Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I waited eagerly for this to arrive from Amazon, since this was going to be the book for January for my SF Masterworks book club, and it seemed like it would never arrive. However, that’s because it was shipped from the UK. It got here on the fourth and I started reading it right away. I chewed through it pretty quickly, partly because it was an excellent book and partly because I was really sick with the flu and thus I had the time.

Delany apparently wrote this book at the age of 23 in the 1960s, and because of that, a lot of people are quick to judge him as being “in love with his own cleverness.” I think that’s a characterization that wouldn’t have been made were people not aware of that tidbit of information. I will admit that Delany does have a habit of lecturing his readers, even about subjects that he doesn’t really know as much about as his characters should.

Rydra Wong, the clever, strong, brave heroine of the piece (who might be a bit of a Mary Sue; but hey, cut Delany a break, this was a strong female sci-fi protagonist in 1966!) is a famous poet and a cryptographer in a far future where humanity has settled in the far-flung corners of space. One might think that these are contradictory skills, but Rydra is perhaps a bit autistic, having been afflicted with a plague as a child that may have caused brain damage, and is a bit of a savant when it comes to languages and communication. That “knack” extends into even reading the subtle nuances of body language and muscle tics, and might even border on telepathy.

There is a war going on between Invaders and Alliance (never thoroughly explained; the Invaders are some kind of enemy aliens but the Alliance also includes aliens). A general discovers that some kind of a code they dub “Babel-17,” is being broadcast over radio receptors right before major mechanical disasters happen to major Alliance military targets. He asks Rydra, the best cryptographer he knows, to crack it.

Realizing this is not a code but a language, Rydra decides she must track down the speaker of this language and understand it, and decides to go in search of it. The language doesn’t reveal much initially but does tell her where the next “accident” will be so she goes there, after first recruiting a bizarre hodgepodge crew. What follows after explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language forms personality and consciousness, in an unforgettable crazy space opera romp with an unforgettable ending.

I find myself thinking of this novel as “proto-cyberpunk.” Babel-17 is likened at one point to computer languages and it is used to program machines. The working class people (called “Transport” as opposed to the stiffly proper white collar “Customs”) are prone to enormously transformative surgical alterations that make many of them look anything but human, nontraditional relationships, odd customs, and the use of discorporate (read: dead but preserved as energy) people to do jobs that live humans simply couldn’t do. I was reminded very much of the world of Joan D. Vinge’s “Catspaw” and I can’t help but think that if Delany had been born twenty years later, this book would have contained a lot more internet or cyberrealm equivalent. All the elements of what will become cyberpunk are here. I love this colourful world, so vividly realized in such a short novel.

I also love the protagonist. What a breath of fresh air in 1960s vintage science fiction! She’s marvelous! Some reviewers have found that her abilities stretch credibility, but really, if you read carefully, she’s amazing at just one thing; reading and understanding people. That ability serves her well in many capacities, including poet, cryptographer, starship captain, diplomat, and rogue.

I suppose it may not be to everyone’s tastes — my partner found it dull, but then again he doesn’t share my interest in how language forms consciousness either. Personally, I’m glad I had to buy this book to read it because I’m sure I’ll read it again. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Book Review: Changer of Worlds by David Weber and Eric Flint

Changer of Worlds (Worlds of Honor, #3)Changer of Worlds by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, to be fair I started this book a fair bit of time ago, read about two and a half of the four novellas in it, and then my partner decided to read it and hid it on me. I found it again a month ago or so but wanted to finish reading the book I was on before I went back to this one.

These are some very well-written stories, and because they lack the usual Weber info-dumps, they’re among the best written Honor Harrington stories I have yet to read. And I have to warn you, unlike many short stories that center around an ongoing novel series, you kind of have to read these or some things will make no sense to you in the later books.

Fortunately this will almost universally be a pleasure. The first story, “Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington,” is a direct homage to “Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” which is wonderful since the Horatio Hornblower books are part of what inspired Weber to write this series in the first place, and why it’s such wonderful space opera. Here we get to see Honor Harrington, great captain and general, as a mere midshipwoman on her “snotty” cruise. Lots of action, typical Navy politics . . . wonderful stuff for any Honor Harrington fan.

The second story, “Changer of Worlds,” provides some wonderful insight into the ways of the other major intelligent species of the Honorverse; the treecats, who are not just cute telepathic kitties. No indeed.

The third story, “From the Highlands,” introduces us to some other major characters in the Honorverse and what they’re up to; including Victor Cachat, Peep intelligence agent, Anton Zilwicki, the world’s most unlikely Manticoran Navy intelligence officer; Cathy Montaigne, renegade Liberal eventually to be a force to be reckoned with in Manticoran politics; and the Ballroom, a secret terrorist organization of escaped slaves dedicated to wiping out slavery by whatever means necessary. Oh yes, and Zilwicki’s daughter Helen, a force to be reckoned with on her own. This story, written by Eric Flint, is full of his subtle humour, sharp wit, and clever plot and counterplot elements. It reads just like a spy thriller with some comedy thrown in. Great stuff!

The only story I thought we could have done without was the last one, “Nightfall.” This was basically what happened when Secretary of War McQueen took on the Secretary of State Saint-Just just before the end of “Ashes of Victory.” I suspect it was originally included but Weber’s editor, in a rare act of prudence, cut it and told him it wasn’t necessary. I agree; it wasn’t necessary. Since we already read how it started, and we already knew how it ended, and it was just a lot of pain and bloodshed in between, and we didn’t learn anything about any of the characters or the events, I don’t see the point of it.

So; three out of four great stories ain’t bad. Well worth reading, anyway.

View all my reviews

Book Review: War of Honor by David Weber

War of Honor (Honor Harrington, #10)War of Honor by David Weber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s nothing like being sick to make you finish the reading you’ve been wanting to get done, especially when you just aren’t up to doing much else. So I finally powered through War of Honor.

The books in this series come in two types; really action-oriented, and really political. This was one of the political ones. And yet this wasn’t nearly as dry as most of the political ones. At the start of the book, a coalition government forced upon the Queen of Manticore by an unholy alliance of the Conservative and Liberal Parties has been in power for four years. At the end of the last book they had just accepted a ceasefire from their long-standing enemies, the People’s Republic of Haven, despite the fact that the Manticoran Navy had them on the ropes and could have ended the threat they represented once and for all. In the four years since, the corrupt government has not officially ended the war so that they could take advantage of wartime tax measures for their pet projects, and have stalled peace talks. Despite this, they have assumed military superiority over the Peeps, and have demilitarized much of their Naval forces, as well as suspending most of their building projects. They have also swept most of the useful Naval commanders into the grey realm of half-pay, and have appointed their cronies — mostly insufferable bureaucrats with little to no combat experience — into key positions in the Navy. Key to the plot, this also affects their intelligence sector, which is commanded by a complete incompetent. The First Admiral of the Navy is none other than Admiral Janacek, whose personal hatred for Honor Harrington and Earl White Haven leads him to assume exactly the opposite of anything at all that they suggest. And they are also doing their very best to be so rude to everyone who is part of the extended Manticoran Alliance that they have almost succeeded in alienating all of them.

Of course the Peeps, who have had another coup and have restored their ancient Constitution, thus becoming the Republic of Haven or the Republicans, have not been idle. They have assigned their best tactician to a top secret R&D project called Bolthole which intended to address the military superiority that the Manticorans had — and to much better effect than anyone dreamed. Their elected President is a former intelligence operative who was working against the corrupt Peep government, and their Secretary of War is the man who personally led the coup that resulted in the new government. They are trying to negotiate with the Manticorans in good faith, despite the attitude of their present government, because they really don’t want another war. But if all of this weren’t bad enough, the man they are stuck with as their Secretary of State, Giancola, is manipulating negotiations by altering official documents to build up tensions for his own purposes.

Weber does a marvelous job of setting up this train wreck, which is what most of the book consists of, although he insists upon breaking it up with a tedious “love that cannot be” subplot between Honor and White Haven. Which gives him a pretext for having the Admiralty hang Honor out to dry at Sidemore, caught between a rock and hard place with ships so obsolete there would be nothing she could do if things actually hit the fan.

It might strike people as being a bit unrealistic, but being a Canadian under the Harper government taught me that it most certainly isn’t.

Honor survives (of course, or that would be the end of the series). I have to admit that it’s a bit tedious that again she’s the only one that does any substantial damage. And there sure was a lot of praise for her abilities from the mouth of one of the benevolent antagonists in the Republican Navy! Yawn. I do wish Weber would stop that.

But the tension did keep me reading right through to the end, so what can I say? Obviously I stuck with it and it certainly wasn’t boring! But neither would I go screaming from the rooftops about how absolutely wonderful this book was. So, good, but not great is my verdict.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! What an intense book!

I started this book for the Science Fiction Masterworks book club I’ve organized, and I waited patiently until the very end of 2015 to start it, especially since I was also working on a reading challenge I wanted to finish by the end of 2015. But once I picked it up, I simply could not put it down. The writing is electric, even pyrotechnic. It starts out with awesome and it just keeps adding more awesome onto awesome.

The book starts with a prologue that explains that someone discovered that when threatened with imminent death people have the ability to “jaunte”; that is to say, to teleport over short distances. Eventually the trick of the ability becomes something that everyone can do and so culture and society must adapt.

Cue our opening scene, in which Gully Foyle, our protagonist, a common labourer, has survived in space for 170 days after his ship, the Nomad, has been blown to smithereens, existing in the one airtight space left — a storage locker the size of a coffin — which requires him to go out every few days to loot an oxygen tank, food and water; the catch being that he has only five minutes of air to breathe, since the attachments for air tanks on his duck-taped spacesuit are damaged.

Have I got your attention yet? Alfred Bester sure got mine! You can’t imagine where this story goes or how it ends from this starting point. The action never stops and all the while the protagonist, and every other significant character be it friend or foe, is realized in such exquisite detail that you never once doubt their motivations and you sympathize with all of them, no matter how cruel they get; and believe me, they can get Game-of-Thrones-cruel!

Bonus points: while I have noted many times that you often have to read 1950s science fiction with a grain of salt in that women generally seem to be present to be sex toys or, at best, love interests for the protagonist, this book does not suffer from that one whit. Bester’s female characters are complex and strong and vulnerable at turns. They are every bit as beautifully human as the men and I love them.

Extra bonus points: no jarring moments of obsolete technology to take you out of the illusion. Not a one.

Every science fiction fan needs to read this book, especially if you love space opera. I want to write like this when I grow up.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

Book Review: Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson

Dorsai! (Childe Cycle, #1)Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No modern reader will seek this book out unless someone tells them they should. So I’m telling you, you should. I only knew about this book because I’m a genuine article geek and I have listened to filk music that was written about it. When I saw a dusty, archaic copy in an old bookstore that was closing, I snapped it up. No regrets.

A reader of sci-fi will start reading this book and recognize the essential plot of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune. Which might make you shake your head at plagiarism; except that this book was published five years before Dune was. So if there was plagiarism, it was the other way around. It’s also one of the foundational books of military science fiction, though no one will ever tell you that when they list sources. I think that’s a crying shame.

Dickson has a deceptive sort of writing style. Others have criticized it as being terribly simple. And it is, but if that’s all you think of it, that tells me you didn’t get it. Dickson’s prose is an elegant masterpiece of minimalism. Reading him is like appreciating a classical Japanese painting. He does nothing that is of no use. He manages to tell the story in perhaps a third of the word-count of Dune, and nothing is missed and there’s not a single moment of boredom. Dickson displays a wide-ranging intuitive grasp of politics, war and philosophy, and the interplay between the three. Also, it’s damn good space opera.

Modern readers may find it a little irritating that, as with most books of the time period, the purpose of the women in the story seems to be to improve the men. But that was a standard of the time and I would urge you not to allow that to ruin your enjoyment of a great story.

Other than that I’m not telling you a thing. Go read it.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Ashes of Victory by David Weber

Ashes of Victory (Honor Harrington, #9)Ashes of Victory by David Weber
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another installment in the Honor Harrington series of books. Which, in general, I like. This one — not so much.

This book suffers from severe filler problems. As in, way too damn much of it. I understand that Weber was trying to write himself out of a hole when he wrote this one, since the plotline was differing vastly from what he’d envisioned and he needed to catch up. Okay, sensible. As a writer I get that. And the details in it are important to understand what happens in the rest of the series, because the game completely changes from this point. Again, fair enough. However, in my opinion, most of this could have been accomplished in two short stories; one of which could focus on the characters introduced to explain the new technological developments, and one of which could focus on the Queen of Manticore for the sake of the important political changes. If he really wanted, he could have done another heartwarming soliloquy of a short story about Honor at Saganami. The rest of it was, in a nutshell, boring. I managed to drag my sad butt through it by using it as toilet reading, right up to the last quarter of it; which actually was quite good.

If you want to know what’s going on but you don’t want to drag your brain through this, let me save you the trouble. (view spoiler) There you go. Now you don’t need to subject yourself to the boredom.

It gets a two star rating because, as I said, the last quarter is excellent, and because Honor Harrington is awesome; and, as much as I hate to admit it, because I really admire the author’s desire to be realistic instead of Hollywood about the details (such as Honor’s convalescence and the natural progression of politics and warfare.) Still, I wish he’d read more Patrick O’Brian than C.S. Forester; where he might have learned how to navigate that sort of thing without sucking the life out of it.

And yes, I’m going to keep reading the series, which is still worth it overall.

View all my reviews

Review: Echoes of Honor by David Weber

Echoes of Honor (Honor Harrington, #8)Echoes of Honor by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was . . . maddening.

On one hand, it told the tale of Honor Harrington and crew trapped on a deadly prison planet and trying to escape with deadly risks, dangerous all-or-nothing chances, and a crew of ne’er-do-wells and unlikely bedfellows. Brilliant, awesome, edge of your seat sci-fi action adventure in the highest degree.

The other half was a technical manual and a struggle in politics on new technology that would change the balance of the fictional war that is the focus of the series. Total yawnsville. Worse, you *have* to read it, because if you don’t, you won’t understand a damn thing about what happens in the rest of the books.

I am reminded of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which is about one half the awesome story you know from the Broadway musical and one half a political dissertation. And not Game of Thrones politics either. I skimmed the political bits.

Equal parts awesome and frustrating. But the essential story was fantastic, so I must rate it more highly than not.

View all my reviews

Review: In Enemy Hands by David Weber

In Enemy Hands (Honor Harrington, #7)In Enemy Hands by David Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel was excellent and hard to read. It was hard to read because most of it follows the story of Honor Harrington and her crew as prisoners of the People’s Republic of Haven, the enemy space empire, and Weber pulls no punches with the reality of a prisoner of war. Military fiction in the strictest sense, a lot of it also centers around ethical dilemmas facing soldiers of opposing navies and I really enjoy such things because for me, a story is all about the characters and how they react to things.

The series of events that lead to the novel’s conclusion are highly improbable at best and they somewhat stretch the suspension of disbelief if one is critical of plot points. However, I was still on the edge of my seat. Weber writes fabulous action. And also, this book, unlike many of his others, was refreshingly free of infodumps (mostly).

I doubt you would enjoy this novel as much if you haven’t read the rest of the series, however. A lot depends on previously established characters and relationships. You can still enjoy it, but many of the subtleties will be missed.

However, highly recommended and it might just be the best book in this series aside from Honor of the Queen.

View all my reviews

Review: Honor Among Enemies by David Weber

Honor Among Enemies (Honor Harrington, #6)Honor Among Enemies by David Weber
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was a big disappointment after the last two in the series.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still worth reading, it’s full of dramatic tension, and you have to understand what went on here in order to understand the rest of the novels, but it bogs down in most of the first half with painful infodumps and the “downer” of Honor returning to the Manticoran Navy to a position well beneath her talents that puts her in an entirely unnecessary situation. I appreciate the realism of having good people pay for the unrelenting idiocy of others, but as the sixth book in a series I’m beginning to grow impatient with the system’s constant jerking around of Honor Harrington. Her devout loyalty to her Queen is one of the qualities we are meant to admire about her, but personally I don’t see why she doesn’t just tell all of them to take a walk and join the Greyson Navy full time. Certainly her promotion gives her more than ample justification and her new position as a head-of-state of an allied power assures that she will spend lots of time with her friends; more than she did as a mere Manticoran Captain. I think that stretches credibility and because it puts her in an unnecessarily bad situation that she had no real right being in, I find it frustrating and more than a little irritating.

View all my reviews