Review: Voyager in Night, by C.J. Cherryh

Though a slim volume – by modern standards – Cherryh‘s Voyager in Night took some time to get through. The reason is this is no light and easy read. Despite it’s outer trappings – a group of young people trying to establish themselves stumbles on a first contact situation with a very alien alien – and a truly cheesy cover this is a book about how we face the other and about individual identity and about what makes us Human.

Siblings Rafe and Jillan, with Jillan’s husband Paul, have invested all their savings (mainly Paul’s inheritance, as the Rafe and Jillan is more or less destitute) in a run-down insystemer ship. They’ve just started off their new lives, in a new part of space, when an alien megaship comes crashing in. Their small ship gets swept up by the alien, entangling them in an esoteric and strange struggle for power.

The multiple character story can be very confusing, as it’s hard to keep track of who’s who – normally I don’t have that kind of problem but in this case very little distinguishes the individuals, if indeed they are individuals. But if you persist in your reading you will, in the case of Voyager in Night, reap a considerable reward. So, despite the cons I’d definitely recommend this book. At least if you’re an SF reader.

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Review: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M Banks

When I picked up Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M Banks‘ Culture novels, I knew this wouldn’t be an easy ride so it was no surprise when I first felt revulsion and then, later on, trepidation for both the story, the author’s obviously skewed sense of imagination, and the characters. That I should feel uncertain as to what it all was about was no big surprise either, but that the feeling would linger after I put the book down was one.

I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to here place a paragraph starting with “This is the story about…”, because honestly, I don’t know.

Despite this I liked and enjoyed the book; it reminds me of my (admittedly rather vague) memory of Sartre’s Nausea – it is kind of more of an exposé of the futility of life and being /a treatise on the smallness of humanity and our wishes and hopes/ than anything else.

On top of this I love the way Banks’ write his prose. He uses ordinary words and sentences to vividly describe the unimaginable, to capture states and worlds no one will ever see except with the inner eye… and he makes them feel real.

This book is definitely not for the weak of heart and mind, and at times it was a struggle to get through it, but it was very definitely worth the time it took to read it.

Recommended reading for anyone with a flair for pretentious, bleak, and well written space opera.

Review: Heavy Time, by C. J. Cherryh

I know, I’m reviewing them in the wrong order, but it’s a reread review and I started out with Hellburner just because that was the book I remember liking the best.

It was not my first reread of Hellburner, either, but this was my first reread of Heavy Time. In retrospect I think that was because when I finished the pair I a) felt them to be very different, and b) while I had enjoyed Heavy Time I had enjoyed Hellburner more. Well, now is the time to admit it – I was wrong!

Hellburner does stand on it’s own. Yes. But – reading both of them is preferable; even recommended. At least by me.

Heavy Time tells three different tales, at least on the surface. It tells how Ben Pollard, Sal Aboujib, Meg Kady and Paul Dekker came to know each other. It tells about how small people are exploited by big corporations. And is sets the stage for the Company Wars suite, in which this is the first book, chronologically; sketching how the push to build the carriers affected corporations and small people both. While the perspective is intensely personal, often claustrophobic, it’s also more issue-oriented than it’s sequel; the politics are obvious there too, but the focus is on the people and what happens to them – that we might not agree, from a value judgement point of view, that sinking money in military tech aimed for use in a war Sol is doomed to lose is sane we still want the ‘program’ to succeed. Because that’s what the protagonists want.

In Heavy Time the we don’t get to see much of the military but they’re part of the “establishment”, and the “establishment” is presented as corrupt; as being backwards; as having the “wrong” ideas about what’s going on out in space – we view life from the eyes of the disenfranchised, the alienated and the outcast, with all what it means.

Maybe this difference between the books was what got to me the first time, and what made me decide I liked the sequel better. Today I’d say they are both good, both worth reading.

I recommend reading them back to back, preceded by a reading of Downbelow Station but prior to Merchanter’s Luck, Rimrunners, Tripoint and Finity’s End.

Review: Hellburner, by C. J. Cherryh

I honestly thought that my first 2010 review would be of The Search for the Perfect Language. Instead, with 80 pages to go on that one, I got dragged heads on into Cherryh‘s Hellburner. It’s a reread – I think this was my third or forth read of it – but according to records the last time was 2 years ago, and despite loving it I had not planned to reread it again, any time soon; too many unread books stacked on the shelves to leave much time for that.

The reason for the unplanned reread was I got it in ebook format, and my first intention was to just test the reader software. But once I started I found it impossible to put it away, even though I know everything that happens, and despite the frequent conversion errors (“com” often spelled as “corn”, for example).

Hellburner is the sequel to Heavy Time, but both books works as standalones (yes, I’ll reread Heavy Time as well, now that the ereader turned out so good) as well. In Hellburner we follow how Pollard, Meg and Sal is co-opted into a program that developed the rider ships that was attached to the EC carrier ships, featuring in the later books in the Company Wars sequence. Dekker is already in the program, by his own free will and choice, but when “accident” strikes his former partners are brought in, as a way to save the program.

The story captures the different cultures at work – earther, insystemer, and deep spacer; the misunderstandings that results, how politics interfere with rational judgement, how powerful people can destroy the life of the powerless, but most of all how skillful spin can pull the tables in your favour… if you lack what could be called decent ethics.

Cherryh’s stories are seldom one-dimensional or “easy”, and that is why they lend themselves to rereading – even if you know what’s going to happen on the surface there’s always new dimensions to explore.

This is also what makes the Merchanter and Company Wars books special. Each on its own may not be a special piece of literature but taken together they paint a multidimensional picture involving lots of people with different positions and loyalties – a picture that challenges our ideas of who the “good” and “bad” guys really are.

Science fiction when it’s real good. A recommended read, for anyone.

Review: Survival, by Julie E Czerneda

Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac to those who know her, is a prime example of the mono-focused human; interested only in what can be related to her research, not having what other people chose to call ‘a normal life’; something which seems to be a conscious choice made so long ago it has become part of herself. The only person to come close to her is Emily, another scientist, and together they study salmon. Then one day a scientist from not only another world and of another species but another field altogether, chaperoned by what seemingly is a harmless papershuffler, a bureaucrat, intrudes on her in her field work, claiming Mac could hold the key to the survival of several species.

I have not read enough by Czerneda to know if this is a recurring theme but the story is not far away from that of In the Company of Others (my ‘review’ here) – alien species threatening the survival of the known world, female scientist solves the mystery while falling in love on the way. It’s a fun ride though so I can’t complain.

The characters are nicely done and the story is mostly well paced and despite a vague feeling of being a brew consisting of lots of well known elements Czerneda manages to make this dish have it’s own personal flavour.
If I had a problem with anything it was the frequent infodumps, especially at the beginning of the story. The style is supposed to be tight third person, which means we can only know what the protagonist know. But every now and then things she obviously know well enough not to react to are explained to us. An example: To Mac the tech called ‘imps’ should be ubiquitous – their use should be made clear to us by showing her using them. Instead we get a paragraph (or was it two?) describing the etymology behind the word, and what the thing is used for.
These dumps were not frequent enough to do more than annoy me slightly, though.

The book is first in a series of three called The Species Imperative but the essential parts of the story gets their resolution before the last page. Despite this I am ready to devour the next one (Migration), had I had it in my hand. Not because of any loose threads but because I want to know what will happen next – I’m not ready to abandon the scientifically minded Mac just yet.

Recommended.

Review: Once A Hero, by Elizabeth Moon

I do not read the Familias Regnant books for deep discourse but for entertainment so Once A Hero surprised me a bit with being a somewhat darker than the previous three.

The protagonist, Esmay Suiza, has recurring and extremely disturbing nightmares, and her lack of will to confront and treat these symptoms affects her Fleet career negatively.

After having saved the day at the Xavier battle (as told in Winning Colors) she faces a court martial for treachery and mutiny. Exonerated she leaves for home, a place she has no love towards, and learns both why the nightmares and why she have sought a new home, in the Fleet.
Returning to Fleet she is afraid of getting labelled insane, something that can only end with her being sent to the one place she will never go back to – where her family lives.

Her personal struggle and doubt brings depth to a story that else would had been a not only predictable but shallow space opera. That a roomful of male admirals should cede critical command to a young (my guess is 25-ish) female Lieutenant with a doubtful track record is beyond belief – it just doesn’t happen. And that a band of 25 culturally illiterate commandos can take over a major Fleet vessel, staffed with 25.000 people… well, makes all those Bruce Willis saves the world-films like factual truths, eh ;-)

My main objection, though, is people are dying left and right, some of them while being abused, but you never feel affected by it. This book is as clinically clean as a Star Trek Next Generation episode, stuffed with red uniformed nobodies that gets mutilated and what not but without the stench and the terror that should go with it.

I still liked the book. It’s a capturing and fast read, suitable for when the mind can’t take serious thought for long. Like when you’re down with fever and “almost pneumonia” (to cite my doctor), which at the time I was. (Or is – I’m not completely recovered even yet.)

Review: Star Trek, The Movie

I can understand not everyone will like this film. For the purists it’s not true enough to material canon to fit. For the non-trek person it’s too stuffed with references to be enjoyable. Added to this my dear husband thought the humour too predictable. Me, on the other hand, had a real REAL GOOD TIME :-)

While maybe what happened not matches what has happened before this gets an explanation in the film, and as it has to do with, you know, quantum physics ;-) it’s not believable. But what does that matter?!?!?! It’s a STAR TREK film, for heavens sake! It’s not supposed to be 1000% believable!!! And anyhow the protagonists stay in character, which is what I think important, in this case.

Spoiler warning
The basic story tells how a renegade from the future threatens the Federation with extinction, and ties in somewhere between the first TOS pilot episode and the first episode featuring the original crew as we know it. It tells how Kirk became captain of the Enterprise, and by the way his daredevil mentality saves humanity. Uhura, Spook, Bones, Sulu and Chekov are with him from the start, albeit not with him anywhere close to the captain’s chair, and he collects Scotty on his way.

Most of the sfx was good, and not overdone, but the red spidery guy trying to kill Kirk on the snowy planet made me think of the Rancorn, of Star Wars/Return of the Jedi fame. Not very good, that is to say. But then not even the LoTR films managed to pull every fx off with grace. So this may be forgiven.
End spoiler

As we know everyone will survive I spent most of the time smiling, even when Kirk or Spook or whoever was about to get killed because killing them would had been… highly illogical ;P

The ending… was fitting. Me like. I will not see at a theatre again (I cannot remember when I ever saw a film more than once), but I will get the DVD, faster than a cheetah can run. And then I will watch it again. And again. A perfect flick for when you’re home sick.

If I have any critique it is that while characters stayed true the message lacked. Nowhere to be seen were the original idea of talking oneself out of a bad spot; of showing grace to one’s adversaries; or to show the possibility of a better future world. But such a message may be to non-PC, presently, for Hollywood to support…

I am a bit wary that this alternate storyline quantum physics have given to us will spawn a new set of daftly made series’. But I’m holding my thumbs for it to end well…