When Physics Tries to Restore Magic for Shadowy Government Purposes, a Time Travel Romp Begins – delightful premise, crazy problems that may destroy our world #review #bookreview #timetravel #sciencefiction #scifi

Scifi reviews by Kate Rauner - visit the blogI was enthralled with the first quarter of this long novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Physics and magic intersect wonderfully when an expert in ancient languages, Melisande Stokes, is hired by a man representing DODO. DODO is “a shadowy government entity you’ve never heard of.” It turns out he’s telling the truth, which gives you an idea of the irreverent tone through much of the book.

The DODO team uses time travel to change the present for shadowy government purposes. Witches once used magic everywhere in the world, until science jammed its frequencies and it disappeared in 1851. But liquid-helium cooled quantum equipment can produce a small room where magic still works. The interplay between magic and physics, as well as with the physicist and witch who join the team, are fun. Not fun for all the characters, though, who quickly learn that it’s not healthy to be rude to a witch.

Melisande narrates from the past, from last few days when magic worked. A mission gone awry stranded her in Victorian London. Throughout the story, she occasionally reminds us that she misses modern toothpaste, that corsets are terribly uncomfortable, and she’s about to be trapped forever as the end of magic approaches.

Melisande took DODO’s first trip backwards in time. To raise money for the project, she plans to steal a book from colonial America that will become rare and valuable in the present. Unfortunately, a witch can only Send a person’s natural organic body (even fillings from teeth are left behind) so Melisande arrives naked and must hide the book so it survives for centuries to be retrieved “today.”

The mission depends on help from a local witch (there’s still magic in colonial times) and Melisande discovers that, when all you take with you is your naked body, all you have to trade with the locals is information (classified!) or sex. There’s quite a bit of sex as the story progresses, though not pornographically detailed.

After a harrowing trip, Melisande returns to discover… nothing where she hid the book. The modern witch explains she must change history on multiple Strands before the present changes. Stands are closely aligned alternative realities that communicate among themselves somehow. Melisande must repeat her adventure several times, and each trip is slightly different. A neat confluence of magic and physics that will probably drive any real-life theoretical physicist crazy. But I liked it.

Starting with the next mission into the past, the book slows down. Events and conversations are explained step by step in more detail than I wanted to read. The book is written entirely as the journals, letters, emails, and files of the characters, so redundancies and tangents creep in. I began to skim. I entirely skipped some sections, such as the Human Resource files on DODO’s new-hires (honestly, such things are included.)

The DODO team grows and there are several missions to different eras. Some will probably intrigue you enough to read every word. Did you know Shakespeare’s plays are anti-Irish? Everyone at the time saw that even though we moderns no longer do. This feels like a detail the authors turned up in their research, though I didn’t check to confirm.

The bureaucracy of DODO is equally detailed. ISO 9000 standards are mentioned, and if you don’t know what those are, you’re obviously not a Quality Assurance geek. With such details, I found it odd that the authors don’t seem to know what Power Point presentations look like. Long wall-of-words paragraphs do not fit on Power Point slides.

I enjoyed the story as pruned by my skimming technique, and read eagerly to the end. The last few pages set up for a sequel, although there isn’t one available yet.

What others are saying
Amazon posts 416 reviews for 3.8 stars, and the sales ranking of DODO is phenomenal.
“Lots of intrigue, science, and laughs.”
“Fun in the use of acronyms and parody of bureaucracy. Unpredictable development of villains.”
“Farcical sendup of the classic time travel trope, complete with witches, sword fighters, and physicists.”

Readers who didn’t like it ran aground in the middle.
“Gets stuck in the middle. Listening to the audiobook, nothing happens for hours.”

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Believable Misery in Dystopian Novel, Earthseed #review #bookreview #dystopia #dystopian #sciencefiction

dystopian novel of near-futureWhatever happened in this dystopian world, it happened quickly. Old people remember the “good old days” but only a few children learn to read and write. Huddled in small enclaves, remnants of our current, doomed America hang on to whatever jobs exist, grow as much food as possible, and try to defend themselves. As with many dystopias, fighting and killing your dangerous fellow citizens is central.

There is no villain in the story, not unless you count the starving, desperate, and murderously drug-crazed mobs as a character. The hero is Lauren, a young woman who sees the end of her fragile safety approaching. When the mob breaks into her walled neighborhood, she flees. Walking north on highways now empty of cars but full of escapees on foot, she meets a few allies and many enemies.

Horrific events fill the story, but they are kept at a distance. There’s plenty of blood and action alternating with endurance and misery, but Lauren only hears about some attacks and sees others from a distance, or in the aftermath. Even when she’s directly involved, the format of the book blunts the gore. Lauren is writing in her journal, after the events she describes. This may make the book acceptable for younger readers than I’d think otherwise. The ending is anti-climactic, fitting the tone of the story.

Lauren is unusual in two ways. First, she is developing a new religion, Earthseed, based on the idea that God is Change. Chapters open with quotes from her Books of the Living. These quotes are short, repetitive, and not especially interesting. The point is more that she continues to write and think, less what she specifically writes.

Secondly, Lauren is hyper-empathic. She feels the physical pain of conscious people around her. While she suffers the results several times during the story, this remarkable trait doesn’t drive the plot or change what happens. Since this is the first of two books, maybe Earthseed and hyper-empathy are important to the second book. They’re bits of interesting background here.

What others say
Maybe I’ve just overdosed on dystopias, but I didn’t like it as much as most reviewers. With loads of reviews on Amazon and 4.5 stars, Earthseed is popular.

Here’s one testament to the book’s significance: “Had to read it for school. Reads quickly and doesn’t get boring, aside from the first two chapters or so.”

For one reviewer, it replaces 1984 as the iconic tale of where today’s world is taking us. Terrifyingly believable, a story that does not assume everyone is white. (Lauren and many of her allies are people of color.)

Development of Earthseed is gripping. This opinion puzzled me, since I thought Earthseed wasn’t a driver for the story. Maybe I missed something.

“We chose Parable of the Sower for our book club reading and it sparked engaging & thoughtful conversations.” I could see myself enjoying such a discussion about this story.

Negative reviews warned the book is not appropriate for younger readers. Pure dystopian that is weighed down with abject hopelessness.

Quick, easy read… almost seemed like a good movie script. Funny – Amazon lists that as a critical review.

Review of Earthseed Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

David Beat Goliath – the Reason Why is Not What You Think #review #bookreview #history

Surprise - moral of the story not what you thinkDavid and Goliath teaches a lesson, but not the lesson you expect. Modern readers misunderstand the story and have the original message wrong. That is so cool, I’m reviewing this non-fiction book for my news post.

We think of David as a hopeless underdog facing an unbeatable foe, saved only by divine intervention. “No one in ancient times would have doubted David’s tactical advantage once it was known he was an expert in slinging.”

Ancient soldiers using slingshots were as formidable as archers. Goliath was a sitting duck, a heavily armored infantry warrior. There was no way he could chase down and engage David.

What we commonly think of as strengths and weaknesses can be very different in reality, and the underdog wins more often than we expect. This book covers varying subjects such as children of wealthy parents, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, primary school class sizes, deterring crime, and girls’ basketball. Gladwell offers individual stories and adds research to generalize his points. What you think you know ain’t so – delightful.

Advantages may make someone stronger for a while, until getting “more” becomes a weakness. The once-stronger side focuses on what worked in the past and how things “should” be done, blind to the challenge that confronts them.

Consider “wars over the last two hundred years – how often do you think the [more powerful] side wins? Most of us would put that number at close to 100 percent… [but] just under a third of the time, the weaker country wins.”

Children of wealthy parents can be less self-sufficient than their peers.

There is an optimum class size for elementary school but Americans obsess over reducing class sizes: “77 percent of Americans think that it makes more sense to… lower class sizes than to raise [good] teachers’ salaries. Do you know how few things 77 percent of Americans agree on?”

“Cracking down” on criminals and insurgents often makes the problem worse. For people to obey an authority, they must feel that the authority is fair. “What matters in deterrence is what matters to offenders.” When legitimacy is lost, offenders become willing to bear extreme forms of punishment. For example, “a reasonable assessment of the research to date is that [extreme] sentence severity has no effect on the level of crime in society.”

Personally, I believe that what really happens in the world is more important than what should happen. We’re wasting time and money while defeating our own goals.

This short book offers an important argument: the upside Surprise - the story's moral not what you thinkdown “U” of strength and weakness. Advantages that strengthen you for a while can top out and become liabilities.

Before you double-down on an action, think about this and consider what the evidence tells you.

BTW, Goliath may have suffered acromegaly: speculation on the diseases of historical figures is always intriguing. I found the story of David and Goliath surprisingly interesting and fun; much better than the “favorite Bible stories for children” sort of idea I had before.

PS: I read a digital version of Gladwell’s book. After the cover and title pages is a “welcome” with links to “Begin Reading.” The table of contents, and copyright page come after the text. Since on-line retailers offer previews starting at page one, this arrangement gives the reader the maximum preview of text, and placing typical front-matter at the end is no inconvenience in an ebook. Ebooks are evolving and I enjoy the format.

Fascinating Premise is an Excuse to Pit Ancient Armies in Battle #review #bookreview #scifi

Earth shattered through timeSegments of the Earth are suddenly transmorgified into their own past – “a patchwork of eras, from prehistory to 2037, each with its own indigenous inhabitants”. Two small groups of “moderns” from 2037 briefly make contact and agree to meet in the only place where a technological signal has been detected – Babylon. Along the way they meet Victorian era British soldiers and two famous ancient armies – led by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

What I thought of the story
The book claims Clarke’s Space Odyssey series as its inspiration – a time odyssey instead of a space odyssey. I guess that’s why it opens with furry pre-human hominids. While interesting, they only appear occasionally and don’t add much to the story.

Once the premise is established and the weird world explored a bit, the book slows down. Its main purpose seems to be to show us what it would be like to live in the ruling courts of Alexander and Genghis. Very smelly among other things.

When two rulers dedicated to world conquest meet, it may not be much of a spoiler to say mayhem ensues. Personally I’m not a big fan of battles and began skipping entire chapters. The book ends in a mystical alien sort of way which allows a narrator (not a character) to provide a glimpse of what’s going on.

I liked parts of the book and skipped other parts, so that averages out to an “okay” rating from me.

What others are saying
As you’d expect from a legandary author, Time’s Eye has a high sales rank on Amazon – roughly top 7% in its time travel category on Kindle. (Amazon is starting to hide the data that lets me calculate a rank, so I may not be able to do this in the future.) From 109 reviews it gets 3.7 stars, which isn’t bad.

Readers who disliked the book found the middle with its long trudge to Babylon boring. Others called it “entertaining” and “interesting if not compelling,” while some say they’re going straight off to buy the rest of the trilogy.

About the hardcover book
I’m always a little skeptical when a book’s description starts by telling me how famous the authors are. Here’s the pitch:

Sir Arthur C. Clarke is a living legend, a writer whose name has been synonymous with science fiction for more than fifty years… a genuine visionary. If Clarke has an heir among today‚Äôs science fiction writers, it is award-winning author Stephen Baxter… [who] demonstrated dazzling gifts of imagination and intellect, along with a rare ability to bring the most cerebral science dramatically to life. Now these two champions of humanism and scientific speculation have combined their talents in a novel sure to be one of the most talked-about of the year, a 2001 for the new millennium.

I guess that’s inevitable when a publisher has a living legend in its stable.

I read an old hardcover edition from 2004 which included a CD with two of Baxter’s novels (downloadable pdf files that I haven’t read yet, but I reviewed another of his books here) If you buy a used copy be sure to ask if the CD is included.

There was also a pdf on how the book was created (which includes author biographies and lists of works). From these notes and wikipedia I get the impression that Clarke and Baxter developed the outline for the book and Baxter wrote it. Maybe that applies to all three of the books in the trilogy, since the last was published in December 2007 and Clarke (who had been ill for years) died three months later. A sad day.

On the Foreseeable Edge of our Future, Heroes Battle a Bloodcurdling Killer in Military Scifi Thriller #scifi #space #bookreview #review

Gripping Military ScifiEdge of the Future is an engrossing military science fiction story set on Earth and nearby space sometime in our future. Mark is a military scientist working on secret projects but not a combat soldier – at least, not until his lab is attacked by a mysterious villain.

Mark and his lab partner are put into protective custody with a pair of elite soldiers and Mark’s counterpart Axel trains him in self-defense. They become friends in a blunt combative manner befitting soldiers. In addition to hand to hand combat, there’s elite armor, cyber-hacks, mind-control, nifty weapons, and spaceships enough to keep a military scifi fan happy. I’ve never been in the military but the details felt very believable and the characters are well developed.

It becomes obvious the villain has not given up and operates a powerful organization that includes cyborgs. I won’t risk spoilers, but this is a powerful, resourceful, and vicious villain who’s willing to go to extremes to get the data she wants.

Especially the second half of the book is fast paced and flows. I read the last 25% in a single sitting – I had to find out how it ended.

There’s a real and satisfying ending – but some characters are still around so a sequel seems possible.

I always enjoy looking for an author’s little quirks. Stone’s characters take a lot of showers – perhaps because they’re sweaty and bloody so often. One quibble I might have is on the Lunar Base – Stone doesn’t show the effects of the Moon’s lower gravity as the characters deal with the good and bad that comes their way. But that’s easy to overlook.

If you like military scifi, this book’s for you.

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Colonizing Other Planets Not as Much Fun as You Think #review #scifi #books #amreading #sciencefiction #bookreview

The master of terraforming Mars sends colonists to a distant star system in Aurora. With his trademark attention to detail, the first quarter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book takes you on a tour of the large rotating spaceship. The main character, Freya, travels through the biomes and towns, talking with most of the two thousand residents.

Freya is aboard a generational spaceship nearing the end of its 170 year voyage, and things are going subtly wrong with the ship and the humans onboard. People chaff under the discipline required to keep systems in balance – Robinson is as interested in the psychological aspects of the mission as he is in the technology. If you wonder what life onboard a generational ship might be like, this section of the book is for you.

They arrive at their destination and landing parties prepare buildings and greenhouses for the entire ship’s complement, but things go terribly wrong. Half way through there’s a twist I wasn’t expecting and the mission takes an unexpected turn.

Most of the book is narrated by the ship’s artificial intelligence which gives the story a somewhat cold feeling. The ship also muses on human language and – instructed by the chief engineer to prepare a narrative summary of the final part of their voyage – frets over the use of metaphors which it finds to be imprecise.

While Robinson has been described as “a novelist who looks ahead with optimism,” Aurora is deeply pessimistic regarding human beings and their technologies. The settlers suffer frustrating slow-motion disasters that they never completely understand and their society breaks down into battling factions.

This is not a book to read in a rush – I could only read for short periods of time in a sitting. Take it on vacation – it’ll last all week.

What others are saying
Aurora earns a respectable 3.5 stars from 635 customer reviews on Amazon, and places in the top 2% of Amazon’s sellers’ ranking for Hard Science Fiction. I wish I did as well with my novels.

Readers who liked Aurora called it “sad but greatly satisfying” and “awesome and depressing.” Those who didn’t found it “long winded” and “repetitive.” Robinson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but no author is.

I’ve read a few of Robinson’s books and notice he likes the names Aurora and Pauline – and likes to point out that verbal metaphors can’t explain the physical world like math can. It’s fun to notice an author’s little quirks.

The quote above, “a novelist who looks ahead with optimism,” comes from the dust jacket of Robinson’s Galileo’s Dreams.

For my own vision of the first colony on Mars, visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and other major online retailers. You’ll also find paperbacks at Create Space and all major digital formats at Smashwords. Start with Glory on Mars. Read one today.

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I Sort of Read This Science Fiction Trip Through Space-Time #sciencefiction #scifi #space #physics #book #wormhole #review

Ring is the last of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence, and judging by Amazon reviews, it’s the least popular book of the series with 3.5 stars from 57 reviews. I had trouble getting through it, not because it’s hard science fiction with characters who frequently explain physics to each other (as other reviewers complained) but because it felt repetitive. Surely, I thought, the book already told me this about photino birds, about how the spaceship will tow wormholes around, about the characters’ near-immortality provided by nanotechnology.

Great ideas I couldn’t stick with
Diving into the Sun is neat, the ginormous interstellar spacecraft are cool, and the craft left behind by the Xeelee are amazing, but the story felt tedious and I could only read for a short time before taking a break.

After reading all of the first few chapters, I began to skim the first sentence of each paragraph and then one sentence per page, stopping to read when something new was introduced. I would have given up but, as chance had it, I had no other new-to-me books handy at the time.

Others enjoyed the story much more, “I absolutely flew through this book! It was amazing,” and love the vast sweep of space and time covered by the book – to the end of the universe.

The day I checked on Amazon, there was a paperback edition in English available but the only digital edition was in German. I guess that’s what happens as publishers put their backlist on Amazon – Ring is copyrighted 1994.