Tag Archives: science fiction

Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt

Aftermath - Life DebtAftermath – Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Looking over other reviews of this book, it seems folks are very hot or cold on “Life Debt.” As the second book in the new Aftermath trilogy, “Life Debt” has a lot to prove. We’re past the point of being able to say “well, this is an introduction to a brand new expanded universe, so give it some time.” At this point, we need to start seeing some payoff. The question is; do we?

Yes. And no. Man, this book is all over the place.

First, I have to say; I really can’t stand reading fiction in the present tense. I’m sure this isn’t the first book I’ve read in the present (pretty sure Aftermath was like that too, though I listened to that one on audio, so it wasn’t as distracting), but man, it was a problem here. My attention kept sliding off the text; I likened it to the feeling of stepping on a slick rock in a stream. I just could not stay on the page. Present tense. Not a fan. Let’s move on.

There are some amazingly good things here, even so. Let’s talk about Han Solo. I’m not sure whether author Chuck Wendig (who seems like a really cool guy, I follow him on Twitter and usually like his content there) watched Harrison Ford’s entire body of work on DVD repeatedly or if Disney let him follow Ford around for a month with a tape recorder or what; but when it comes to Han Solo’s dialogue, Wending FUCKING NAILS IT. And he nails it so well that it’s made me realize just how much previous authors struggled with Han’s voice. Wendig’s Han sounds like movie Han. It’s incredible. It makes me wish I’d listened to this on audio. I still might anyway.

Wendig’s original characters are back and I like them, especially Sinjir, who adds a good amount of snark every time he shows up. But here’s where “Life Debt” runs into a rather strange problem and I’m not sure it’s one anybody could have predicted or could do anything to fix.

I read my first Star Wars novel in 1994 (I think). It was only a few years into this idea of there being such as thing as an “Expanded Universe.” The prequels had yet to be announced, ditto the “Special Edition” of the original trilogy and the feeling at the time was that the novels were going to be Star Wars going forward. And I read them all and devoured them, and I promise you, this is not going in the direction that you most likely think it is.

This is not nostalgia for the old EU. I still have all my old Star Wars books. I’ve gone back and paged through them as an adult. You know what? A lot of them are fucking terrible. Absolutely awful. There are gems there, but they are few and far between (no surprise, Timothy Zahn’s work stands out as a solid gem). So it’s not as though I’m nostalgic for the old EU.

But there’s this weird feeling that results; the fact that the old EU is there and that it formed at a more impressionable age for me, and the fact that there’s just so damn much of it, all that contributes to a feeling that it’s “what’s real.” And that makes a lot of Aftermath feel like, well, fan fiction, for lack of a better term. I keep having this feeling that “Rae Sloane” can’t be the person who tries to pull the Empire together, because that role was supposed to go to Thrawn or Daala (even though I hated Daala). I know that Disney owns Star Wars now, I know that “canon” (which is a term I don’t like anyway) is whatever the creative director of the IP says that it is, I know that all of this will tie into the new movies eventually, I know, I know, I know. And yet. I feel like I’m reading fan fiction. Fan fiction written by a professional, mind you, and even with the annoying present tense, Wendig on his worst day is better than the atrocity that was the last original EU novel “Crucible.” Even so, the feeling persists.

We’re talking about fictional universes and yet, my mind wants to draw a distinction between the “real fiction” and the “pretend fiction.” Even being aware of it isn’t enough to stop the feeling. It’s very odd.

It might be that the new stuff will continue to accrue and eventually supplant the old EU. Maybe it’s just a question of time and the amount of content. I’ll be interested in seeing where it all goes.

So, should you read “Life Debt?” I’d say yes. It’s a good book, with great moments, and a few problems. But this is Star Wars now and there’s a lot more to come. I think it’s worth sticking around to see how it goes.

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Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not one who tends to pick up YA novels too often, but every once in a while I get a recommendation from a colleague and it sparks my curiosity enough to dip my toe in the waters for a while. It’s interesting, because I know that the YA market is very hot right now among adult readers and especially among librarians and since every single person I know is a librarian, you can see how this sort of thing happens from time to time.

So, the book itself. For me, there were some great bits, some okay bits, and some ‘meh’ bits. I’m not much for the YA romance angle, especially the “girl with a crush on one boy who is liked by another.” There’s a good bit of mystery about the “Waves,” what they are, what they will be, and what the titular “5th Wave” actually is. I also enjoyed the speculation early in the book about what the “Others” actually were and there’s a good bit of tension regarding just how, well, alien they are.

There are multiple points of view throughout the book and they shift around often enough that it was, at times, tricky to keep track of who I was reading. A few times I started in on a chapter and thought it was from one character’s point of view, only to realize that I was wrong a few pages in. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that breaks a narrative for me, but it’s . . . inelegant. I liken it to a transmission that clunks whenever you shift gears. It still works, but you notice it when you’d prefer everything to be smooth. It’s also the kind of thing that would be easy enough to fix; slap a Game of Thrones-style chapter header “Chapter 5: Cassie,” for instance, and you’d clean that right up.

Regardless, overall, I enjoyed the book. I like aliens, I like invasions, I like dystopias, and I like survival; there’s a good amount of each here. I’m less interested in teenage romance and the angst therein, but I recognize that this genre has certain conventions that are quite popular, so I’m not convinced that it’s bad. It’s just not to my taste. Your mileage may vary accordingly.

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Review: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's SyndromeUnlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fun fact: the copy that I read was part of a limited print run of 1500 copies, all of which were numbered and signed by the author. Mine was 1384, which found its way to the King County Library System’s collection. Anyway.

This book is a companion novella to the novel “Lock In” and as such, it’s a slim, quick read. And you know what? That’s a goddamn shame! I enjoyed “Lock In” quite a bit . . . but “Unlocked” is something really special and it manages to hit all the right buttons in my brain.

I attribute this largely to its format, which is entirely done in an interview style of various individuals discussing the spread of “Haden’s Syndrome,” the effect which causes the “Locked In” condition that sets up the rest of the world. This interview style is very, very reminiscent of “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks, although without the zombies.

There’s something powerful in telling a story entirely through interview, which I suppose might be why interviews as a thing are reasonably popular. But fictional interviews are even better, because you’re not limited to how people actually talk, but can craft interesting, narrative driven responses that paint an entire world piece by piece. It’s considerably more interesting, which might be one of the reasons I never pursued a major in Journalism.

This novella was released before “Lock In” was published, so if you haven’t read either yet, do yourself a favor and read this one first. I’m more than willing to imagine that some of my concerns about the full novel would have been assuaged had I actually done things in the proper order. Even if you’re not planning on reading the full novel, “Unlocked” is an interesting little book that will occupy your mind far longer than it takes to get through it. Always a good thing, in my opinion.

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Review: Saga Volume Six

Saga, Volume 6Saga, Volume 6 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Man, what I wouldn’t give for a recap page at the start of this volume. Even just a reminder of where everyone was at the end of the last volume, because the plotline has become a thick and tangled web of who wants to kill whom and who is allied with whom to prevent the afore-mentioned killing. But that’s all just a quibble. You can always go back and read volume 5, after all.

Volume 6 is great. It’s a bit lighter than previous ventures, a bit more hopeful, and I think that’s due in large part to the presence of Hazel, now old enough (albeit still in kindergarten) that she has her own voice in the story, not just that of the narrator. There also a few new interesting characters as well, which is great considering how high the body county for this series is.

Otherwise, what is there to say? The art is beautiful and weird, there’s so much non-hetero-normative sexuality that it’s all a delight to my progressive heart, especially when it’s juxtaposed with ideas about family and parenthood.

Mild spoilers for previous volumes: most of all, though, I think I’m happiest to see Alana and Marko working together again. The timeline jumps make it a bit tricky to determine if Hazel’s foreboding narration in a previous volume “that this is the story of how my parents split up” means that the split is still coming or if the troubles they encountered in the previous books were that split; it’s hard to say, but I’m pleased to see them here, working together, even if it’s not going to last.

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Review: Jennifer Government

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’ve never read a dystopia quite like this one.

“1984” set the tone for the dystopian future; the government that controls everything and everyone. It’s a future we fear constantly in an age of mass surveillance and secret NSA projects and black ops teams. The totalitarian nightmare.

“Jennifer Government” is a very different type of dystopia. Corporations are all-powerful and people take the last names of the companies they work for. Everything can be bought and those with the most money (corporations) have the most power. It’s a very different vision of the future and it makes for a fascinating setting.

The story itself is about a government agent (the titular “Jennifer Government”) who is hunting an executive responsible for killing fourteen people as part of a marketing promotion. That’s the simplified version; along the way, there’s a weave of different characters crossing paths and double crossing each other. The NRA is a private military organization. It’s nuts. And it’s awesome.

Barry’s writing style is taut and quick, in the “short chapter” tradition that keeps the pages turning at a lightning pace. It makes for the “can’t-put-it-down” experience.

With such glowing praise, why only four stars out of five? After I finished the book, I realized how much I still wanted to know about it. How did history develop in such a way that the government became a powerless bureaucracy and the culture evolved that people named themselves for their employers? The novel’s relentless pace became a problem; things I wanted to stop and explore I instead blazed past on chase scenes and escapes.

There isn’t time to wonder about the hows and the whys as the bullets are flying and the stakes are raised. The dialogue itself tends to be action movie-esque, a vehicle to keep things moving. But there are so many fascinating questions; how did we get here, why is the world like this, and no one seemed willing to ask them. A lost opportunity, if ever there was one.

In the end, I came away feeling as though I’d gulped down a very tasty meal, but so quickly that I didn’t really get a chance to taste it.

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Review: Halo: Escalation (Volume Two)

Halo: Escalation (Volume 2)Halo: Escalation by Brian Reed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Halo: Escalation series continues to impress. It’s everything a great tie-in graphic novel should be.

While most of volume two continues the adventures of the Spartan-IVs, a section of the book is devoted to a somewhat surprising face: the Master Chief himself and the Spartan-II Blue Team. I mention this as a surprise because it seems like, aside from a few early novels, the Halo universe seems to shy away from depicting the big MC in the expanded universe fiction, preferring instead to save his exploits for the games themselves. It’s nice to see Blue Team show up here, which I recognize is meant to prepare gamers for their appearance in Halo 5, but regardless, it’s still fun.

The Master Chief storyline is a very nice segue between Halo 4 and 5, dealing with the aftermath of Halo 4’s emotional ending. One thing that has continually struck me as odd is the Didact himself, however. Warning: spoilers for the comic and (possibly) Halo 5 to follow.

Still with me?

Halo 4 made it seem like the Didact was going to be a recurring antagonist; he definitely seemed “defeated, but not killed” at the end of that game. Which I’d thought would mean we’d see his big ugly mug again in Halo 5 . . . but Escalation makes it pretty clear that the Didact is done, since in this book, Blue Team hunts him down and kills him, and they kill him pretty decisively. I suppose it’s still possible we’ll see more of the Didact, but . . . it feels unlikely. I wonder if he wasn’t as well received as 343 was hoping and so they steered away from him in favor of other villains in Halo 5.

Back to Escalation itself; although the Master Chief storyline is the standout here, the rest of the book is quite good. There’s a good balance of world building that I enjoy and the work that’s gone into the Spartan-IVs really shows. Ray and Thorne are back and even Palmer’s characterization has smoothed out from her rocky start in a previous graphic novel. Despite how good it was to see the Chief in a book, it also reminds one that the universe is much, much larger than just the Chief. I appreciate that.

Final verdict: good stories, good art, good pick for a Halo fan. I’m happy to recommend this one.

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Google Glass And What It Means For The Story I’m Writing

It’s making the headlines once again after a long radio silence and like all things related to Google Glass and the headlines, the news isn’t good. Google is ending its Explorer program for Google Glass and going back to the drawing board. This program, for those who don’t obsessively follow all things tech, was where a person such as you or me could write an application (including written essay!) to be allowed to buy your own Google Glass and test it out. It sounds pretty cool, except for the part where Glass itself costs $1,500. That price tag caused my attention to wander, but I also don’t want to pay more than $200 for a smartphone, so I might not be the best person to ask.

The reason why I’m concerned, however, isn’t because I was a Google Glass aficionado but because I’m concerned about what the Glass setback will mean for the trajectory of electronics that we carry with us daily. I first became interested in just how far our cultural obsession would go when I noticed that I literally haven’t been more than ten feet away from my smartphone since I bought it in 2011. I also read a study that claimed that a third of Americans would sooner give up sex than their smartphone device.

All of those things started swirling around in my brain and pretty soon I had the framework for the two novels that I’ve been working on since 2012: a not-too-distant future where instead of a smartphone that you need to charge and can drop and could lose, you get a nice little microchip implanted in your brain through a quick and painless process that can be done right there at the store. Of course, being a science fiction novel, things have to go horribly wrong with that idea, but at the time, I still felt that the trajectory was such that we were on track from going from devices we carry with us every day to devices that we wear on our bodies to devices that are actually inside us.

Does the lukewarm embrace (or even outright rejection) of Glass indicate that this path might not hold? Maybe. It’s also true that the first device in a completely new category doesn’t often win the race; the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone by a longshot, but it’s the one that convinced everyone that smartphones were must-have gadgets. There are a lot of things that could be responsible for Glass faltering; I personally blame the price tag and the admittedly interesting but also convoluted Explorer program. Will Google keep going with Glass and try something else? Or will wearable computers seem like a dead end?

I really hope we haven’t reached a dead end, not because I’m a huge fan of the whole idea, but because I really want my story to still be relevant by the time I’m done writing it. Science fiction is littered with examples of stories outdated by the forward march of time but it would well and truly suck to be outdated before I’ve even finished the book.