It's not news that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I have a soft spot for space opera; I confess, the big space base (which I initially mistook for a starship of some sort) adorning the cover of Neal Asher's novel, The Departure, helped sell me on it.
As it turned out though, The Departure hardly qualifies as space-opera and only squeaks by as science fiction pretty much the way Superman does: on technicalities only.
Though it's set in the future and some of the action takes place in orbit and on Mars, the book is really just a narrated first-person shooter dressed up in some SF tropes — a corrupt and incompetent world government, artificial intelligence, robotic weapons and a transhuman genesis.
But all that is only window-dressing. That spectacular cover is a gateway to lugubrious dialogue, sophomoric libertarian philosophy, hackneyed world-building and, especially, to one pornographic blood-bath after another.
The Departure is one of the worst books I have read in a very long time. More boring than Atlas Shrugged (which I reviewed a while back), it drips with just as much contempt for ordinary human beings. Unlike Rand's John Galt though, Asher's superman does much of his killing at first-hand.
Does this novel have any redeeming qualities? The short answer is "no". The long answer lives behind this link.
Just finished The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick. Which starts with NASA PR guy Jerry Culpepper fielding a strange question about declassified Apollo-era recordings on the 50th anniversary of Eagle's landing on the moon. Among them was a recorded message involving an earlier Apollo astronaut named Myshko saying that he was ready to go down to the surface. (I looked up the missions on Wiki, I think they created a few things for the purpose of the plot.)
From there, we watch as Jerry tries to find the truth among the recordings; as President Cunningham tries to figure out what's going on, since he's being accused of being clueless or deceitful, depending on who gets asked; and Bucky, the billionaire businessman getting ready to do the first private moon landing gets involved, trying to find out why Myshko landed on the far side of the moon in the Cassingham Crater.
The problem with all of this revolves around the idea that, as science fiction, almost everyone is going to jump to the same conclusion I did (which is reflected by bad hair guy above), so the what isn't exactly a surprise. Why Myshko landed, what he found, and why both Cold War USSR and USA covered it up. (Seriously. About halfway through, we find out that photos of that area of the moon had been doctored in both countries' archives.)
What we end up finding out in the process of solving a 50 year old cover up is the real reason for the Watergate break in, why Nixon and the Soviets jointly covered up what was in that crater, and some very interesting insinuations of why such an important event was not recorded in the annals of human history.
While I did not agree with the reasoning behind the cover up, mainly because my frame of reference is a LOT different from those who would be most affected by the reveal, I can understand why the characters took the action that they did.
I liked the writing in this, since it didn't get all that bogged down in things that weren't advancing the plot. Much like a Sherlock Holmes story (which gets referenced towards the end), everything works together to come to a conclusion. I also enjoyed that Bucky wasn't a Rand-ian hero; while he enjoyed the benefits of capitalism, he was also looking at ways to improve the world. (And profit at the same time.)
Despite the occasionally conservative politics that get inserted here and there, what comes across the strongest is a love of exploration and the need for human kind to start going out again. The arguments are there in the text, from overpopulation to the sheer wonder that comes from setting foot somewhere other than Mother Earth. And, of course, the idea of visiting those who visited us.
I'll point out that I was born in 1975, so I missed Apollo and Skylab, so most of my astronaut desires focused on the Space Shuttle and the idea of being out there. And at its best, this book brought back that sense of wonder from my childhood.
Speaking ill of the dead
Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography
Like many North American of a certain age, my introduction to Doctor Who was haphazard at best. The first episode I remember seeing was Robots of Death, in which Louise Jameson's Leela was the companion, not Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith.
Nevertheless, TV Ontario sooner or later broadcast at least a few of the Sarah Jane serials, and the buttoned-down young journalist joined the half-naked savage as my favourites among the Doctor's companions.
So I was very much part of the target audience when Sarah Jane returned to Doctor Who in the (revived) series' second season episode, "School Reunion". That production managed to please both old fans and new, so much so that Sladen's return spawned a spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children's program that often managed to be quite a bit better than its big brother.
The Sarah Jane Adventures featured Sladen as its alien-fighting principal, a woman in her seventh decade who was nevertheless forever running down corridors, hopping fences and facing down monsters, even as she played reluctant mentor and den mother to her teenage co-stars. Sarah Jane Smith was so credible as a paragon of courage and intelligence that one longed to believe those traits reflected the performer as much as they did her writers.
Fan of both Sarah Jane Smith's first and third incarnations (even Sladen quite rightly acknowledges the failure of her second, in the early 1980s), I am clearly also part of the target audience for Sladen's memoir. And so it was I impatiently waited for a Canadian release of Sladen's autobiography, completed just a few months before her surprising and terribly untimely death from cancer in 2011.
Sadly, the contents between the frankly dated and cheap-looking covers pretty accurately reflect the contents of the book itself.
Though the autobiography does not stoop to gossip or cheap score-settling, neither does it offer much insight into acting; into what it was like being a feminist icon of sorts; or into Sladen's life. Those hoping for more than some amusing anecdotes about working with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker will find in this book some tasty snacks, but nothing remotely like a full meal.
The last word on the last words of Christopher Hitchens
Mortality keeps atheism's faith, but falters in the delivery
Naturally, all of you who can find a copy at your local newsstand should rush right out and buy a copy of the magazine before it's gone forever.
But for those who won't (or can't), I have now posted said review on my website.
The TL/DR version is this.
Mortality's eight brief chapters are typical Hitchens. Often caustic, sometimes thoughtful, occasionally even moving, Hitchens' uncompromising look at his affliction with cancer has some lovely moments. The chapter on intercessory prayer (there were Christians praying for the recovery of the outspoken atheist, but at least as many were praying for his death and subsequent eternal torture in the Lake of Fire) is particularly strong. Even in his last days Hitchens remained an entertaining and sometimes even moving polemicist. But he was by no means a deep thinker.
Too often, Hitchens takes the easy road, scoring cheap points and relying on his delivery, rather than rigorous thinking, to make his argument. In his introduction, Vanity Fair's Editor, Graydon Carter, notes that Hitchens, awash in scotch, could bang out a serviceable column in an hour. A rather impressive feat, but one wonders what the man could have accomplished if the words hadn't come, quite, that easily to him.
Cut short by his death, Christopher Hitchens might have been better served had these final essays been left to the impermanent pages of back issues of Vanity Fair or the more permanent, but less tangible, archives of the internet.
As always, comments here or on my site are more than welcome. Was Christopher Hitchens a hero, a villain, or just another too-erudite and too-emotional Englishman who loved a good fight almost as much as he enjoyed his cigarettes and liquor?
The full review lives at ed-rex.com/reviews/books/hitchens_mortal
Return to Middle Earth: The Hobbit
Believe it or not, Peter Jackson's latest film is only indirectly responsible for my decision to re-read The Hobbit (again). The proximal cause was Tor.com's (no-doubt entirely commercial) decision to ask the redoubtable Kate Nepveu to lead a weekly, chapter-by-chapter "re-read" of the novel in conjunction with the release of the first (of three!) movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 300 page children's story.
My intention had been to follow along at Nepveu's chapter-a-week pace and, perhaps, to contribute to the ongoing conversation she was (and is!) sure to inspire, but Tolkien's deceptively simple prose and thematically complex fairy story swept me away (as it has a number of times before). I finished the book in a couple of days.
The short version is that The Hobbit remains a delightful adventure story and fairy tale, even if it is the work of a writer who has yet to reach the full extent of his creative powers.
That said, it also a very strange book, that strays very far indeed from a typical heroic path in favour of wandering the fields of moral complexity and (relatively) complex characterizations. The protagonists are far from perfect and even the villains show surprising signs of humanity.
A lovely book to read aloud to a child, there is every chance that you will have to read it twice, since you'll likely treat yourself to the whole thing before you sit down for Chapter Two with said youngster.
The long version lives on my site. (As usual, there are spoilers.)
All at once a surreal adventure, a subtle exploration of privilege in caste-ridden society and a daring push against the walls of narrative fiction itself, The Chaos has no villain and its (black, Canadian) heroine never wields a blade nor fires a gun.
Though questions of race and identify form organic parts of how the novel's characters view and interact with the world (none of the book's major characters is white), race is not what the book is about. Hopkinson is telling a story, she is not preaching.
Narrated by probably the most fully-realized teenager I have come across in fiction, The Chaos is always surprising, a thoroughly unconventional page-turner you owe it to yourself to read — to pass on to any literate young person you know.
For my full review, click, "When I cried, the tears were black."
Awards among the shallows:
Hugos considered as dyptich of semi-precious novels
Vernor Vinge and why the golden age of science fiction is still twelve
I really ought to know better by now. It doesn't matter whether an award is given out by fans or by peers, critics or the general public, whether the criteria is ostensibly "best" this or "favourite" that.
Awards are a crap shoot, influenced by fashions, by lobbying and by plain old bad taste.
That's right, I said it. Sometimes an award is given out to a book (or a movie, or a play, or a poem — the list is as endless as variations in the arts) that simply doesn't deserve it. That doesn't even merit being on the short-list in the first place.
Let me tell you about Vernor Vinge and why the golden age of science fiction is still 12. My full review lives at Edifice Rex Online. Yell at me here, or there.
The girls, the monster and the Artifact!
More than a year ago I reviewed the first half of what I thought then was a "gentle" children's adventure, Stargazer, by Ottawa indie cartoonist Von Allan. I bought the concluding sequel back in December if memory serves, but circumstances didn't see me get to it until now.
A black and white comic book featuring three pre-pubescent girls in the role of unlikely heroines, Stargazer features a Magic Doorway in the tradition of Alice's rabbit-hole and Narnia's wardrobe (and the Starship Enterprise's warp drive, for that matter).
But what seemed a "gentle adventure" in its first half, proves to be a considerably more spicy brew in its second. What seemed to be turning into an exercise of that hoary old "And then she woke up!" cliché becomes something very different — and very memorable — by the time the story is over.
A little rough-hewn, Stargazer nevertheless has considerable virtues. This story of friendship and loss just might be a gateway drug to comics for that young boy or (especially) girl in your life — but keep a kleenex handy. My full review lives on my site, ed-rex.com/reviews/books/stargazer_volum
Very Hard Choices, Spider Robinson
.357 Vigilante #1, Ian Ludlow (Lee Goldberg)
Springblade 2: Machete, Greg Walker
Dagger 1: The Centaur Conspiracy, Carl Stevens
Dear Dumb Diary, School. Hasn't This Gone on Long Enough?; Jim Benton
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, James Lee Burke
The Art of Murder, Jose Carlos Somoza translated by Nick Caistor
Tentacles, Roland Smith
Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger
Edge of Dark Water, Joe R. Lansdale
After the Apocalypse, Maureen F. McHugh
Something Nasty in the Woodshed, Kyril Bonfiglioli
The Martian Child, David Gerrold
Size 12 is Not Fat, Meg Cabot
Shock Value, Jason Zinoman
Fiction Ruined My Family, Jeanne Darst
You're Not Doing it Right, Michael Ian Black
Death of an Artist, Kate Wilhelm
Black Angel, John Connolly
Size 14 is Not Fat Either, Meg Cabot
Close to Famous, Joan Bauer
Cold Cereal, Adam Rex
Sanctuary Hill, Kathryn R. Wall
Mortdecai's Endgame, Kyril Bonfiglioli
For Fear of Little Men, John Blackburn
Today the librarian who helped me said she was always amazed at what I fit in my book bag. "It's like a TARDIS in there," I believe were her words.