Reviews

NOPHEK GLOSS (The Graven #1), by Essa Hansen

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

It’s once again time for an unpopular opinion on a book that seems to mostly receive high accolades: I requested Nophek Gloss because of its promise of a space-faring adventure and revenge quest (I can never resist a good vengeance story), but found myself struggling to move forward – I set it aside twice, hoping that some distance might foster a different perspective, but once I reached the 58% mark and realized that I was forcing myself to read, I knew I had to admit defeat and walk away from it.

Nophek Gloss starts with an adrenaline-infused inciting incident: 14 year old Caiden and his family live on what looks like an artificial environment, raising cattle; his knowledge of life is quite limited, yet he feels the need to always question rules that have been there for a long time. A devastating epidemic, however, kills the cattle that the colonists are tending and their overseers load all the people on a huge transport with a vague promise of relocation to a new facility. What follows is instead the devastating, bloody end of all that Caiden knew and loved, so that the only thing fueling his will to survive is the burning need to find the ones responsible for his loss and make them pay.

I opened this book with great expectations – maybe too great – and at first it appeared to be all that I was looking forward to, but just as the story reached its first turning point for Caiden (i.e. his encounter with a diverse group of mercenaries who took him in, offering him the chance both to survive and to learn the skills he would need to reach his goal) everything became chaotic and I began to lose my grip on the narrative.  

The universe in which Nophek Gloss is set is rather a conglomeration of universes whose borders can be traversed, each one possessing unique qualities and endless life forms: the problem for me is that this kaleidoscope of worlds, aliens and technologies is offered in what to me amounted to a massive sensory overload – there is a LOT of it, all thrown at the reader with hardly any time to process it before more details are added to an already confused and confusing tapestry.  I don’t mind having to work my way through a story, visualizing or extrapolating what the author is keeping on the sidelines, but here most of it looks like a jumble of terms with no rhyme or reason to it – remember the worst moments of Star Trek’s so-called technobabble? Something like: “reroute the pre-ignition plasma from the impulse deck down to the auxiliary intake”… Well, a good portion of this novel made me feel that way, and it bothered me because it made little or no sense and kept me from forming a mental image of the world the author was trying to show.

Caiden is the other almost insurmountable problem I faced: granted, he’s a teenager and he undergoes a horribly traumatic experience, so it’s understandable that he would suffer from PTSD and survivor’s guilt and would be consumed by the need to exact his revenge on the ones responsible for the situation, but there is no space for anything else in Caiden’s psychological makeup, and that makes it very difficult to see the humanity – if any – behind that huge wall of mindless hate. And I don’t use the word ‘mindless’ carelessly, because Caiden never fails to bodily launch himself against those offenders as soon as he sees one: it doesn’t matter that his new friends advise caution, or that he keeps entering a fight he’s not equipped to win, because as soon as he sets his sights on them he charges like the proverbial bull shown the red cape. And he does that repeatedly, as if every encounter were followed by a complete memory erasure that made him forget past experiences, or – worse – as if he were unwilling to learn from his mistakes.

Worse, the 14 year old accepts a procedure that bestows six years of physical growth on him, together with the sum of knowledge his previously secluded life could not provide: this could have been an interesting way of bringing him to adulthood in a brief span of time, narratively speaking, but keeping his reactions those of a teenager – an unthinking teenager at that – makes that a moot point, because what use is a grown body when your emotions remain those of a child? Not to mention that this choice did little to endear Caiden’s character to me…

When all is said and done, I guess it all comes to personal preferences rather than authorial skills: Nophek Gloss is certainly an ambitious, imaginative story with a rich background, but sadly it’s not the kind of story I can bring myself to enjoy.

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 4 (2008/2009) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

While still narratively intriguing, the fourth and final season of BSG looks somewhat uncertain of the direction it wants to take and that translates into an uneven pacing that on my first viewing, due to the weekly distance between episodes, resulted in some confusion on my part: the series’ trademark sentence about the Cylons having a plan made me often wonder whether the creators truly had one, as well… However, this rewatch fared better in this instance, but that did not save the season from feeling less focused than its predecessors.

Season 3 ended with momentous revelations, like the identity of four out of the Final Five Cylons and the return of Kara Thrace, previously believed dead and now declaring she knows the way to fabled Earth: here is where the narrative arc stumbles a little, devoting a considerable space to her mission to retrace that path, apparently buried in hard-to-retrieve memories. It’s clear from the start that this might turn out to be a wild goose chase, and the microcosm present on the ship tasked with the search mirrors perfectly the strain and discord that are running rampant in the fleet, while Kara’s disconnect from reality tarnishes the image of a character that until this moment had generally been depicted as a resolute, if headstrong, one.

A little more interesting is the narrative thread concerning the four newly-aware Cylons and their stress in grappling with this revelation and their past as members of the Fleet: just imagine having hated someone all your life, only to discover that you’re one of them… This theme becomes all the more disturbing once the internal conflict dividing the Cylons brings a rebel group to offer an alliance to the humans and help in finding Earth: as I often say, strife it the motivator that carries the best character development, and this is no exception. Humans, already divided and frayed at the edges after years on the run, now find themselves on the cusp of a momentous decision: accept the help of their former enemies, of the creatures that decimated their numbers, or bow to the law of diminishing returns and know that their journey might end in death.

This struggle – moral, political, practical – brings on one of the best, most adrenaline-laden narrative arcs of the season, as an attempted coup shakes the Fleet to its core and brings mutiny to the very heart of Galactica, with its accompanying trail of fighting and bloodshed. Hard as it is to witness, this grim segment moves the story back toward its human (in the wider sense of the word) dimension and portrays both sides of the dilemma from an emotional standpoint, using characters we have learned to know well and showing us different (if not always palatable) sides of their personality.

The final episodes of the season are certainly satisfying in that they give a closure to the long arc of the survivors looking for a new home where to rebuild a civilization, but at the same time they are imbued with more of the spiritual material scattered throughout the story, and I’m not sure that these elements work here as seamlessly as they previously did: where the survivors’ polytheistic faith, and the Cylons’ monotheistic credo, were threaded into the tissue of the epic, giving both groups a spiritual basis to draw from, toward the end of the season we are also treated with “angelic” figures sent to oversee the travelers’ path and to keep observing them as their history develops through the ages of the new world, and I’m still struggling to figure how they fit into the overall narrative.

Where the ending worked for me, however, was in its emotional content, particularly in the series of goodbyes fueling the last portion of the story: Adama’s parting with his beloved Galactica, whose structure finally gives up after long years in service and the beatings it took during the long run; the last journey of the Fleet’s ships, headed toward the sun so as not to leave traces of more advanced technology on a new, primitive world; the breaking of the crew into separate groups, to better insure the survival of the new settlements. Above all shines the final goodbye between Adama and a dying Roslin (which I chose to celebrate with the soundtrack fragment linked at the end of the review): for someone who’s not very romantically-inclined like me, the slow-burn relationship between these two individuals was one of the highlights of the series, portraying two mature people who move toward each other first in mutual understanding, then in shared goals and finally acknowledging the bond that ties them. I find it easy to admit that I felt for them as I did not for other characters, and that their last scenes together moved me to tears: in my opinion that would have been a more fitting conclusion than the one chosen by the authors because this one, despite its emotional content, still offered a ray of hope for the future.

All things considered, the mild disappointment I experienced after my first watch of this final season was greatly mitigated, and I can better understand now why many label Battlestar Galactica as one of the best space opera epics to ever hit television: it’s not perfect, granted, but it shows a willingness to get out of previously established molds in the genre that is well worth of the praise it collected.

My Rating:

Reviews

CONTROL (Star Trek: Section 31), by David Mack – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

As I was “stocking up” on my SF readings for SciFi Month, I was unlucky enough to hit a negative streak: I started and abandoned three books which looked promising on the outside but that ultimately proved otherwise.  Looking at my TBR offered no inspiring alternatives, probably because those previous failures had somewhat soured my mood, and I wondered if I had not hit a dreaded reading slump – the bookworm’s nemesis…

Then inspiration struck: to get out of the slump, or bad mood, or whatever I wanted to call it, I needed some comfort read – the bookish equivalent of chocolate – so I peeked at a list of recently published Star Trek books. A friend of mine is fond of saying that the best way to cure any upset is to watch a Trek episode: she maintains that Starfleet’s uniforms have a soothing effect on the mind, and I followed her advice. It worked – and it worked quite well, at least as far as finding a book I would like was concerned, because the story itself is as far from reassuring as one can imagine, although that did not diminish its grip on my imagination.

The premise for Control is that shortly before the birth of the United Federation of Planets, a team of scientist created a very evolved artificial intelligence whose mandate was to act as an all-seeing monitor, evaluating possible threats and alerting the competent authorities so they could intervene. The creators of Uraei – that’s the name of the program, after the Egyptian serpent goddess – wanted it to bring public safety to the next level and hasten along the betterment of the human race: unfortunately, they wrote Uraei far too well, and the A.I. evolved beyond its intended parameters, acquiring consciousness and literally taking over the management of the Federation and many of its allies by manipulating or facilitating events, and setting up its own enforcement agency, the shady Section 31, which carried out the directives of the program – now calling itself Control – through means that were quite far from the Federation’s and Starfleet’s ideals.

If you are familiar with the TV series Person of Interest, the concept of an artificial intelligence taking up a world-wide surveillance of every human action will not come as a novelty, but where Mr. Finch’s Machine was created to prevent those crimes too small to raise the attention of the competent authorities, and therefore was imbued with its creator’s sense of justice and morals, Uraei and Control bear a closer resemblance to the Machine’s evil twin, Samaritan, whose ultimate goal was world domination. To achieve that goal, Control viciously manipulated many – if not all – of the Federation’s historical events we have come to know through the various incarnations of Star Trek, causing a massive, shocking double take for the readers who see the other, mostly ugly other side of the coin of an organization whose objectives were peace and universal harmony: all that we readers (and viewers) had taken for granted in the decades of the franchise’s life, is now hung upside down by this chilling revelation.

David Mack’s Control explores two timelines, one following the inception of Uraei’s infiltration into the Federation’s framework and the other the “present” where an investigative journalist discovers the existence of Section 31 and its invisible master, and enrolls Dr. Bashir and his partner Sarina Douglas in the attempt to destroy the supercomputer’s hold on the fabric of society.  This is a dark, sometimes quite bleak story, but it’s also a compulsive, immersive read: besides Bashir, there are several familiar faces from the saga, like a reincarnated Data and his daughter Lal, or the former Cardassian spy Garak, and the author – unlike what can sometimes happen with tie-in novels – manages to bring them back to life with faithful accuracy, so that it’s easy to see and hear them, and to be drawn into their almost hopeless fight against an all-encompassing enemy that had two centuries of time to establish its chokehold on reality.

The pace is indeed relentless, offering a story that relies heavily on plot and yet does not feel deprived of characterization, since we know most of these people very well and can understand what makes them tick and how years and events have changed them. At the same time, the novel poses several thought provoking questions, not least the one about our increasing reliance on technology, and the dangers inherent in the propensity to entrust vital issues to the impersonal judgement of machines, which in the long run might turn into surrendering our choices to the cold logic of algorithms in which there is no room for ethics or principles.  And again, the whole Uraei/Control scenario raises some doubts about the ideal, enlightened society envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, whose concept of a future in which humanity’s “better angels” would prevail seems to be negated here by the discovery that mankind has been led to that utopian goal by the coldly calculating hand of a sophisticated program.

 As far as Trek novels go, Control is no picnic, not by a long shot: besides the high-octane action scenes, the sudden twists and the feeling of a fight against time – not to mention against an entity that always seems to be three moves ahead of its adversaries – there is a very non-Trek feeling of helplessness that sharply contrasts with the franchise’s optimistic bent, the sense that our heroes are this time battling against proverbial windmills, and the ending reinforces this sensation: after all, how do you destroy a capillary web that insinuated itself everywhere in society’s infrastructure, without also destroying that same infrastructure? Or if you manage that, can you be sure about its complete eradication?  You will not close this book with the usual satisfaction of knowing that every piece of the puzzle has found its rightful place, on the contrary you will find here a quite unsettling story – and one whose implications made me wonder at some strange Federation behavior exhibited in the newest TV series Picard – but at the same time I can tell you that this might turn out to be the best, most believable and most emotionally satisfying Star Trek novel you have read so far.

And to me that’s hight praise, indeed.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY SciFi Month Edition: MyTop Ten Sci-Fi tv series – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

When TV series dealing with SF are mentioned everyone, even people who are not interested in the genre, thinks about Star Trek, which is understandable since it’s the longest-running SF television show and the most known. But there are many other past and present TV shows that are just as good and this is my opportunity to shine the spotlights on them.

Here we go – click on the titles to be directed to the respective Wikipedia pages:

BABYLON 5

This is for me THE science fiction show, the one that set my standards for the genre and the one I will always mention when asked which is my favorite. Some might consider it dated – it ran from 1994 to 1998 – and yet it has weathered time very well: the CGI shows its age, granted, but B5 is not so much about space battles or weird aliens, but rather about people and the way they react to extraordinary events. Its main attraction to me, what keeps it fresh and enjoyable, no matter how many times I rewatch it, comes from the characters’ journeys and the depth of the dialogues. Here is an example, one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite characters:

FARSCAPE

I like to say that where Babylon5 appeals to my mind, Farscape appeals to my emotions: it is the often harrowing journey of a man thrown all the way across the galaxy who finds himself in the company of weird aliens that, slowly but surely, morph from uneasy traveling companions to friends and family.  Farscape is colorful and outlandish, crazy and deep at the same time, and it holds an added bonus: through its fandom I made many friends – some online, some in real life – who have become, like the crew of the living ship Moya, family. And it’s no mean thing…

THE EXPANSE

I came to know this series through the books that inspired it, one of the best space opera sagas I ever encountered: it translated very well to the screen and despite some “growing pains” (yes, SyFy, I’m pointing my accusing finger at you!) is has found a steady following and, hopefully, a spreading audience.  There are some very talented performers giving life to the books’ characters, and here is one amazing example, portraying a character who is not in the books but was created by combining the personalities of several – with great results…

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

I’m doing a series of rewatch posts for this one, so you might want to see what it’s about in my SciFi Month Sunday posts…

FIREFLY

Here is a sad example of the short-sightedness of network executives, who pulled the plug on this show before it had the barest chance of getting its feet wet. Since then, its fandom has remained steady, and the core story has become something of a well-loved theme in the genre, that of a crew of misfits trying to survive in a hostile galaxy. Here is the video for its famous intro theme…

STARGATE UNIVERSE

Another SyFy big mistake in my opinion: this offshoot of the Stargate franchise was darker and more moody than its “big brother” but I liked the theme of this group of people finding themselves on an ancient, but very advanced, ship on a mystery journey across the galaxy,  as personal problems and hidden agendas mingled with their efforts at survival. It also had one of the best soundtracks in the genre, one that was never offered for sale – the latest big oversight in a long series of them 😦   Here is the main theme:

FRINGE

Parallel universes, alternate realities, and a slow-evolving mystery that kept me glued to the screen from start to finish: Fringe is an intriguing mix of science fiction and crime investigation, with some (well, not so few…) touches of horror that make for a very fascinating mix, and supported by intriguing characters – on both universes… Here is a series I might not mind rewatching if I had the time 🙂

SPACE: 1999

This is an older series that ran for only two seasons from 1975 to 1977 (yes, prehistory, I know…) and while often cheesy and unsophisticated, it sported some great sets that were quite advanced for the time the series was shot, particularly where the interiors of the Moon Base were concerned. Granted, it required a huge suspension of disbelief (if, as the inciting incident shows, an explosion occurred on the hidden side of the Moon, our satellite would have been thrown toward Earth, not launched into deep space) but it was fun and, at the time I first watched it, it was the only SF show available, which makes me quite nostalgic…

DEFIANCE

This was an interesting story, showing a post-apocalyptic Earth in the wake of an alien invasion: the extra-terrestrial races looking for a new home on our planet started a terraforming project that wrought havoc on the environment and led to an uneasy coexistence between humans and aliens. The setting reminds me a little of the western frontier, and led to an interesting storyline, which was brought to a hurried close in the third season by the usual incomprehensible decision of SyFy’s executives. If this sounds like a Groundhog Day situation… well, it is, and if I sound not-so-slightly peeved, yes, I am (((SIGH)))

PERSON OF INTEREST

It might not seem that this show could be classified as SF, and the idea of an all-seeing Machine watching over humanity’s deeds is practically a reality – just look at the kind of ads you receive after your internet searches… And yet this Machine, though unseen and unheard, takes on a definite personality which becomes even more pronounced when its evil twin, called Samaritan, tries to take over the world.  Here is the chilling intro sequence where the voice-over warns us about being constantly watched…

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 3 (2006) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

After two riveting seasons, Battlestar Galactica loses some of its previous steam in the third one: where the first handful of episodes offers an in-depth look on life in the settlement of New Caprica under the Cylons’ domination, the rest of the season – with the exception of the three final chapters – shifts its focus to a number of episodes centered on the plight of individual characters, not always managing to offer an intriguing point of view or to be successful in the message it wanted to convey.

In the beginning, what I had previously defined as a depressing portrayal of the refugees’ conditions in the newly established settlement, turns into the dramatic representation of their struggle under the Cylons’ government, aided and abetted by president Baltar’s morally weak ineptitude. In a parallel of the ordeals suffered by European countries fallen under Nazi occupation, we witness mass incarcerations and the disappearance of many individuals and the torture and maiming of others, while the resistance movement created by the colonists tries to sabotage the Cylons as much as possible, thus exasperating an already strained situation.   The conditions aboard Galactica and the rest of the fleet, that took flight at the enemy’s approach and is monitoring New Caprica from afar, are not much better: guilt over the forced choice of abandoning the colony and the creeping sense of impotence prey on already fraying nerves, as the decision on how to proceed becomes more imperative.

This physical break between the two halves of the survivors exemplifies the leitmotif of the whole season, where we see both humans and Cylons experience profound fractures that threaten to create dangerous divisions in both groups: as far as humanity is concerned, the reunification of the fleet, achieved through a massive rescue operation that is one of the best and most breath-taking action sequences of the season, does not heal the rift and instead leads first toward a form of “us and them” mentality, where the colonists look at the spacefaring humans as having led a charmed life, and then to a string of summary executions as a clandestine tribunal hunts and sentences those accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The Cylons, for their part, differ on the methods to deal with the humans – reason with them or beat them into submission – and it looks as if prolonged contact with their former creators has “contaminated” them with the same kind of emotional instability that seems to drive them away from their preordained goal.

All these issues are very interesting, and in the course of the season they give rise to a number of stand-alone episodes that more or less successfully shed light on the survivors’ problems: from the strict class divisions enforced according to the planet of origin and hinting at something of a caste system throughout the Twelve Colonies, to the loosely related story of a Mengele-like doctor trying to wipe out the individuals from a specific planet, these episodes show how the drive for survival is not enough to unite these people into a cohesive whole, but rather it exasperates social tensions that were already in place before the Cylons’ attack and have been simmering during the long months of flight from the attackers and of occupation on New Caprica.

Where the show sadly falters is when it tries to create personal drama in the form of a love triangle – or rather quadrangle – that in my opinion takes too much narrative space that could have been devoted to better and more interesting themes. At some point we are treated by the flare-up of the romantic entanglement between Starbuck and Apollo, something we are told must have been simmering for a long time and that the two are now incapable of keeping under wraps, uncaring of the pain they are inflicting on their respective partners. I know that a good portion of my distaste for this story thread comes from my profound dislike of the trope, but there is more that works against it, starting from the total lack of on-screen chemistry between the two and moving on to the totally loathsome way they treat their spouses, guilt over the break of their marriage vows (something we already learned is frowned on in the Twelve Colonies) expressed just in a perfunctory matter. Not to mention that I could not have cared less about their oh-so-contrived on-screen passion…

Fortunately, the last three episodes mark a return to the intense examination of moral questions standing at the roots of the overall story: as the trial against Gaius Baltar for his crimes during the Cylons’ occupation starts, the focus shifts to the meaning of justice – it had been touched briefly in the earlier episode “Collaborators” I mentioned before, but here it examines in depth the differences between justice and vengeance, of the rules of law against the drive of an angry mob seeking revenge. My opinion of Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama went back a few notches after the nosedive it took during the “forbidden love” episodes, thanks to his speech in defense not so much of Baltar but of a justice system that did not take into account the changed conditions for humanity’s survivors and was driven by the unspoken need to punish one man for everyone’s dark deeds carried out after the Cylons’ attack.

If this third season sags a little in its middle, the explosive beginning and the ominous end, revealing the surprising identity of four of the remaining human-looking Cylons, more than make up for it and hopefully lead toward more revelations in the fourth and final season.

And for the usual soundtrack sample I enjoy attaching to these reviews, here is one of my favorites for this season, Bear McCreary’s, Kat’s Sacrifice from the highly emotional episode The Passage:

My Rating:

Reviews

CENTURY RAIN, by Alastair Reynolds – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

For some reason I had missed this novel from Alastair Reynolds, published not long after the author’s famous Revelation Space saga, and once I read the synopsis of the story I was more than intrigued because it sounded quite unlike my previous experience with Reynolds’ works.

Century Rain is a story of two very different halves destined to mesh together: the first half follows humanity in the 23rd century, as it exists on arcologies in space, since Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by the Nanocaust, an extinction event that obliterated all life on the planet in one single, devastating sweep. Humans have divided into two factions, the Slashers, who embrace technology to the point of integrating it into their bodies, and the Threshers, who use technology but refuse to undergo such merging.  Verity Auger is a Thresher archeologist trying to recover the vestiges of the past from ice-encrusted Earth and she is enrolled by her superiors for a very peculiar mission – not exactly on Earth but on a weird facsimile of it. Here the other half of the novel comes into play: scientists have discovered a sort of wormhole leading to a 1959 version of Paris, one where history followed a very different course, as the failed Nazi invasion of France did not develop into World War II and scientific progress seems to have been halted. In this alternate Paris, expatriate Wendell Floyd, a struggling jazz musician, makes ends meet by working as a private detective: the latest case he took concerns the suspicious death of a young woman, and in the course of his investigation he will cross paths with Verity Auger and discover a heinous plot concocted by some fringe elements in the Slasher faction.

Blending such different story-lines can deliver an intriguing novel, but in this case – much as I reasonably enjoyed the book – I’m afraid Reynolds fell somewhat short of the mark: I’ve come to believe that in trying to do too much he ultimately defeated the purpose of the idea, and that if he had stayed with only one of the narrative threads, Century Rain could have turned into a much more spectacular work. The future half of the novel shows us a fascinating view of humanity, relegated in space by the disaster that destroyed Earth, and trying to repossess what remains of the past while being still torn by internal conflicts that oppose two widely different ways of exploring one’s potential. Once the theme of the “bad” Slasher faction comes into play – even though its motivations remained a little cloudy for me – there is a great potential for showing the effects of unchecked technology and of the evolution of mankind outside of its birth world: unfortunately, this narrative thread became at some point bloated by huge info-dumps that slowed the pace considerably and, in my opinion, took much of the wind out of the book’s proverbial sails.

The alternate history half of Century Rain is the one that held the greatest appeal for me: here the pacing is much swifter, and following Floyd’s investigation it’s possible  to learn much about this version of Paris, and the bleak political climate one can breathe there, where a xenophobic movement seems bent on creating a reign of oppression and fear that lays a dark veil on the City of Lights. I instantly connected with world-weary (but gifted with a quirky brand of humor) Wendell Floyd and his struggle to survive in a world where the music he loves is under threat of banishment, and where the ugliness of the Nazi Germany we know seems to seep, slowly but surely, into the gracefully lively Parisian atmosphere, under a different name and identity. And then there are the fascinating changes in the course of history: having missed WWII, this world did not experience the death toll of millions from the conflict, but on the other hand it did not enjoy the scientific progress fueled by wartime needs, and this version of Earth looks a little stagnant, a little… frayed around the edges, for want of a better definition.

Once the two threads merge, the story loses some of its steam and becomes mired in the sort of madcap adventure we usually see in the Bond movies, but without the tongue-in-cheek self-mockery that’s often part of that franchise. There are a few details that I struggled with as well, like Floyd’s too easy acceptance of the existence of a different temporal line a few centuries beyond his own: I would have expected a few problems with “future shock”, but there were none, not even when he finds himself in the wormhole-traveling contraption used by Verity to reach the alternate Paris. And then there is the romantic relationship between Verity and Floyd: while it starts well enough, with suspicion and mistrust from both parts, and then moves toward a tentative alliance laced with humorous repartees, I never felt a real connection between the two of them – it was as if we were being told the two were falling in love, not shown, and there was never a real feel of an emotional attachment between the two of them, to the point I wondered more than once if it had been put there just to check another item on a list.

It does not help, either, that the book feels too long – or rather, it indulges far too much on the kind of “as you know, Bob” exposition that often annoys me, and moves far too swiftly over items of interest like the way history changed, in the alternate Earth, after the failed invasion of France, or the origins and development of the Thresher and Slasher factions in the future.

Still, despite the length and pacing problems, Century Rain was a moderately enjoyable novel, although not on the same level as other Reynolds works – but at least I’m glad I explored this one as well.

My Rating:

Reviews

SCIFI MONTHS PROMPTS: Generation Ships – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

This is certainly one of my favorite themes in SF: huge ships needing to travel for decades, if not centuries, before reaching their destination, with the original crew knowing they will never see the planet chosen for the new colony but trusting that their descendants will be able to fulfill the dream.

Of course there rarely is a story about a generation ship that does not include some kind of problem, the most frequent leading to the population forgetting that they are on a space-faring vessel and believing that that microcosm is the whole world.

Here a Wikipedia list – that I hope is comprehensive – of the works of fiction, in several mediums, focused on generation ships.

I have not read as many novels with this theme as I would have liked, but the first one I encountered, a long time ago, was

ORPHANS OF THE SKY, by R.A. Heinlein (1963)

It tells the story of a generation ship where a mutiny obliterated most of the passengers and the reasons for the voyage have become more myth than actual knowledge. The remnants of the crew still perform the required maintenance operations, but such actions have become a matter of religious ritual rather than anything else, while in the less radiation-shielded parts of the ship a number of mutants lives in harsh conditions. 

Another example of generation ship can be found in

CHILDREN OF TIME, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

in which what remains of humanity, after the collapse of Earth and its civilization, travels in old ships, practically falling apart, toward the only habitable world discovered by their ancestors, unaware of the fact that a race of intelligent spiders has created a civilization there and is less than sanguine in being invaded by these… strange aliens.

And again, the theme is explored in a novella:

Acadie, by Dave Hutchinson

ACADIE, by Dave Hutchinson (2017)

This story features the society built by a group of humans who wanted to build an environment in which they could expand their potential through genetic modifications, long banned on Earth, whose authorities still hunt for them. It’s not exactly a generation ship story, but the colonists live in movable arcologies, and that’s close enough to the trope that I felt it could be easily listed here.

As far as shorter stories go, I would be remiss if I did not quote

MONO NO AWARE, by Ken Liu (2012)

A poignant tale of refugees from Earth, facing a centuries-long voyage toward a distant start after our home planet has been destroyed by the impact with a comet. A damaged propulsion system will force the story’s main character toward a difficult, hearth-breaking choice.

Generation ships have also featured in movies and television: I remember, for example, that there was one episode in the original series of Star Trek featuring such a society that had forgotten its past and whose ship was headed toward mortal danger. In more recent times there have been a few examples of the theme as well:

PANDORUM (2009)

a movie that was more horror than SF, in which a few individuals are awakened from cryo-sleep only to be confronted with mutated people turned cannibals.

ASCENSION (2014)

a TV series about an ark ship launched by no other than President Kennedy at the height of the Cold War, to preserve humanity against nuclear holocaust. Only, things are not exactly as they appear…

PASSENGERS (2016)

a movie exploring, in a far less gruesome way than Pandorum, the consequences of an unplanned re-awakening from hibernation.

And this list would not be complete without mentioning a movie I love:

WALL-E (2008)

showing what happens to humanity after the generation ships in which it has taken refuge have chosen to satisfy every need people have, without them moving from their seats or making any kind of effort.

Do you have any suggestions for other titles featuring generation ships? I am looking forward to them, and will brace my overworked TBR accordingly… 😉

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 2 (2005) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Where Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica focused mainly on the survival of the few humans who escaped the genocidal attack of the Cylons, this second season showcases in a dramatic way their inability to set aside petty concerns even in the face of imminent annihilation: once this kind of life on the run, plagued by short supplies and the dread from constant incursion, starts to become the “new normal”, the lack of hope turns people into the uglier version of themselves and seems to answer a question Commander Adama asked himself when he wondered about the human’s race worthiness of its survival. In this season, no one seems able to escape from their darker side rearing its ugly head at some point.

This new season begins where the previous one left off, after the shooting of Adama at the hands of the sleeper Cylon agent Boomer: as the Galactica’s commander battles for his life, leadership shifts to his XO Colonel Tigh – a man more comfortable with following orders than issuing them, and a drunkard to boot. As his own deep-rooted uncertainties flare up in the wake of a series of problems he’s not suited to resolve, Tigh over-reacts and only manages to make matters worse, pitching the military against the civilians in what can only result in a bloodbath.  President Roslin causes further divisions by insisting on a detour to the ancient planet of Kobol, where clues to the location of Earth might be found: her actions, and her open confrontation with Tigh, who lacks Adama’s skills at mediation, cause a split in the fleet that mines resources, defensive capabilities and, above all, morale.

Ironically enough, though, the main players orbiting around Galactica find again a common ground when the appearance of another Battlestar, the Pegasus, fills everyone with hope only to destroy it at the discovery of the true price of survival: Pegasus escaped the initial attack and under the command of Admiral Cain has been harrying the Cylons ever since, but she and her crew have sacrificed every remaining shred of humanity for their mission, and the clash between Cain and Adama threatens to become as cold-blooded as the atrocities perpetrated by the woman and her crew.  The Cylons themselves are starting to experience a very humanlike lack of cohesiveness as some of them now believe the attempted genocide unleashed on the Twelve Colonies might have been unwarranted, and are in favor of attempting a mediation. In other words, for both contenders the enemy seems to be present both on the outside and on the inside, and the recurrent theme in this season seems indeed to be the heightened danger coming from within…

The show’s creators took a bold path in portraying their “heroes” in their lowest moments, as they are ready to sacrifice integrity in the name of a higher purpose, which would of course be robbed of its ethical foundations if such acts were carried out to the bitter end: so we see Adama prepared to order the assassination of Admiral Cain to preserve the fleet from taking a dangerously inhuman direction, involving Starbuck as his hand in the plan – the moral struggle of the pilot as she wrestles loyalty to Adama, revulsion for Cain’s merciless acts and admiration for the woman’s accomplishments, is one of the finest acting feats of the series so far.  President Roslin faces a similar choice when she tries to rig the presidential elections that would otherwise see Gaius Baltar succeed, and it’s impossible not to feel dismay when she backs off and Baltar’s inevitable win looks like the first step toward the survivors’ downfall.

Ironically enough, it’s Baltar who takes a contrary journey: his brief moment of redemption, when he finds a miracle cure for Roslin who’s dying of cancer, is shortly undermined by the decision to run against her in the presidential race, not because of a higher calling but for selfish, petty reasons, thus squandering what looked like the last chance to atone for his guilt.  Baltar keeps appearing as congenitally unable to shrug off the mix of self-importance and self-loathing at the roots of his character, a combination that engenders equally opposite reactions: you pity him one moment and despise him the next, the latter feeling always being the strongest one.  So it’s not surprising that it’s under Baltar’s presidency that the survivors’ worst hour comes to be: first he endorses the decision to settle on a barely habitable planet that does not offer much in the field of resources (or pleasant environments, for that matter…), the lesser choice of people who have lost the hope of a better future; then he reveals himself as an inept leader, more concerned with idleness and debauchery than with the running of a colony; and finally, when the Cylons find them and invade the planet, he caves in far too easily, driven by his usual fear-fueled ineptitude. 

The remnants of humanity reach the proverbial bottom in this final segment of the season: living like refugees in a dismal lineup of temporary shelters separated by muddy paths, under a perpetually cloudy sky that adds a further note of misery to a depressing existence, trying to make the best out of a disheartening situation. But it’s with the arrival of the Cylons that this fragile illusion is shattered: the image of the mechanical Centurions marching through the settlement, a picture starkly reminiscent of the Nazi army entering Paris, closes the last episode with a feeling of doom and heartbreak that will certainly carry over in the next season.

And to underscore this feeling of unease, here is my usual pick from Bear McCreary’s soundtrack for the season, One Year Later

My Rating:

Reviews

DOGS OF WAR (Dogs of War #1), by Adrian Tchaikovsky – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

The three books by Adrian Tchaikovsky that I read so far showed me his uncanny ability to take creatures from the animal realm and turn them into full-fledged protagonists of his stories, not so much by anthropomorphizing them but rather by enhancing and strengthening their peculiar characteristics. That’s what he does with Dogs of War, breathing life into some amazing creatures and putting them at the center of the novel through thought-provoking narrative, but he also builds a very emotional story that at times brought me close to tears – not a condition I experience often.

In the near future humanity has found a new way to wage wars, using genetic engineering to create constructs that are an amalgam of human and modified animal DNA: these super-soldiers, or bioforms, possess a modicum of sentience but are heavily conditioned to seek the approval of their “Master”, which can be gained through blind obedience to any given order.  Rex, a 7-foot tall canine bioform, is the leader of a Multiform Assault Team, and his companions are Honey (a huge bear analog), Dragon (an equally huge reptilian) and Bees (a hive mind distributed among a swarm of bee-like creatures). We get to know them, and their frighteningly impressive abilities, in the course of an assault against their preordained target: the team is being deployed in the south of Mexico, where an insurgence is being quashed with ruthless efficiency, and since we see the action through Rex’s eyes we cannot be sure who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are – all we know is that the four of them must obliterate the enemy, as defined by Master’s orders.

The augmentations that have turned Rex and his companions into such terribly efficient killing machines make them an impressive, nightmarish sight, made even more chilling by the detached observations of the carnage relayed by Rex, and by the constant feedback he receives through his implants that keeps assuring him he is being a good dog – a corroboration he needs to confirm he is acting correctly.  Yes, because Rex does not possess an independent will, nor does he want it: all he wants is to have orders to follow so he cannot make mistakes and become a “bad dog”. That’s why, when the group of bioforms loses the connection to Master, Rex finds himself forced to make choices and to look at the world through his own eyes: the conflict between the conditioning and this new unfiltered evidence is cause for enormous stress, underlined by a constant, very canine whining, but at the same time represents the first step toward the kind of evolution his creators had not foreseen.

Once Rex is forced to make his own decisions, to determine who his enemies and friends are, he starts a journey of transformation that strongly reminded me of the characters in Flowers for Algernon, with the huge difference that while Algernon’s curve went downward after a while, Rex’s keeps improving adding shades and facets to a character that is far more human than his creators and handlers intended. Rex’s fascinating story of self-awareness runs together with the equally engaging discussion about the moral standards for the creation of artificial intelligence and the rights of lab-created individuals: the courtroom proceeding that must establish responsibility for the bioforms’ actions in the various conflicts all over the world open the door to the question of these creatures’ status, and of their rights. Are they property? Are they nothing more than a guided missile or a drone? Or did the humans who gifted them with intelligence also give them the means for self-determination? If you are familiar with ST:TNG’s episode The Measure of a Man, you will find here the same kind of questions laid on the table.

Seeing Rex struggle with his nature and conflicting impulses first, as he’s put on trial together with his Master, and then as he suffers some kind of limited, fearful acceptance by humans, means to see his inherent humanity – for want of a better word, because humankind at large does not fare so well here. At the beginning of the novel, despite the actions he is trained to perform, he is basically a guileless creature and it’s wonderful to see how he slowly gains consciousness of himself and his brethren, finally accepting the role of leader and example – not out of superior physical strength or because someone told him so, but through the acknowledgment of his nature and of the role he can perform in society.

A while ago I reviewed a story concerning the plight of augmented soldiers returning to civilian life and needing to fit into a society that is basically afraid of them and what they can do: Rex and the other bioforms face the same kind of dilemma here – they were created as weapons to be wielded and now their former managers keep them out of sight to try and forget their existence, and the primal fear it engenders. 

It is when we talk, rather than shout and bark and snarl, that the humans fear us most. I do not understand that. To talk is human: why are we more frightening when we are human than when we are dog?

Rex’s journey finally brings him to the understanding that he does not need human acceptance to realize his potential, that he can be his own person and that the only validation he needs is his own:

I was born an animal, they made me into a soldier and treated me like a thing. […] Servant and slave, leader and follower, I tell myself I have been a Good Dog. Nobody else can decide that for me.

This is an intensely poignant story that left a deep mark on my consciousness and imagination, one whose characters – particularly Rex – will stay with me for a long time. So far the very best Adrian Tchaikovsky novel I read.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Book Titles that Would Make Great Song Titles – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

With such a peculiar theme for this week’s TTT it was not difficult to tailor it to suit the SciFi Month parameters: as a source of inspiration I looked at SF titles on the dedicated Wikipedia page and found an amazing number of books whose titles could be perfect for a song – and let me assure you that the choice was far from easy…

With the exception of Walter Tevis’ THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (which was also filmed in 1976, starring David Bowie), I have not read any of these books, so if you’re as curious as I am about the stories they tell, you can click on the title and explore their relative Wikipedia page: what these books have in common is that they are all quite dated (the more recent one was published in 1981), detail that came across quite clearly as I was searching for their covers and the artwork in some of them spoke of past times, indeed…

So, here is the list of my SF-themed songs: enjoy!  🙂

CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS, by Roger Zelazny (1969)

THE END OF ETERNITY, by Isaac Asimov (1955)

A FALL OF MOONDUST, by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, by Walter Tevis (1963)

ON WINGS OF SONG, by Thomas M. Disch (1979)

ONE MILLION TOMORROWS, by Bob Shaw (1970)

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, by Ray Bradbury (1962)

TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, by Robert A. Heinlein (1973)

WAVE WITHOUT A SHORE, by C.J. Cherryh (1981)

WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, by Marge Piercy (1976)