This Review is a Bit of a Reach

Reaches

Ready for a brief story in irony and also, somewhat, in superficiality? A month or two ago, I picked up a copy of The Thirteen Gun Salute – one of the many “Maturin/Aubrey” novels by Patrick O’Brian. These are better known as the “Master and Commander” series of which a movie was made starring Russell Crowe. Anyway, I had decided to read at least one of them because I’ve seen them everywhere.

Well, I read roughly forty percent of the novel and put it down. The surplus of nautical terms and places and people and—I don’t know, except that it wasn’t for me. I confess there are readers who find that level of detail enthralling. I’m simply not one of them.

Since I usually don’t give up on many books, I needed to dive back into something fresh right away. Because I liked the cover illustration, I snatched an omnibus copy of David Drake’s The Reaches Trilogy. Nothing like a little science fiction junk food to clear my head.

I began reading the first novel in the series Igniting the Reaches, but to my subtle consternation, I couldn’t help thinking that The Thirteen Gun Salute had made a kind of lasting impression on me because the events in this trek through space struck me as similar to those of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Well, halfway through, I did something I often do at the end of books. I looked up David Drake’s bio on his website and Wikipedia. Turns out, David Drake specifically cites being inspired by the Aubrey-Maturin series in his own writing. In fact, The Reaches is actually supposed to mirror some of Sir Francis Drake’s voyages. What are the chances?

My superficiality in judging a book by its cover (even positively) had created a predicament. But I wasn’t about to abandon a second successive novel. I pressed on, and although pirating and/or Napoleon-esque privateering aren’t my favorite subjects, I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t blown away either, but I will say that Drake did enough world building to pique my interest for its eventual explanation in the sequels. I just hope he does explain (more on that in a future post). So while sea (or space) jargon can be off-putting (dare I say, even burdensome), it is consistent to the setting, the characters, and the characters’ actions. A lot of reading is about expectations—expect the wrong thing and you might end up dissatisfied. It’s an odd psychological game we, as readers, play with writers (“surprise me! …but not too much”). So let me set some general expectations should you choose to read Igniting the Reaches: Essentially its the Age of Discovery (in space) where Piet Ricimer and Stephen Gregg are cutthroat merchants intending to strike it rich by harvesting valuable microchips from various planets. They use about any means necessary including capturing and selling members of an alien race, or hiring the smartest of that race to work for them. Deadly battles with rival merchants ensue. At its core, however, this novel wrestles with questions of morality (and the suspension of it) at the expense of wealth and advancement.

If you’re into military sci-fi, give it a shot (pun intended). 3/5 stars.

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Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hilarity

hitchhiker

I’m a sucker for bad jokes. Especially puns and one-liners. Normally, I’m put off by dumb humor, but when smart humor is hidden in dumb humor, well, then I’m impressed. When the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out in 2005 I was finishing up high school (anyone want to guess my age?). I don’t remember if I went to the theater to see it or even who I was with. What I do remember is screaming with ghoulish laughter while everyone else around me sighed dramatically and scrunched up their foreheads.

At the time, I didn’t even know Hitchhiker’s was a book (shows you where my priorities were). But now, having grown up at bit (emphasis on bit), I’ve found Douglas Adam’s original novel of the same name to be just as hilarious as the movie (surprisingly, the movie adaptation follows the book with substantial integrity). Since the genre of science-fiction generally focuses on very serious matters, say, for example, the fate of the universe, it can be refreshing to inject the humor of parody, irony, puns, authorial intrusions, witticisms, satire, sarcasm, etc (Adams does all of these) into that set-up. What does that set up in Hitchhiker’s look like, exactly?

Protagonist Arthur Dent is protesting the demolition of his house in order build a new bypass. Meanwhile, his friend Ford Prefect (who is actually an alien disguised at a human) decides to inform Arthur that his protestations aren’t going to matter for very long (all of about five minutes) since another alien race is about to destroy the entire earth in order to build their interstellar bypass. The only escape is simple: just get beamed up onto that selfsame alien spaceship because, what’s the worst that could happen?

I smile now to think about it. Hitchhiker’s closely resembles, to my mind, what Catch-22 would look like as a space opera.

My slight critique of the Hitchhiker’s series—it’s five books in total (Eion Colfer’s contribution doesn’t count since I heard it was terrible) is best illustrated in analogy: Have you ever been to a standup show or some other comedic event (could be your uncle during Thanksgiving dinner) and the prevailing experience is that you crack up so incessantly that it literally begins to hurt? Like, your stomach muscles, the back of your head, and your deflated lungs actually ache? Or is that just me? In any case, I think of Hitchhiker’s as kind of like that. I can only take single volume increments before I’m in pain. Too much of a good thing, maybe.

Nevertheless, if you’ve read enough science-fiction and fantasy to recognize its long-embedded tropes and clichés, you’ll be delighted to see them roasted over a bed of hot ionized phlogiston crystals harvested from the outer-reaches of the planet Luminosity. So, if that’s you, then put Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into your reading queue. 3.5/5 stars.

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A Strange New Book (No, Really).

bookofstrangenewthings

In recent trends, a sizable chunk of literary authors are trying steering their craft toward sci-fi. This, as I understand it, has become known as slipstream. In fact, the back panel copy of Michael Faber’s newest novel The Book of Strange New Things (which takes place on a futuristic planet) doesn’t even say science fiction—it’s “literary.”

Faber’s work has always been quirky (see: The Fahrenheit Sisters), but like Alice Hoffman (if you’ve read her work), Faber’s stories breathe onto the surface of the supernatural, enough to make ripples as he stirs the waters with his finger but never quite jumps in.

While I think it’s a little zany to make a distinction between sci-fi and literary sci-fi (are there snobs who wouldn’t read otherwise?) I do think Faber benefits from his penchant for bouncing all around the genre landscape. One of his early novels, The Courage Consort follows an a-capella group to a Belgian retreat, but their rehearsals begin to deteriorate as one or more of the members begin sense paranormal presences. Alternatively, The Crimson Pedal and the White is squarely historical fiction. As expected from someone of Faber’s tastes, The Book of Strange New Things doesn’t traditionally adhere to the more common sci-fi conventions.

With superb world building, Faber takes us and a young minister who must leave his wife on an interstellar missionary journey to the planet of Oasis in order to share the Gospel with the natives (they refer to the Bible as “The Book of Strange New Things”). He studies the planet’s bizarre weather, drinks cantaloupe flavored water, and navigates his immense spiritual successes against his wife’s doubts and struggles from the light years separating them. It puts new meaning in the phrase “long distance relationship.”

A complex mediation of faith, love, and distance, The Book of Strange New Things earns 4 stars from this reviewer.

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The Forever…Meh.

forever war

I might earn myself the receiving end of “eight silent ways to kill a man” for saying this, but I thought that Joe Haldeman’s award winning novel The Forever War was, well… okay. I could be persuaded to use the word ‘good,’ but you definitely won’t hear me gush over it like some faithful do. Sorry not sorry.

Here’s why: The interstellar war and time travel parts are wildly entertaining, but there’s a crucial catch. At its heart, The Forever War is not an endless war against the alien Taurans, but a love story between William Mandella and Marygay Potter (albeit a love story delayed by a few centuries or even millenniums). Maybe romantic tensions are necessary—most stories have a love component—but for a Hugo and Nebula winner, I just thought it would be more compelling.

Critics and readers alike have—and I think Haldeman himself—compared the novel to Vietnam. Some have even gone so far as to call The Forever War a Vietnam novel told “through a space opera filter.”[1] I wouldn’t say it’s that glaring since to say so takes the novel out of a fictional story and turns it into biography (Haldeman served in Vietnam). And let’s be honest, all authors incorporate parts of themselves into their fiction. I read fiction because it’s not non-fiction. If I want to know about Vietnam I’ll pick up a history book.

Anyhow, Haldeman followed up The Forever War with Forever Free and Forever Peace to complete the Forever Trilogy, but on the whole it stands alone as a hallmark of science fiction and—to my knowledge—the other two are kind of ignored. That tidbit makes me wonder: if The Forever War is so good then why don’t people race to read the other two?

Look, I didn’t hate it. Truly. But I think the way it’s been hyped, my expectations were way too high. Only disappointment could follow. Still, if you’re a sci-fi purist, then yes, you should read it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the weird sexual stuff.  2/5 stars.

PS: I’d like to hear (receive a comment) from someone who disagrees with me. Tell me what I’ve missed, and what’s to be appreciated about The Forever War. I’m all ears.

P.P.S: Word on the street is there is a Forever War movie adaptation coming out in the near future (nope, not light years). Keep a lookout!

[1] http://web.mit.edu/m-I-t/science_fiction/profiles/haldeman_index.html

 

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