Friday, 18 October 2013

Book Review : Red Planet Blues / Robert J. Sawyer

(Read from April 29-30, 2013)

There was a period in my life where I spent a lot of time enjoying Humphrey Bogart movies—The Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon and Casa Blanca. Those were my salad days and I have fond memories of those years. Perhaps that’s why this book by Rob Sawyer appealed to me so much—it revived some of those old feelings. I loved this mash-up of the hardboiled detective and the science fiction genres (The Maltese Falcon meets Ray Bradbury). Plus I have always been a palaeontology fan, so it was enjoyable to have that science thrown into the mix.

I haven’t read many of Sawyer’s books (only four) and so far, this is the one which I have enjoyed the most. I was delighted that I recognized many of the references to other works of science fiction (of which there are many)—and particularly loved the name of one of the Martian fossils, Bradburia.

I’ve heard Sawyer speak—the man has an awesome grasp of many scientific subjects and must have a phenomenal memory. I’m willing to bet that when he was a child, many of the adults around him probably shook their heads and muttered phrases like “Too smart for his own good.” By which they generally mean that the child’s social development is lagging behind its intellectual development. I’ve found his characters in other books to be a bit hollow—their emotions not really ringing true (rather like Arthur C. Clarke in that regard). This is not to say that Sawyer isn’t a fabulous writer—just that intellect, rather than emotion, runs his stories. In the hardboiled genre, stereotypes work exceptionally well and as a result, this tendency towards intellectualism works. To my way of thinking, there are also flavours of Heinlein, especially regarding sexual matters.

So the shade of Humphrey Bogart stirred my emotions during the reading of this novel and the plot appealed to my intellect—resulting in an extremely enjoyable read. A tip of my invisible hat to Mr. Sawyer.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Book Review : Lord Foul's Bane / Stephen R. Donaldson

I’m still undecided about this book, despite having finished it (after several false starts) over a week ago.

The pluses:

1.     It is epic fantasy that is not directly lifted from The Lord of the Rings.  He has made some effort to ensure that it is his world and that it has its own rules and its own beings. 
2.       Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a 20th century man, transported by mysterious means into this alternate world.
3.       Great Goddess, there must be something else positive about it—I spent time reading this thing!

The minuses:

1.       Thomas Covenant is a distinctly unlikeable character.  He is cranky, whiney, rude, violent, stubborn, un-cooperative, you name it.  Always recalcitrant.
2.       There is a rape, which just gets glossed over.  Covenant commits it and really doesn’t seem to care a whole lot.  It’s just something he did.  Even when the text makes it clear that Lena, the victim, will be considered “ruined” by her culture because of it.  And yes, I was annoyed about that too—really, being a victim “ruins” someone?
3.       There is a ring, precious!  Mind you, its TC’s wedding ring and it’s his link between his own world and The Land where this adventure is set, but still.
4.       The whole leprosy thing—I guess it was supposed to explain why TC behaved like a dick all the time, but it didn’t seem like the right reason to me.  And why was he healed while in The Land, but not healed when he returned to real life?  And would people, especially medical professionals, actually treat him as they are portrayed to?
5.       Names are important to me—Lord Foul and the cavewight Drool were just the two worst examples.
6.       At the end, Covenant has apparently learned NOTHING.  No change.  Still a complete dick.  But at least the people of The Land don’t have to put up with him anymore.  Except there is a whole series of books.  Something tells me they will have to put up with him again.

Book Review : Beyond Belief / Jenna Miscavige Hill

Holy Hell, Batman.  This young woman certainly lived through hell and her “church” certainly tried its best to insist that it was holy.  Her story is told very simply and is very quick to read.  But the horror lasts for days afterwards.

How is Scientology cultish?  Let me count the ways!  Check out the Cults 101 Checklist of Cult Characteristics (  
They are unquestioningly committed to the hogwash spouted by L. Ron Hubbard (known as LRH on the inside).  When he died, they were told that he had “gone on to do more research.”  They even maintain quarters for him when he “reappears.”  That, to me, is just a cynical way for the new leader to manipulate his followers.

Questioning, doubt and dissent are actively punished.  No amount of reasoned argument has any effect.  Punishments are humiliating and dehumanizing—people are regularly separated from any friends or family that could provide them with emotional support.  Punishments often involve hard physical labour, often with inadequate food.  Very 18th century prison-ish.

Brainwashing techniques are prevalent during all of the “training” sessions that church members must attend in order to “progress.”  Initiates learn to stare at a wall for hours without their attention flagging and without a physical twitch or to endure hours of having another person yell insults and abuse at them.  Although one of their mindless sayings is “Think for yourself,” Scientology then goes on to provide those thoughts that one may think for themselves.  Thinking your own thoughts is actually a sin and scientologists are so over-scheduled that they rarely have a spare moment to themselves to wonder about that.  

The initiates are told that their mission is to save humanity—in essence, to bring everyone into the church.  Outsiders are known derogatively as Wogs (Well and Orderly Gentlemen) and are always suspect.  Will they try to argue with the believer or bring unwanted attention to the Church?  Wogs are perceived as people who will “poke their noses” into matters that are none of their business.  Contact with the outside world is actively forbidden.

If family members are excommunicated from Scientology, they are usually unable to communicate with those still on the inside.  Someone who is being punished is moved, without notice or comment, to a different location.  People “vanish” regularly within Scientology, spirited away from those that they know.  

Scientology is pre-occupied with bringing in celebrity church members, who get star treatment and are often served by Sea Org members who are paid like Third World garment-workers.  Stars, of course, don’t receive the harsh treatment that regular members must endure.  There is also a preoccupation with making money—selling courses and books to the public and to public scientologists. 
Even with all of this harsh, unreasonable treatment, members retain the belief that there is no life outside the church, that outsiders will never accept them and that there is no future except as a church member.  Many of those who have left, did so with many misgivings.  Once extracted, however, they find the extent of the deception and often become activists helping others to escape.

This is George Orwell’s 1984 come to life.  The author, Jenna, may be the niece of the current dictator of the cult, but that did not spare her from the treatment accorded to rank and file church members—in fact, in may ways she was accorded worse treatment to show that she was not being “favoured.”  Since she grew up in the cult, I find it amazing that she managed to find her way out so young.  It is well known that Scientology persecutes those that criticize it, so writing this book and working with a support group for former members as she does requires a lot of courage.  It is ironic that her harsh upbringing within the cult has probably produced the mental toughness that she needs to follow her new course.

The book has the same kind of fascination as a car accident, requiring the reader to look, even when looking away would be more comfortable. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Trying Stephen King's writing

(Read from March 7-17, 2013)

My first foray into Mr. King’s work. And I enjoyed it—I see what people mean when they rave about his writing ability. It’s formidable. After reading the first third of The Stand, I took city transit to an event. All of a sudden, it seemed like everyone around me was coughing, sniffling or otherwise trying to shift mucous. And just as suddenly, I began to pray for my stop to arrive soon to allow me to escape from the train car before I was infected with whatever they had. Paranoid? Yup! This is one book where you don’t want to have ANY symptoms of ANYTHING when you begin reading it.

His characters are memorable—especially the bad guys. I loved how The Kid got a requiem as the Wolfman late in the book as the good guys walk to Vegas. Also, how Trashcan Man actually puts an end to the Walking Dude’s empire by doing the very thing he’d been recruited for. Mostly, I was impressed by the thought that most of the bad guys could just have easily been good guys, if a few details of their lives had turned out differently. Evil and Good are both relative and there but for the grace of the Goddess…..

The book was a bit of a brick—I was intimidated by its sheer size and teeny print. I did kind of wish that I could have found the earlier edited edition, but it was readable and enjoyable and I will definitely look forward to reading more of King’s work.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Philip Jose Farmer's The Dark Design

3 of 5 stars
I love the big idea behind the Riverworld series—Farmer came up with a great premise, to have all of the people of Earth, born before 1983, resurrected in an artificial world to see if they can “redeem” themselves. Book three, The Dark Design, is the first to really emphasize the 1983 cut-off date and it works to provide the characters in the book with a major clue: everyone who claims to be from that late time period is apparently a member of the “Ethicals” who are running this gin-joint.

With so many people to choose from, I would be interested why Farmer chose the ones he did—were they people he had always been interested in or did he research people specifically to include in the books? I must say that I find his portrayal of Samuel Clemens disappointing—I don’t think Mark Twain would have been as grumpy and humourless as the guy in this book. And with all the wonderfully interesting people to write about, books two and three are really more about the technology than about the people, which is a darn shame.

Finally, in book three, a real female character has shown up (Jill Gulbirra) and she is more than a famous sex-partner for some man in the plot, but only just. And Sam’s female partner, Alice, finally gets included in a strategy session at the end of the book, although under protest. The book certainly fails the Bechdel Test (1. There are at least two women in it, 2. They talk to each other, 3. About something besides a man). There are several women in it, but they never talk to one another, about men or anything else. Hell, they rarely talk to the men. And I don’t care what world you’re living in, that’s just not happening. We’re women and we talk.

I understand that Farmer was ground-breaking for his time. He was one the first to seriously deal with issues of sexuality and religion in science fiction. I appreciate that he was a product of his time and the books are a product of him as he was at that time. But I do find the lack of interesting women characters and the over-emphasis on technology a bit off-putting. At least this book moves along on the story line that IS of interest to me, namely the question of why? Why was this world created? What is expected of the resurrectees? Are the “Ethicals” human or another species? And what’s the deal with the mysterious stranger, X? What’s his motivation in all of this and is he a renegade or is this all part of the game? Just as we get a glimpse of this guy, the book ends, meaning that I’ll be reading The Magic Labyrinth eventually, hoping for some clarity.

(Read from May 5 to 7, 2013)

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Cherryh's Faded Sun trilogy

4.5 Stars out of 5
(Read from April 12 to August 8, 2013)

What is so great about this book? Cherryh creates wonderful aliens! The Regul, although allies of humans, are rather revolting creatures--at maturity, they are huge, ungainly creatures who rely on automated sleds to move them around their environment. As younglings, they are neuter, not acquiring a gender until such time as they are the oldest surviving Regul in a group and as younglings they are VERY expendible. Not only their biology, but their psychology is foreign as well--they never forget anything. No need to study, they just see/experience things once and they've got it. The price they pay for this talent is that they have no imagination and are therefore unable to lie (although they seem to be pretty good at working their way around that supposed attribute).

The Mri are a mercenary race, hired by the Regul to fight their battles for them. At the book's beginning, they have been bringing destruction to human colonies. This obviously does not endear them to the humans from those colonies. However, the Mri are much more like humans in biology. Much easier to identify with. But they are a very insular people, very hard to know, as they scorn outsiders and base their lives on honour.

There are multiple issues addressed in the novel, but the ones which engaged me were (1) what do you do when your allies are revolting to you and your enemies are much more appealing? and (2) Is the universe a safer, better place without Mri or is a universe without Mri a less rich, less interesting place? Is the genocide of a race of murderers okay? I think we all know the answer to that one, but its exploration through the machinations of these 3 species through space is both thought provoking and exciting.

Another happy item for me: the Mri are governed by their She'pan, a woman who makes all the important decisions and directs the warrior class.

I found I could almost taste the soi beverage that the Regul consumed so regularly (not appetizing to humans), smell their dusty body odor and feel the unease with which humans dealt with Regul. Equally, the cold and dry of the Mri desert life was also vivid, as was the tension of dealing with a mysterious and dangerous other. I hope to read this volume again at some point, with fewer interruptions so that I can properly savour the delicious descriptions.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Introduction to the Uplift Series by David Brin

An interesting introduction to the Uplift universe. There were a lot of good ideas that I trust will be explored further in the rest of the series. In contrast with the works of Arthur C. Clarke [Rendezvous with Rama, 2001], where alien races are sparse and maybe even extinct, in Brin’s universe there are all kinds of aliens and many of them are tetchy. And it’s all very feudal, with many races owing their position to being “uplifted” by patron species. Mankind is an interesting anomaly, seemingly having reached sentience, technology and space travel without ever having a patron and having already begun the process of uplifting chimpanzees and dolphins before ET contact is ever established. This makes humans the equivalent of upstart nouveau riche amongst the aristocracy, attracting the same kinds of disdain and uneasiness.

Discovery of Earth by the ET network leads to some controversies in human culture as well. I was particularly taken with the Darwin vs. von Daniken duality—did humans evolve through natural selection to their current status or were they given a boost up by ancient astronauts who have since disappeared? The feeling of opposing teams is reinforced by the slang for the two sides, Shirts and Skins. The ancient astronaut proponents go for science-fictiony shiny alienish costuming and the Darwin supporters prefer a Neolithic look, sporting animal skins and fetishes. What a wonderfully imaginative use of the von Daniken drivel.

I began the book a bit put off by the amount of technological description of the Sun Ship, but I advise other readers like myself [ie., less interested in the mechanical detail] to keep on reading—the reasons for this emphasis will become apparent by the last few chapters and it does matter to the plot [and, I assume, plots in future books]. An enjoyable read and I look forward to further uplifting adventures.

(Read from March 15 to 18, 2013)