Monday, March 20, 2006

Under the Hammer

David Drake's long-running series of stories of mercenary armored soldiers is being brought out by Night Shade Books in a nice hardcover edition. I picked up Volume 1 (trade edition, like I could afford either of the limited editions!) and have pre-ordered Volume 2 and Volume 3.

(2010 Update: I have, by now, purchased the ultra-deluxe-fanboi-limited editions with extra artwork and signed by various participants! I have substituted the Baen Books editions for the Night Shade Books editions formerly up here as the first two volumes appear to be out of print at Night Shade Books)

I've always been somewhat so-so on these stories. On the one hand, being an ex-tanker (and while I was a tanker), I liked them as they dealt with tanks. On the other hand, despite the contentions in Gene Wolfe's introduction (that only soldiers can write good military fiction), I thought the tales were lacking in some ways. Part of this is the fact that Drake seems to have just taken Vietnam-era technology, such as the M113 ACAV and "future-ized" it somewhat (without making improvements that were obvious even then!). I thought that Jerry Pournelle, with his tales of John Falkenberg, did a better job. (The top of the field belongs to both Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.)

Each of these books, on the other hand (and I include Drake's tales) show the positive qualities of leadership, training and other human factors over technology.

More as I read the tales. But it is interesting to see some of the spin-offs. A miniautures game and other games! And some beautiful miniatures!

Addendum (May 17, 2006): A site devoted to the miniatures game.

Addendum (July 1, 2007): As you'll see from subsequent re-postings, I've continued to read these tales. And my opinion of the tales has changed. Eventually I'll get it down into a posting!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Deepness in the Sky

So high, so low,
so many things to know.

So ends Vernor Vinge's epic novel A Deepness in the Sky (winner of the Hugo Award for 2000). Set in the same universe as his A Fire Upon the Deep (winner of the Hugo Award for 1992). It's an amazingly brief ending for such a large book, but one that sums up the journey that the various main characters found themselves on during the book and faced after the end of the book.

Where to start? As with A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky is a space opera. Every now and again, some pundit claims that space opera is dead, that science fiction has moved on. Then somebody like Vernor Vinge (or some of today's practitioner of the art form, such as Alastair Reynolds) and proves that there is still a lot of life left in the old sub-genre. You've got interstellar empires, evil characters, strange environments and odd aliens.

But Vinge pulls it all off and pushes it to a new level. His Qeng Ho, an interstellar trading empire, operates in a way that makes an interstellar empire (of sorts) seem to work. He manages to come up with a world with an environment that would make Hal Clement proud, and "peoples" it with aliens that are both sympathetic and understandable but (at the same time...alien. Even the odd (and humorous) names such as Victory Smith, Hrunker Unnerby and Sherkaner Underhill work.

Then there are the Emergents (or, alternatively, The Emergency). Never have a more despicable, evil and slimy bunch of nasties slithered through the pages of a science fiction novel. These guys make the Ploor of E.E. "Doc" Smith or Darth Vader look like amateurs. And (alas) they are all too recognizably human.

As for plot, see the Wikipedia entry (above), but be warned that there are some spoilers. Vinge has a couple of threads (the story of Pham Nuwen, the man who essentially created the Qeng Ho traders; the struggle between the Qeng Ho and the Emergents; the alien "Spiders" and their strange world of Arachna and the bizarre star known as On/Off). Just the story of Pham Nuwen alone would have made a worthy novel, or a story just told from the viewpoint of the Spiders. Vinge manages to keep all the balls in the air, spending many hundreds of pages tell the stories in wondrous detail. [One example is that of the Focused, a tool of the Emergents (which reminds me strongly of a lot of people that I've worked with over the years). Another great detail is the amount of information that you absorb over the course of the book concerning the Spiders: ranging from their star's cycle to religion and culture, to architecture and technology, to physical descriptions.]

Then things switch. For the climax, the pace quickens. You start turning pages faster and faster, wondering how the heck all the character's are going to survive (they don't) and whether the story will be resolved (it is). And then there's that brief, but very appropriate, Epilogue.

On to A Fire Upon the Deep! Come later this year, Rainbows End, the first new Vinge novel since A Deepness in the Sky burst upon the scene.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Hedge Knight

The Hedge Knight, based on a story by George R. R. Martin with artwork by Ben Avery and others): I bought the first volume of George R. R. Martin's massive fantasy series when it first came out, but for some reason never got around to reading it (let's see, the middle of working 80 hours a week on Wall Street, then, no wonder I had no time!). Several subsequent volumes came out, but I did not buy them, as they fell under the radar screen (more working on Wall Street, but "other events"). However, thanks to various postings at SF Signal, as well as some very positive reviews at Locus, I decided to get the volumes I missed and read the series.

The Hedge Knight was listed as a "prequel" to the series at Amazon. I did not look too closely at the description when I ordered it, so imagine my surprise when I found it to be a comic boo....errrr...graphic novel. I'll be quite honest, I'm not a big fan of the graphic novel genre. I couldn't tell you squat about the origins of The Green Lantern. The only Wolverine I know about would be a critter running around in the frozen wastes. I've tried reading comics several times, over the years, but they usually leave me cold. I prefer non-graphic books and stories. I like building the pictures in my head!

So, when I found that The Hedge Knight was a graphic novel, I did not think I'd enjoy it. Surprise, I did. It's a nice little story about chivalry in the universe that Martin is developing (at length!) in the longer novels. It tells of Dunc, eventually Ser Duncan the Tall and his would-be squire, Egg. Duncan aspires to be a knight, but thinks at best he'll be a hedge knight (a freelancer or a mercenary who practics chivalry and ethics). In a land of pomp and circumstance, fancy armor and rigid class lines, he seems to be one of the few who remembers that in addition to expected service from the serfs, you're there to protect them as well.

You get a bit of background on the Thrones universe, a tiny bit on the religion, the customs, the existence of dragons, etc. And, it is a good tale. (Luckily for me, it is taken from a written work. Unluckily, I'll have to hunt down the anthology that it appeared in!)

Martin's fantasy series appeals to me because it seems to be of high quality (based on reviews and what little I've read so far—but I must say that I have a lot of experience with his science fiction and have enjoyed everything thing I've read by him ever since running across the Windover tales he co-wrote with Lisa Tuttle in Analog oh those many years ago!) His Wild Cards series were the closest I've gotten to the superhero genre and I enjoyed the television show Beauty and the Beast (well, the first season!). I look forward to seeing how the epic develops, and I'll even hunt down the future (announced on his website) graphic adventures of Ser Duncan and Egg. (Hmmm...knights...and now there are model knights from the series to hunt!)
My Life with the Chimpanzees

No, this isn't a description of my family lifestyle. This is a short book, aimed at children (maybe age 8 to early teens), written by Jane Goodall (Alladin Paperbacks, 2002). I bought it without knowing that it was aimed at this age bracket, I had been hoping for something more in depth. Despite that, I was amused and interested and I'll definitely try reading it to my daughter.. Most of the book is biographical in nature, plus details o Goodall's studies of chimpanzees. The final chapter is a bit preachy; Goodall makes a plea for better ecological management and for people to get along better. If it had been a tad less heavy-handed, it might have worked better.
A System of Many Moons

Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System (Jeffrey Kluger).

I started reading this book a few years ago. One of these days I'll have to write my essay on books that are projects, as this book became a project. It sparked my interest (again) in the early US space program, and led me to looking up and reading several other related books. I finally realized (!) that I never finished the book that started the trail to lunar geology, so pulled it down from the shelf and started it again.

Jeffrey Kluger is probably known to you, if at all, as the guy who has the name in little type on the book Apollo 13 (co-written with that Jim Lovell fellow). Here he gets to shine on his own, and a fine job he does!

Journey Beyond Selene, to me, should have been several books. Kluger wants to show us what an interesting place our solar system is beyond the planets, what fascinating places all the moons are. And, he wants to profile the people who have explored those moons. So we have an outline on the Ranger program (and if you think the folks launching the space shuttle are frustrated today, wait until you read about that program!) but we skip over Surveyor and Orbiter (and the book was really too early for many details on Clementine or the Lunar Prospector). We then jump to Apollo 15 and a very nice summary of what was learned between the unmanned and manned programs as to how our Moon was formed. The book profiles the first lunar explorer, Galileo Galilei, one of the first (if not the first) to turn a telescope towards our Moon and the man who found the four major satellites of the planet Jupiter (and incidentally, who would probably have discovered the rings of Saturn as well, if they had been aligned a little more favorably at that time!).

The final (and largest) portion of the book explores the various missions (proposed and not flown as well as those that flew) that brought us the first views of the outer planets of the solar system and their fleets of moons. From Pioneer 10 and 11 to Voyager 1 and 2, as well as a look forward (at the time the book was written) to the (cancelled but superseded) Pluto-Kuiper Express, Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

Kluger does a great job of giving background, profiling some of the more interesting personalities involved, as well as many of the issues (funding, science, politics) involved in the missions. He also excels at running the gamut from the big picture (how the moons of a planet were formed or came from) to the individual picture (the moments of serendipity...usually involving members of the navigation team...that lead to discoveries such as new moons or the volcanic system of Jupiter's moon Io).

Excellent book all around, if too short. Way too short. I hope he returns to these subjects someday. His brief chapter on Apollo 15 made me want to see a whole Apollo book from him. The outline of the Ranger missions made me wish to see a similar amount of detail on Surveyor and Orbiter.