By Lois McMaster Bujold
It's been nearly a year since I finished the last of the Vorkosigan novels, in which time Bujold has managed to add yet another to the already impressively lengthy series. As regular readers of this blog will know, this series has managed to become one of my all-time favorites in the field of soft science fiction--i read the bulk of it in one go that took just over a month. So how does this latest offering stack up? Well, it was certainly enjoyable, but even so I'd unfortunately have to put it at or near the bottom of the series.
Cryoburn sees Miles Vorkosigan come to the planet Kibou-daini in order to investigate one of the cryogenics corporations that dominates the society there--a corporation that is attempting to expand into the Barrayaran Empire. In the course of his investigation, Miles--as usual--uncovers a couple of hidden cryo-corp schemes and rescues some children, but the real meat of the novel is in its exploration of the Kibou culture. On Kibou-daini, you see, death is no longer a normal part of the life cycle--instead, people have their bodies frozen, to be revived at a later date, and Bujold uses her protagonist to help imagine what such a world would be like.
Now, a number of other Vorkosigan novels have a similar arc. Falling Free and Ethan of Athos, for example, or Cetaganda. I enjoyed all of those three, and the latter was one of my favorites. So why didn't I appreciate this one as much?
What I keep coming back to is that up until the very end, I didn't feel like this really needed to be a Vorkosigan story. So much of the story works like a more fleshed-out thought experiment--as a lot of science fiction does--that having Miles in there almost felt like an afterthought.
Of course, the same is true of Falling Free and Ethan of Athos, and I enjoyed those. The difference, I think, is that while those two stories are set in the same universe, Miles doesn't actually appear in either. The latter works at a level removed by only involving secondary characters from the main series. The former, on the other hand, is set hundreds of years before Miles' birth, which actually sets up some very satisfying callbacks in 2002's Diplomatic Immunity. In both cases, the inclusion in the Vorkosigan canon works to add a bit of extra flavor to the story, rather than it feeling shoehorned in like Cryoburn did.
On top of that, while the characters in Cryoburn are certainly well-realized, none of their relationships really drive the narrative. In Falling, we get to see the Quaddies through Leo Graf's inexperienced eyes, while in Ethan of Athos, the title character's naivete in the greater galactic environment not only gives us the chance to explore his society, but also give a fun outsider's look at the world we've already grown to know. There's a bit of that operating in Cryoburn in the chapters where Jin, a young Kibou-daini resident, is the POV character, but because we spend so much time with Miles, it doesn't come off as well. And ultimately, not much that happens in Cryoburn really has to matter to any great degree, not until the very end.
Though, to give credit where credit is due, the "Aftermaths" coda is just about perfectly handled. Bujold manages to sum up a whole lot of emotional content in just a few surprisingly short vignettes.
Longtime fans will most likely find this an enjoyable but not outstanding new entry. For the rest, while this episode is, like the rest, self-contained enough to be pretty friendly to newcomers, there are other places to start that are even better. (I recommend starting at the beginning, as I did.)
Started: 6/10/2011 | Finished: 6/13/2011
Six Months, Six Words
You know, I keep meaning to write new reviews, but with one thing or another, it keeps falling by the wayside. Seems like I set out almost every day to catch up on my reviews, but by the time I've got the dishes done and the laundry put away and my son bathed and I've finished the day's work for my new photography business, all I want to do is collapse on the couch and watch re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the plus side, that means I've been ending a lot of evenings lately doing what I want--Juliette and I started season five of Buffy this week--but, of course, it means I've slipped a lot on some of my other responsibilities.
But you didn't come here to hear me whine. You came here for book reviews. So, in an effort to finally get back on track, I decided to do one huge omnibus review of everything I've read in the past six months. The twist? Each review gets six words.
The Hunger Games Trilogy: If you haven't already, read it.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy: Conspiracy theories make my head hurt.
Leviathan Wakes: The best new sci-fi in years.
Treason's Shore: A weaker series than I remembered.
His Majesty's Dragon: Like Hornblower, but with dragons. Fun.
Lolita: Beautiful prose, utterly uncomfortable reading experience.
And there we are. Hopefully it won't be another six months before I can get my act together. ;)
The Hunger Games
Started: 12/7/2010 | Finished: 12/8/2010
Started: 1/24/2011 | Finished: 1/25/2011
Started: 1/26/2011 | Finished: 1/26/2011
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Started: 1/4/2011 | Finished: 1/21/2011
Started: 1/31/2011 | Finished: 2/8/2011
Started: 3/11/2011 | Finished: 3/16/2011
His Majesty's Dragon
Started: 3/17/2011 | Finished: 3/19/2011
Started: 3/21/2011 | Finished: 4/6/2011
In retrospect, I'm not really sure why I was so excited when I first heard that Disney was finally making a sequel to Tron. That is, I know why--the original movie had rocked my young world with its lightcycles and frisbee combat and glowing costumes, and the prospect of spending more time in that world blinded me to the question of what a sequel would actually bring that was of value. Well, what was the sequel worth?
At the opening of Tron: Legacy, the hero of the original film, Kevin Flynn, disappears on the verge of some major discovery. He leaves behind a young son, Sam, who grows into a troubled young man. Like his father, Sam eventually winds up getting transported into the world inside a computer and must find his way back out while also stopping the machinations of an evil program bent on world domination.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, it's because the plot of the new film is essentially the same as the old one. But while that sounds like a big knock against Tron: Legacy, it's worth pointing out that the "stranger in a strange land" scenario is actually a fairly standard sci-fi plotline, aside from which, Tron has always been more about the visual spectacle than a gripping plot or complex characters.
And what about those visuals? You'd think that with 28 years of technological innovation in the film industry, this new film's effects would rock the socks off of it's 1982 counterpart. Well, they did. But the problem is that with those 28 years of innovation came 28 years to get used to visual effects. When Tron first came out, the effects were so amazing that they ran the risk of making people's heads explode; no one had ever seen anything like them before. Now, on the other hand, simply having cool action sequences, computer-generated graphics, and a weird aesthetic isn't enough to blow anyone's mind. We've simply seen too much cool stuff in the movies for this to really make an impact.
What, then, does this long-awaited sequel really bring to the table? Fan service. Miles and miles of fan service. The movie is jam-packed with references, both to the original film and to other classic science fiction. The problem with fan service, though, is that if you don't get the references, there's no payoff for you, and if you do get them, you focus on that instead of what's actually happening in the scene. For example, I snickered a bit at a line cribbed from War Games, and while that was kind of fun, it also completely undermined any dramatic tension the scene might otherwise have had.
At the end of the day, though, Tron: Legacy isn't a terrible film. Much of the plot and the fictional world are either derivative or nonsensical--all the pseudo-mystical technobabble was a little tiresome but not awful--but as a brainless but inoffensive action flick, it wasn't bad. In that way it actually has even more in common with its predecessor, which, if you go back and watch it today, really doesn't hold up all that well. Unfortunately, Tron: Legacy isn't really competing with Tron; rather, it's competing with our memories of that film, and that's a fight it just can't win, not even with two identity discs.
Viewed: 1/1/2011 | Released: 12/17/2010 | Score: C-
A Fire Upon the Deep
By Vernor Vinge
Going into this book, I had only a vague impression of Vernor Vinge's work. I had a notion of him as a hard science fiction writer, of roughly the same generation as men like Larry Niven, Robert Forward, and Gregory Benford. Thus, I figured A Fire Upon the Deep would be the same sort of book that one of those guys would write--a fairly straightforward plot centered around a strong central scientific or technological concept, written in an engaging style but with more of a focus on ideas and action than compelling characterization. Now, I do enjoy those other writers. Nevertheless, I found it a pleasant surprise that this, my first foray into Vinge's work, turned out to be quite a bit more complex and engaging than I had anticipated.
Most hard science fiction novels are built on a single concept--a giant ring-shaped structure built around a star, for example, or an alien race that lives on the surface of a neutron star--and the bulk of the plot is driven by exploration of the implications of that concept. Fire, on the other hand, incorporates two main SF ideas. One, a universe in which technology becomes limited by proximity to a galactic core--thus, advanced civilizations with faster-than-light travel and interstellar domains can only exist near the edges of the galaxy, and the furthest reaches of space are inhabited by god-like AI entities. The other, a race of wolf-like aliens in which individuals have no true intelligence or consciousness and true sentience only occurs amongst highly bonded packs. Either of these ideas would be interesting enough to merit its own entire book, but by bringing them together in a single story, Vinge makes some neat ideas really spark.
In Fire, a team of researchers inadvertently awaken an ancient and powerful AI that immediately turns on them, destroying the outpost and then spreading outward like a virus to take over entire civilizations. One ship escapes, carrying with it a small piece of the AI that could be the key to defeating it, but it is marooned on a primitive planet within the Slow Zone--a part of the galaxy close enough to the core that faster-than-light travel is impossible. Immediately after landing, the survivors on the ship encounter the planet's inhabitants--a group-minded race called the Tines--and become caught up in the local politics and war. Meanwhile, the malevolent AI continues to spread, and the starfaring races in the outer galaxy scramble to oppose or flee it. The novel bounces back and forth between epic, space-opera interstellar war and medieval intrigue and betrayal, culminating in a breathtaking climax.
Fire combines gripping action, well-realized characters, and tense, complex intrigue in what I think is one of the best examples of its genre. It's also surprisingly funny for hard SF--scenes are intercut with newsgroup-style posts discussing the events of the story, many of which are hilarious to an Internet-savvy reader. It's little wonder that Fire won the Hugo for Vinge--I could scarcely put it down, and even having had weeks to contemplate it I can think of no flaws and still find it a very satisfying story. Indeed, this is the best hard SF I've read in quite some time.
Started: 9/21/2010 | Finished: 9/23/2010
It feels a little silly to write a review for a movie that opened almost six weeks ago, especially since I already wrote up a piece about my interpretation of the movie, but, you know, that's where I am these days.
What can I tell you that you don't already know about Inception? Probably not a whole lot, if you're even remotely interested in movies. It is, like many Christopher Nolan films, complex and layered, and rewards looking closely and (I would think) watching it more than once. On one level, it's basically a heist film and even if you view it as just that and nothing more, it's a very good movie. But, as I pointed out in my previous piece, there may be a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.
As far as the performances go, my appreciation of Leonardo DiCaprio continues to increase--a trend that kind of started with Catch Me If You Can but didn't really kick in until The Departed. I do still find his performances a little on the heavy side--he's clearly a guy who takes himself and his profession very seriously--but given the sort of films he does, that's probably appropriate. It was also very nice to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I quite liked in (500) Days of Summer) take on a more adult role, one which he handled expertly. The one who stole the show for me, though, was Tom Hardy in the role of the "forger," Eames. I've only ever seen him before in Star Trek: Nemesis--which was a pretty forgettable movie overall--but here his combination of charm, dry wit, and occasional seriousness came off just perfectly for me.
There's a lot more to talk about with a film like this, of course, but at this point it's kind of yesterday's news. Besides, the best part about a movie like this is the face-to-face discussions with your friends that you have as you're walking out of the theater, so if you haven't had a chance to check it out yet, grab a couple of friends and get to it.
Viewed: 7/25/2010 | Released: 7/16/2010 | Score: A
The Vorkosigan Saga
Since committing to a regular update schedule of normal blog posts and photos, my reviews seem to have fallen by the wayside. I've actually managed to read seven books in the two months since my last review, but somehow I just haven't had the time or motivation to write about any of them. To those three or four of you who enjoy reading these reviews: I apologize.
In the interests of speeding things along, rather than reviewing each of the six remaining Vorkosigan novels and omnibuses separately, I'm going to do all of them at once in a single giant-sized, no-holds-barred mega-review. Except, you know, it won't actually be any longer than a normal review and there will be no wrestling or any other form of physical combat involved.
One of the great strengths of this series, I think, is in how each new episode both maintains and extends the overall world and narrative while still remaining relatively self-contained. For people who like to take breaks in between books, this means that you have convenient stopping points along the way. If, on the other hand, you prefer to charge straight through (as I did), you have the effect of a very long story that rewards you with extremely satisfying milestones along the way.
Of course, there's a danger with open-ended, episodic series in that they can get either repetitive or suffer from a sort of "Superman syndrome," wherein the writers have to go to increasingly absurd lengths to continue to challenge the central characters. In this respect, writing open-ended series well can be more challenging than single novels or closed series. I'm happy to report, though, that Bujold has enough skill and imagination to keep her Vorkosigan novels fresh all the way through.
Part of this lies in the way that science fiction lends itself so well to new ideas. So, for example, in Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, Bujold can give us a look at new civilizations and cultures, and explore the differences from and similarities to what we're used to, while in Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, she can tackle topics like identity and brotherhood. As it progresses, the series twists and turns through different concepts and angles, all the while maintaining the same central "feel." It takes a pretty skilled writer to accomplish something like that, I think.
If I had to pick a favorite episode it would probably be either Cetaganda or "The Mountains of Mourning"--the former for the fascinating construction of a civilization both utterly alien and distinctly human, and the latter for the strong characterization and emotional content. My least favorite is probably A Civil Campaign. Really, though, even at its worst, this series is still at the very least a lot of fun to read, and at its best it's grown to be among my favorite works of "light" science fiction.
Miles, Mystery & Mayhem:
Started: 6/21/2010 | Finished: 6/25/2010
Started: 6/26/2010 | Finished: 6/30/2010
Started: 7/1/2010 | Finished: 7/4/2010
Miles in Love:
Started: 7/5/2010 | Finished: 7/14/2010
Started: 7/15/2010 | Finished: 7/20/2010
Started: 7/21/2010 | Finished: 7/24/2010
By Lois McMaster Bujold
Young Miles is the second omnibus in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. Picking up a decade or so after the events of the first volume--which I read and enjoyed earlier this year--this set of stories recounts the events of the early career of Miles Vorkosigan, the son of Cordelia's Honor's protagonists, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. Over the course of the three constituent works (The Warrior's Apprentice, the short story The Mountains of Mourning, and The Vor Game) Miles has adventures with a mercenary fleet, solves a mystery in his home district's backcountry, graduates from the Barrayaran Imperial Academy, stops an interstellar war, and rescues his emperor. As you might guess from a description like that, it's a pretty fun read.
If anything, I liked Young Miles even more than Cordelia's Honor. The backstory of the first volume was woven into these stories quite neatly, and combined with the fact that new characters brought new perspectives on old events, it made returning to this world feel like slipping on a comfortable old sweater; I experienced a feeling of nostalgia that was surprising given that it had only been a few months since my first encounter with the series. Additionally, the change in protagonist from Cordelia to Miles worked well for me, though that's no surprise given how many of my favorite SF and fantasy adventures have been coming-of-age stories. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get over that; most of the time I don't think I want to.
The only thing that bothered me a bit about this collection was the overall structure of the third section, The Vor Game. That novel actually won the Hugo when it was originally released, something that I don't quite get. The story was kind of sprawling and all over the place, and while everything does eventually tie together, it felt loose and episodic while I was actually in it.
Still, the character of Miles Vorkosigan was instantly likeable, both empathetic and funny. I understand he is the main character of most of the rest of the series, and I'm looking forward to reading more about him.
Started: 4/15/2010 | Finished: 4/23/2010
By Lois McMaster Bujold
A while back I solicited recommendations for some new reading material. I'd just finished reading Thomas Pynchon's V, which was difficult and, I thought, pretentious, and ultimately unsatisfying, so I asked for something fun and easy to read, preferably science fiction, since I hadn't read anything in that genre in a while. Several people recommended Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, with this book as a good starting point. I looked into it a bit, finding that the series is well-regarded--indeed, various stories in its collection have won four Hugos and two Nebulas--as well as quite extended. I then more or less forgot about it for the next year and a half.
Earlier this month, as so often happens around this time of year, I found myself with some Borders gift cards that I'd received for Christmas and a reading list that had inexplicably grown over the past year. (I read 14 books in 2009, and probably heard about 20 or so that caught my interest.) Consequently, my nightstand got more cluttered and my lunchbreaks got more interesting. Also a little longer. Anyway, one of the books I picked up this year was, as you might guess, this one. Cordelia's Honor comprises the first book in the Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor, and its sequel, Barrayar, which were, somewhat interestingly, not written consecutively--Barrayar was, from what I can tell, actually the eighth book written in the series. It's actually a little surprising to me that the two novels were written so far apart, because there's such a strong continuity between the two, and the style seems identical. Reading them together it feels almost more like one continuous novel than two separate works.
I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, though. What did I actually think of these books? Well, they were easy to read and fun, so on that level they were successful. But I can't quite decide whether or not I thought they were good. I found myself a little... annoyed isn't quite the right word, but perhaps a little disbelieving at some of the characters' motivations and behaviors--people kept having personal interludes at what seemed like really inappropriate times, and often the characters just didn't feel very natural to me. And there was a lot of what felt like social commentary from the author, but presented in a way that felt kind of clumsy to me. On the other hand, I found the story compelling enough that I finished it in just over a week and a half, and am finding myself very much interested in continuing the series. And although it struck me as a bit silly at times, the setting and characters seem to resonate with me in ways similar to the way that David Eddings' Belgariad did when I was a kid or the way the Horatio Hornblower books did more recently.
In a lot of ways, reading this series was like slipping into a well-worn pair of jeans or some nicely broken-in sneakers. It was comfortable and maybe kind of comforting. So I guess I'll be picking up the next omnibus, Young Miles, at some point. I have to chip away a bit at that stack on my nightstand first, though.
Started: 1/4/2010 | Finished: 1/15/2010
By Dan Simmons
After finishing my second series by Dan Simmons, I seem to be noticing a pattern. The first book has an interesting premise, is tightly plotted, and seems to be going somewhere good, but ultimately the series ends up being kind of disappointing. That was true of the Hyperion series, and I think it's even more true of Ilium and Olympos.
This duology is set a few thousand years in the future, when some humans have engineered themselves into god-like beings, others are living a life of ease and ignorance, and there are sentient robots living among the asteroids and gas giants of the outer solar system. There are a number of intertwining storylines--one involving a 20th-century classics scholar who is resurrected by what appear to be Greek gods who task him with observing their recreation of the Trojan war, another involving a group of the post-civilized humans on Earth questioning their existence, and a third involving a group of robots from Jupiter setting out on a mission to find out what's going on back on Earth and Mars. It sounds confusing, and it kind of is, but it starts off really well. And it's really smart when it starts, too, with both oblique and explicit references to literature from the Iliad to Shakespeare to Proust to Nabokov.
Unfortunately, the second book doesn't deliver on the promise of the first. It's just kind of all over the place--a bunch of stuff happens, but it all feels unfocused and scattered, like Simmons had loaded a bunch of ideas into a shotgun and let it spray. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, only to leave you to go back to a different plotline. It got kind of aggravating after a while, and the resolution left a lot to be desired.
I think that this is probably worth reading for the first book, but try not to let your hopes ride too high as you go into the second.
Started: 3/13/2009 | Finished: 4/3/2009
By Dan Simmons
It may not be completely legit to review all four of Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels in the same article--it's questionable whether the series functions as a single, cohesive whole, or two parts, or four. One review is less work for me, though, which makes me considerably less likely to quit. (Please, don't hurt me.)
The four novels of the Hyperion series--Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion--easily split into two parts. The first two books follow a group of characters on a pilgramage to a planet on the edge of a huge interstellar empire--each one hoping to find the answers to the mysterious events of his life, while the rest of humanity is on the brink of war. The second two books are set several hundred years later, showing the aftermath and resolution of the events in the first half of the series.
The first book is just fantastic. Structurally, Hyperion resembles The Canterbury Tales--each of the pilgrims telling his own story to the rest as they move toward their uncertain destination--and it's very well done. Each story is distinct in style and memorable in its own right, and Simmons weaves them together wonderfully. In fact, if the series had ended with the first book, I think I wouldn't have minded, despite the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger.
The second book wasn't quite as interesting from a writing standpoint as the first, but the ideas presented were interesting and it provided what I thought was a very satisfying resolution to the action in the first. Several mysteries remain by the end of Fall, but somehow they seemed to be the sort that didn't need explaining.
Unfortunately, the third and fourth novels didn't really live up to the first two. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy them at all, but big chunks of the text got bogged down in discussions about human history and the nature of the universe. Even when there was action taking place, I often found myself skimming over the scenes, just trying to see what happens next.
Overall, I'd say that this series was worth the read, but I most likely won't come back to it.
Started: 7/21/2008 | Finished: 9/24/2008