A to Z Challenge – O is for Old Man’s War

old-man's-warThis is one of those rare times I’ve picked up a book not because I read the synopsis and it sounded good, but because I enjoyed the author so much on the Internet I pretty much had to buy at least one of their books to support them in being awesome.

I’ve been following John Scalzi on Twitter for the better part of a year and reading his Whatever blog on and off for longer than that. He’s consistently funny, thoughtful, and down-to-earth, and at some point last year I finally decided I needed to, you know, actually read his books.

So I picked up Old Man’s War at the bookstore over Thanksgiving, figuring if I was going to start with his stuff, I was going to start at the beginning.

And I’m happy to report that I might enjoy Scalzi’s science fiction more than his hilarious Twitter posts. And that’s saying something.

John Perry is a man who is ready for a new life. His wife has been dead for eight years, his son has grown up, and so at age 75, John joins the army, specifically the Colonial Defense Force.

You see, humans have started colonizing the galaxy, but we aren’t the only sentient race out there, and habitable planets aren’t exactly plentiful. So we’re in a constant war with other races to expand. And it’s the CDF’s job to protect and defend human colonies from alien invaders.

Old Man’s War starts the day Perry joins the military, and we jump onto the ride with him. He’s a fun and funny narrator with a good sense of humor (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so), perfect for introducing us to the strange new world beyond the borders of Earth.

I hesitate to say too much about what you find, because that’s half the fun of this novel: the discovery process, the revelation of something new with each and every page. Scalzi’s built a great universe for us to explore, and it’s a joy to do so.

I loved the way he had me grinning at one page and then punched a hole in my gut the next. It’s actually amazing how he handled the deaths in the book (because it’s a book about war, this is hardly a spoiler). There was something stripped-down and bare about their descriptions that made them all the more poignant, even without accompanying angst from our narrator.

One of the things I loved most about the book was how easy it was to read. This might sound like a strange thing to praise, but after Endymion and If on a winter’s night a traveler, I was tired of books that stuck me with pages-long paragraphs and detailed descriptions and philosophical arguments to make your head spin.

Old Man’s War did not have that problem, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I practically devoured the book, and it was such a nice change of pace after reading two books in a row that felt like they required an advanced degree to understand.

That’s not to say Old Man’s War skimps on the science or even on the explanations of the technical stuff. But Scalzi (rather brilliantly, I thought) breezes past the how (“You don’t have the math”), giving us just enough to understand what’s going on without getting overwhelming.

Some people have said Scalzi is reminiscent of Robert Heinlein—and being as that I’ve read only one Heinlein book, I won’t argue. However, Old Man’s War reminded me a little bit more of Ender’s Game, only with old farts instead of six-year-old children.

If I had one complaint about this book, it’s that it’s a little more episodic than I anticipated. Perry’s goal is really just “join the army and survive”; there’s not really an overarching story question from what I could peg. But it’s well-written enough and otherwise enjoyable enough that it didn’t bother me too much.

If you enjoy science fiction and you haven’t read Old Man’s War, add it to your list. Hell, even if you don’t enjoy science fiction but are willing to give the genre a go, pick it up. It’s a great read for longtime sci-fi fans and newbies alike.

And while you’re at it, follow Scalzi on Twitter. You won’t regret it.

A to Z Challenge – K is for Komarr

komarrAs a fan of both science fiction and romance, it’s probably a crime that I haven’t read any of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga novels before now, particularly since they’ve come so highly recommended. However, the idea of jumping into a series that is something like fifteen books long is daunting, to say the least.

(Because I know I’m not the only one who has that “thing” about starting a series from book one, right? And you have to go through the whole thing to read it properly? About the only series I don’t do that with is Discworld, and that’s because the books are so loosely connected you could probably read them in reverse order and still be fine.)

(Sir Terry Pratchett is awesome. But I digress.)

So I hunted up a “recommended reading order” list for the Vorkosigan Saga and found one written by Bujold herself. Though her suggestion is to read it in internal chronological order as opposed to publication order, she also said that Komarr could be an alternate entry point to the series.

This thrilled me, because it would give me a chance to read some of the later books that I’d seen praised. Plus, Komarr was the only “place to start” book available at the bookstore at the time.

Thus, I hopped in with both feet.

Komarr is a world undergoing very gradual terraforming. Right now, the world is too cold and the atmosphere has too much carbon dioxide for people to be able to live on it. Thus, the human population of Komarr is restricted to domed living while the planet takes its sweet time getting human-friendly. This requires a space-based soletta-array, which helps increase the amount of light and heat going to the planet.

Then an explosion of some sort damages the array and kills everyone on board, and the Emperor of Barrayar (another planet, of which Komarr is a colony) sends two of his Imperial Auditors to find out if the soletta explosion was a tragic accident or deliberate sabotage.

Of course, it’s never that simple.

In Komarr, Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of Bujold’s previous novels, has overcome some seriously limiting injuries (like, you know, death) which forced him to retire from a military career and embark on a new one as an Imperial Auditor. His greatest strengths are his intelligence, charisma, and energy, not to mention a great internal wit.

It’s taking him time to adjust to his new role and new responsibilities, or rather, the lack thereof. Miles has an amazing amount of leeway in what he’s allowed to do as an Auditor, and I found myself enjoying his internal dilemma as he tries to figure out the balance between doing his job and abusing his power.

That inner struggle also leads to more “what ifs” and “if onlys” throughout the story, as some of Miles’s actions—or lack thereof—result in the antagonists getting a step ahead, or so he perceives.

Ekaterin Vorsoisson is Miles’s host, a woman who inadvertently gets into the middle of the soletta array investigation. She’s very much a product of her culture in terms of what she holds as important (her honor and her duty to her husband, and by extension, her family and Barrayar).

However, after ten years of an increasingly loveless marriage, Ekaterin is beginning to question the importance and wisdom of pledging her honor to a man who demands her fidelity, her trust, and her silence, while he doesn’t reciprocate.

I loved reading about Ekaterin and her struggle as she tries to decide what matters to her after years of being whittled down and hollowed out until she feels like there’s nothing there. She’s surprised by how much she likes Miles, since she hasn’t had a chance to really develop any friendships outside of her marriage because of her husband’s jealousy.

Even though it comes later in the series, I didn’t feel too out of my depth reading Komarr. Granted, I’m not exactly an expert on Bujold, but it never felt like she was info-dumping. There are some things I’m sure I’d have understood better if I’d read more of the novels, but I picked up enough not to feel lost in this one.

My one issue with the story was the ending. It felt like a little too much tension had been released before the actual climax, and I didn’t feel much menace from the antagonists. However, the rest of the story was well-written and entertaining with characters I enjoyed, so I can forgive that.

Plus, the book was good enough that after I finished I put it down, sighed happily, and immediately picked up the sequel. 🙂

The Barenaked Archives – War of the Worlds

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

War of the Worlds posterLike many people I know, I’ve been getting physically ill over the amount of time Tom Cruise has spent in the press lately, extolling his love of Katie Holmes and Scientology (though not necessarily in that order). However, that didn’t mean I was going to pass up a chance to see that which he was supposed to be promoting: his latest coupling with director Steven Spielberg, War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. The trailers promised creepy basements, freak storms, and mass destruction in general.

Not only does Spielberg deliver on that promise, he crafts an effective alien invasion/survival story without resorting to most of the tired stand-bys of that genre.

Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a divorced, blue-collar worker whose ex-wife has just dropped off their kids, daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for the weekend. Ray’s much better at handling cars than at handling his kids, and neither Rachel nor Robbie is afraid to call him on it. That has to change fast when a strange lightning storm hits, a precursor to something more sinister, and Ray’s only thought becomes to get his kids to Boston and their mother.

The first rule of alien invasion movies that Spielberg breaks is in his choice of protagonist. Ray is not a top-level general in the army. He’s not the president. He’s not an important scientist who’s been studying these aliens for years. None of the aforementioned characters even appear in War of the Worlds, and it’s a blessed change.

Ray’s a regular guy with regular problems, and he isn’t even a very sympathetic regular guy. He’s 30 minutes late to meet his kids. He lets his pregnant ex help his daughter with her suitcase. He’s got engine parts strewn around his kitchen and the only food he has is in the form of condiments. And the primary reason he heads to Boston when all hell breaks loose is to get his kids back to his ex because she can take better care of them than he can.

Tom Cruise does a good job of keeping Ray relatively likable, despite his faults, and you buy it as he becomes more and more concerned with keeping his kids safe. Dakota Fanning plays the same precocious, neurotic child that she does in all her other movies, only this precocious, neurotic child spends a lot more time crying and screaming.

Of course, you can’t talk about this movie without discussing the special effects. Unfortunately, the words that best describe such effects are those such as “cool” or “sweet” preceded by certain words that one can’t say on a school-sponsored website. The first appearance of the tripods will blow your mind, and the destruction they wreak is just absolute. They alternate between vaporizing people and capturing them. Their shields won’t let anything pass. They can go over land or under water. They’re just faceless, emotionless, devastating machines, and it’s truly frightening.

Spielberg eschews other common elements of alien disaster movies. There is no token comic relief character. There is no token love interest and thus no token love subplot, thank heaven. (There is a token crazy character, for which Tim Robbins was perfect.) There are no shots of major landmarks getting vaporized. All we see in the film is what happens to Ray and his kids, and keeping the focus so tight forces the tension to skyrocket. And the end is definitely not what one expects from this movie genre, although (for those of you who have read the novel), it is in keeping with the end of the book.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The aliens bear a striking resemblance to those in Independence Day, which is kind of a let down. When the tripods first appear, all electrical things stop working, including those battery-operated, yet two guys have cameras to take pictures and videos of the tripod. And, with a film that clocks in at just under 2 hours, they could’ve added a little bit more in the way of resolution. I’m not asking for everything tied up in a bow, but I am asking for the filmmakers to give us an idea of what’s going to happen next.

By making such a huge film about a large-scale invasion but keeping it a survival story about a family, Spielberg makes War of the Worlds very effective and surprisingly tense. It’s a great summer movie and worth the time.

Book Review – Endymion by Dan Simmons

I read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, the first two books in Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, in 2010, because I was looking to expand my science fiction horizons. (Pretty much the same reason I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress last year.)

Both were dense, not just in writing but also in subject matter, but they were fascinating stories, though I got the sense I was only grasping about half of what Simmons wanted me to. Though I liked the books well enough and could definitely appreciate the skill with which Simmons wrote, they were hard as hell to get through at times. Once I’d finished them, I figured I was done.

Endymion by Dan SimmonsThen I was at the used bookstore and spotted a copy of Endymion, book three of the Hyperion Cantos, and I picked it up and read the first sentence.

You are reading this for the wrong reason.

My attention. You have it.

I bought it and started reading it in 2012. Obviously, it took awhile for me to finish. This is in a large part because I spent most of last year rewriting my WIP not just once, but twice, and at the end of the day I wanted a book I could read quickly and that wouldn’t require me to parse futuristic technological terms and philosophical discussions.

But over the past two months, I’ve sat down and read it. And discovered the rich, multi-layered world I’ve come to expect from Simmons, along with a protagonist I loved in Raul Endymion.

Endymion takes place nearly 300 years after The Fall of Hyperion. Raul is a Hyperion native, working as a guide for hunters that come to the planet, just one of the many jobs he’s had over his 27 years.

By that time in my life I had learned a little bit about sex and much about weapons, had discovered firsthand the power greed has in the affairs of men and women, had learned how to use my fists and modest wits in order to survive, was curious about a great many things, and felt secure only in the knowledge that the remainder of my life would almost certainly hold no great surprises.

I was an idiot.

I love this guy.

Raul is sentenced to death after he kills a man in self-defense, but wakes up after his execution to find he’s been rescued by an ancient old man with a favor to ask. Raul’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue 12-year-old Aenea from the Time Tombs and keep her safe from the various forces that seek to destroy her. Because Aenea is the new messiah, and her message will shape the course of humanity.

After 300 years, we see how the events of The Fall of Hyperion have affected the formerly interconnected worlds of the Web. Worlds that were one beacons of civilization are now nearly empty, the population dead from starvation or infighting. Worlds that were popular tourist destinations when terraformed have been reclaimed by nature, and the remaining humans there eke out a scarce existence.

Rather than the Hegemony, the prime governing body is now the Pax, which has grown out of the Catholic Church, a religion that was nearly extinct during Hyperion.

The Pax makes use of the cruciforms, cross-shaped parasites that attach to the body and can completely resurrect the host from just about any kind of death. This gave the Church the boost it needed to become a major force in the universe, with billions of people scrambling for the promise of literal eternal life.

And the Pax, with its massive armies and nigh-unlimited resources, is after Aenea.

The book alternates between two viewpoints for the most part: Raul’s, in first person as he transcribes his memories of meeting Aenea, and then Father Captain Frederico de Soya, the Pax captain in charge of Aenea’s capture, in third person present tense.

I by far preferred being in Raul’s point of view, in a large part because it always takes me a bit to get used to present tense. Simmons does it well, but my personal issues with it were still there, enough so that I would groan when I saw viewpoints had switched again. (De Soya himself is a good character, don’t get me wrong, and I liked him, but I had the most trouble reading his sections.)

It didn’t help that de Soya’s sections also seemed to be more crammed with description, like the four solid paragraphs that take up three-quarters of a page detailing the hierarchy of the Church, when the salient bit of information from this info-dump is tucked at the very end of the final paragraph.

I understand adding context and sometimes exposition is required, particularly in science fiction and fantasy novels where you’re dealing with so much new stuff, but damn. Dude, cut to the chase already.

In fact, if there was anything that annoyed me about the book, it was that: the occasional forays into too much description or too much philosophizing. And poetry excerpts. Thankfully these weren’t long, but damn, I hate poetry excerpts in novels. (At least we didn’t go into three pages of Elvish poetry a la Tolkien. Yeesh.)

Generally, I liked Raul better not only as a narrator, but as a character as well. He doesn’t see himself as a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but once he promises to protect Aenea, he sets about doing the best job he can despite the overwhelming odds against him.

He has a sense of humor that comes across in both his narration and his interactions with others (“Bring on the velociraptors!” made me giggle out loud), he and makes an effort to lighten dire situations with a joke, even if it falls flat.

He’s not perfect, and he’s not terribly well-equipped for the job he’s doing. We see his doubts, his fears, and his determination; we see him fall and get back up; we see that maybe Raul is, at heart, the hero he doesn’t believe himself to be.

Would I recommend this book? It’s difficult to say. I’ll almost certainly pick up The Rise of Endymion because I want to find out what happens to Raul, but I don’t have the gripping “must know NOW” sense I did after finishing some other novels (Cinder and Changeless spring to mind). I think that’s because I know it’ll be a tough read, and I have to steel myself for it.

Endymion may not be easy to read, but it is a well-written novel with a rich and fascinating world. If you’re a fan of science fiction and haven’t read the Hyperion novels, I would tentatively recommend them as long as you know what you’re getting into.

I don’t think you have to read Hyperion or The Fall of Hyperion in order to enjoy Endymion (the story is comparatively stand-alone), but it would add much more to your experience if you did.

And if you’re not a science fiction fan, you might want to look for a slightly easier introduction to the genre.

A Link Post, or What I Found Cool/Amusing Online This Week

The official White House response to the petition for America to start construction of a Death Star by 2016
Back in December some enterprising souls submitted a petition for America to start constructing a Death Star and garnered more than 30,000 signatures. And happily, the White House released their official response on Jan. 11, which shows two things:

1) At least one person working in our government is a huge Star Wars nerd.
2) HOLY CRAP do you SEE all the cool science stuff that’s actually happening right now? The potential for human missions to the moon this decade (through a NASA project nicknamed C3P0)? Floating robots? A probe to go into the exterior layers of the sun? A laser-wielding robot science lab on Mars?

We are living in the future and the future is AWESOME.

Sequence a Science Fiction Writer
In April 2008, sci-fi author Jay Lake was diagnosed with colon cancer. His fight is not going well, so his doctors recommended a new, experimental treatment: sequencing Jay’s whole genome, which could lead to a better cancer treatment.

However, genome sequencing is not cheap (starting at $10,000), so a bunch of other SF/F authors have gotten together to do a fundraiser for Lake, offering “Acts of Whimsy” as rewards for hitting certain milestones.

And when I say “a bunch,” we’re talking people like Tobias S. Buckell, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jim C. Hines, John Scalzi, Seanan McGuire, Cherie Priest, Paul Cornell, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Patrick Rothfuss, and Neil Gaiman.

Thus far they’ve raised $37,000, which is amazing, and the fundraiser’s still going for another 32 days (as of today). You can read more about the “Acts of Whimsy” and genome sequencing itself at the fundraiser link above.

So if you have a little extra lying around, consider throwing some in to help sequence a science fiction writer and to help Jay Lake kick cancer’s ass.

And on a less serious note:

Life in Publishing and Life of a Dude in Publishing
Two Tumblr blogs filled with amusing .gifs on what it’s like to work in the publishing industry. Although, to be honest, I’ve found more than a few that fit what it’s like to work as a web developer as well. 🙂

Also announced this week: the 2013 Oscar nominees
Nine nominees for Best Picture, not a one of which I’ve seen and two of which I hadn’t even heard of before the nominations were announced (Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild).

It’s doubtful I’ll get a chance to see all of them before the Oscars, but here are the ones I’d be most likely to:

Lincoln
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook
Argo

I have no words for this.
Wait, yes I do.

See, I’m convinced that what happened here is this guy has a great-aunt who is just the sweetest old lady but she’s also a giant. Like, a literal giant. And she loves to knit.

Since she’s so huge, she’s convinced that her beloved great-nephew is cold ALL the time. And so she makes him stuff like this and gives it to him every Christmas and birthday. And it’s absolutely hideous, but he can’t throw it away because she’s so well-meaning and he KNOWS they’re a labor of love, and so he wears these God-awful sweaters every time she comes to visit.

Because he loves his great aunt.

Go click around on that slideshow and see if you can come up with some ideas for why those guys are dressed like…well, like THIS.

Seriously, guys, the fashion industry is trolling us.

August Camp NaNo – Week 3

It is not often that I cry over the death of somebody that I haven’t met, but when I read about Neil Armstrong’s passing earlier today, I choked up.

By all accounts, Armstrong was a kind, humble man who didn’t seek the spotlight and always recognized that it was a team effort that got Apollo 11 to the moon. He was a pioneer and a true hero, not just for our country but for the entire human race.

As a longtime science fiction fan (who at one point wanted to go into astronomy and aerospace engineering), this saddens me more than I can possibly express.

However, this sums it up well:

And now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everybody, here’s my Camp NaNo update for the week:

Camp NaNoWriMo Participant

Mmm, s’mores and writing.

Minimum word count for August 25: 40,322/50,000

My current word count: 37,396/50,000

Adventures in NaNoing: I got a total of six hundred words written at the write-in on Sunday. However, I think I consumed my weight in sugar and caffeine.

It’s been a busy week, work-wise, which has prevented me from writing quite as much as I would like. And then the news of Neil Armstrong plus the Apple/Samsung verdict had me reading more Internet news today than I would have otherwise.

However, my goal is to break 40k this weekend, get caught up on Camp NaNo, and write a synopsis so I can enter a contest with a deadline on August 31. No pressure, right?

Very Short Excerpt:
Completely unedited, as always.

Mason scowled at him and stuck his nose back over the sheet of papers on his makeshift desk. “Of course I’m working. I’ve got two hours to finish these bloody reports and find a courier to take them to Chibron.”

Something useful he could do that would require not being on a boat. Ari jumped at the opportunity. “I’ll find one.”

Mason looked almost pathetically grateful. “Please, I beg you. Not only do I have to write these, I have to make them legible.

Ari had thought of proposing to the king that they use Mason’s handwriting for secret missives. Gods knew nobody else would be able to read it. “The horror.”