Archive for the 'Sci-Fi' Category

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Monday, May 11th, 2015


I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. This is the sort of book that makes you bounce in your chair while you’re reading it. You know that little frisson of glee that you get as a reader when you know something really cool is about to happen? I got that a lot in this book.

Mark Watney is a crew member on the third manned mission to Mars. Not as cool as being on the first mission, but still pretty darned cool for a botanist. But once they’ve landed, there’s a problem: a powerful sandstorm with winds strong enough to do damage to their equipment and living quarters.

“It was a ridiculous sequence of events that led to me almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led to me surviving.”

Everyone thinks Watney is dead; there is no reason to think otherwise. So they leave…and Watney wakes up to find himself stranded on Mars, with about a year’s worth of food, four years until the next Mars mission, and no way to contact Earth.

But he has science on his side! He’s a botanist – he can grow food. He understands how the space station works (and if he doesn’t, the computer has all the plans and specs and instructions and he’s got plenty of time to study them). He’s a scientist and he is going to science the hell out of all of this and figure out how to stay alive, how to contact Earth, and how to get home.

This is a book about science, but in the most entertaining way imaginable. Watney knows his stuff and as a narrator, he does a great job of explaining it to the reader. He explains how the supplies get there, how the space stations work, how they make fuel and water and oxygen. The descriptions of how he repurposes pieces of the ship and how he re-engineers the systems to grow food, communicate with Earth, and make his existence more comfortable were endlessly entertaining.

“Yeah, I know. A lot of my ideas involve setting something on fire. And yes, deliberately starting a fire in a tiny, enclosed space is usually a terrible idea. But I need the smoke. Just a little wisp of it.

“As usual, I’m working with stuff that was deliberately designed not to burn. But no amount of careful design by NASA can get around a determined arsonist with a tank of pure oxygen.”

Eventually, Watney makes contact with Earth and then the race is on to figure out a way to rescue him. As expected, it’s not just about the science — it’s a political and financial challenge, as well. The NASA scientists are dedicated to bringing him home, and you can’t help joining in the people around the world rooting for him.

This book was recommended to me by a friend with excellent taste. My copy of The Martian is a permanent addition to my personal library.



Review: Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

man-in-the-empty-suit_original-1fg0u5rIt’s kind of a funny thing. When I was telling some bookish friends about The Man, one of them commented that they hate it when books break all “the rules” of time travel. Seems silly to me – how could time travel have rules? Sean Ferrell’s Man in the Empty Suit breaks all the rules of time travel and has some fun doing it.

This book is really split into two parts. In the first half,  our time traveler attends his birthday party. Every year, he throws himself a party in an abandoned New York hotel. Attending this party are all the various versions of the traveler, every year since he gained the ability to time travel. Now, that’s not supposed to happen, right? If you run into yourself in the past, isn’t that like matter and anti-matter? But here, it works. Here, there are new rules:

Convention Rules:

1. Elders know best.

2. No guests.

3. If it broke before, let it break again.

6. No one is younger than the Inventor.

8. Try not to ruin the fun for the Youngsters.

15. Don’t come back until you have aged a full year.

Imagine that – having a birthday party with all the ages of yourself that came before and will come after. I imagine that it would be quite a party. But our traveler, 39, has a small problem. He just found next year’s version of himself, 40, dead in an elevator. The older versions of himself are still there, but what happens if he can’t find the killer?

The first half of the book is great fun. Drinks and bad party food, socializing with younger and older versions of himself, our traveler is having a great time and some of the conventions of the party are a lot of fun. I was looking forward to seeing where the story went and how he would solve the mystery. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how the story played out.

To find his killer, the traveler goes back in the past and seems to get stuck there. This version of New York, circa 2071, is nearly deserted, post-apocalyptic, and there is no explanation for it. I’m okay with no explanation – I rather like it. But this part of the story made no sense to me. Instead of trying to save himself, he was trying to save a woman named Lily that he met at the party. There are a lot of strange things going on in the city, which was kind of interesting, but the whole Lily story dragged on too long for my taste. We eventually get back to the party, but by then I’d almost lost interest. I didn’t find the ending very clear, to be honest, but maybe it was intended to be ambiguous. Either way, as much as I enjoyed the beginning of the book, it won’t find its way into my permanent collection.

My copy of Man in the Empty Suit is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. Find our more about the author on his website,


Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

I knew this one was going to be fun the moment I saw the pitch in my email. I have been pretty burned out the Pride and Prejudice and… genre, but this is a little different sort of mash-up. Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is a retelling of the classic sci-fi movie in iambic pentameter. The Bard would be proud.

You know, I recently saw Much Ado About Nothing at the theater – the Joss Whedon version – and loved it, so I’m in a bit of a Shakespeare mood right now. I judge productions of Shakespeare by how quickly I slip into “Shakespeare Mode,” that place in your brain where you stop translating the dialogue and start understanding it. With Much Ado About Nothing it happened almost immediately. With William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, it’s a little different. I didn’t so much shift gears mentally, but in my head I started hearing the lines in the book in the actors’ voices. C-3PO is the easiest to imagine, but the others come along pretty quickly. Of course, James Earl Jones has such a fabulous voice that Darth Vader makes the transition very well. Chewbacca is another story.

One thing occurred to me while I was reading this, and that was that this would be a perfect teaching tool for English teachers who want to get their young charges into Shakespeare Mode. It would make a great lead-in to other plays, I think – get their ears attuned to the rhythm of the story and the way it’s told. After all, Shakespeare told classic, timeless stories about love and betrayal and family, and Star Wars certainly has those themes. If you can tie something old to something new, you can make them both more relevant to readers.

This one comes highly recommended and it hits stores today. Wander over to Amazon and check it out.

I got lucky. My copy of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars was a review copy, provided free of charge.


Review: Virus Thirteen by Joshua Alan Parry

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

WordPress and I are not getting along lately. I have had several posts just disappear into the ether. Others, like this one, are scheduled to post and just never appear. My apologies to the good folks at Tor/Forge for missing the review date.

Virus Thirteen by Joshua Alan Parry presents a scary vision of the future. Amazing medical advances have cured cancer and many other health problems, but they’ve left a frightening bureaucracy behind. The Department of  Homeland Health Care tackles smokers on the street and sends them to rehab. Patients who are obese, hypertensive, diabetic or depressed are corralled into “health retreats” that are little more than fitness boot camps:

“Now, the watch you just put on is actually a calorie counter. It has a computer chip in it, much like the identity chip in your wrist, that will help us monitor how many calories you’re burning during your workouts. How we work here is simple. You have a meal with four hundred calories coming up, but in order to receive that meal, you must burn at least six hundred calories. If, by the end of this session, you haven’t reached that goal goal, you will have to wait for the next meal.”

Perfectly in line with a lot of current thinking – that thin equals healthy, even though the facts don’t always support that idea.

There’s an undercurrent here. GeneFirm, the biotech company that cured cancer, is working on a cure for the flu epidemic that is sweeping across the country, but there is evidence they are not telling the truth. One of the senior researchers may have cancer…even though cancer has been cured. The firm is in lock-down, people are trapped inside…what is really going on?

There is plenty of suspense here and I think there’s a enough drama to make a pretty good movie. There are plenty of plotlines to keep you interested. There are the Logans – researchers at GeneFirm who may be at the center of something that will change the world. You’ve got MacDonald and Marnoy, our Homeland Health cops. Their job is to round up the unhealthy, but one of them may not be what he appears to be. They drag Pat and Modest to the health retreat, and they may end up on an adventure of their own. And on all sides, there is the virus, burning through the population. How is GeneFirm involved?

The problem for me with Virus Thirteen was that there is a plot hole here that was so obvious that it jolted me right out of the story. As soon as it came up (and I won’t share my thoughts, as it might not be as apparent to others), I had an immediate, incredulous reaction, and that made it hard to sink back into the story. I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them, but sometimes you just shake your head and think, you could have done better. However, even with the plot problems, this is a good, quick read with lots of potential. The health cops infuriated me, but I could almost see it, the militant attitudes that some people have, passing laws about soda pop and trans fats – maybe they aren’t that far down the road.

My copy of Virus Thirteen was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Redshirts may be the most fun I’ve had with a book this year. It made me laugh…and it made me go out and load my Kindle with other John Scalzi titles. I love the mix of humor and seriousness in the book, and I am looking forward to reading more.

Are you a Star Trek fan? If you’ve ever watched the old episodes, it didn’t take long to notice that there was always some poor schmuck of an ensign in a red uniform shirt who ended up getting killed on the away missions. In fact, the term “redshirt” became a stock phrase in the sci-fi world, referring to a character who dies soon after being introduced. But what about those disposable characters? Don’t they have stories of their own — friends and family and ambitions? John Scalzi’s Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas pays homage to those characters while he pokes fun at science fiction conventions.

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union star fleet. He’ll be working in the xenobiology lab, and spending time with the other new crewmen: Maia, Jimmy, Hester and Finn. Things seem a little odd right from the start, and it soon becomes apparent that something strange is going on. The Away missions on the Intrepid seem to be unusually lethal, especially for new crew members. If Dahl and his friends want to survive this posting, they need to figure out a way to fight back.

I could tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. The book makes fun of sci-fi television shows, directly and indirectly, and as a fan of the genre, I enjoyed seeing some old standbys given some play. The ridiculousness of the Away missions, the ensigns’ crazy plan to discover the Intrepid’s dark secret, and the absolutely insane conclusion they come to were a joy to read. I found myself laughing page after page after page.

But the book also has a serious side. Their conclusion may be insane, and they may come up with a pretty brilliant plan, but there are consequences. The codas at the end of the book are more serious, detailing some of those consequences and the people whose lives were changed. It gave the book balance, and made it a more satisfying read.

This is a great book. I’ve been recommending it to everyone (it provided a great break from the usual sentimental holiday stuff). After much prodding from friends, I picked up my copy of Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas from the local library, then promptly bought a bunch more John Scalzi titles on Amazon.

Review: Exponential Apocalypse – Dead Presidents by Eirik Gumeny

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Okay, this one is just weird. Bizarre, a little gory, pretty funny. You’d sort of like to have a drink with the sort of guy who comes up with an idea like this, but you’re a little afraid the drink might be grain alcohol, or maybe absinthe.

in Eirik Gumeny’s Exponential Apocalypse: Dead Presidents, Thor, the former Norse God of Thinder, has returned to his day job at the Secaucus Holiday Inn. He’s hanging out there with his friends, Queen Victoria XXX and Chester A. Arthur XVII.

“After the world ended for the sixteenth time, the Aussichtslos Drogensucht Gesellschaft mit beschrankter Haftung, a frozen sausage company out of Germany, manufactured an absolutely absurd number of genetic reproductions of political leaders from across the globe, hoping to land a profitable contract with the United States government, either as a steady source of on-demand experienced political minds or as a supplier of a new kind of lunch meat. They weren’t picky.”

That’s the sort of thing you get in this book — multiple world-destroying apocalypses, crazed dictators and random lunch meat references. There’s Timmy, the telekinetic, telepathic, super-squirrel. There’s Dr. Kong, a sentient silverback gorilla and holder of two medical degrees. But there are even more frightening monsters out there. There is the Amish Butter Monster — and no, that’s not just a story vegan parents tell their children to scare them into a life of tofu.

“The butter monster towered into view before them, an unnatural shade of off-yellow, oozing and bubbling toward them in fits and starts, swallowing everything in its path and toppling everything to the sides of its path. The creature lifted what could best be described as its head to roar, a mouth slowly tearing open, like an old woman with no teeth eating peanut butter. The squelching sound of churning butter echoed through the forest.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much what the book is like. If you like that sort of story, you’re going to have some fun with this. I have to say that it’s not really my thing. It was entertaining enough, sitting in the airport lounge, waiting for my flight, but I’m looking forward to passing this one on to someone who will really enjoy it.

My copy of Exponential Apocalypse: Dead Presidents is a review copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Zero History by William Gibson

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Zero History by William Gibson was one of the emergency books I picked up on my trip to Amsterdam and what a lifesaver! It kept me from going crazy on the flight over, although it almost kept me from getting any sleep! It’s a wild ride through secret territory that kept my attention every second.

Zero History is about fashion…sort of. It’s about underground fashion — so secret that there are no stores, no catalogs, no websites. There is only a mailing list and if you’re lucky enough to be on it, maybe there’s a cryptic message. The meet might be in Tokyo. Or London. Or Perth. Bring cash.

It’s also about technology. In Gibson’s worlds, there is technology under the surface of things, behind the scenes, hidden from most people. Those flashes of light in the sky aren’t UFOs — someone knows exactly what they are, but they aren’t going to tell you. There may very well be a sinister purpose behind those traffic cameras on every corner, a purpose so secret that even the people who designed them don’t fully understand how they can be used.

And then there are the people. There are some amazing characters in this book. There’s Hubertus Bigend, a man as big as his name. He’s got the sort of power that you don’t see, that moves behind the scenes and makes anything possible. There’s Milgrim — a former drug addict with a subtle but powerful gift. He sees things in ways that normal people do not. Bigend’s money and influence got him cleaned up and now Bigend uses his special talents. And then there’s Hollis, who worked for Bigend once and swore she’d never do it again. Now she’s in financial trouble and her former boss is taking advantage.

I loved this book. It’s fast-paced, it’s well written, the vocabulary is terrific and the story does not go any of the places you expect it to go. The characters are unusual, like Fiona the bike messenger who is so much more than a bike messenger and Garreth, extreme-sport enthusiast, who may have connections that go even higher than Bigend’s. I am fascinated by the hotel Hollis is living in, Cabinet, full of curiosities and strange artwork. (When I read this piece on the Los Angeles hotel, Petit Ermitage, I immediately thought of Cabinet.) I want to rent an apartment there and sleep under the big bird cage.

William Gibson looks like such a normal guy, but he writes these crazy, amazing books! Sadly, it doesn’t look like his tour schedule is coming anywhere near my town, or the towns I travel to, but I keep hoping. There’s more about him at his website.

My copy of Zero History came from one of the bookstores at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Top Sci-Fi Titles – Vote Now!

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Let’s talk about sci-fi and fantasy novels: Last month, NPR asked their listeners to nominate their favorite science fiction and fantasy titles. They got thousands of responses! Now, they’re asking you to vote for your favorites. The problem for me was narrowing it down to just 10. I could have picked 10 modern ones (starting with The Gone-Away World), 10 fantasy titles (Lord of the Rings, anyone?) and 10 classics (The Martian Chronicles? Earth Abides?). But I managed. I also managed to print off the list, for future reference.

So take a look and tell me, what did you vote for?

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Review: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

I loved this book so much that I posted a pre-review review, urging you all to go out and buy the book. It has been a long time since a book made me want to shout out loud and dance around my hotel room, but this book did.

It is the story of the survivors of the Go-Away War, a war fought with bombs that didn’t make things explode, but instead made them go away. The reasoning goes something like this: matter needs information to tell it what to be – whether it should be a table or a pumpkin or a schnauzer. Strip away that information and matter becomes just Stuff; shapeless, formless and harmless. In theory, these bombs just dissolve that bit of information and your enemies – and their cities, their houses, their furniture, their children – become so much dust in the wind. Problem is, things never work out in theory quite the way you expect. As nature abhors a vaccuum, Stuff hates to be formless. It yearns for that bit of information.

Our nameless narrator and his best friend, Gonzo Lubitsch, are on the front lines of this war and its aftermath. They are principals in the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company, men and women who aren’t afraid to step into the breach. When they end up working for Jorgmund, the corporate behemoth that controls much of the post-war world, there is bound to be trouble.

The book is part kung-fu epic, part sci-fi romance, part philosophic screed on what it means to be human, plus post-apocalyptic adventure and frenetic, laugh-out-loud hilarity. The twists and turns in the plot leave you questioning everything that has come before. I don’t know how else to categorize it – a well-read friend described it as “Pynchon with dashes of P.G. Wodehouse and Alexandre Dumas.” The fact that it’s a first novel just floors me. I will be devouring the next book Nick Harkaway publishes as soon as it hits the shelves – sooner, if I can manage it.

Pre-Review: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

This is one of those reviews that needs to percolate for a little while, but I wanted to give you just a taste of how I felt about this book: I was in bed, in my hotel, enjoying a quiet evening of reading. In the big climactic scene of this book, when a certain character (who must remain nameless in this review) steps out and delivers his big line, it was all I could do to keep from shouting out loud in my hotel room. And I simply can’t say any more about that.

See, I am not a spoiler virgin. I like spoilers! I do not mind one bit knowing what’s coming up in a movie or a tv show – after all, it’s not just the big finale, it’s the whole long journey that gets you there. Sometimes it is even more fun to know what’s going to happen, because you can be on the lookout for the clues and enjoy the little flourishes.

In this case, the spoilers are just too big. Knowing them, even for someone like me who embraces the foreknowledge, would have taken so much away from my enjoyment of this. So there is much – so much – that I won’t tell you. What I will tell you is this: Buy. This. Book. Do it now – this is the sort of thing that one-click ordering on Amazon was made for. You won’t regret it.

Give me a few days to think on this (and to calm down a little!) and I promise you a proper review.