You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

One Wizard Place

I picked up One Wizard Place at Dragon*Con when I walked by a publisher's table and the author, D. M. Paul, showed me his books. He sold me on it, so I walked away with a CD of the first book of the series and a copy of the second book.

One Wizard Place is about a Kase Hobskin, a young man, and Murdox, a man who has been transformed into a wolf-dog. The two are partners in the Incantation Enforcement Agency, Counter-Curse Division. The world of the story has a mixture of magic and technology. Kase and his father had entered the world from the real world. Kase's father was turned completely into a wolf in the same incident that turned Murdox into a talking wolf-dog. Now Kase and Murdox work as a team solving magical mysteries.

In the opening scene they solve the problem of a set of nixies plaguing a woman and her house. Then they save the day from a bunch of trolls trying to rob a bank. Then they get a message about an elf-king in trouble. They travel from their city to the elf-king's city in a forest of enormous trees. They find that the elf-king is turning to stone due to a mishap with a potion. To get the final ingredient for the counter-spell, they must travel to the far reaches of the world to get the claw of a blood dragon.

They travel with an elven ranger on some giant squirrels. They cross the swamp of doom and despair and reach a port city on a sea of sand. There they pay for passage on a ship that turns out to be a pirate ship. A sea monster stops the ship, but turns out to be in league with the pirate captain. The pirates chase the three off the ship, and they end up on the other side of the sea. After escaping from a bunch of leonines, lion men, they have to deal with a pair of giant birds, one of which picks up Kase. The elven ranger jumps on the other bird and follows after, saving Kase.

They find the dragon's lair, and just when things get sticky, the dragon tells them about her missing egg. Kase just happens to remember seeing the egg at the IEA. The three of the ride the dragon to the elf city, where the potion is prepared just in the nick of time.

The book is a Young Adult title, but it was still a fun read. The characters are not terribly complex, but they are interesting, and the settings are very intriguing. I love the main city, a city built of layers upon layers. The forest of enormous trees is also interesting. The plot element of a team of agents for a magical agency should provide fodder for some good plots. Also, Kase's status of an orphan, with a father turned into a wolf, provides a good foundation for his character. The story shows a world with an array of different environments. The story keeps a good, exciting pace. I'll give it a B. For a YA novel, it kept my attention and was a good listen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye is by science fiction writing team Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Both engineers, they write hard science fiction with a good feel of real science.

The story starts with Rod Blaine, the new captain of the MacArthur, a space warship, as he returns to New Scotland from a military action. An alien probe has been detected decelerating into the system, and he is sent to investigate. As the ship approaches the probe, the probe shoots at the ship. When they capture the probe, they find one dead alien aboard. The alien is asymmetric, with one large left arm and two smaller right arms.

The powers that be decide to send a mission of two ships to the alien's system. Their sun is a small star near a red giant star, both of which are in a dark area of space known as the Coal Sack. The red giant is called God's eye, and the smaller star is called the Mote. Thus the aliens are called Moties. Blaine is sent on the repaired MacArthur, along with Admiral Kutuzov on the battleship Lenin (in this future history, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R had joined to form an empire, which has since been replaced with a second empire). Kutuzov has strict orders not to let human technology fall into alien hands.

A team of scientists travels aboard the MacArthur, including young anthropologist Sally Fowler. Sally is the only human woman in the whole story. The authors seem to have ignored modern trends and sentiments (the book was published in 1977) and had humanity return to a male dominated society. It is one of the failings of their vision, in my opinion. Anyway, other scientists travel on the ship, including biologists and astrophysicists and a linguist who is also the ship's chaplain.

The ships have to reach along special points to travel in hyperspace. It turns out the Alderson point into the Mote system starts inside the Eye, the red giant star. Fortunately, their shields protect them. When they reach the system, they make contact with a single Motie from an asteroid who comes onto the MacArthur and brings two smaller creatures like her. Communication is difficult, but a ship approaches from Mote Prime, carrying more Moties who learn to speak Anglic, the empire's common language.

It turns out the Moties have several subspecies, each devoted to one particular thing. The Motie from the asteroid is an engineer, and not very good at communication. The only Moties who can learn to speak to the humans are Mediators. There are also Masters and Farmers, and we learn later, Warriors. The small Moties are called watchmakers, and they have the tinkering ability of the engineers.

The Moties convince the humans to come to their planet and visit. Sally visits, along with the chaplain, Dr. Horvath, the lead scientist, and some of the others. The planet is crowded. The Moties have impressive technology, and everything is individually adapted. They show the humans a museum and a zoo. Meanwhile, the two watchmakers on the MacArthur have escaped and hidden on the ship. Blaine has the ship opened to hard vacuum to try to get rid of them. The Engineer on the ship dies, and they don't know why. Admiral Kutuzov is insistent that the Engineer and the watchmakers do not leave the ship, and refuses to tell the Moties that the watchmakers are even on the ship.

Soon it becomes apparent that the watchmakers have survived and have been tinkering with the ship's equipment and making it better, including coffeepots, which the crew appreciates. When they find the watchmakers it is too late--they have bred like crazy and adapted tools as weapons. Soon they threaten the entire ship, which becomes unstable. Blaine is forced to evacuate the ship, and the Lenin blasts it away, so that it doesn't fall into enemy hands. The visitors return to the Lenin. Three midshipmen who are last to leave the MacArthur end up taking lifeboats which the watchmakers had adapted and configured to land on the planet. There they discover a different museum and the Motie's big secret. They multiply like rabbits, because they must reproduce or die. As a result, their civilization has gone through cycles of dark ages and technological advance. Their civilization is very old, something like a hundred thousand years. The asteroids where some of them live show evidence of having been moved thousands of years earlier. The Masters of Mote Prime are not united, and some want to take advantage of the humans to escape their planet so that they may expand across the galaxy. The three midshipmen race to try to find a way to contact the Lenin, who has been told that they died on reentry. But they are killed by a rival faction.

Before the Lenin returns to New Scotland, the scientists and officers debate whether to take three Motie ambassadors who were sent by the Masters on Mote Prime. Eventually they decide to take them. The Moties discuss politics with the humans. The humans are about to make a pact to trade with the Moties and allow them to settle on empty planets, when they discover that the Moties have lied to them about their reproduction and the existence of the Warrior class. The finally humans decide to blockade the Moties and study them, in the hope that a resolution can be found to end the cycles and allow the Moties to settle on other planets.

The story is an excellent account of how a first contact with an alien sentient species would play out. There are factions among the humans who seek peace, some who seek trade advantage, and some who believe the Moties should be assumed a threat. Kutuzov is obviously in the latter category. Dr. Horvath and others believe they are peaceful and can't understand all the precautions. The Moties are about as foreign as an alien race can be and still be able to communicate with humans. Their society is complex. They are clearly capable of deception, and the main conflict of the story is the humans coming to understand the Moties and the threat they pose.

How as it aged? I've noticed that most science fiction novels fall into a narrow extrapolation of the future, where one technology or type of technology has advanced but the rest of civilization hasn't. In this case, space travel technology has reached an advanced stage. Not only are long space jumps possible, but the science of acceleration and ship's spin to reproduce the effects of gravity are very realistic. But society's ordering has regressed. Women do not serve in the military. Government is feudal, with an emperor. (Now, many future histories , such as Dune, posit a future government that is more feudal as it is spread across the galaxy. This is a believable situation when communication is not any faster than travel. It is also a bit exotic and gives the novels an alien feel. But I feel it is not always realistic.) I wouldn't expect the authors in 1977 to predict the effects of the Internet and the value of the Information Age. But there is no advance in other areas where one would expect to see a big difference. Human relations are in a 1950's mindset. The food is basically the same, even on alien worlds. There is still television, called tri-v, presumably because it is in 3D. There is no mention of literature and hardly any of music. Their biology and medicine don't appear to have advanced very far. I'm not saying any of this is a particular failing of this novel. It's very hard to predict where science and technology and cultural shifts will take human society in a thousand years. It's just something I notice in science fiction novels.

One thing that the novel gets dead on is that the Moties are not united in a central government. In fact, the factions of the Moties play a major factor in the plot.

The characters are memorable and strong, if not particularly three-dimensional. Some, like Kutuzov and Dr. Horvath, are barely more than spokesmen for viewpoints. The Moties are interesting. They mimic their human counterparts. They speak for their Masters, but have individual viewpoints. The Moties have a concept of a Crazy Eddie, one who has gone mad and tried to come up with a new way of doing things and getting rid of the system.

The discussions in the novel are realistic and engaging. I found the arguments about the Moties and their possible threat to be intriguing. The one failing I had is that they talk about many questions about the Moties but don't actually ask them. In a real situation, there would be more information flowing both ways. The humans would be able to find out about the alien biology and history. Nowhere do they examine a history book or biology book of the Moties. I found that frustrating. In spite of that, the book was overall very enjoyable. I'll give it an A-. The complexity of the alien civilization and their dialog with the humans kept me entertained.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

From Here To Infinity

From Here To Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature is a Modern Scholar lecture course by Professor Micheal D. C. Drout, the same professor who did the lecture on fantasy literature. He presents a wide array of books from very diverse authors. As opposed to fantasy literature, which is heavily centered around J. R. R. Tolkien, there is no central figure in science fiction.

First he traces the roots of science fiction, from Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Then he talks about early twentieth century science fiction, especially the magazines Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. He talks about the influence of magazine editor Joseph R. Campbell. He also adds H. P. Lovecraft as a science fiction write, which I think is strange. I usually think of him as a horror writer if anything, and more fantasy than science fiction.

Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov have lectures devoted to them. Asimov's biggest contributions are the robot novels and the Foundation series. Heinlein is known for his adolescent novels as well as big novels like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, both of which I have read and liked. Drout talks about the New Age writers. Here he includes Philip K. Dick, whose novels I have also liked. He mentions Thomas Disch and Samuel R. Delany, whom I haven't read. He also mentions what he calls the surrealists.

Drout devotes a lecture to cyberpunk of the 1980's, including William Gibson. He devotes another lecture to Neal Stephenson, another of my favorite writers. Then he talks about women writers, specifically Ursula K. Leguin and Octavia Butler. The next to last lecture is devoted to more mainstream writers who use science fiction, which includes George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who are two of my favorite writers. He also touches on Douglas Adams, another favorite writer. The course finishes with a mention of recent writers, including James Patrick Kelly and Greg Egan.

I was thrilled to learn about science fiction authors that I haven't read before. It was good to get an opinion of great science fiction novels by an authority. Drout does a great job of connecting writers through the decades, and linking the trends. Even though there is no central figure in science fiction, they all relate to each other and respond to each other. I'll give the course an A-. I learned about authors I know, and discovered new authors to read.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Far Side of the World

The Far Side of the World is Patrick O'Brian's tenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series. It details a long voyage to the Pacific to find an American ship sent to capture British whalers.

The Surprise is stationed in Gibraltar, where her officers and crew expect to take her on her last voyage to be decommissioned. But Aubrey is given orders to find the Norfolk, an American ship that has been sent to the Pacific to disrupt British commerce by capturing whaling ships. The Surprise loses several of its crew to promotions and has to take on new hands, including some lubbers and some madmen from a sanitarium. They get a late start, and sail across the Atlantic. They discover that the Norfolk was also delayed, so take time to replace a bowsprit that was lost. While there, the Norfolk is spotted sailing by, so the ship takes off as fast as they can. However, end end up running aground on a sand bar and getting stuck for two weeks, until the spring tide returns.

When the ship is freed from the sand bar, they travel through the tumultuous waters around Cape Horn. Their new crew causes problems when the gunner's wife, Mrs. Horner, starts an affair with another warrant officer, Mr. Hollom. When she gets pregnant, Dr. Maturin refuses to perform an abortion. His assistant performs one anyway, and she is ill for several weeks. Mr. Horner figures out what is going on, and takes the two on an island, and returns without them. Later, the surgeon's assistant disappears mysteriously. Finally, the gunner hangs himself.

The Surprise captures several prizes that have been captured by the Norfolk and sent to port. They stop in the Galapagos where they pick up some marooned sailors from one of the whalers. Later, Jack jumps off the ship to save Stephen, who fell out the captain's stern window. But nobody can hear his cries for help over the crew's singing. They are picked up by a boat full of Pacific islander women, who are hostile to all men. The women eventually leave the two men on an island, where they are found by one of the Surprise's boats.

Finally the Surprise reaches an island where the Norfolk is shipwrecked. The Americans claim that the war is over. Their surgeon prepares to operate on Stephen's brain, since Stephen has been in a coma after hitting his head on a cannon. But Stephen awakes before the operation can begin. The Surprise is carried away in a storm while Jack and Stephen and several other men are stranded on the island. Hostilities grow between the British sailors and the American sailors, finally leading to blows. At the very end, when the fighting begins in earnest, the Surprise chases in an American whaler to save the day.

In spite of a lack of good naval battles, the story is very exciting. Instead of a battle or chase, the story is about tracking down an enemy ship. The subplots are compelling, especially the story about the gunner's wife. We see a lot of character development in Jack Aubrey, and also Stephen Maturin. It's entertaining to watch the interaction between the two when they are alone in the ocean and then on the women's ship and then on the island. Stephen is always more interested in the people or the trees or the rocks he finds. Jack is focused on making sure the ship finds them. Outwardly, he is so confident that Stephen doesn't doubt that they will be picked up.

The tension and drama on the island with the Americans is riveting. They're all stranded there, they only have one boat, the American captain can't control his crew, and to top it off, there are British mutineers with the American crew who face execution if they are captured by British authorities. I would say this is one of the better stories in the series. Most of the characters have been together for a while, but there are several new crew to shake things up. It's an A, and I look forward to the next book.