Far Better Than a Rendezvous with Ramen—


Studies show that TBHQ, an additive to preserve cheap and processed foods, is indigestible. It’s also found in significant quantities in the college-meal-staple Maruchan Ramen. So while you might not be able to physically stomach the noodles, you’ll be satiated and satisfied by Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. To this reviewer, it’s what was missing from Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children as all three (and I’m sure others) explore the possibilities of generational starships.

When an asteroid defense web alerts the world of an abnormal meteor hurtling through the solar system, closer inspection reveals what becomes the first Martian ship sighting. Commander Norton and his crew are dispatched on the Endeavor en route to the starship dubbed Rama, but what they find defies both their expectations and many readers’ expectations as well. The city-sized ship is dark and devoid of sentience—perhaps all its inhabitants having perished on the millenniums-voyage through the stars. But as the Endeavor’s pioneers search deeper into the mystery, the ship slowly comes to life.

Done with Clarke’s characteristically mindboggling visions for extraordinary worlds and how they could exist, Rama is science fiction, adventure, and mystery all packed into a tasty literary lunch.

SPOILER ALERT (you have been warned): The chief reason this novel bucked my expectations in a positive light is two-fold. The first is that narratives of alien encounters are almost universally followed by violence between humanity and the space invaders. Rama had not such conflict. Secondly, novels written by human beings generally (and understandably) choose to focus on humans, our experiences, and our often superior existence. In the case of Rendezvous With Rama, the clever ending—once so much time and room has been given to humans reaffirming their superiority—essentially says that we’re of so little interest to other galactic civilizations that they use our sun as a gas pump before blasting off into the unknowable reaches of space. In other words, we aren’t so special after all.

But the book is special. And reading the book, or eating it, is still a better option than Ramen. 4/5 stars.


This Review Delivered to You by David Brin’s The Postman


I talk a lot—at least to myself—about how well or how poorly science fiction novels age. While I think David Brin’s The Postman has its merits, the novel nevertheless teeters on the envelope’s edge of tipping into being obsolete. I acknowledge the possibility that in the advent of a post-apocalyptic world, archaic technology could have a renaissance, but—well, first let me summarize and then I’ll pontificate:

Gordon Krantz is a survivor. Unlucky as he may be, he’s outlasted nuclear war, the disintegration of all radio communications and electronics through EMP shockwaves, and the fall of civilization as we know it only to live as a wanderer in the wilderness of what used to be Oregon. The only semblances of humanity are peoples gathered together in remote colonies or the cutthroat gangs of bloodthirsty “survivalists” who shoot first, rob later, and said robbing includes hacking off a few “flesh trophies” from corpses. After a near-death experience with a band of ruffians, Gordon stumbles upon a long-abandoned and rusted out US Postal Service mail truck. Struck with delusions of grandeur, Gordon sets out to unite the scattered communities via the claim (albeit, a fabrication) that the United States has formed again and their first order of business is to reestablish the postal system. Gordon hopes that if enough people come together beneath his lie, it will become a reality and the Restored United States will be able to fight back against the fanatical “survivalists.”

So, to my earlier point, I add that the novel was bit dated. Reasons for this include such examples as a character referring to a phone book as though it was still top-shelf reference material before the collapse, and to some extent, even the United States Postal Service. The USPS hasn’t been put out to pasture yet, but consider for a moment how many emails you receive in a given year versus how many letters grace your mailbox. Also, consider how you feel about those emails versus those letters. “A letter!? For me!? Whoa!” It’s a novelty, not a staple. The book was released in 1985—right before the techno boom of the nineties so I’m not bashing this particular aspect, only pointing it out. However, I do have this to say in critique:

In theory, I really like the idea. In execution, it fell a bit flat. The hardcopy I read was a book club edition and at 297 pages didn’t strike me as overly slim. I usually think works could be shorter without giving up anything, but in the case of The Postman, I thought it should have been much longer. Character development needed more time—many voices started to sound the same, that is, until they died, but I didn’t have much sympathy for the dead because they we’re developed enough for me to care. The lore of the gruesome “Survivalists” and latecomer “Super Soldiers” also could have been expanded upon. Lastly, there was “The Doomwar” that caused the downfall of the world, and while such a cataclysmic event can be cleverly, and minimally shrouded mystique and legend it is my personal conviction that the only mystery was shallow-ish world building. I’m not trashing this book, but I think there were missed opportunities.

If you’ve been following along, my campaign of reading standalone volumes of well-known authors is not turning out like I’d hoped. In the case of The Postman, it’s not one of Brin’s talked-about novels, and that only means I’ll have to read the first installment of the Uplift War to know if he’s an author worth spending quality time with. Looks like the reading list for 2019 (or in all likelihood, 2020) has already begun.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can keep this review from being only 2/5 stars.


I’ve Fallen in Dragon With You?


I have loosely dubbed 2018 as “year of the big books.” Mostly, these big books are novels which have languished on my shelves because of the long-term commitment they require. I have already accepted that I won’t get through fifty this year as approximately 10-12 of these novels clocking in at an average of 600 pages apiece will surely slow down the pace. That’s about 20-24 standard length books, and closer to 50-60 science fiction novels of the 60s and 70s. All said, this year’s big book enterprise begins with Peter F Hamilton’s standalone novel Fallen Dragon. He’s known for (only) writing tomes, so this isn’t a surprise. He’s also the big kuhana of sci-fi in the UK.

In the far-flung future of the 25th century, interstellar travel is old hat. In fact, its margins have shrunken to the point that only privateers commissioned by some of Earth’s biggest debt collectors can turn a profit which is euphemistically known as “asset realization.” Sergeant Lawrence Newton is one such pirate on a mission to recoup income for his company, Zantiu-Braun. But he has a secretly lucrative motivation as well. Alternatively, Denise Ebourn, a native of the planet where Newton and his gang intend to begin their looting, is plotting to foil him and the rest of the company’s plans. Espionage and intrigue in the ever-pursuit of money and knowledge are sure to ensue.

The narrative rotates primarily between Lawrence and Denise (but quite a many others in limited roles) as they plot, experience, and inhabit the vast universe that Hamilton has founded. In a turn from what I’ve read recently, Hamilton digs into some very hard science. We’re talking page-long paragraphs (sometimes multiple pages) explaining a concept. To some, this is what science-fiction should be (and to those, I say, go you!), but for me, well, sometimes I think the reason I became a writer was so that I could avoid math as much as possible. It makes me tired. So while it’s not my forte, I do endorse writers who can produce it with such aplomb. Also, there’s this: I’m always always always a fan a story over everything else. Anything within a story that gets in the way of the story, for me, is an unwanted distraction. My kind of science fiction novel is where the science is relevant, even necessary, but cannot override the story as the most important feature. A concept where I thought Hamilton excelled in providing science to build up and enhance the story was with the Zantiu-Braun soldier’s combat suits. Also known as “Skin,” these somewhat amphibiously described outfits equip each individual soldier with an almost impenetrable armor, a self-sustaining life-support system, telemetric communication with every other soldier, and all the weapons and ammunition you can shake an alien antenna at. Of course, as with any super-technology, the greatest reader satisfaction comes with learning that technology’s weakness and limitations: How do you kill an invincible soldier? It kept me reading.

While there were several other futuristic advances that I thought Hamilton placed and paced well (colonization, computer software, ecology), I do think the novel could have been about a hundred pages shorter and not lacked anything. There was a solid block of fifty pages of adolescent sensuality reminiscent of Kvothe’s heady romance with Felurian in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. In both places I kept saying, “Enough with the sex already! I get the picture.” But aside from this, the novel is well written, and characterization consistent.

Last year, I started a campaign of reading many standalone novels by various sci-fi/fantasy authors in order to glean an understanding or scope of the individual author’s work and there place in the genre’s as a whole. However, after reading Peter F Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon, the jury is still out. I didn’t love this book, but I enjoyed and appreciated it enough that it means I’ll have to read another by him.

A reasonable endorsement. 3/5 stars.



Zap to the Future

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This will be a brief review of Philip K Dick’s The Zap Gun, and for three consise reasons. The first is that I’m requesting you read the most uncanny scene—by my account—in the book. The second is that I’ve now read two PDK novels (The Zap Gun and Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep?) and liked neither of them. I know there are some serious PDK zealots out there who may disabuse me for such blasphemous talk, so I offer you an alternative: three, recommend a PDK novel you can guarantee I will like.

But back to reason number one. Read the excerpt below and (despite my lukewarm feelings toward Dick’s works so far) I dare you to tell me that science fiction has not, in fact, informed science. The scene, as you will see, is the absolute and unadulterated harbinger of Siri and Alexa.

Reason two: Others have said, and I have also argued, that all science fiction is political. That’s fine. It should be. However—and this is a big however—I do not believe that a political statement should be paramount to the narrative. It should not be the point. Which is also to say that in my admittedly very small sample of PDK’s work, I feel like that’s all he’s doing: “I want to make a politically charged proclamation and I will do so by thinly veiling it in a novel.” Also, the gross adverbs (stickily, draggingly, hyponizedly) about made me scream.

Disagree? Well read The Zap Gun excerpt, enjoy it, and then comment here or on Facebook with your further reading suggestions.

(I’ve cut out some text as noted by ellipses in order to highlight PDK’s prescience).

…Then he happened onto a device resting on a low imitation tarslewood table. It was vaguely familiar and he picked it up, handled it with curiosity. Familiar and yet utterly strange.

The bedroom door was partly open. “What’s this?” he called…”This thing that looks like a human head with no features. The size of a baseball…What’s it do?” he asked, finding no switches.

“It amuses.”


…”Say something to it.”…”Ask,” Maren said, “the Orville a question. Ol’ Orville is the rage. People cloister themselves for days with it, doing nothing but asking and getting answers. It replaces religion.”

“There is no religion,” he said, feeling serious. His experiences with the hyper-dimensional realm had disabused him of any dogmatic or devotional faith. If anyone living was qualified to claim knowledge of the “next world” it was he, and as yet he had discovered no transcendent aspect to it.

Maren said, “Then tell it a joke.”

…Here it was, Ol’ Orville, a novelty to fill the vacant time and brains of men and women whose jobs had degenerated into repetitious psychomotor activity on a level that a trained pigeon could better perform. God! His worst expectations were fulfilled!…”What am I?” he asked Ol’ Orville. “Forget my previous queries; just answer that! What have I become?” He squeezed the sphere angrily.

…Ol’ Orville stirred and spoke.

It was uncanny; he blinked as its…verbal response croaked at him, its answer to a question he had already forgotten asking. “Mr. Lars.”

“Yes,” he said, hypnotized.

Ol’ Orville creakily unwound its long-labored-for results. Toy though it was, Ol’ Orville was not facile. Too many components had gone into its make-up for it to be merely glib. “Mr. Lars, you have posed an ontological query. The Indo-European linguistic structure involved defeats a fair analysis; would you rephrase your question?”

After a moment of thought he said, “No, I wouldn’t.”

Ol’ Orville was silent and then it responded, “Mr. Lars, you are a forked radish.”

For the life of him he did not know whether to laugh. “Shakespeare,” he said, speaking to Maren who, now reasonably fully dressed, had joined him, was listening, too. “It’s quoting.”

“Of course. It relies on its enormous data-bank. What did you expect, a brand-new sonnet? It can only retail what it’s been fed. It can only select, not invent.” Genuinely puzzled, Maren said, “I honestly think, Lars, that all kidding aside, you really do not have a technical mind and really do not have any intellectual—”

“Be quiet,” he said. Ol’ Orville had more to offer.

Ol’ Orville whined draggingly, like a slowed-down disc, “You also asked, ‘What have I become?’ You have become an outcast. A wanderer. Homeless. To paraphrase Wagner—”

“Richard Wagner?” Lars asked. “The composer?”

“And dramatist and poet,” Ol’ Orville reminded him.

Maren said practically, nodding. “I paid sixty poscreds for you. Go ahead and blab.”

Ol’ Orville was chewing over a decision—as if it could decide, rather than, as Maren pointed out, merely select from the data installed in its file-banks. Finally it said, “I know what you want. You face a dilemma. You are in a dilemma, now. But you have never articulated it to yourself, never faced it.”

“What in hell is it?” he demanded, baffled.

Ol’ Orville said, “Mr. Lars, you have a terrible fear that one day you will enter your New York office, lie down and enter your trance-state, and revive with no sketches to show. In other words, lose your talent.” Except for Maren’s faintly asthmatic breathing as she smoked her Garcia y Vega cigarillo, the room was silent.

“Gee,” Lars said, mollified. He felt like a small, small boy, as if all the years of adulthood had been ripped away. It was an eerie experience….”Enough,” Lars said, looking at the object.

Ol’ Orville shut up.



The Waters of Dune Run Deep


Given that Frank Herbert’s Dune is considered the hallmark of science-fiction and perhaps the corollary to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it’s worth mentioning how little technical science the novel involves. Research informs me this absence was done on purpose as Herbert opted for “soft” science in order to focus on other narrative foundations—and while I heartily endorse his decisions, I cannot repress my surprise.

While much acquainted with Dune spinoffs (movie, video game, popular culture), I had never explore its worm infested pages until this week. I’m late to the party, I know. Part of this is due to a misapplied zealotry with past novels of a “you already should have read this” quality. Knowing I should read them has caused me to dive in without the necessary state of mind or dedication to appreciate their lofty auspices. Thankfully, in the instance of Dune, I readied my mind in advance so as not to read with surface comprehension and instead allow myself time to sift through the sandy details (i.e. flip vigorously to the various appendices and maps) and give a story of this magnitude the attention it so rightly deserves. Naturally, it did not disappoint: As Paul Atreides and his family relocate to the desert planet of Arrakis (also know as Dune), disaster soon befalls them. In the midst of their trials they are inundated with the whispers of a prophecy—a coming messiah who will bring paradise to the planet’s barren wasteland.

This summary, as most summaries do, is far too simplistic, even puerile to give credence to the extraordinary world and world-building of Dune. In fact, this cannot be overstated. Even as I’m probably guilty of giving authors more world-building credit than they ostensibly deserve—I’ve never written a sci-fi nor fantasy novel and the prospect of world-building in one is so over-daunting that its cyclical logic is why I don’t even attempt to write one in the first place—not a tree (or a lack of a tree) feels out of place here. The internet informs me that Herbert spent six years researching and building the ecology of his planet. And it shows.

The interweaving of industry, politics, religion, ecosystems (among others) frankly has no comparison to any Sci-fi or Fantasy I’ve read. For example, each chapter contains an epigram from various “sources” and “books” recounting the history of Paul Atreides and his rise to power and I kept thinking “boy, I really want to read these… non-existent books.” Characters are complex, contradictory, even messy. They have so much history pulling on them, that as a reader, I cannot help but believe they derive their motivations from authentic and authoritative sources. Most poignant is the Fremen’s dedication and religious rites associated with water. When you live in a desert, what can be more sacred than H2O? The fractured mysticism is a natural byproduct. It all makes sense.

My only 21st century gripes (not the technology!) are purely current literary conventions that I’m accustomed to and that I prefer. I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but 1) character thought in italics, and 2) the overuse of ellipses to relay dramatic overtures or long pauses are two such conventions which Herbert uses and of which I generally eschew. The third is not a gripe, but a pontification: I would confidently posit that the “narrator” of Dune is a limited omniscient narrator. This means, in the simplest terms, that the narrator can be in any character’s head at any given time, but while there, cannot know the thoughts of the other characters (although there might be places where this breaks down). So 3) my question? rumination? realization? is that I’m so rutted into single narrators (or rotating characters designated by white space or chapter breaks) that to have dozens of characters’ thoughts splattering over the pages without a transition took me a while to be comfortable with.

But all said, my minor reservations do nothing to undermine this literary tour de force. To honestly apprehend, to fully plumb the depths of this deep deep well that is Dune, to drink of its waters, I’ll likely have to read it two, yay maybe three more times. The only conflict is finding the time. A true classic.

Think you have a sci-fi equal of similar complexity? Leave a comment, I’d love to know. 4.5/5 stars.


A Year of Reading in Review

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Now that 2018 is upon us, it only seems appropriate to take account of 2017’s reading. Mine, anyway. But perhaps—dear anonymous internet reader—in a yet unknown and oblique way, it will be helpful to you. And what better way to disseminate that information than a list? Because after all, isn’t New Years’ Eve all about countdowns? Also, I’ve included the entire reading list at the bottom for your perusing pleasure. So behold, my Top Ten Reading Countdown of 2017:

10)  I read 61 books this year. This is higher than usual as the yearly goal hovers around fifty.

9)  I read 50 fiction books and 11 nonfiction books. While the ratio of fiction to nonfiction (5:1) seems lopsided, my affinities are usually closer to a 10:1 ratio.

8)  Of the 11 nonfiction books I read, six were biographies or memoirs.

7)  Of the 50 fiction books I read, four were short story collections.

6)  Twenty-three were Science Fiction and Fantasy.

5)  Two were historical fiction. This is an aberration as historical lit is often fighting for the quantitative top spot.

4)  Sixteen could be classified as “Literature.” Five were what I call ‘contemporary literature’ or popular fiction. Three were mystery/thriller.

3)  I started, but didn’t finish three novels. Those were The Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, Postcards by Annie Proulx (I normally love her work), and Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (people have raved about this series, but it didn’t catch with me).

2)  The shortest book was 135 pages (The Red Badge of Courage), the longest was 782 pages (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell).

1)  All things considered, I read a lot of mediocre books. I only felt strongly about a third of them (anything higher than 3 stars). Most, however, fell squarely on the 3-star which is to stay I enjoyed them, but you won’t catch me offering additional recommendations. So here’s to 2018, my ever growing list, and—fingers crossed—bundles of 4 and 5 star reads!


The List:

War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

The Pony by John Steinbeck

Nine Stories by JD Salinger

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Suzanna Clarke

Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep? by Philip K Dick

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card

The Long Ride Home by Tawni Waters

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Thriving in Babylon by Larry Osborne

Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin

Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Home by Toni Morrison

World Without End by Ken Follett

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

Brothers at War by Michael Walsh

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Sign of the Four by Robert Conan Doyle

Methuselah’s Children by Robert A Heinlein

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

Shadows of the New Sun Anthology by Various Authors

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The Fireman’s Wife by Richard Bausch

Igniting the Reaches by David Drake

The Water that Holds Me by AR Horst

The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Total Eclipse by John Brunner

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

From Eternity to Here by Frank Viola

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

Old School by Tobias Wolff

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Timescoop by John Brunner

The Adventures of Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn Green

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The King by Donald Barthelme

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers



The Greatest Review Since Sliced Bread


The above title is, you’ll understand, not an assessment of the following review, but a play on words. We’re back on the literature train this week—or should I say the literature red wagon also known as (spoiler) NOSMIRC KAERTS.

Unlike several of its contemporaries, Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread has ebbed in popularity or given up ground to other coming-of-age titles like Stand By Me, The Catcher in the Rye, and Huckleberry Finn. Admittedly, these novels are practically canon, but I would be remiss not to argue that Sliced Bread should be mentioned in similar breaths.

After a couple situations in which delightfully-named protagonist Morris Bird III decides he has acted cowardly—or in an unacceptable fashion pursuant of schoolyard law—he resolves to “be brave” and skips school to set out on a four mile walk across town to visit his friend, Stanley. Like most coming-of-age tales, Morris’ journey (a normally unremarkable hike) becomes the microcosm for what will be his stroll out of the innocence of childhood and rite of passage into maturity.

As you might realize, this narrative summation is a well-trodden trope—perhaps even a formulaic plot. But when a young boy pulling his whiny sister in a wagon is expressed through the ever-present dichotomy of an imminent explosion threatening to destroy the town, well, now we have some suspense: Here’s a boy trundling along the street, his wagon wheels going tiddleump, tiddlelump, tiddleump. Here’s a gas leak, slowly winding through those same streets and descending into the sewers systems, waiting for an unsuspecting spark to send the city up in flames. Here, the mundane and the portent collide with riveting clarity.

Also, as I’ve pontificated in previous reviews, most of my fiction reading is also fiction critiquing—“how do I make my writing look like this writing?” is the underlying analysis. Since my most complete and actively shopped manuscript is both historical fiction and told through the eyes of a preadolescent, I boldly suggest that Sliced Bread is an absolute clinic on how to write the mind of a child and meanwhile keep it entertaining for adults. In a like way that Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye possesses a clairvoyant quality to which even readers of today say “Hey! I did that,” or “I remember a similar situation as a kid,” so too does Sliced Bread know just what Morris Bird III would think, say, and do all with uncanny authenticity of childlike wonder, ignorance, and even cynicism.

A corollary to why this novel succeeds—and, I’m realizing, is one of the main shortcomings with mine—is that Morris Bird III engages in very little introspection. Why is this absence so vital? Because kids don’t introspect. Adults do. So when child protagonists start espousing great life lessons, the astute readers may ponder, “Hm, this sounds a lot like an adult author talking.” I humbly receive my indictment. Conversely, Robertson captures Morris’ unfiltered, minimally reflective thoughts in a repetitive thought-loop that is the epitome of childlike processing. Morris bounces from one topic to another. He’s concerned about the moment and the next five minutes. Tomorrow is a 100 years away, so why bother with it? “Ah fooie,” he would say. But tomorrow is a lot closer than any of us believes and a lot more unpredictable whether we’ve given it a thought or not.

To close, I exhort you, don’t say ah, fooie! to this review. If you’ve read the other classics, add The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread to your list and collection. It might be the greatest thing you’ve since… well, you know. 4.5/5 stars.