Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

The Pandora sequence

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Frank Herbert is one of my favourite science fiction authors. Even so I haven’t read as much of his work as I should have. Perhaps it is because I rarely come across his lesser known works in the bookstore here in the Netherlands except for the Dune series and a few other novels. One series that has been translated is the Pandora sequence, consisting of a prequel and a trilogy, the latter co-written by Bill Ransom. The strange thing about this series that it is hard to find the full series. I first read it as a teenager in my local town library although they only had like two of the novels. As a result I never read the whole story and to be honest I pretty much forgot about it. In 2012 the whole series has been printed anew again and now I have taken the chance to order them online so that I can read it all. The prequel was written by Frank Herbert alone and is called Destination: Void (1966). The trilogy was completed after the death of Frank Herbert in 1986 and consists of The Jesus Incident (1979), The Lazarus Effect (1983) and The Ascension Factor (1988). It has been more than 15 years ago that I read some of the novels in the series and I have forgotten pretty much all of it except that it took place on a water planet, ironically the opposite of Dune. I have to say I will enjoy reading a whole series as I am still reading plenty of ongoing ones.

 

Good intentions

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

What better way to start the new year than by buying some new books? First off I picked up a up a trilogy by G.W. Dahlquist. The three novels are supposedly a hybrid of fantasy and science fiction. The style and approach of the novels caught my interest. I’m not sure how good they will be but my gut feeling is positive. The three novels are The Glass Books Of The Dream Eater (2006), The Dark Volume (2008) and The Chemickal Marriage (2012). Now that I think of it; I have bought complete series just before or after the new year the past few years as well. At least reading a completed multi-volume series will improve my mood for the novels of the plenty ongoing series I am following.

The second thing I bought were two volumes containing the Lives (ca. 120) by Plutarchos (or Plutarch for those who prefer popularized names). I have had the Dutch translation for some ten years, but that translation only cover about two-thirds of the biographies of the great Roman and Greek men of antiquity. This particular edition is one of the few complete editions and set up according to the original structure in which a biography of a Roman was partnered with a biography of a Greek that shared certain similarities. It was not that expensive and I don’t mind having something duplicate because for classical works I prefer to read the Dutch translations when the material is about the most famous times in Roman history as pretty much all English translations use the ugly popularized versions of the names instead of the actual ones.

With these books I can enjoy some good reading for the coming weeks, although I should spend a little more time catching up on my reviewing. Another ‘good’ intention. One knows how those go.

 

Richard Morgan – Woken Furies

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

In the third, and probably last, science fiction novel on his main protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, a rogue agent who switches just as easily between government jobs and criminal affairs, we are taken to his planet of origin. Woken Furies (2005) opens in a chaotic way as Richard Morgan drops the reader in the middle of several unclear affairs. It is a subtle drop as much information is presented in a way that seems random and just part of the noise.

It is the start of a story that follows an odd rhythmic flow that changes from intense, almost chaotic scenes, to almost lethargic sequences in which time little seems to happen and we have to wait with the character for the sparks to be ignited. They do provide Morgan ample room to spend some time with the different characters and present this particular future world. Different themes come across these moments and Morgan uses them without them being obvious if I compare this with how he did so in the first two novels.

Nevertheless, it are the action scenes where Morgan shines. They are exciting and very creatively played out. They are never predictable. Unfortunately you never get into a rush, something Morgan only accomplished in the first novel, Altered Carbon. The slower and longer periods in between are not exactly boring, but they do make it easy to put the novel aside for a shorter or longer while. They do not really grab and hold attention. Could they have been skipped or shortened to create a more tigher story? I don’t know. They do have their functionality as they do provide some depth and reflect the periods of waiting or searching the main protagonist is going through. They are never too long as the scenes change frequently enough. I think it is the great contrast with the action scenes that make it feel so different. It could be just a personal experience in which the setup of the story development simply does not fit me that well.

The behavior of the main protagonist has been going steadily downhill throughout the novels. He seems to have reached a kind of low in Woken Furies. His long life is more of a burden than an asset. He is still likable thanks to his rogueish character and bad boy attitude. He does not undergo much change during the course of the story, but his attitude is frequently the center of discussion, which in a way is unusual to find in most stories and thus it is an interesting element.

The plot is not as tight as the first novel, but much better compared to the second. There is much going on, despite the slower sections. It starts chaotic and the reader will have difficulty finding out what is going on. In the middle part the plot shifts. Developments are different and overall more straightforward. The plot holds many layers of complexity that only come to the front in the final part which holds a great number of unsuspected twists. This setup seems a bit reminiscent of the plot structure of Broken Angels, the second novel, although events were far more simpler and straightforward. I cannot say that Morgan has presented the complex layers in gradual and understandable way. He certainly tried to do so but to me much of it felt somewhat convoluted, with many ideas and concepts coming together in a forced way.

While complexity does not turn me off, I can handle quite some and often enjoy it, it can be dangerous as it can sting the author in its integration into a story. Otherwise, complexity can also be part of the story itself, adding much to the atmosphere. The reader does not need to understand everything in his first read. He can enjoy the oddities and the mysteries and discover the hidden clues and insights in later rereads. I am half of an opinion on that part. Perhaps I did not pay sufficient attention to the story and read to easily on certain sections which would have given better support on later developments. So I will leave this point into doubt and let the reader decide for himself.

The science fiction elements are plentiful but foremost functional, although in several cases I had trouble making something out of it that could put it in the realm of possibility. That is always the difficulty with science fiction: the author has to make it believable to the reader. Morgan did not always succeed there.

Woken Furies holds much to enjoy and I cannot say I irritated myself on anything. The slower sections were maybe a nuisance because I wanted more of the action scenes and a faster pace. That did not mean they were bad or poorly written. They had their function and in their way added much to the story. Overall the story is solid with plenty of details to explore and they were never too much. The atmosphere is dark and gloomy, but the approach of the characters is realistic and grounded. It is easy to connect with them.

Richard Morgan – Broken Angels

Monday, November 10th, 2014

When writing a series there are three approaches. In most cases there is one central storyline. There may be partial storylines to give each novel a sort of beginning and ending.  The less used approach is using the same main protagonist to tell different stories in different settings while the universe it takes place in is the same. The even less used and third approach is doing the second approach without using the same main protagonist. Of course there are no clear boundaries between the approaches.

Richard Morgan is using the second approach for his science fiction series around the mercenary (or free agent) Takeshi Kovacs. The first novel, Altered Carbon, was a pure detective crime noir, albeit filled with a lot of violence. Broken Angels (2003), the second novel, is more of an expedition novel. The setting is very different as it takes place on a world devastated by a brutal war. Our main protagonist has been involved in that war and seeing the expedition as a more interesting opportunity.

Unfortunately Morgan’s choice is in my opinion the wrong one. He could have written a nasty and brutal story about the war that is only visible on the background. I can only assume that there are plenty of such stories already written. He uses it only to complicate matters.

That does not explain why the expedition story is wrong. The main reason is that it is too longwinded with little excitement. There is a bit of excitement in the beginning of the story when Kovacs seeks a way to set up the expedition according to their wishes. Once that is done the tale bogs down into details and minor stories about secondary characters who from the beginning do not seem to be of much importance. The expedition progresses very slowly. Morgan adds in a bunch of complications but from the beginning I was only looking forward to the goal of the expedition, not the journey, which was essentially not much of a journey in the traditional sense anyways. Traditionally the journey is what drives the story or, what I expected, the goal of the journey would drive most of the story. The expedition would thus reach its goal before or around halfway of the novel after which the story would be driven by the outcome of the expedition. Morgan however drags the expedition on to more than three quarters of the novel. What happens after does takes things in a very different direction than expected. Morgan does seem to be very good at strong finales as he ends the novel in a good way.

The characterization if fairly well done. The main protagonist has lived a long life so there is much to explore. The rest of the group of characters seem to be too many as Morgan tries to give each of them some depth so that in the end I had not succeeded in connecting with them. As mentioned before they seemed of less importance to the story so my interest in them was not as high as it might have been. Strangely enough the character that seems to be the more mysterious one in the beginning remains rather superficial.

Overall Broken Angels does not deliver. The long central part was somewhat dull compared to the bright sparks of the good start and the strong finale. I didn’t connect that well to the group of characters which are present in most of the novel. The cast was much more constrained than that of Altered Carbon and should have provided better opportunities to give them a presence. In this case the dull central story is far less effective than the many alternating strong scenes of Altered Carbon. The plot of Broken Angels is simply too thin and long to be carried only by solid writing. The novel itself is still recommendable and an entertaining read. Compared to Altered Carbon it just seems rather weak. That does not mean I have gotten dulled by this second novel of the series. The universe it takes place in is very interesting and there is still much to explore. The main protagonist remains unique and the connection with him is ever strong.

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Richard Morgan produces a crime noir science fiction novel with a hard edge with Altered Carbon (2002). Some call the setting dystopian and that is not correct. Yes it is a world where corporations dominate a capitalistic society and the rich are virtually above the law and many people strive for a similar luxury combined with power. If one cares to examine things more seriously these are all choices and many can live their own life as they want. It is a worse society than today’s one but it all depends to what one compares it to.

Morgan opens the novel powerfully and immediately defines the rules of this future society. It certainly sucks in the reader. Then the rhythm changes and the story becomes a detective although with a heavy dose of violence, many interruptions and sudden twists. There is certainly not a steady course to be found which makes the detective story different while it keeps many familiar elements.

The main protagonist does a peculiar investigation. He makes strange choices and certainly in the beginning it is hard to understand what course he is following. It is a bit an early weakness in the plot. Morgan throws in a bait so that the main protagonist will follow that course tenuously. It is only at a much later stage that the pieces start falling into place.

The main protagonist is an unusual character. He is a sort of special agent with many unique skills and a long complicated history. He seems out of place as a detective but he takes care of his job resiliently. He is a bit of rebel, careless and reckless, which seems out of place with his training. It makes one wonder why he is given this job. Nevertheless his attitude allows for amusing dialogues and situations which put the reader in a different frameset.

Morgan allows the reader to really get to see the world from the perspective of the main protagonist by using a first person narrative. As he is out of place he reminisces a lot and compares what he sees with what he already knows. This way Morgan can provide the reader with plenty of background information on this future universe by throwing around many small bits where it is appropriate to do so. There never is a feeling of infodumping so this is well done.

The future universe does not have much peculiar elements. Much seems rather similar to the current world. Morgan just uses a number of things that are not much different from the traditional cyberpunk SF. He just gives it some different setup and has a few new ideas that make things different.

As a detective novel the story is somewhat unusual. It is more focused on the circumstances than the actual crime. A lot of secondary plotlines draw away the attention. It is all greatly entertaining and it provides a engaging pageturner as it is impossible to predict where things are going. The investigation seems to be going everywhere and nowhere. All in all that makes a very good read. Highly recommended.

One final note: Although this novel has a standalone story it is not the only one with this main protagonist. It is actually part of a loosely connected trilogy. So who enjoys this novel can go for another one.

Joe Haldeman – Forever Peace

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

When time passes an author can look back to an earlier work and notice certain perspectives have changed. He has learned new things and can say to himself: “What if…”. Now this is not something unique. It is something that I think plenty of authors do in regard to the works of other writers. They see interesting ideas and concept that they like. The key element is the approach and the story that the other author decided to follow. I don’t call that stealing. Creating something really new and unique is rare the more time passes as pretty much any concept within a logical framework will have been used. So what remains is the approach and the direction of the story told.

This is what Joe Haldeman has basically done with Forever Peace (1997). He calls it a companion novel to his classic science fiction novel The Forever War. To be honest it is mainly thematically connected and shares some ideas and concepts from that novel and uses them together in a new setting. As those ideas and concepts come from very different settings within that novel they create something new that is basically unrelated to that classic novel. What they do share is that they are about a long terrible war that dominates society although not as completely as in The Forever War.

The novels can be divided into two parts. The first part is the strongest as we follow a main protagonist living a double life as a lethal soldier and a scientist. The war has already damaged him and we follow his life and share his experiences. It is bleak and somber without any solution in sight.

Haldeman uses a peculiar narrative in this first parts. He shifts between a first person and a third person narrative while the third person narrative still uses the main protagonist’s perspective. You hardly notice the shift. You only suddenly get more information on a wider level and less on the personal level. It is somewhat odd.

The second part of the novel changes the story from a war story to a thriller in the popular mold like that of Dan Brown. It is not completely sudden. Haldeman introduces several elements in the first part although they seemed to be part of the environment, providing some worldbuilding for the near-future setting. Now several of these become connected and begin to drive the story. While the first part of the story didn’t seem to have a particular direction, the second part quickly provides focus. Tension rises as dangerous threats become apparent while the chances to save everything seem slim.

As the second part has a very different approach to the story, Haldeman also changes the perspective. The main protagonist has to share his stage with the narratives told from several other characters. Haldeman uses them as he sees fit.

The second part is in my opinion much weaker than the first part. The thriller plot is pretty standard fare. Its no better than what Dan Brown cooks up and less complicated. The plot has a number of weaknesses, which can best be described as conveniences. Much of the ending is much too easy and clean. It is a stark difference with the ambiguity of the first part where society seems to be stuck in a mess of problems.

It can be said that the ending is terrible in certain ways. It reminds one of certain things from The Forever War although there is no direct connection which would link the two stories for certain. In a way one could say Haldeman aims too much for the happy ending, resolving everything in a clean and neat way. One can make comparisons to the ending of The Forever War. However there is a big difference. While The Forever War ended good in its essence, its reality was horrible. Forever Peace has a different approach that makes it all more humane.

As I’ve said I liked the bleak story of the first part most. It has impact and when reading it sometimes gave me the chills like much of The Forever War did. If it had a plot it would have had potential for a classic science fiction novel. Unfortunately it did not. Haldeman did not seem to know what to do with or the second part was his goal all along and he simply wanted to make a powerful first impression to make his solution gain acceptance. To me, in the end, the novel does not deliver. The first part had a strong impact but Haldeman did not take it anywhere. The second part was entertaining and certainly exciting as a thriller usually is, as he used the right common elements to make it work. The quality of the plot in that part however was poor. It simply lacked the elements to make it so.

So my opinion on this novel is divided. This cannot be called a bad novel. It has many qualities and interesting ideas but also a number of flaws which prevent it from being a really good novel. The first half makes it recommendable, the second only partially, which makes it hard to give a finite answer. I have given my analysis and leave the judging to you.

Joe Haldeman – Forever Free

Friday, October 10th, 2014

There are very few classics, especially those that have a seemingly standalone story, to which a sequel is written. Joe Haldeman did so on his Science Fiction classic The Forever War, although it took 25 years before he wrote it. Such a large difference in time could be troublesome to cover. A writer changes and so would how he writes. Great was my surprise that when I started reading Forever Free (1999) that is fit perfectly with the earlier story in atmosphere and style of prose. I could make such an assessment because I had finished The Forever War only a day before.

Haldeman returns to his main protagonist a considerable amount of years after the end of The Forever War. The pace is similar to that novel although the progress of the story is much slower. Haldeman takes his time to make the reader familiar with the setting and he easily creates a very likeable world and people. The plot develops quickly and soon reaches a boiling point. All that happens remains however on a low level. There is nothing of the shocking and hardcore impacts of The Forever War. It takes rather long before the story gets to the point where it gets interesting.

And this is were Haldeman puts in his great twist that turns everything upside down and takes the story to something utterly different than what the reader would have expected. What follows is more of a mystery quest. It reminded me most of the twist in From Dusk Till Dawn, although there is no resemblance in the story. While that plottwist was exciting it had the opposite effect for me. I did not like it. I had been in the mood for something very different and what I got was not it. Haldeman’s approach to the story he wanted to tell was in my view somewhat silly. I will not tell what it is, but it is a thing people have talked about regarding certain theories while it has rarely been ever used in a novel. It is not even original as another classic science fiction novel used it to great effect and the idea obviously is much older. Unfortunately Haldeman chooses a different approach and like I said it felt silly to me.

So yes, plotwise Forever Free is not a very good novel. It is okay for the first half and poor in the second. The story however is written well, with the quality of Haldeman although he at times takes easy approaches and avoids real drama. Or as the main protagonist took it: “something bad happened, but I did not really care”. Forever Free has some interesting points and reads well enough. Haldeman provides some more insights into the universe of The Forever War, although there seem to be some oddities. He aims to explain a number of things that might have bugged some readers of The Forever War, but honestly these were of very minor importance. The Forever War was not about realism or a flawless story. It carried a message and used the different settings and events to create a powerful impact on the reader.

Forever Free is thus a sequel that should not be. It is not a waste, but it does not add anything either. It does not damage The Forever War as that had a very different approach and theme. While The Forever War made me think about many things for a while, the opposite happened with Forever Free: to quickly forget about it and begin with the next novel.

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

One genre in which instant classics can be created is science fiction as authors can explore a concept or idea based on certain developments in current society and thus provide a warning on how it can go wrong, creating a powerful impact that can resonate through the generations.

One of these novels is The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman. It is hardly known these days although it won pretty much all the major science fiction awards after it was published. It may be because Haldeman takes a number of staggering courses for humanity, that certainly in the years it was published, might have shocked many, and even today. This is something that other classic novels like 1984 and Brave New World steered clear from. In my opinion The Forever War takes the ideas of those novels to a higher level and Haldeman increases the impact by not just creating one future society, but several, and all of them turn out to be haunting in very different ways.

The Forever War is a very focused novel. The story is told from the view of one person and this main protagonist is the most normal of those we encounter and the most relatable for the reader. A strong connections is created at the start of the novel and reader and protagonist hang on to each other as the story takes us into the future. Haldeman keeps the character grounded and familiar and that is something that other classic SF novels usually don’t manage to do.

The plot is set up in different stages. It is in fact a collection of episodes of which three are explored in detail. The others remain relatively short. The plot progresses quickly while the story keeps a calmer and more steady pace. The ending is sudden and almost shocking like many of the different episodes. Every part is thought provoking. Every scene is used to maximum effect and the message(s) Haldeman puts into his work resound strongly while they are never obvious. He remains an observer. He tells things as they are and how they are experienced. It is to the reader to judge but it is impossible not to.

Even 40 years after its publication The Forever War has lost none of its potency. One can only agree with all the awards it has been granted in recognition of it being a classic. It is more the pity that it is not as well known as 1984 or Brave New World. Highly recommended.