Sci Fi

Mini Review: “High Couch of Silistra” by Janet Morris

This post is a part of a series of mini-reviews of books that I read while on blogging hiatus last fall.

The High Couch of Silistra by Janet Morris is set on a post-apocalyptic planet that had been ravaged by nuclear war.  Genetic mutations have made it very difficult to procreate, and so society has been arranged to glorify promiscuity in the hopes that some genetic combinations may prove fruitful.  Civilization is centered around the Wells, which are pretty much centers of prostitution, and women hold most of the power in society.

When Estri, the Well-Keepress of Astria, receives a mysterious letter detailing her conception, she begins a journey to discover more about her past and origins.  She hopes that if she is able to find out who her alien father is, she might learn more about herself and what kind of man would allow her to produce a child.  However, for most of the novel, she just wanders around and has kinky sex with a lot of people.  Mind you, I don’t mind sex in my pulp fiction novels (Case in point:  I strangely enjoy the John Norman’s Gor novels), but in High Couch of Silistra, it was too much of a distraction from an otherwise very interesting plot.  The last 50 or so pages of the novel were a drastic improvement, and as such, I’d be willing to pick up the next book in the series if I ever come across it at a used book sale.  At the same time, I wouldn’t go as far as actually recommending High Couch of Silistra unless you are extremely bored.

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Mini Review: “The Rapture of the Nerds” by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

This post is a part of a series of mini-reviews of books that I read while on blogging hiatus last fall.  I received a review copy of The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross while at BEA in exchange for an honest review.

The Rapture of the Nerds is the story of a man who wants nothing more than to be human.  Young Hew is a bit of a Luddite, and remains on Earth even as most other humans have uploaded themselves to the cloud.  The people who have chosen to stay behind are all a little weird, and make great fodder for practical jokes.  That’s why the plans for all new technology must be evaluated by a court to make sure that they’re legit.  When Young Huw is called for Tech Jury Duty, his life is forever changed as he comes full circle with his biggest fears.

The book is divided into two main sections, both of which parallel and build off of each other.  The first half is set on Earth, and the second half takes place in the cloud.  The second half of the book is simultaneously creative and confusing in a way that only transhumanist literature can accomplish.

Singularity fiction is, by its very nature, a bit absurd, but The Rapture of the Nerds takes the cake.  Doctorow and Stross clearly had a lot of fun writing this one.  It’s what you’d get if Douglas Adams was on crack and spent too much time on 4chan, and I mean that as a compliment.  There are a lot of references to both science fiction and pop culture.  At one point, the “rustled my jimmies” gorilla pops up.  The overall tone is satirical, and the plot is used to make fun of attitudes and mindsets present in our own society.

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“Priest-Kings of Gor” by John Norman

When I get stressed out, I find myself drawn to so-bad-it’s-good pulpy sci-fi, which is why I picked up book three of John Norman’s Gor series.  For anyone who hasn’t read my reviews of the first two books, think A Princess of Mars, except all the women are sex slaves who seem to be relatively happy about it.  If you’re looking for high-quality literature, then run.  This is not the series for you.  I’d compare it to a meth addiction (Disclaimer: I’ve never actually tried meth, but I’ve watched my fair share of Intervention).  You know on an intellectual level that it’s bad, but somehow you can’t make yourself stop doing it.  That’s why I’m in the middle of book four as I’m writing this and am impatiently waiting to jump back into it.

In my review of Outlaw of Gor, I mentioned that the book felt like a side quest.  Priest-Kings of Gor picks up with the main story.  Tarl Cabot, in a quest to avenge the destruction of his city, travels into the mountains of Sardar, from which no man ever returns.  He intends to find the technologically advanced Priest-Kings of Gor.

The Priest-Kings were not what he expected.  They are giant insects who dwell in an underground nest.  Most of the Priest-Kings are genderless.  The Queen is the only true female in the Nest, and she is dying.  This means that the Nest is dying.  Tarl Cabot finds himself caught between two opposing factions, one that wishes to destroy the Nest, and one that wishes to save it.

I found myself impressed with the world-building as the author describes the social structure of the Priest-Kings and of Gor itself.  The Priest-Kings’ culture involves a strong sense of loyalty to the Nest, to the point that it can mean forgiving betrayal if it is committed by someone who is a part of the Nest.  Outside the Nest, the Priest-Kings are less forgiving.  After seeing the way that humans blow each other up on Earth, the Priest-Kings forbid humans from having technologically advanced weapons.  If a human tries to build a gun or explosive, he is incinerated by the dreaded “Flame Death.”  This is what keeps Gor so primitive, and part of what gives it its charm.

The Priest-Kings keep slaves, but those slaves are still considered to be “of the Nest,” which is considered to be a higher social status than being outside the Nest.  One of the turning points in Tarl Cabot’s struggle was when he taught two slaves who had been raised in the Nest that rebellion and free will is part of what makes us human.

There’s a bit of a double standard going on, because when it’s a guy slave, rebellion and free will are glorified, but for women, submission is considered to be the ultimate form of existence.  It’s almost like women are viewed as wild animals that are dangerous if they aren’t tamed.  This can be demonstrated through Tarl Cabot’s encounter with the treacherous slave girl Vika, who only when fully dominated decides to switch sides and help Tarl instead of working against him.

Verdict:  If you’re in the mood for some creative pulpy sword-and-planet featuring technologically advanced insect-people, then give it a try.  The rampant misogyny is going to be a deal breaker for a lot of readers, so be forewarned.  If you know what you’re getting into, it can be a fun read.

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“The Passage” by Justin Cronin

I received an electronic copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I had originally intended to read it for last year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge, but took a blogging hiatus around that time and never got around to reading it.  I picked it up last week and realized just how much I’d been missing out on.

This is not your ordinary vampire book.

A top-secret military operation called Project NOAH thinks that it has stumbled upon the secret of regeneration and life extension.  After following legends about vampires, they discover a virus that significantly alters the human body.  The military experiments on a group of twelve death-row inmates, finally perfecting a mutation the virus which they give to a little girl named Amy.  Unfortunately, their test subjects are more powerful than they thought, and they escape and wreak havoc on mankind.

The book is divided into two main sections.  The first describes the progression of Project NOAH up until the vampires are unleashed, and the second is a post-apocalyptic tale of a small colony of human survivors.  The book alternates between point-of-view characters in order to tell a story that’s much larger than any of their individual lifespans.  This style of narration reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Founation Trilogy, and it Cronin uses it spectacularly.  There’s a lot of description of the characters and their relationships with each other, but it doesn’t weigh the book down.  Instead, it makes you more invested in the fate of every single person, and it emphasizes the strength and weaknesses of a community trying to survive in the face of extreme danger.

My initial thought as I read about Project NOAH’s experiments is that there is no way in hell that an IRB (Independent Review Board) would ever sanction that type of experiment.  It violates pretty much every rule of the ethical treatment of human subjects currently in existence.  It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The characters in the second half of the book face a different ethical question.  They see family and friends being turned, and it’s like zombies, really.  You know you have to shoot them.  At the same time, they seem to retain at least a shadow of the people who they once were, so it’s hard to do it, even though you know you have to.  People are taught that the vampires have no souls, but their behavior is a bit more complex and isn’t very well understood.

Cronin’s biggest strength was the way that he showed how life goes on, even when there are vampires and you know you might not live another day.  In one part of the book, a band of brave colonists embark on a journey to bring Amy to Colorado.  They think that she is the only hope left for humanity, and that they could discover a way to end the vampires.  On the way, some members of the group fall in love.  One couple has a baby.  The fact that it’s the apocalypse doesn’t mean that people stop being people, or that human interactions change in any fundamental way.

The Passage is well worth the time spent reading it (and at more than 700 pages, it does take quite a bit of time to read).  It’s the kind of book that makes you ask “Where have you been all my life?!” as you read it.  I’d highly recommend it.

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“Outlaw of Gor” by John Norman

I picked up Outlaw of Gor, sequel to John Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor, because I was having a stressful week and wanted something mindless, pulpy, and fun.

Tarl Cabot goes on a camping trip into the mountains and once again finds himself swept away to the planet Gor, known as the Counter Earth.  When he arrives, he finds that his city has been razed and its people scattered, including the woman that he loves.  Tarl vows his revenge upon the Priest Kings and embarks on a journey to confront them.

On his way, Tarl visits the city of Tharna.  Unlike any other place on Gor, Tharna is ruled by women, who coincidentally wear creepy masks as further proof that they are evil.  Men have no social status, and are generally enslaved.  Reproduction is handled medically, and there is no place in Tharna for sex.  Love is forbidden.  There is no laughter, song, dancing, or anything else to relieve the monotony of life.  When Tarl finds himself captured and enslaved, he mounts a rebellion to change Tharna.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding in Outlaw of Gor far more than in the first book.  Norman’s passages on Gorean society, flora, and fauna are such that you feel nostalgia for a place you’ve never been.  You can tell that he’s spent a lot of time thinking about his world, and that he cares about it.  In the first book, it felt like an infodump, but in this one, it makes me want to visit Gor and see the wonders he describes.

I read the book in one sitting, and it worked wonders for my mood.  This series has become one of my guilty pleasures.  I should probably be outraged by the treatment of women, but I’m not.  Strangely, I think it adds to the books’ charm, and let’s face it, the male characters are no less objectified in sword and planet books and movies.  That being said, these books aren’t for everyone, and readers should know what they’re getting into.  Pretty much every female character is a happy sex slave (or discovers she’d be happier as a sex slave, as in the case of Lara, the ruler of Tharna).

I’m eager to read the next book and to see where Tarl’s adventures take him.  If the Gor series were a video game, Outlaw of Gor would be a side quest.  The adventure in Tharna was fascinating, but the plot line with the Priest Kings and Tarl’s mysterious return to Gor are left unresolved.

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“iD” by Madeline Ashby

I received a copy of iD by Madeline Ashby from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.  The first book in the series, vN, was one of my favorite books that I’ve read all year.  The plot of vN features the story of Amy, a self-replicating robot whose failsafe fails.  This means that she is in the relatively unique position of being a robot capable of harming humans.

iD is the story of Amy’s boyfriend Javier.  Unlike Amy, Javier’s failsafe is still intact.  This means that he is vulnerable to manipulation and can be forced to do terrible things against his will.  This has some obvious implications (including sexual), but it also carries painful consequences for his personal life.  When Amy’s island is destroyed, Javier alone must pick up the pieces, but how can he when his own decisions are vulnerable to the machinations of others?

The sexual themes in Javier’s story were much more prominent than in Amy’s story.  Javier finds himself in a love/hate relationship with humans.  While he hates many of the actions he is forced to take, he also feels a deep loving connection to the humans that is imposed on him by his failsafe.  This conflict is particularly pronounced as he sleeps with various humans to achieve his goals.  It’s kind of like a biologically programmed Stockholm Syndrome that no amount of therapy can get rid of, and it’s painful at times to watch, even more so because Javier feels a chasm between himself and Amy because she’s never had those experiences and doesn’t want to know that part of him.

As with vN, I was blown away by this novel.  Madeline Ashby makes you think hard about the nature of freedom and oppression.  As Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer noted when describing the book, iD is a much harder story to read.  I think that the book’s darkness makes it even more powerful.  I’d highly recommend it.

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“Tankborn” by Karen Sandler

Back in June, I won a giveaway at The Book Smugglers for Karen Sandler’s novel Tankborn and its sequel Awakening.  The books are from Lee & Low, a new publisher focusing on multiculturalism and diversity in children’s and young adult literature.  Their mission is something that I fully support, and it’s especially heartening to see some of their science fiction and fantasy offerings.

Kayla is a GEN, short for Genetically Engineered Non-human.  The GEN don’t have parents in the traditional sense; they’re born using a tank and then fostered.  When a GEN is 15, he/she is given their Assignment, sent to work as slaves for the humans on Loca.  The GEN are marked by prominent tattoos on their faces, making it impossible to be mistaken for another social class.

Kayla’s friend Mishalla begins her Assignment first, but finds that something’s amiss.  Her task is caring for low-class (but not GEN) babies, some of whom have been injured.  Mishalla realizes that everything isn’t as it seems, and that the humans she works for are involved in something shady.

As Kayla begins her own Assignment, she begins to question what she’s been taught about the roles of the GEN and humans.  She meets an upper-class human teenager named Devak, and the two begin to fall in love.  Personally, I found Devak to be a bit insufferable for most of the book, but it’s understandable because he’s a teenager who has led a relatively privileged life.  For most of his life, the plight of the GEN was something that could easily be ignored, and even though he’s always been kind to the GEN, it wasn’t until meeting Kayla that he really started to get it.

Sandler uses Kayla and Devak’s story to explore how racism can become ingrained in culture.  The social classes in Tankborn are rigidly enforced, and appearance is a major determinant of one’s social position.  GEN do go to school, but their lessons are geared toward their capacity as workers.  Even the GEN religion points to fulfillment only by serving humans.  The GEN and the upper classes are taught that there are major differences between them, and that even touching one another can have serious consequences.  Kayla and Devak both have to challenge their prior assumptions and take risks to be together.

Overall, I’m a big fan Tankborn.  Kayla and Mishalla’s intertwined plot lines are filled with mystery and intrigue as they discover the real history of the relationship between the GEN and humans and fight to break down the social barriers between them.  I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi, YA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Morlock Night” by K. W. Jeter

I received a copy of Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter from the fine folks at Angry Robot in exchange for an honest review.  Angry Robot puts out some awesome books, and if you haven’t already, you should definitely check them out.

Morlock Night is a steampunk novel that picks up where H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine leaves off.  The protagonist, Edwin Hocker, attended the dinner party in Wells’ story and heard the tale of the time machine, but thought that it was merely a fanciful story.  It turns out that the story was true, and now the Morlocks have possession of the machine and are poised to take over Victorian England.

Morlock Night is an ambitious novel, as it pairs the story of The Time Machine with the legend of King Arthur.  That’s right.  Who better to save England from her most dire hour than he reincarnated Hero of Britain?  Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, because Merlin’s archenemy, Merdenne, has joined forces with Morlocks.  He’s captured both Arthur and Excalibur, and so Hocker must suspend his rationality and disbelief, otherwise all is lost.

For such an enterprising and complex story, I felt that Morlock Night accomplished its goals well.  I’ve read other steampunk novels that feel cluttered, or that try to incorporate so many different elements that they don’t quite do any of them well.  I didn’t get that impression here.  Jeter was able to integrate several different mythologies, including King Arthur, The Time Machine, and the legend of Atlantis, and I was impressed that he was able to pull it off.  Jeter does take some liberties with the source material, but it’s for artistic reasons, and I’m okay with his interpretation of Wells’ vision.

Jeter incorporates the same tone as H.G. Wells as he tells his story, which makes the novel campy and fun.  This isn’t *serious* reading, and it’s not meant to be.  It’s a pulpy steampunk adventure, and I loved it.  One of the things that I enjoy about steampunk is its ability to incorporate strong female characters.  In this case, Hocker’s sidekick from the future is a woman named Tafe who fought in the resistance against the Morlocks.  She disguises as a man when she time travels to before the invasion, and Hocker wouldn’t have been able to succeed without her.

If you’ve read The Time Machine and are into steampunk, Morlock Night is an excellent adventure.  It’s a quick read and definitely worth giving a chance.

By the way, does anyone else adore this cover as much as I do?  I love the 1960s psychedelic feel that it has.  If it were a poster, I’d want it on my wall.  The creepy eyes and the submarine are awesome.

 

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi, Steampunk | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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