life, we can put up with almost any how.” And Stephen King wrote, “Life sucks, then you die.”

It’ll take a far better philosopher than I to really look at this book from an existentialist viewpoint, but I strongly suspect that it would be a lot of fun to do. After all, one of the major questions that philosophy – and existentialism in particular – tries to address is that of why we are here. What is our purpose in life? What, in the end, does it all mean? For us out here, that’s a question we can’t really know the answer to, and thus a whole branch of philosophy exists to tell us that it doesn’t really matter. That maybe we don’t have a purpose imposed upon us from outside, but that’s okay. We can create our own. We can contribute our own verses to the powerful play of life, as Whitman would have it, and in the end we are responsible for our own lives.

For this guy, going out of existence is probably more important…

But what if we weren’t? What if there was a being that orchestrated our lives, willing them into – and more importantly out of – existence? What would you do with the realization that your life is not entirely your own? And even worse, the realization that the person in control of it doesn’t really care all that much about you?

That is the problem faced by Ensign Andrew Dahl of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid. It is the 25th century, and things couldn’t be better. He has a chance to see new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go… Well, you know the rest. Dahl is at the frontier of science and exploration, and is determined to make the most of it.

If he survives.

Alone among the ships of the UU, the Intrepid loses crew at an alarming rate. Dahl soon discovers a fact that has been known for years by those crew members who are bright enough to spot the pattern: people who go on away missions with the command staff will, almost inevitably, die. Toxic gasses, killer machines, Borgovian land worms – these are just a tiny sampling of dangers that have done in ensigns and miscellaneous crew for years, and no one seems to know why. All they can do is make sure they’re not in the room when the Captain comes in, looking for someone who’ll pop down to a planet’s surface to find out why that mining colony hasn’t reported in recently.

Nope, he’s going to die too.

Dahl, of course, just can’t let himself and his friends die, so he begins digging into the true nature of their lives on the starship Intrepid. What he discovers is a truth almost too mad to be believed: their lives are not their own. A greater power is directing events on the Intrepid, dictating who lives and who dies, and that greater power doesn’t seem to be very good at what it does. So Dahl and his friends have to bet everything on the power of the Narrative, meet their makers and try to find a way to secure their freedom. Or, failing that, a way to see to it that their lives have more meaning than they had before.

As always with John Scalzi, I recommend picking this up. It’s a very fast read – I finished it in under a day – and it has the tight combination of humor, thoughtfulness, and genuine emotion that I have come to expect from his work. From a premise that is incredibly simple – “The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate” – he’s built up a multi-layered exploration into the meaning of life and death. The universe he’s given to us is one where people are denied the ability to give meaning to their own lives, and have to rely on an unseen force to do it for them. The fight, then, is to acquire that ability to decide. To gain agency, as it were. They want to be able to control their own existence so badly that they risk their existence entirely.

The corollary, then, is very simple: what are you doing with your life? We, the readers, have that agency. We can make decisions for our own lives and our own purposes. If we succeed or fail, we can do so knowing that we made those successes or failures possible. [1] In a sense, we don’t know how good we have it, something that is brought up in the second of three codas to the main novel. We can choose. We can create meaning in our lives without hoping that some higher power will do it for us. So why don’t we?

For a book that presents itself as a quick, fun read, there are certainly layers upon layers of meaning in it that could be a lot of fun to explore. The only complaint, really, is that it wasn’t long enough. And I don’t mean that he skipped essential scenes, or that he should have opted for a Tolkien/Jordan/Martin-esque style of describing every goddamn thing that showed up on the page, but there were points where I just wanted him to slow down a bit and let us appreciate the moments for what they were. There’s a scene in chapter 21, for example, that should be really emotional and meaningful, but it’s almost entirely dialogue. Good dialogue, yes, but I wanted to linger over it a bit, and that’s true for a lot of scenes in the book. Scalzi writes wonderful banter, and makes his characters sound real, but I want to see things as well as hear them.

Also, to be honest, I expected the last page to just be a picture of Scalzi at his computer, turning to the camera and winking. It would have been hilariously meta, but I guess he’s not as gimmicky as that.

Buy the book and enjoy it. If you’re a fan of Star Trek – which was, given the title, a huge inspiration for the story – you’ll no doubt appreciate it more than most. Even if you haven’t watched every episode of the original series, though, the Red Shirt character is one that has permeated all levels of fiction, and has died many times in order to advance the plots that you love so well. He even has one poor guy who’s not only a Red Shirt, but nearly at the end of his tour and about to get married. There was no way he’d survive. Take some time out for these poor, expendable bastards and give them a chance to shine.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with the song that Jonathan Coulton wrote for the book. Quiet, poignant, and touching. But also really funny.

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“The [Borgovian Land Worms] were in a frenzy. Somebody was now likely to die. It was likely to be ensign Davis.”
– from Redshirts by John Scalzi
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[1] There are plenty of external, uncontrollable factors, of course, which can all be lumped together under the term “luck,” but you know what I mean.

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Filed under existentialism, humor, John Scalzi, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, space travel, story

Review 184: Ender’s Shadow

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

This book made me wish I could forget that I had ever read Ender’s Game.

Not because it was necessarily a better book – though it is longer – but because the two books offer different views of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives.

Ender Wiggin is brilliant and empathetic, a boy torn apart by his own doubts and fears and driven to greatness by a government that sees him simply as a means to an end. It is only his ability to understand and come to love those around him that gets him through his trials, endure his isolation, and which ultimately allows him to put together the team that defeats the Buggers. Ender seems to be more human than human, and not in that ironic Blade Runner sort of way, but in a way which makes us want to see him succeed and do well.

Bean, on the other hand, is about as different from Ender as it’s possible to get. He’s introduced in Ender’s Game as a foil, a character designed to show us how far Ender had come in the short time that he had been in Battle School. When we meet Bean, Ender is using the same techniques of isolation and constructive abuse that were used on him, making us wonder if Ender will turn out to be just a copy of the adults who were tormenting him. We learn that Bean, like Ender, is brilliant, but he is also strong-willed and ambitious and takes well to the atmosphere of Battle School. In the end, Bean shows himself to be a vital part of the team that Ender assembles to stop the Buggers and cement humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Ender’s story is all about empathy and self-understanding and his desire to be the person he wants to be, rather than the person humanity needs him to be. He has to give up some of his essential humanity in order to save the world.

Bean’s story comes from the opposite direction. More brilliant than Ender, Bean learns to find his humanity. He has to learn to see people as people, rather than a means to an end or a puzzle to solve. The hard lessons that he learned on the streets of Rotterdam as a small child were vital in preparing him to become a commander, but they have to be put aside if he’s to become a human.

Bean’s story is much bigger in scope than Ender’s, which gives the book as a whole more depth than Ender’s Game. We start out in Rotterdam, which has become a center of poverty and violence among rival gangs of street children. Bean, tiny and starving, manages to prove his worth to one of these gangs by suggesting strategies by which they can get more food and more respect. He gains the attention of Sister Carlotta, a nun who is working for both God and the International Fleet, and she is the first to see his full potential as a student in Battle School. But in the course of trying to understand Bean, she learns that his origin is one of horror, and that his future is even worse.

As a character, I liked Bean more than I liked Ender, possibly because on a scale of Complete Misanthrope to Bodhisattva, Bean and I are pretty close to the complete misanthrope end of the spectrum. To be fair, though, Bean has a lot more reasons to feel that way, and he’s a lot worse than I am. As we meet him, Bean views people as means to an end or as problems to be solved. He doesn’t reform the street gang culture of Rotterdam because it’s the right thing to do – he does it because he needs to eat. When he does experience attachment or fondness for others, he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and turns it into just another problem to be solved.

That hyper-analytical way of looking at the world makes Bean a much more aware character than Ender as well. While Ender spends most of his book wrapped inside his own head, Bean is constantly testing the world, analyzing it and trying to figure out what’s really going on. So while Ender was exploring the computer fantasy game, Bean was crawling through air ducts in the Battle School. While Ender was researching the battles of the past, Bean was learning how to spy on his teachers.

In the end, just as Ender is learning to put aside his humanity for the common good, Bean discovers a deep well of compassion that he never knew he had. Ender becomes more isolated, and Bean becomes more connected to others. The two characters come at each other from different directions and view the world in vastly different ways, giving us a kind of parallax view of the same events, to use Card’s preferred terminology.

Most interestingly, many of the revelations that were revealed to Ender in his book were discovered by Bean in this one, which creates a whole different reading experience.

And that’s why I wish I could delete my memory of having read Ender’s Game,, or at least put it away for a while. Reading this book, I constantly compare what’s happening to Bean with what happened to Ender, looking for those scenes that are shared between the books and others that we only get to see once. Whether it’s the early days of Battle School or Ender’s fight with Bonzo Madrid or the climactic end, there are enough similarities and differences to make each book worth reading.

But at the same time, I want to read each one for the first time, without knowing what’s going to happen next. I want to share Bean’s ability to see plans unspool before him without already knowing what those plans are. And then I want to read Ender’s Game the way I read Ender’s Shadow and have those wonderful moments of revelation as new light is shed on topics that were only briefly mentioned before – like Locke and Demosthenes, or the true fate of Mazer Rackham.

Card has done a difficult job very well in this book, and I can’t imagine it was easy at all. As he noted in his forward, a dozen years passed between the first book and this one, and a person changes in that much time. He learned new things and gained new perspectives, and that naturally had a great influence on how he chose to write this story.

And then there’s the enormous popularity of his other Ender books. Between Game and Shadow, he wrote Speaker for the Dead in 1986, Xenocide in 1991, and Children of the Mind in 1996. That means he had a much more solid understanding of his world by the time he got around to Ender’s Shadow in 1999, and a much larger fan base as well. Writers will always say that they write for the story, not for the fans, but every writer wants in their heart of hearts to have people love what they write. Revisiting your most famous work and exploring a popular character brings great risks with it.

Fortunately, I think Card succeeded with this book. It both compliments and contrasts with Ender’s Game, offering enough new information and new viewpoints to merit a second novel, while being faithful to the story that fans had come to love over a decade and a half. What’s more, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer. The scale is larger, the characters have more depth, and he takes more chances with the story than he did with Ender’s Game.

All in all, if you were a fan of the first, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read either, you really should. And if you start with this one, let me know how it goes.

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“Ender was what Bean only wished to be — the kind of person on whom you could put all your hopes, who could carry all your fears, and he would not let you down, would not betray you. I want to be the kind of boy you are, thought Bean. But I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through to get there.”

All images are from Marvel Comics.

Ender’s Shadow on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Shadow on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, aliens, coming of age, identity, military, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, space travel, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 180: The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale

The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale by John Scalzi

In Old Man’s War, John Scalzi brought us a new future, vast in scope, amazingly advanced and yet horribly familiar at the same time. Humans have spread out through space, snatching up habitable planets as fast as they can and setting up new colonies to thrive or perish. Back on Earth, most of the population is fed just enough information about the greater universe to ensure a steady supply of colonists and soldiers, but not enough to make them aware of all the cool stuff they’re missing.

HELLO NEIGHBOR! DO YOU HAVE A CUP OF YOUR CHILDREN’S BLOO – SUGAR! SUGAR WE COULD BORROW?

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones out there who want this real estate. Dozens of alien species are out there, and most of them want the same worlds that we do. We – and they – will fight tooth and nail to get and keep the precious few worlds that will support life. Existence out in space is much like existence on Earth – a constant struggle for scarce resources, and the species who is best adapted to get and keep planets will be the one that, for lack of a better word, wins.

To keep human colonists alive, the Colonial Union has created the Colonial Defense Force. These soldiers, taken from senior citizens of Earth, are given new, superhuman bodies, terrifyingly effective weapons, and just enough training to make sure they can defeat the horrifying things that they are sure to face. John Perry, a widower from Earth, joins the CDF and becomes one of the few Earthlings to learn about the wider universe into which humanity has spread. Sarcastic and quick-witted, Perry learns a lot more than he bargained for – among other things, that his dead wife’s DNA had been used to make the Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades, we follow Sagan through the shadowy and violent world of the Special Forces. Where the regular CDF soldiers have bodies that would make them superheroes on Earth, the special forces are on a whole other level. Grown from the DNA of people who did not survive to become CDF soldiers, the special forces are where the newest and most interesting genetic modifications are tried out. Better vision, faster reflexes, a nearly telepathic connection with their squadmates, and even in some cases whole new body plans are all options for the Special Forces soldier. They are single-minded, deadly, and proud, knowing their purpose in the universe almost from the moment of their “birth.” What they lack, however, is the years of living that ordinary humans have and all that comes with that. This makes the Special Forces even more separate from the rest of the CDF – human, but not quite, yet essential to the survival of humanity.

Jane Sagan is one of the people trying to find Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist who has vanished, taking a dangerous amount of information on the CDF’s mind transference process with him. Their worst fear – that Boutin will try to sell that technology to their enemies – isn’t even close to how bad the truth is. Boutin hates the Colonial Union with a passion and devises a plan that will make all human colonies everywhere completely vulnerable to attack. When he dies, the only thing Jane and her squad can do is escape, but not before saving Boutin’s young daughter, Zoë, from the terrifying Obin. More on them later, though.

It’s… It’s a space thing.

Their days of adventuring over, Perry and Sagan marry, creating a partnership that sounds impossible, if you stop to think about it for too long – a man well into his 80s, with the body of a 30-year-old, marrying a woman cloned from the DNA of his former wife, and who is technically still too young to get a driver’s license. They love each other, though, and are willing to bring Zoë into their family. Following their discharge from the CDF, they got new, normal bodies and accepted a position on the oddly-named colony world of Huckleberry. In the town of New Goa, John is the ombudsman, which means having to deal with all the petty problems that come with a small town, and Jane is the constable. They live with Zoë and her two Obin bodyguards in what could certainly be considered a good life.

So you know that won’t last.

They are tapped to lead a new colony – a new type of colony, actually. Whereas previous colonists had all come from Earth, the new colony of Roanoke will be founded by representatives from ten of the oldest human colonies. It’s a second generation colonization, which would be a fantastic milestone if it weren’t for one tiny little detail: the Conclave.

Having been willing to fight pretty much everyone in their area of space, the Colonial Union hasn’t made many friends. In fact, they have damn few. Their enemies, sensing a common threat, have banded together into an organization called The Conclave, which is working to end interplanetary war through a representative government of sorts. One of their first acts was to forbid colonization by any non-Conclave members. Unauthorized colonies that resist the Conclave are vaporized.

Humanity, always the contrarians, wants to flout the Conclave’s rule and undermine its presumed authority. Thus begins an intricate web of deception and misinformation and scheming that all centers around the colonists at Roanoke, who know nothing of what’s going on over their heads. There are a few clues, though, and when John starts pulling at loose threads, a whole tapestry of intrigue is revealed to him. Roanoke may be vital to the survival of humans in space, but that doesn’t mean that the colony itself has to survive.

The reason I’m putting these two books together is because they’re really one book. The Last Colony is a fantastic read, where every time the plot turns it’s like a punch in the gut. The tension never really lets up, and every time we think things are going to get better, that’s the cue for them to get a whole lot worse.

Taking narrative shortcuts makes the Baby Jesus cry, Johnny!!

After finishing the book, however, Scalzi got a light wrist-slapping by his readers for taking a few shortcuts. One is that an indigenous, intelligent life form is discovered on Roanoke, which cause the deaths of several colonists… and then they vanish, never to be seen again. From the description, they sounded pretty cool, and I was disappointed that Scalzi had just let them kind of drift away so quietly. The other problem was with Zoë – Perry comes up with an interesting end-run around the Colonial Union, one which involves Zoë pulling rank with the Obin, who revere her as the daughter of the man who gave them consciousness. She gets sent off with her Obin bodyguards, partly to get help and also to get her out of harm’s way, and returns twenty pages later with a piece of alien technology that just happens to be exactly what they need to win the final, climactic confrontation against the Conclave. The author knew he couldn’t put all that into the book without producing something of doorstop proportions, so he “did a little hand waving and hoped [he] wouldn’t get caught.”

This is what you get for cultivating an intelligent readership, Scalzi.

The other reason for writing Zoë’s Tale, of course, was that Zoë was a really interesting character. The daughter of a man who would have betrayed humanity, and at the same time brought consciousness to the Obin – a species that had been uplifted long ago to have intelligence without consciousness. The Obin revere Zoë, and would do anything to protect her. Under these circumstances you might think that she would grow up kind of weird, but she actually ends up pretty cool. We get to see her in action a few times during The Last Colony, and those few times are more than enough to make you want to read a whole book about her.

That book, then, is Zoë’s Tale, a re-telling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of the most important teenage girl in the known universe.

This is what I imagine being a teenage girl is like. How’d I do?

It’s hard enough being a teenage girl here and now (or so I’m told), so imagine how much harder it must be when your father is one of the greatest traitors to humanity; when your adoptive parents are ex-soldiers, and your mother is technically younger than you are; when an entire species depends on you as a model of what it means to be a conscious, self-aware being; and when you suddenly have to leave your home to start a new colony on a world that no one has ever heard of.

That would be enough to mess anyone up.

Fortunately, Zoë is a tough girl. She’s bright, resilient and sarcastic. She enjoys a deep inner life, knows how to taunt boys, and keeps her head in a crisis. In short, the kind of teenage daughter we would all want to have, if we wanted to have teenage daughters. She and her friends do what teenagers do best: push the boundaries of their new home, have fights, fall in love, and feel big feelings about everything. Through her, we learn a lot more about the indigenous life forms of Roanoke, and we find out much more about the universe at large when she is sent to find a way to save her family and friends.

While Zoë’s Tale was very enjoyable, I find it hard to evaluate fairly. I love Zoë, and her friends are great characters as well. Scalzi does a fantastic job at writing the intricate webs of angst that make up our teenage years, fraught with emotional land mines and exciting new feelings. Her relationship with her boyfriend Enzo is very well handled, as is the ever-shifting dynamic of friendship between her and the other teens of the colony. There are some beautiful, raw moments of emotion in the book that made me – the man whose heart was long ago replaced by a spinning, cold lump of stone – stop for a moment and say, “Wow.”

What I can’t fairly say is whether or not Zoë’s Tale works as a stand-alone book. As I read it, I was constantly filling in gaps from my knowledge of The Last Colony, which made everything make sense. If I had my way, I would wipe my memory of both books and then read them again in reverse order to see if they still worked. Perhaps one day, if Scalzi has a lot of free time, he will integrate the two into a larger single volume. I wouldn’t envy him that work, but I think the resulting book would be a brilliant read.

One of the things I like about the work of John Scalzi is that I can always recommend him without reservation, so I’m doing that now. If you like good science fiction, an engaging plot and wonderful characters, pick up The Last Colony and Zoë’s Tale. You won’t regret it.

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“Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don’t have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they’re happy to kill him for what he’s got in his suitcase.”
– John Scalzi, The Last Colony

“You and I are so totally going to be best friends.”
“Are we? I don’t know. What are the hours?”
“The hours are terrible. And the pay is even worse.”
“Will I be treated horribly?”
“You will cry yourself to sleep on a nightly basis.”
“Fed crusts?”
“Of course not. We feed the crusts to the dogs.”
“Oh, very nice. Okay, you pass. We can be best friends.”
“Good. Another life decision taken care of.”
“Yes. Now, come on. No point wasting all this attitude on ourselves. Let’s go find something to point and laugh at.”
– Zoë and Gretchen, Zoë’s Tale
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Wikipedia
Zoe’s Tale on Wikipedia
The Last Colony on Amazon.com
Zoe’s Tale on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog

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Filed under aliens, colonization, coming of age, family, humor, John Scalzi, revolution, science fiction, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 174: Dark Lord – The Rise of Darth Vader

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader by James Luceno

When you think about Darth Vader, many things come to mind. Dark Lord of the Sith. Bane of the Jedi. Throat-Crusher Supreme.

Emo?

No. Or rather, “NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

Of all my complaints about the new trilogy – and there are many – the biggest one has to do with how Anakin Skywalker was handled. I grew up loving Darth Vader. He was a vicious bastard, but by gods he was awesome about it. He was a hard-ass who inspired terror wherever he went, and he was a man who overcame insurmountable evils to ultimately redeem himself. From the moment we see him emerge from the smoke in A New Hope, we know that this is a man to be feared and reckoned with.

He never said, “Yippee,” and he most certainly was never a mopey little emoboi. I despised the choice to make Anakin a whiny little brat who was turned to the Dark Side. And please note the passive voice there – “was turned.” He was manipulated and pushed and pulled, and finally when Palpatine said, “Go murder children,” Anakin just said, “Okay,” and did it. I never got the feeling that Anakin was making his own choices in these movies, or doing terrible things because he truly thought they were the right thing to do.

The title of Darth Vader fit very, very poorly on this wet noodle of a Sith-wannabe, and that, more than anything else, made me very angry about the new trilogy.

So, in comes James Luceno to clean things up.

Set about a month after the events in Episode 3, this book starts Vader’s transformation from mopey to malicious.

“Yoda? Know this ‘Yoda’ I do not.” (from @bonniegrrl)

Despite the best efforts of the Clone Army, some Jedi survived the initial massacre of Order 66. One of those, a Jedi named Roan Shyne, is trying to lead his dead comrade’s padawan to safety, wherever safety may be found. He’s questioning his purpose now, in a world where evil has emerged victorious, and where the Jedi are no more. Should he make a stand and die defending the Idea, or should he obey Yoda’s last orders and go to ground?

Sadly, he’s a principle character in a Star Wars novel, so the Force takes the choice out of his hands. He finds himself drawn ever closer into the mystery of the Empire and the Emperor. And Vader.

Who, I might add, is having issues of his own. The first three pages of his first POV scene are about how uncomfortable the Suit is (Luceno talked to the folks at LucasArts to find out what it was like), and how miserable he is being a nubby lump of burned flesh inside a mobile life-support system. He can’t see properly, can’t hear normally, can’t move like he used to – hell, he can barely walk steady, much less wield a lightsaber like he used to.

Palpatine, being the good mentor that he is, knows exactly how to cure Vader’s blues: give him a project, something to keep his mind off things. Like hunting people down and killing them.

Luceno handles the transition from brat to demon very delicately and very smoothly. By the time the book is over, Vader still isn’t the avatar of evil that he will one day become, but he’s certainly over the hump. In addition, the advantage of writing a prequel story is that you can boost the power of events that happen later on, giving them much more significance. When Vader finally kills Palpatine at the end of Return of the Jedi, for example, the moment is a little richer and more powerful for having seen what Palpatine put Vader through in his early days.

Dammit. Just… Dammit.

In this book, we get a good look at the Master-Disciple relationship of the Sith, and the precarious balance that it requires. The Master works his hardest to break and subjugate his disciple in order to make him strong enough so that he will one day exceed his master. The problem is that, traditionally, the disciple usually kills the master at that point, finds a new disciple of his own, and the cycle begins anew. Palpatine is looking to avoid that, if at all possible, and Vader is just itching for a chance. The key is that power is an end unto itself, and the cycle of murder is just a part of that.

But at the end of Jedi, Vader kills his master for the benefit of another, something that is antithetical to the core philosophy of the Sith. Vader gained no power by killing Palpatine, at least not in the sense that he understood “power” up to that point.

Star Wars purists might stay away from the novels, and that’s certainly their right. I think this one is worth reading, though. It’s an excellent move away from the horrorshow that was the new trilogy, and does a very good job at helping us rediscover the Darth Vader that we all came to know and love.

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“The old system is dead, senator. You would be wise to subscribe to the new one.”
– Darth Vader

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader on Wikipedia
James Luceno on Wikipedia
Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader on Amazon.com

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Filed under coming of age, good and evil, James Luceno, science fiction, Star Wars

Review 161: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Once upon a time, there was a man named H. Beam Piper, and he wrote a series of books that began with Little Fuzzy, a tale of space-going humans who have to learn to live on a world with an adorably cute, yet sentient, species. While I haven’t read these books, my research tells me that they’re the type of fun, optimistic science fiction that is so emblematic of the early 60s. They dealt not only with the issues of human expansion into space, but with what it means to be an intelligent, sentient species. Given that we only have one case study – us – that definition will necessarily be narrow, and challenged. Humans have trouble relating with other humans who live only a six hour drive away, after all. Being able to relate to a non-human sentience that evolved on another planet will be a massive philosophical undertaking.

In 2010, John Scalzi announced on his blog that he had done a “reboot” of Piper’s work, revisiting the characters, themes and world that Piper had created and seeing what he could do with them. He did this partly because it seemed like a good idea, but also because it was something that hadn’t been done before in literature.

Some reboots are more imaginative than others. (Art by Evan Shaner)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you know that stories from the visual media – TV and movies especially – get rebooted from time to time. The most notable recent examples are “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and include shows like “Smallville” and the most recent run of Batman movies. If you read comics, you know this happens all the time as well, in ways big and small. Characters like Green Lantern, Thor, and the Fantastic Four are fundamentally the same as when they were created, but have evolved in ways their creators may have never expected.

In all of these examples, the fundamental core of each story is kept from the original – the world, the characters, the themes – and given new life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and Scalzi felt that Piper’s world was good enough and interesting enough that it deserved to be re-introduced to a modern audience who might not otherwise know about it.

So, just for fun, he started writing Fuzzy Nation, a book that uses the characters and ideas from Little Fuzzy, the first of Piper’s books, and builds an entirely new story out of them. What resulted was a story that he thought was good enough to let out into the wild, and so – with the help of some intellectual property law and the blessing of Piper’s estate – he published Fuzzy Nation in 2011.

As I said, I haven’t read the original Piper books, but if they’re half as much fun to read as this one was, then I have to pick them up.

Sorry, I was looking for something pretty. Try again.

In the future, humankind has expanded out into space, as we so often do. With us, we have taken that peculiarly human trait, naked avarice, and brought it with us. The Zarathustra Corporation (ZaraCorp for short) is one of the leaders in exploiting and extracting usable resources from a planet. They’ve cornered the market on Sunstones – a decorative rock that glows with its wearer’s body heat and makes diamonds look like beach pebbles – and turned the ravaging of worlds into an art. A horribly environmentally destructive art.

Jack Holloway is a contract surveyor, a former trial lawyer, and not a very nice man. He helps ZaraCorp search for Sunstones on the hostile world of Zara XXIII, with the help of Carl, a dog with a fondness for explosions. Holloway finds seams of Sunstone and gets his cut of the money. It’s a nice enough arrangement out on a backwater world, and it doesn’t get complicated until he (and Carl) discover a Sunstone deposit that could fill the company’s coffers for decades.

At the same time, he encounters a curious form of life – or rather, it encounters him. Small, bipedal, intensely curious and undeniably clever, the Fuzzies (as Jack names them) seem to be truly remarkable animals. It is not until the ZaraCorp field biologist (and Jack’s former girlfriend), Janice Wangai, suggests that they might be sentient that things get truly complicated. After all, Colonial law is very clear on what companies like ZaraCorp are and are not allowed to do on each planet they run, and “ravaging the world of another sentient species” is pretty much at the top of their Do Not list.

The Fuzzies would make an AMAZING vest...

It soon becomes a race to save the Fuzzies from ZaraCorp and its army of lawyers. If they win, the Fuzzies will have a planet on which they can grow and thrive. If ZaraCorp wins, they’ll have nothing but the least useful bits of dirt and shrubbery left. Holloway has to do a good thing but he has to do it his way – a way that rarely has him acting like a good man.

The first thing I thought when I finished this, actually, was, “I needed that.” My reading choices for a while have been kind of heavy, or at least not a whole lot of fun to read. Good, yes, but not fun. I know this because I find myself doing things that aren’t reading – listening to podcasts, reading through articles I’ve saved on Instapaper, going through old columns at Cracked.com, things like that. With this book, though, there was none of that stalling. I read it every chance I could and blew through the whole thing in two days. So let that be take-home lesson number one: this book is fun to read.

And while it is an adventure, it does hit on some interesting and contemporary topics, not the least of which is the question of how ethically a corporation should be expected to behave. ZaraCorp, like any company, has a primary mission to make money, especially as the company is publicly traded. They have to get money to those stockholders who have invested in them so that they can make more money to exploit more resources. And that’s a point that Scalzi has made in his own blog: “I think the majority [of] corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence,” he writes. “And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value.”

Go on - take the pension fund. They'll probably just waste it on food...

In Fuzzy Nation, he takes this to the place where corporate rational self-interest turns bad. You see, it is perfectly possible for a corporation to achieve its goal while still being environmentally responsible or socially conscious. In other words, to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders without violating the ethical or moral codes of the people who actually make up those groups.

But there are those who are all too willing to put the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation above the ethical responsibilities of people, and that’s where the Evil Corporation comes in. ZaraCorp fits this to a T. They see nothing but profits in Zara XXIII, and if the Fuzzies stand in their way – sentient or not – they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them while at the same time doing their level best to stay within the legal bounds prescribed by the Colonial Authority. Or not to get caught crossing them, at least.

In the end, this becomes about why we do what we do, and how we project those reasons onto other people. ZaraCorp is motivated by untempered greed, and assumes that Holloway will be too. Holloway is interested in himself, but finds himself needing to be interested in other people. The motivations of the Fuzzies, for most of the book, is unclear, but they too have to learn the difference between what they think other people want and what they really want.

It’s a fast, tight book that is great fun to read, has characters that you like, even if they’re despicable, and has some moments of wonderful emotion that come around the corner and hit you like a hammer. It’s part philosophical adventure, part legal thriller, and part sarcastic comedy, verging on satire. Books like this are why I keep coming back to Scalzi.

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“…with all due respect for your considerable skills and intellect, the fact of the matter is that you have absolutely no clue what it is I want out of this.”
– Jack Holloway, Fuzzy Nation
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
Fuzzy Nation on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog
H. Beam Piper on Wikipedia
Little Fuzzy on Wikipedia

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Filed under aliens, business, colonization, corporations, ethics, first contact, humor, John Scalzi, morality, science fiction

Review 155: Otherland 4 – Sea of Silver Light

Otherland 4: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

At last we have come to the end of our journey, when all will be explained and all will be resolved.

As the book opens, the Other – the operating system for the Grail Brotherhood’s mysterious plan for immortality – has been defeated, overcome and overpowered by the truly evil assassin Dread. With his mutant ability to manipulate electronics, Dread has taught the Other how to feel true pain, and now has nearly complete control over the Otherland network. With a nearly limitless number of worlds to choose from, Dread allows his sadistic madness to run wild. But no matter how many worlds he rapes and plunders, there are still those he truly wants to destroy – the Otherland explorers sent by the mysterious half-human Sellars.

While they are successful, none of them look this cool.

But those explorers themselves face greater dangers than Dread. Half of them have been thrust back into the twisted realms of Otherland, where the horrors and dangers that had been built into it have mutated into unrecognizable terrors. The other half… they ended up in the heart of the Other’s secret dreams. There they must face the eventual death of the network and survive it, if they can.

Offline, Sellars has brought all of his players into position. Lawyers, children and old women are his army, and together they will uncover the horrible and heartbreaking truth about the nature of the Other and the evil that has been done to it.

I really love this series. As it moves towards its ending, which does involve a lot more explaining than most other books do, it’s easy to get swept up in the sheer scale of the narrative. There’s a lot to take in by the end of the series, a lot of loose ends to tie up, but it all wraps up rather nicely. More or less. There is a rather major revelation that comes near the end that just kind of… gets written off. I have a sneaking suspicion that Williams might have been able to stretch this series into a fifth book, but it probably would have suffered from Rowling Syndrome – a lot of unnecessary padding in between the important bits.

The important thing is that, by the end of the book you really do feel invested in the world that Williams has created. You care about the characters, and you want everything to turn out all right for them. For the good ones, at least. For the bad ones, you want them to get their just desserts, to see them suffer as they have made others suffer. You even find yourself feeling for the Other, which we – and the protagonists – have always believed to be the main villain of the story. It is not, as we find out, and the scope of the villainy that has been done to it is truly astonishing.

Good news, honey! The new Tad Williams book is out!

In his forward to the second book, Williams apologized to his readers about the cliffhanger ending to the first. This isn’t really four books, he said – it’s one giant book that had to, for various reason, be split into four. The main reason, of course, being that no one would print or buy a 3,500 page hardcover, even if the fine folks at DAW Books were willing to try it. He is right, though – it is one very long story, and thus you can extract a great many things from it, if you want to.

There’s no one thing that I can say this book is about. In one sense, it is an exploration of the future of the digital world and what it might mean to people. The virtual net of this story would be as alien to us as the internet would be to our grandparents. It has become the sea in which our characters swim, and their main way of interacting with the world. It is only when their ability to go offline is taken away from them that they truly begin to value the world and the identity they’ve left behind. What’s more, it explores how we connect with each other – looking at both the relationships we build in virtual space and the ones we build in the real world, and finding complete validity in them both.

There are issues of identity, best shown by Orlando, whose towering Thargor the Barbarian character hides a young teenager with a crippling illness that will kill him long before he’s old enough to vote. His best friend has a slightly less unfortunate secret to share – that behind those big, muscular sim bodies, Sam Fredericks is actually a girl.

The story explores issues of family – how Renie deals with her father, Long Joseph Sulaweyo, or how little Christabel Sorenson’s family react when they find out that their young daughter has been drawn deep into Sellars’ conspiracy. And the bonds between mother and child that can never truly be broken.

Not only am I still human - I'm SEXY.

And there are even issues of the very definition of the word “life.” If your mind is perfectly copied into a computer, with all its memories and personality intact, is it still you? Are you still human? Are you even alive, in any real sense? The Grail Brotherhood certainly believed so, or they would never have started this project in the first place. But in a system as broad and complicated as the Otherland network, who knows what else might arise to test our definition?

The story is about heroism and history, about love and hate, about the unshakable bonds of friendship and the tenuous reliance on people you despise. It’s about the lengths to which fear will drive you and the extremes you will encounter when you test that fear. It’s about science and faith and looking at the world in ways you never imagined. It’s about good, it’s about evil.

It’s about life, really, and what it is about life that makes us want more of it.

Now I’m just waxing philosophical. To sum up: this is probably one of my favorite stories in my library. I highly recommend you pick it up, set some time aside, and enjoy it.

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Christabel was beginning to learn a scary thing about grown-ups. Sometimes they said things would be all right, but they didn’t know they’d be all right. They just said it. Bad things could happen, even to little kids. Especially to little kids.
– From Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Sea of Silver Light on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, existentialism, family, fantasy, friendship, internet, philosophy, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality

Review 152: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

What would you do if you had access to the greatest supercomputer ever built? A computer so complex and intricate that it finally gains full consciousness – and only you knew about it? Would you use it for your own nefarious purposes and hack your way to riches? Would you try to teach it how to be human? Would you tell it jokes? Or would you use it to start a revolution that frees your people in the Lunar Colonies from the yoke of Terran oppression?

Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis never really meant for that last one to happen. One of Luna’s best computer technicians, Mannie’s philosophy was “Keep mouth shut” when it came to matters political, and never considered the political fate of the Moon to be something he needed to worry about. When he attends a meeting of Lunar dissidents, people protesting against the rule of the Earth-based Lunar Authority, he goes more out of curiosity than cause. An attack by Authority troops drives him together with lifelong revolutionary Wyoming Knott and anarchist professor Bernardo de la Paz, and together they hatch a plan to take down the Lunar Authority and make Luna into a sovereign nation above Earth.

Would he have been as scary if he'd been named Mike? Probably.

To do so, they’ll need the help of Mike, the world’s first – and only – sentient computer. He knows the odds, he can run the scenarios – with Mike on their side, the people of Luna can gain their independence and create a new nation in the grand tradition of old.

A friend of mine said that this was the best political science textbook that she’d ever read, and in many respects she’s right. This book packs a lot of social philosophy into three hundred pages, and Heinlein requires you to be pretty quick on the uptake. From Manny’s clipped way of narrating the story to all the new lingo and concepts that are necessary for Lunar life, the reader needs to pay close attention in order to get the full impact of what’s going on in the book.

In a way, this book is Heinlein asking the question, “How do new nations begin?” Historically, there are two ways: top-down and bottom-up. In the first case, a person or people of strength brings a group of citizens to become a political entity. In the second, the people themselves rise up to overthrow their former masters. Most revolutions are a mix of the two, really, and Luna’s is no exception. The very charismatic Adam Selene (Mike in disguise) and the brilliant Professor manage to bring the people of Luna together in order to rid themselves of the Lunar Authority.

What makes it very interesting is that the book is pretty much a how-to book on insurgency and revolution. They work out an improvement on the traditional cell system of a conspiracy, and how to make it as stable and secret as possible, while still maintaining reliable communications. They figure out how to involve people in the revolution indirectly, harnessing the energies of everyone from children to old people. Working against a better-armed and more powerful enemy, Luna’s revolution is a textbook model of how to overthrow your oppressors and gain your freedom.

Of course, once you have your freedom, then what do you do with it? How do you run your new country, and how do you make sure that your freedom can be maintained? How do you build a government and write a constitution and establish trade and do all the other little things that have to happen if you want a country all your own?

What’s more, Heinlein puts forth a new society that is radically different from the ones we know now, and by necessity. With drastically different demographics and gravity, life on Luna cannot follow the same rules as life on Earth. This new life includes a near reverence for women, marriages that span not only multiple partners but multiple generations, and a spirit of individualism that would make the most grizzled pioneer proud. Life on the moon, as the title implies, is not easy. Many of those who come to Luna do not survive. Those who do, however, become the backbone of a new nation that will one day be the crossroads of the solar system.

It’s a dense read, but fun, once you get used to the narrator’s mode of speech. Manny often leaves off pronouns and articles, making him sound very choppy and direct. And a lot of it is done in speeches and Socratic dialogs between the Prof and whomever is unlucky enough to get in his way. I’d say that the greater part of this book is discussion of how to have a revolution from the point of view of the moon, and a look at how Heinlein thinks a society should be ordered.

Other than being very narrative-heavy, which modern readers might find somewhat tiring, there is one point about the book that didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t ruin the book, necessarily, but it put a big asterisk next to everything that Heinlein was trying to say. That asterisk is Mike.

Mike is a truly marvelous AI. He is not only self-aware and blessed with a rather rudimentary sense of humor, but he is tied into all of Luna’s main systems. His processing speed and memory are exceptional, and while he doesn’t really care one way or the other about rebelling against his owners, he does think that organizing a rebellion might be an entertaining diversion. He’s a good character, really, but he is entirely too powerful.

RTR-9000 would have liberated the Earth while he was at it, just because it was in his way. (via Cracked.com)

All of the problems that traditionally plague conspiracies, undergrounds and rebellions are solved by Mike. He knows the probabilities of success and can run thousands of scenarios in a moment. He is able to set up a moon-wide communications system that is completely secure. He can tap into the Lunar Authority’s database while at the same time keeping the Rebellion’s data secret. What’s more, he can be trusted to know everything about everyone in the group – he cannot be bribed or drugged or forced to name names under interrogation. He can organize the bombardment of Earth with pinpoint accuracy, bring down attacking ships and organize attacks all over the moon.

With Mike at their side, the rebels couldn’t help but win, and I found that a kind of hollow victory, in a narrative sense. I kept waiting for Mike to be compromised – his power disconnected or his actual intelligence uncovered – or for him to change his mind about helping the rebels. One way or another, I wanted the rebels to win Luna without the help of their omniscient computer conspirator. As it is, Mike pretty much delivers the Moon to its people, and then vanishes without a trace. That’s not to say that the human element isn’t necessary – even Mike couldn’t have won independence without them – I would rather have seen a wholly human revolution.

The flag of Luna. Seriously.

Other than that, though, it was a very good read, and it’s a book that ties into a lot of Heinlein’s other works. Many concepts that are key to Heinlein’s vision of the world are in this book – the freedom of the individual to direct his or her own life, the benefits of polygamy over monogamy, and of course the notion of TANSTAAFL – “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” – which is arguably one of the governing principles of the universe. In this book, Heinlein asks the reader to do more than just enjoy a good story – he demands that the reader think about the message as well. And that’s what makes Heinlein one of the greats.

If you’re looking for some essential science fiction and you like your politics rough-and-tumble, check this book out.

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“At one time kings were anointed by Deity, so the problem was to see to it that Deity chose the right candidate. In this age the myth is ‘the will of the people’ … but the problem changes only superficially.”
– Professor Bernardo de la Paz, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
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Filed under colonization, economics, futurism, politics, revolution, Robert Heinlein, science fiction, society, space travel, technology