Thursday, September 16, 2010

Phallic Intent

Did you ever reach into a grab bag of candy, pull out something that looked like it might be good, but after the first taste you realize you might want to just throw it away?

I kind of randomly picked a few books from the library, based mostly on subject (science fiction) and date published (2010). One of them happened to be a story by Dale Brown called Executive Intent.

It’s quite the thriller. You get to sit in the laps of presidents and generals as you listen to them make decisions that seem likely to push the world to the brink of a war. Proud men, like VP Ken Phoenix and Russian President Truznyev, as well as a few proud women, like Dr Anne Page and Colonel Gia Cazzotto, who don’t like to be pushed around and don’t shrink back from confrontation. The story takes place at a time of heightened international tension. There are a few references to a Russian surprise attack on the USA, apparently in the recent past. Now the USA has a number of weapons platforms in orbit, capable of hitting ballistic missile in flight as well as stationary targets on the ground. China and Russia aren’t happy, and are conspiring to take their rival down a notch or two.

It seems as if it should be an exciting story. But only a few pages in, and I find myself skimming ahead, turning pages almost as quickly as I can scan them. The story is in fact a banal recounting of technological wetdreams. What little human interaction takes place is uninteresting and silly. When L.E. Modesitt talks deprecatingly of “techno porn,” I’m sure this is the kind of story he must mean. When I read my wife just a page from the book to illustrate to her what was bothering me, she agreed. In fact, she told me it wasn’t just techno porn. It was gay techno porn. I could hardly disagree, seeing as the story is jam packed with rockets of every caliber. Phallus heaven!

But I did finish the story. It took me a fraction of the time it would take me to read a book I wasn’t skimming, of course. Aside from the banal characterization and the completely unrealistic military and political situation in which the plot evolves, Brown also indulges in surprise discoveries (like the sudden appearance of a privately sponsored paramilitary group that simultaneously takes out a number of hard Russian military targets) and a kinda sorta happy ending that completely skips the difficult part of what happens after the shooting starts.

Which is pretty much the same way actual porn works out, now that I think about it.

Oh, in case I’m not being clear: I’m not recommending this book.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Machina ex Deus

There are perhaps many ways to write sequels. Of the two main kinds of sequels, one is where you write different stories, but the characters and setting remain the same and are strung together sequentially. TV series work that way. Many if not most book series do, too. In these cases sometimes you have to read the books in order, but often it isn’t necessary as the characters and setting change little from one book to the next. This is episodic story telling, and it has the advantage that you don’t have to read the whole thing. From the author’s and publisher’s perspective that is also a disadvantage.

But when a story is too long to tell in a single volume, another series arises. This is most common in fantasy, where “epic” is a byword and people carelessly toss around words like “thousands of years” without a thought to what such a span of time really means. But it also happens in science fiction. Asimov’s Foundation series, for example, is a collection of eight short stories, published as a trilogy, a single story in three volumes. Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also is a trilogy, even if added books extended the story beyond the original plot. Other examples abound, with stories taking from two to over half a dozen books to tell. They also seem to be getting more common, perhaps because authors and publishers are realizing that a series is a sure fire way to sell more books, because you pretty much have to read them all.

What do you do when you pick up a random book by an author you like, and you discover it’s a continuation of such a series? If you’re like me, you’ll put it back down, dutifully find the earlier books, read those, and then go from there. I happened to pick up Chill by Elizabeth Bear. She has written more than one such series, already, so when I noticed that this book was part two of a series, I debated reading part one, Dust, before reading part two. But I was in an experimental mood, and decided to go ahead with part two without reading part one. (I’ll keep my review sufficiently vague to not spoil part one for you.)

Chill is part of Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder series, so-called because it takes place on the generation spaceship Jacob’s Ladder. The Jacob’s Ladder is a spaceship large enough to contain thousands or even tens of thousands of people, with life support to last for a journey of hundreds of years to the stars.

When the story in Chill begins, it’s the aftermath of some horrendous disaster. The main characters, the survivors, are dealing with the problems caused by the disaster, trying to catch a criminal, and struggling to prevent a worse disaster from happening. Bear describes quite the fanciful world, with enough marvelous creatures and people to drive more than just one story. In Chill they are mostly backdrop to the plot. With only a little resort to flashbacks and expositional references, Bear kept me abreast of events so that I didn’t miss reading part one too much. The ending struck me as a little bit weak, but not so much that the story lost its punch.

I will go back to read Dust, however. The world of Jacob’s Ladder is too much fun to already leave behind. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a space opera with knights errant and talking carnivorous orchids, here’s a series to try. I suspect there’ll be a part three, but you won’t be sorry for committing to this author, in any event.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Sleepless in Arizona

YA is a tough category to get right. I’m probably not in the audience that most YA authors think of when they set out, but I do read YA. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but usually I enjoy the stories. So this time, when I picked a book at random from the library shelf and discovered it was YA, it didn’t really bother me. I took it home.

DC Pierson’s story The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had to is about Darren and Eric and Christine, and how Darren managed to make a mess of things. Darren is in high school, doing his level best to hide how weird he is from his class mates, when he meets Eric, the boy who can’t sleep, and finally there is someone he can relate to, except then Christine shows up, and everything changes again.

Pierson’s prose makes it easy to empathize with Darren. The story maintains a nice and even pace, even towards the end when a lot of things are happening all at once. It’s got truancy and sex and drugs and fighting, so your high school library probably won’t have the book because Mrs Defarge of the PTA would throw a fit, but if you’re in high school you probably won’t be shocked to read that things like truancy and sex and drugs and fighting happen in high school.

Give the book a shot, whether you’re in high school or whether you’re planning your 40 year high school reunion. I think you’ll like it.