Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Aurora in Four Voices

Another author in David G. Hartwell’s The Space Opera Renaissance whom I had not read previously was Catherine Asaro. Her reputation as a writer of hard science romances was a blending which did not strike anticipation into my heart. But her story “Aurora in Four Voices,” was very impressive. It is neither space opera nor hard science nor a romance, but a strong sf planetary adventure about a city built by aliens with a preoccupation with mathematics. The story involves a human who is a captive in the city because the most powerful artist there requires him as a model. All the human wants to do is escape, and when a powerful member of the interstellar military arrives on the world, he sees his chance to do so.

“Aurora in Four Voices” was good enough that I definitely want to read one of Asaro’s Skolian Empire novels.


I have decided to read some older books in my collection, particularly ones by my favorite authors. I’m starting with Clifford D. Simak’s collection Strangers in the Universe. I met Simak at a worldcon in Boston in the early 70s where he was invited to a small private room party. That was one of my fannish highlights, sitting and chatting with one of sf’s greatest authors.

Other authors I hope to revisit in the near future include Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson (likely his newest novel Galileo’s Dream) and Roger Zelazny. Good reading ahead...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ms. Midshipwoman Harringon

One of the authors I have never read before is David Weber. He has written a lot of books, mostly published by Baen, and his Honor Harrington series is very popular. But he seemed to fall into the category of military science fiction, one of my least favorite sub-genres. So why buy any of his books when there were so many others worth reading that I had a considerably better chance of enjoying?

One of the unexpected pleasures of reading huge compendiums such as David G. Hartwell’s The Space Opera Renaissance is that it contains substantial stories by authors I have not read previously, including David Weber’s “Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington.” That is a long novella about her first experience on a military ship when Honor Harrington is still an apprentice in training. Almost immediately upon reading it I saw why Weber has a reputation for military fiction emphasizing the characterization. The story is not about war per se, but about the humans involved in the war. Honor, the point of view character, is very competent and a very insightful watcher of all the people around her and the military protocols which she follows, if not always supporting.

Honor’s highly-intelligent pet Nimitz is a cat-like alien with whom Honor has a special rapport that makes Nimitz more than just a mere pet.

Early in the story, the “villain” is an arrogant, egotistical training officer Santino who takes special delight in bullying Honor and her classmates, and I expected him to be harassing them the entire story, a thought which did not delight me because of his almost-stereotypical personality. Weber either realized how distasteful the character was, or wanted to show Honor’s competence, because he inserts a scene where she not only showed the other officers what a bully Santino was, but ultimately caused his removal as their training officer.

The story’s climactic scene was a battle between Honor’s warship and a pirate ship, but it managed to be both skeptical of interstellar warfare while also a rousing adventure scene. Overall, while this novella did not convert me into a fan of military sf, I certainly enjoyed it enough to want to read more of Honor Harrington’s adventures.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Most acclaimed f&sf of 2009

As per usual, I kept watch of all the best-of-2009 lists of f&sf books, and the following are the books which made the most lists. Last year, the top 2 books were Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which were both nominated for the Hugo Award, but lost to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which came in a distant 4th on the list.

What does the fact that China Mieville’s The City & The City ran away with this year’s crown as the most acclaimed f&sf novel of the year mean for that book’s fate on the award ballots? The top three vote-getters below have already made the Nebula best Novel ballot. Stay tuned...

Title / Author / # of lists
The City & The City / China Mieville / 25
Boneshaker / Cherie Priest / 12
The Windup Girl / Paolo Bacigalupi / 10
The Devil's Alphabet / Daryl Gregory / 9
Chronic City / Jonathan Lethem / 8
Ark / Stephen Baxter / 7
Under the Dome / Stephen King / 7
Galileo’s Dream / Kim Stanley Robinson / 7
Finch / Jeff VanderMeer / 7
The Magicians / Lev Grossman / 6
Gardens of the Sun / Paul McAuley / 6
Julian Comstock / Robert Charles Wilson / 6
Yellow Blue Tibia / Adam Roberts / 5
Drood / Dan Simmons / 5
Palimpsest / Catherynne Valente / 5
The Angel's Game / Carlos Ruiz Zafon / 5

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Much as I like Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath (the protagonists in what I consider Jack McDevitt’s best series of novels A Talent For War, Polaris and Seeker), Gregory MacAllister is probably Jack McDevitt’s most interesting character (in the longer Academy series). He is a curmudgeon who edits a weekly magazine called The National whose main purpose seems to be poking holes into popular opinion, especially when that opinion is buttressed by emotions rather than pure logic. Consider him a futurist William F. Buckley, except Mac is not wed to a particular political party; he views all rigid political views with the same degree of skepticism, and is disliked by liberals as well as conservatives.

Because of his belief that social issues on Earth should be the focus of much more public concern and government spending than it is, he has a strong anti-space exploration attitude which serves as a yang to Priscilla Hutchins’ yin in the Academy stories. But Mac is not so rigid as to be totally beyond seriously considering an issue. He accompanied Hutch in the adventures on the planet Deepsix, and in Odyssey he accompanies another Academy pilot Valya on a voyage to seek out moonriders (which are the 22nd century version of UFOs).

By the time of the events in Odyssey, Hutch is no longer a space pilot, but an administrator raising a family on Earth. This works well for the dynamic tension in the novel since Mac and Hutch, having gone through the life-and-death situation on Deepsix, have developed a close friendship which led to their now accepting each other’s ideas without risking their friendship in argument. Valya has no such qualms and serves as a more interesting foil for Mac on the voyage in which the two of them are forced to spend 24/7 together, along with a PR man and the daughter of a powerful senator.

What really makes Odyssey work though was McDevitt’s idea to have MacAllister be the main viewpoint character, since the novel’s main focus is the search for the mysterious moonriders in the vastness of space, and Mac does not believe in their existence at all. He assumes they are either a collective delusion (much as UFO’s are in the 20th-21st centuries) or a deliberate hoax to spark interest in the space program, since much of the Academy’s funding is under attack by powerful forces in the government. So as the reader is faced with increasing evidence of the moonriders’ actual existence, so is Mac.

As usual in a McDevitt novel, what I like best about Odyssey is that it has a tightly-woven plot with lots of forward movement without being either an adventure or “thriller” per se. The characters grow and change although, except for Mac, they are not the story’s main focus. The primary concern of the Academy series is humanity’s interaction with forces beyond our knowledge and comprehension, a more sfnal version of what should have occurred in Star Trek but which was generally lost beneath mundane adventures which were the series’ main concern. If is unfortunate that no television series has ever been written on the same level as McDevitt’s Academy novels.

I recommend Odyssey highly, whether you have read the prior novels in the series or not.