Friday, June 30, 2017

The Collapsing Empire - John Scalzi

   2017; 329 pages.  Book One of a yet-to-be-named series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Epic Science Fiction; Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s all about the Flows.

    The Flows are a galactic “stream” (for lack of a better term) that allow interstellar travel.  They’re not a wormhole, nor are they magic.  You don’t instantly transport to some way-out-there corner of the galaxy.  But a trip that would normally take thousands of years now can be done in weeks, months, or just a year or two, all by entering a Flow at one of its portals.

    If the exit portal of a Flow is close to a planetary system, then galactic exploration and settlement are possible.  Of course, most planets do not sustain life, so “settlement” usually entails building and living in a complex underground.  To date, only one planet beside a Flow, a far-flung place called “The End” sustains terrestrial life.  But all the Flows have a portal close to one planet, appropriately dubbed the “Hub”. Alas, it is uninhabitable, so an orbiting space station, Xi’an, has been constructed above it, in addition to the underground metropolis.

    Once in a great while the Flows “shift”.  The Flow to Earth did just that, quite some time ago, cutting our mother planet off completely from the rest of the colonies.  Its civilization collapsed in short order.  Since then one other colony has also lost its Flow.

    But now there is an astrophysicist who's doctoral thesis claims the rate and degree of shifting is about to speed up.  Her calculations indicate that poor old, out-of-the-way End will soon be the new Hub for all the Flows.  A sobering hypothesis.

    Maybe someone should peer-review that thesis.

What’s To Like...
    The Collapsing Empire is the start of a new series by John Scalzi, which will at least be a trilogy.  There’s a lot of worlds-building to be done, and a lot of characters to meet and greet.  In a nutshell, there are three main protagonists – Kiva, Cardenia, and Marce, and three main antagonists – the Nohamapetan siblings – Ghreni, Nadashe, and Amit.

    The overarching storyline concerns how the collapse of the Flows is going to affect civilization.  The hypothesis presented about this is that everyone is interdependent for survival.  Indeed, the confederation of all the colonies is called the Interdependency.  The character development is superb, as is the storytelling.  If you’ve read other books by Scalzi, you’ll expect this of him, and he does not disappoint.  The baddies are just as resourceful as the good guys.  Well, some of them are, and if you’re one of the less-resourceful ones, at least make sure you can follow instructions.

    There’s a nice balance of Action and Intrigue, and the Science Fiction is, for the most part, “Hard”.  There are no extraterrestrials (at least, so far), and the only exotic fauna/flora I recall is haverfruit.

    I liked the “network seed implantations”, which allow the reigning emperox to communicate with computer projections of all the past rulers.  This same sort of concept was used in Harvest Of Stars, which I read recently and is reviewed here.  The names of the spaceships were also really kewl: “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”, “No, Sir, Don’t Mean Maybe”, “Some Nerve!”,  And the importance of Peer Review is rarely seen in sci-fi stories; its appearance here was a nice touch.

    The Collapsing Empire is a quick and easy read, despite having a complex plotline.  There’s a new cosmos with lots of new people to get acquainted with, and John Scalzi kept my interest from beginning to end.  There’s also quite a bit of sex, mostly initiated by one character, but I found that to be amusing, not objectionable.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Squick (v.) : to cause (someone) to feel intense disgust; to cause psychological discomfort.  (the word has only been around since the 1990’s.)
Others : Heuristic (adj.);Assonant (adj.); Cockwomble (n.; a Britishism).

    “You’re traveling light.”
    “My other bag got boosted.”
    Ndan nodded.  “Sucks.  When you get squared away go to the quartermaster and get a new kit.  You’ll be charged extortionate rates but that’s your problem.  You got marks?”
    “A few.”
    “If you’re short, come find me.  I can lend.”
    “That’s very kind.”
    “No it’s not.  It’s business.  My interest rates are also extortionate.”  (pg. 177)

    ”You want to risk a lot on a doctoral thesis, sis.”
    Nadashe shrugged.  “Worst-case scenario, we’re wrong about the shift.  The result is you’re the Duke of End and I’m the Imperial consort.”
    “Actually the worst-case scenario is you don’t marry Rennered and Ghreni is arrested for treason, and the shift happens anyway,” Amit pointed out.
    “You’re not helping,” Ghreni said, to his brother.  (pg. 226)

 I am emperox of all humanity, and my life sucks.  (pg. 258)
    There are some negatives.  There is an abundance of cussing, mostly from the mouth of Kiva.  I wasn’t offended, but it did feel overdone.  Also, the publisher is Tor Books, and that seems to always mean a poor job of editing.  Here, a character’s name “Jansen” becomes “Jensen” a mere eleven pages later.  And pluralizing “emperox” becomes “emperoxs”, not “emperoxes”.  These are sloppy things, but minor.

    A more serious issue is one raised by a number of reviewers at Amazon: that there isn’t really an ending, just a pause in the storyline.

    Well, that’s a valid criticism, but to be fair, the book does end at a logical point.  The Collapsing Empire is not a standalone novel, but at least it doesn’t close with a cliffhanger scenario.  It kind of reminded me of the way The Fellowship of The Ring, Book 1 of LOTR, finishes.  Phase 1 is done; read the next book for Phase 2.  I suppose if Tolkien can get away with it, so can Scalzi.  But it is disappointing.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you can’t stand novels that aren’t standalones.  My advice is: wait three or four years until the series is complete, then borrow the books from your local library.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Map Of Bones - James Rollins

   2009; 715 pages.  Book #2 (out of 12) in the Sigma Force series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It was an outright massacre that took place during the midnight High Mass at the main cathedral in Cologne, Germany.  Parishioners and priests alike were slaughtered, down to almost the last man.

    The motive seemed obvious – there’s a gold sarcophagus in the cathedral, worth millions, and it was the goal of the assassins.  What doesn’t make sense is why they chose to go after it when the place was packed.  It would’ve been a much easier heist if they had waited until no one was at the church.

    It was even stranger when the robbers/killers didn’t even try to carry off the sarcophagus.  They just opened it up and stole its contents – a few ancient bones.  Tradition says they were from the three wise men that journeyed to visit the Christ child in the Bible.  It’s a quaint legend, but probably fiction.  How in the heck would you track down those wise men, let alone stick around until they died and then make off with a couple of their bones?  Most likely these relics are medieval forgeries.

    But then why would somebody be willing to kill hundreds of people just to steal them?

What’s To Like...
    The action in Map Of Bones begins immediately (there’s a Prologue), and continues non-stop until the final page.  There are two sets of bad guys (The Guild and the Dragon Court) and two sets of good guys (the Vatican and our Sigma Force heroes), but the lines of trust and loyalty among those four groups can best be described as “fluid”.

    Based on previous books, I thought Sigma Force was just a special-ops unit, but apparently they are picked for their assorted technological and scientific backgrounds.  Indeed, science plays a prominent part here – weird things like superconductors, Meissner fields, and m-state elements.

    The puzzle-solving has a decidedly historical flavor to it, with special emphasis on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  So if you like topics such as Alexander the Great, the Library at Alexandria, Sphinxes, and the Magi, you’re in for a treat.  Even one of my personal historical heroes, Eratosthenes, gets a brief mention.  If history isn’t your shtick, no problem.  The underground city in Seattle gets cited (there really is such a thing), as do the music groups Godsmack and the Pixies.

    The settings are great – Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and Egypt, and they had the “feel” of James Rollins spending time in each place to make them realistic to readers and locals alike.  Rollins throws in some snippets of foreign languages here and there – French, German, Latin, Italian and Portuguese, and I always like that.  My Gnostics get some major ink here, and I like that they were evenly presented as the early opposition to the Orthodox Church.  Most authors make it a good-vs-evil sort of thing, favoring one side or the other.  Here, both theological stances are presented as having their pluses and minuses.

    There are a bunch of plot twists to keep you on your toes.  Have fun trying to guess who the Imperator is.  I bet you’ll guess wrong.  Hey, so did I.  Everything builds to a great climactic showdown.  Some good guys and bad guys die; some of each also get away.

    There is some cussing and adult situation, and of course, lots of violence.  If this offends you, you’re reading the wrong genre.  There’s also a smidgen of Romance here, but not enough to frighten away the male readers.  Map Of Bones is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.  It was also surprisingly quick-reading, which was a plus for its 700+-page length.

Kewlest New Word ...
Corbeled (v.) : (something) supported by a projection jutting out from a wall (i.e., a corbel).

Kindle Details...
    Map Of Bones sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The other Sigma Force e-books are in the $2.99-$9.99 range, but if you have patience, you will find some of the older ones occasionally discounted to $1.99.   Rollins’s non-Sigma-Force novels are similarly priced.  All in all, I find his e-book rates quite reasonable.

    Gray remembered her eyes upon him and her dark curiosity.  But he also remembered Painter’s earlier warning about her.  It must have been plain on his face.
    “Yes, I am going to betray you,” Seichan had said plainly as she pulled on her shirt.  “But only after this is over.  You will attempt the same.  We both know this.  Mutual distrust.  Is there a better form of honesty?”  (loc. 6161)

    She heard a satisfying grunt and the clatter of a gun to stone.  Something heavy followed with a thud.
    Rolling across the floor, she reached Vigor.  The monsignor crouched near the top of the firepit tunnel.  She handed him her gun.  “Down,” she ordered.  “Shoot anybody that comes into view.”
    “What about you?”
    “No, don’t shoot me.”
    “I mean where are you going?”  (loc. 7252)

 Why steal the bones of the Magi?  (loc. 301)
    The negatives are minor.  Parts of Map Of Bones are a bit over-the-top.  Meissner fields and m-state elements are real (Wiki them), but levitation is not.  You will find the puzzles indecipherable here, but our plucky heroes solve each one in no time flat.  And every time someone points a gun at Grayson Pierce’s head, you just know something will go awry for the baddies.

    Still, this is like quibbling over the action details in an Indiana Jones movie.  It may be over-the-top, but good golly, Miz Molly, it sure is entertaining.

    This was my fifth James Rollins novel, and my third of his Sigma Force series.  Three more are sitting on my Kindle, waiting to be read.  James Rollins is gradually replacing Steve Berry as my favorite historical-themed action-thriller author. 

    8½ Stars.  The midnight High Mass scene brought back memories of my freshman year in college,, when my RA was a priest-in-training.  He would occasionally take part in the service, usually sprinkling the incense around.  We freshmen usually had nothing better to do – we were required to live in dorms and forbidden to have cars..  So we would sometimes attend the service, albeit generally in an inebriated state.

    If you’ve never attending a High Mass, I highly recommend the experience, no matter what your religious views are.   Just remember to be respectful, and if you’re not a Catholic (and I’m not), do NOT partake of the wafers and wine.  Who knows, it could be a matter of life and death.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Men At Arms - Terry Pratchett

   1993; 377 pages.  Book 15 (out of 41) of the Discworld series.  Book #2 (out of 8) of the City Watch subseries.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Laurels : #148 in the Big Read.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Sam Vimes is getting ready to retire from the Night Watch.  It’s a good career move since he plans to marry the Lady Sibyl Ramkin, who is merely the richest woman in all Ankh-Morpork.  Sam will be moving up in social status, and up in money.

    There is one little thing that Sam would like to clear up before he retires.  It seems a lot of people (and we use that term loosely) are dropping dead in Ankh-Morpork lately.  That in itself is not unusual, but the means of their demise is.  Lead poisoning.

    But not just any kind of lead.  Lead in the form of little pellets.  And which seem to make big holes in a victim’s body when they enter it at great speeds.  Whatever weapon was used, it is new to Sam Vimes and his Night Watch.  What kind of contrivance could wreak such damage?

   Maybe the word “gonne” found on a stray piece of paper is a clue.  Maybe there’s a clue on the book’s cover.

What’s To Like...
    Men At Arms centers around Ankh-Morpork’s Night Watch, and that’s always guarantee of a fun read.  Three significant new recruits are added here – Lance-Constables Detritus, Cuddy, and Angua, and all play major parts in the storyline.  This is the book where the Night Watch takes over prominence from the Day Watch.  It was also nice to see Gaspode The Talking Dog again; he is an infrequent guest in the series.

     The main plotline is of course figuring out who is behind the killing, and why, and how.  But there are also lots of subplots.  Sam retires, gets married, and gets promoted.  Carrot finds his heritage, loses it, and gets promoted.  Gaspode gets a home, and leaves a home.  As always, Terry Pratchett subtly weaves several more-serious themes into the tale.  Here they are Affirmative Action, Racial/Species Bigotry, the role of Royalty, and Gun Control, with that last topic being given a different spin than what you’d expect.

    Men At Arms has the usual Pratchett format – no chapters, but lots of witty footnotes.  If you like dogs and clowns and dwarfs and trolls, you’re in for a treat.  Synesthesia makes a brief appearance, and even my Gnostics get some ink, which is an incredible work-in when you think about it.  And if you’ve never attended a clown funeral, you don’t know what you’re missing, and here’s your chance.

    I don’t recall any other Discworld novel featuring so many Ankh-Morpork guilds.  To wit: the Assassins’ Guild, the Fools’ Guild (the clowns), the Alchemists’ Guild, the Beggars’ Guild, the Thieves’ Guild, the Butchers’ Guild, the Teacher’s Guild, the Bakers’ Guild.  Hey, there’s even a Dogs’ Guild.

    I thought the ending was excellent and tied things up nicely.  As always, this is a standalone novel, despite being part of a 41-book series.  It’s nice not to have to read them in order, and it’s nice to discover where some characters made their debut.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Berk (n.) : a fool; a twit  (Britishism)
Others : Toff (n.; Britishism); Stroppy (adj.; Britishism).

    “I’ll tell you,” said Vimes.  “A monarch’s an absolute ruler, right?  The head honcho-“
    “Unless he’s a queen,” said Carrot.
    Vimes glared at him, and then nodded.
    “OK, or the head honchette-“
    “No, that’d only apply if she was a young woman.  Queens tend to be older.  She’d have to be a … a honcharina?  No, that’s for very young princesses.  No.  Um.  A honchesa, I think.”
   Vimes paused.  There’s something in the air in this city, he thought.  If the Creator said, “Let there be light” in Ankh-Morpork, he’d have got no further because of all the people saying “What color?” (pg. 64)

    “I think we’re going to have to go and have a word with the Day Watch about the arrest of Coalface,” Carrot said.
    “We ain’t got no weapons,” said Colon.
    “I’m certain Coalface has nothing to do with the murder of Hammerhock,” said Carrot.  “We are armed with the truth.  What can harm us if we are armed with the truth?”
    “Well, a crossbow bolt can, e.g., go right through your eye and out the back of your head,” said Sergeant Colon(pg. 244)

 Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.  (pg. 253)
    I have nothing negative to say about Men At Arms, but there are a couple things to note.

    First, there are quite a number of killings.  Someone getting offed is not unprecedented for a Discworld novel, but I counted eight of them here.  That's a bunch.  The good news is that means DEATH gets to show up a lot.  But it also means impressionable young’uns might be a bit stunned by it all.

    Second, there is one case of “jumping into the sack”, and I don’t remember encountering that in a Discworld novel before.  Yes, it is tastefully done, but adult readers will have no doubt about what took place.  And little Tommy or Susie might ask questions.

    But hey, I’m not a juvenile, so none of this bothers or offends me.  It was enlightening to see how Terry Pratchett handled both the multiple murders and the sex in a manner acceptable even to YA readers.

    9½ Stars.  Published in 1993, Men At Arms is from the “Golden Age” of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  It completely lived up to my high expectations, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide - Peter Cave

   2014; 240 pages.  Full Title: Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Philosophy; Reference.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Ah, Philosophy!  Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and wisdom IMO, defines it as “the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language”.

    Well that’s just fine and dandy.  But if you find yourself trapped in an elevator with a philosopher, just how do you talk the talk with him/her?  “Yo, bro!  To be or not to be”, perhaps?  Or how about, “I think therefore I am.”  Maybe the more metaphysical, “Can God make a stone so heavy that even He/She can’t lift it?”

    Hmm.  Perhaps we should read a book about Philosophy.  Preferably one aimed at newbies to the subject.  You never know when you'll find yourself stuck in an elevator with a philosopher.

What’s To Like...
    Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide has 10 Chapters (12, if you add in the Prologue and the Epilogue).  Briefly, they are :
P. Take Your Time.  What is philosophy?
1.  What is it to be human?  I think, therefore I am.
2.  Are we responsible for what we do?  Free will, determinism.
3.  Surviving.  Does the “I” change as we age?  Who are “you”?
4.  What – morally – ought we to do?  Situational ethics.
5. Political philosophy: what justifies the state?  What is legally/rightfully mine?
6. Mind, brain and body.  Is pain psychological or physical?
7. What, then, is knowledge?  How do we “know” something?
8. How sceptical should we be?  Science and skepticism.
9. God: For and against.  Big Bang vs. Intelligent Design.
10. The arts: what is the point?  Aesthetics and “the message”.  How do we judge art?
E.  Mortality, immortality and the meaning of life.  What is the meaning of life?  What is immortality worth?
    My favorites were Chapters 4, 5, 8, and the Epilogue.  Yours will probably be different.

   The book is written in English, not American, so you encounter words like scepticism, defence, programmes, and skilful.  MS-Word’s spellcheck program just went crazy over that sentence.  The author points out that it isn’t necessary to read the chapters in order, but I did anyway.

    This is also a book to read in “small bites”, as my brain rapidly got weary trying to keep straight all the “isms” that Peter Cave examines.  Really.  Here’s a fairly complete list: Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Theory, Particularism, Dualism, Free Will, Determinism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Voluntarism, Egalitarianism, Libertarianism, Logical Behaviorism, Materialism, Cartesian Dualism, Epiphenomenalism, Functionalism, Skepticism, Fallibilism, Phenomenalism, Naturalism, and Instrumentalism.  Whew!  And I may have missed a couple that appeared before I started to make a list of them.

    Peter Cave presents lots of muse-worthy scenarios and examines the various ways to judge them.  I often started out with a first-thought conclusion, then had to reexamine it in the face of Cave’s arguments.  The “two lobes of the brain” one was especially fascinating.

    I also encountered some neat people and things that I was already familiar with, such as the Turing Test, Novalis, Nietzsche, Ockham’s Razor, and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.  Cave includes “mini bios” of almost every philosopher he cites in the book, often with some ironic and little-known “twist” in their life.  Way kewl.

    What is it like to be a bat?
    However much we may learn about the bat’s echo system, however much we may examine the bat’s neural structures – whatever flights of fancy we may engage, when hanging upside down from the chapel’s rafters flapping our arms – we may still feel that there is something forever elusive; the bat’s consciousness, its perspective on the world.
    What, indeed, is it like to be a bat?
    Even if bats could talk, we could not understand them.  (loc. 1792)

    Scepticism can be traced to the ancient Greek Pyrrho of Elis.  Some sceptics would claim nothing can be known – not even that nothing can be known.  Ancient anecdotes abound of Pyrrho ignoring precipices, dangerous dogs and other hazards for he had no good reason to trust his senses.  Fortunately, he had good friends who were not so sceptical; they steered him away from disasters in waiting.  (loc. 2089)

Kindle Details...
    Philosophy:A Beginner’s Guide sells for $6.15 at Amazon.  Peter Cave has written at least two other books for the Beginner’s Guide series, Humanism (which is on my Kindle, waiting to be read) and Ethics (which I have not yet purchased).  The former is also priced at $6.15.  The latter goes for $9.99.  The author also has several of his own books on Philosophical Puzzles, which are more light-hearted, and which are in the $8.49-$11.50 range.

 ‘Tis better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.  (loc. 1004)
    Full disclosure #1: I am not a big fan of Philosophy.  I find it mostly a bunch of gobblety-gook, and those who expound upon it to be filled with themselves and hot air.  Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide did not change my views on this.  The book poses lots of great questions and issues, and offers the reader no conclusions.  But hey, that’s philosophy for you.

    Full disclosure #2: I am a big fan of Peter Cave.  I’ve read two of his other books on Philosophy, namely: Do Llamas Fall In Love? and Can A Robot be Human?  They are reviewed here and here, and I enjoyed both those books.  P:ABG was still a good read, it's just that the constraints of writing a worthwhile reference means that it isn't the author's best stuff.  If you want to see Peter Cave at his best, pick up DLFIL?

    7 Stars.  FYI, there apparently are a slew of books, on all sorts of different subjects, in the Beginner’s Guide series.  They are listed in the back of this e-book, albeit without links, and are published by Oneworld Publications.  I suspect they are meant to be a rival of the “(Such and such) For Dummies” series.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Harvest Of Stars - Poul Anderson

   1993; 531 pages.  Book One (out of four) in the “Harvest of Stars” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Science-Fiction; Dystopia; Speculative Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    A few centuries from now, Earth is a quite different place.  Canada, Mexico, and the USA are no more; they’ve all be conglomerated into one totalitarian entity, ruled by the Avantists, a decidedly leftist-leaning group.

    Rebellion isn’t exactly boiling over, but it simmers in places; one of which, surprisingly, is the mega-corporation called Fireball Enterprises.  Its CEO is a download (more about those later) named Anson Guthrie., and it’s just a matter of time before the Security Police (“Sepo”) arrest him on some trumped-up charge.

    But Guthrie’s in hiding in North America, and ace spaceship-pilot Kyra Davis has been dispatched to smuggle him out of there.  That is no small task since Orwellian technology exists and it has to be assumed that the Sepo can see and hear just about anything they want to within the Avantist realm.  We hope Kyra succeeds, but the question arises: Where on Earth will Guthrie be safe?

    Well, let’s think outside the box, er… sphere.  How about the Moon?

What’s To Like...
    Harvest of Stars is divided into three discrete sections.  Part 1 (“Kyra”) is the longest (40% of the book), and is mostly a dystopian thriller.  Part 2 (“Eiko”; 30% of the book) focuses more about political intrigue, and Part 3 (“Demeter”; 30% of the book) is where speculative Science Fiction finally kicks into gear.

    There’s a Dramatis Personae list at the very beginning, which I found very useful.  Not a lot of time is devoted  to the backstories of the characters, but both minor and major ones receive names, and often pop up again hundreds of page later.  So it is nice to be able to flip to the start of the book whenever someone reappears, and get refreshed about who they are.  There are some flashbacks, but the author signals this by inserting the word “Database” into the chapter’s header.  I thought this was an innovative way to avoid confusion.

    The settings are somewhat limited for the first two sections: Earth, the Moon (“Luna”), and an orbiting space colony called “L-5”.  The settings in the Demeter section are much more interesting: three planets circling a binary set of suns in the faraway Alpha Centauri cosmos.

    The story takes place far enough in the future to where a separate race, the Lunarians, has evolved on the moon.  The newly-evolved Metamorphs on Earth were also neat to meet.  Poul Anderson mixes in some Arabic and French vocabulary, and a slew of Spanish expressions.  In this future world, we’re all polyglots.  There’s only a smidgen of cussing, and even a couple of new euphemisms: “MacCannon” and “flinking”.  I liked those.
    The thing I enjoyed the most about Harvest Of Stars were the “downloads”.  By the time of the storyline, technology allows you to “clone your brain” into a mechanical body.  Indeed, you can make multiple copies of your mental/psychological self.  This adds a certain amount of mayhem to the plot, and also gives some innovative new options for coping with the dilemma of intergalactic voyages, and of course, immortality.

    Harvest Of Stars is a standalone book, as well as part of a series.  I found the ending to be superb; it'll leave a lump in your throat.

Kewlest New Word  ...
Halidom (n.) : something regarded as sacred; a holy relic.
Others : Agley (adj.); Gyrocephalic (adj.); Pollulated (v.); Contumacious (adj.); Fleered (v.); Knaggy (adj.); Asymptote (n.); Apotheosis (n.); Quivira (n.).

    “Sing a song of spacefolk, a pocketful of stars.
    Play it on the trumpets, harmonicas, guitars.
    When the sky was opened, mankind began to sing:
    ‘Now’s the time to leave the nest, the wind is on the wing!’”  (pg. 343)

    ”Eiko, it’s such a forlornly long shot.”
    “Does that mean it is ridiculous?” the other replied.  Her gaze went into the swaying, whispering, light-unrestful green.  “Some fantasies came to me while I sat, often and often, high in the Tree.  Fancies about evolution.  It has no purpose, the biologists tell us, no destiny; it simply happens, as blindly and wonderfully as rainbows.  Nevertheless the scum on ancient seas becomes cherry blossoms, tigers, children who see the rainbow and marvel.”  (pg. 389)

 “Word would leak out like … like electrons quantum-tunneling through any potential barrier I can raise.”  (pg. 22)
    For me, the whole first section of Harvest Of Stars was a slog.  This was probably because I read Poul Anderson books for Science Fiction adventures, and frankly, there isn’t any to be found for quite a while in this book.  Yes, our heroes are running from the Big Brother types, but I never got the sense that they were about to be caught.

    We at last get up into space in the second section, but it’s still kind of a slow go.  Things aren’t helped by Anderson seeming to want to tell you all about his libertarian viewpoints and why leftists are such meanies.  Plus, he never seems to use one word, when a dozen will serve just as well.

    But if you can trudge through all the politics and tediousness, you arrive at section 3, and that, quite frankly, is a masterpiece, and demonstrates why Poul Anderson is considered a top-tier sci-fi writers of all time.

    We’ll rate section 1 at 5½ stars, section 2 at 6½ stars, and section 3 a whopping 9 stars, just to make the math come out even.  Averaging them out comes to:

    7 Stars.  And BTW, the concept of downloading one’s self was extremely timely, as I am also currently reading a non-fiction book about Philosophy.  The author, Peter Cave, gives a number of situational conundrums, including the fascinating one: “what if you could clone yourself?” (*)

    As any good philosopher would, Cave asks all sorts of muse-worthy questions, such as which one is the “real you”?  Further, if you were to kill your clone (or if the clone kills you), would we call it murder?  Suicide?  Or was no crime at all committed?  Food for thought.

(*) : actually, Cave speculates about what would happen to "you" if the two lobes of your brain were put into separate bodies.  But it works out to be the same as being cloned.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Board Stiff - Piers Anthony

   2014; 276 pages.  Book #38 (out of 40) in the “Xanth” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Fantasy; Puns; YA.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    “So here is my wish.  I’m board stiff.  I want Adventure, Excitement, and Romance.”

    Ah, Irrelevant Kandy.  You really should choose your words more carefully when you’re at a wishing well.  Magic wells might grant you what you ask for, but they’re dreadfully dense when it comes to grammar.

    For instance, in your second statement there, “board” is wrong; you meant to say “bored”.  Although just how the wishing well misunderstood this since it was a spoken word remains a mystery.  Nevertheless, that's what you said, and it was right after you declared “so here’s my wish”.

    Now just look at you.  Stiff as a board.  Come to think of it, you are a board. With knotholes for eyes and everything.

    Now how in the bleep are your other three wishes going to be fulfilled?  Can a plank have Adventure?  Excitement?  And goodness me, I don’t think Romance is possible for a piece of wood.

What’s To Like...
    Board Stiff is a pun-lover’s delight, and “puns” in this case includes spoonerisms and malapropisms.  Among the groaners herein are bi-polar bears, boot hill, sequins of events, a com pewter, cyan-eyed, and boot rear.  For me, the best ones were the computer-related puns.  You’ll meet Ms. Dos and her Auto Exec bat, deal with “Macrohard” and its application Macrohard Doors; and try to make sense of the “OuterNet”.

    The storyline is straightforward, Kandy picks up an intrepid crew of questors along the way, and they try to find an anti-virus for a plague that's destroying all the puns in Xanth.  And trust me, Xanth without puns just would be a sad, sad place.

    Kandy’s main cohort is a nice-but-clueless guy named Ease, who also came away from the wishing well having asked for a Perfect Woman, a Perfect Weapon, or a Perfect Adventure.  His weapon turns out to be Kandy, in board form, although he's unaware of her/its dual nature and she only reverts to a woman when Ease is asleep or unconscious.  Each of the questors has a “talent” and all will have to make use of them before the mission is resolved.

    By the story’s count (and I trust Piers Anthony's math) there are 14 “events” prior to the grand finale, so the action is quick and non-stop.  However, if you look at the pages-to-events ratio, it's evident that each of the challenges gets solved in quick order, so none of the them are very thrilling, let alone epic.

    I had trouble figuring out who the intended target audience was.  On one hand, all cuss words are replaced with a “Bleep”.  On the other hand, Piers Anthony seems to have a fetish for panties and bras, looking up dresses, and girls getting naked in front of boys.  There are no explicit sex scenes, but it is implied that some occur offstage.  And although the details of sex are kept secret per the Adult Conspiracy, the term sado-masochism does get mentioned at one point.

    Board Stiff is a standalone novel, but enough loose threads remain afterward to allow for a sequel, and the next book in the series,  Five Portraits, is exactly that. At the very end, there is a kewl Author’s Note, wherein Piers Anthony cites various and sundry puns that were sent to him by fans of the series.  I gather that if he uses one that you submit, you’ll find your name  in this section when the book's published.  That’s kinda neat.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Bruit (v.)  :  to spread (a report or rumor) widely
Others: Cynosure (n.); Oubliette (n.)  

    “It’s always dawn on Antidote Planet.  The elixir carries the odor.  So when you smell purple waves at dawn, you’ll know you’re close.”
   “Dawn has a smell?” Ease asked.
    “Purple has a smell?” Mitch asked.
    “This is not logical,” Pewter said.
   “No, it’s magic,” Ida reminded them.  (loc. 3477)

    “We are on a Quest to locate the antidote to the virus,” Pewter said.  “But we do not know where it is.  We have been wandering, searching for hints.”
    “An antidote,” she said thoughtfully.  “Could the answer lie in the science of chemistry?”
    “You believe in science?” Pewter asked, startled.
    “It’s a form of magic, less reliable but useful in its place.  But mainly, we know where there is a chemistree, that fruits potion bottles.”  (loc. 5678)

Kindle Details...
    Board Stiff sells for $6.15 at Amazon.  The rest of the books in the series run in price from $2.99 to $9.99, mostly depending on how long they’ve been around.  Piers Anthony has several other series besides Xanth, and their prices are also in the $2.99-$9.99 range.

 “Go poke your finger in your right ear,” the nearest goblin called back.  “And pull it out your left ear.”  (loc.  4959)
    For me. the storytelling in Board Stiff is rather bland; ditto for the writing style.  We go from event to event, but there’s never much doubt as to whether Kandy and her band will succeed, so there’s never any building of tension.  For any challenge, there’s always a questor with just the conveniently right talent.

    Still, I'm not the target audience, and the action may carry the day for juvenile boys, who will also get their jollies from the male questors snatching glances of their female counterparts’ underwear and occasional nudity.  But I think for most adults, who are aware of the secrets of the Adult Conspiracy, this will probably be a tedious read.

    The Xanth series has been around since 1977,  and I think I started reading the series in the early 80's.  I remember being particularly impressed with Book 5, Ogre, Ogre.  But the books soon became repetitive, and the wit juvenile.  The abundance of puns remained, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep my interest.  By book 10 or so, I had abandoned the series.

    6 Stars.  I picked up Board Stiff to see if things had changed for the better over the last 30 books and years.  The answer, at least for me, is sadly “no”. 

    BTW, “board Stiff” is apparently a popular pun.  I found no less than five other e-books at Amazon that make use of the same play on words in their titles.