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Bookends: Adventures among the Stars February 6, 2013

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Bookends: Adventures among the Stars

Legions of Space copy

By Dan Davidson

November 14, 2012,     Star, Nov. 16/12

– 795 words –


Legions of Space

By Keith Laumer

Baen Books

480 pages


Keith Laumer was one of the best writers of fast-paced adventure style science fiction in the 1960s and 70s, able to write with ease as a humourist, as a serious writer and as a satirist. He is perhaps best remembered for his Retief stories and novels, which were essentially an SF spoof of the James Bond series. These were fueled by his own memories from his time with America’s Foreign Service.

A number of other writers have latched onto the ideas contained in his Bolo stories, tales of tank-like war machines guided by implanted human brains, and there have been a number of anthologies carrying this series onward since his death in 1993.

Baen Books has been doing us all a favour by putting out collected editions of works by a number of authors who were once big names for publishing imprints that no longer exist.  There are four or five Laumer collections now, and I was glad to see them, since the glue on the spines of my ancient paperbacks has gone brittle.

Legions of Space is an odd title for this book. It suggests an established space based organization of some sort, but really it’s just that all the stories take place in space in some way.

At 480 pages, the book is pretty much the size of the average paperback novel these days, but 40 years ago novels were shorter and often topped out at 50 to 60,000 words or just under 200 pages. That’s how this book can manage to contain two complete novels and four average sized short stories and still have room for a fan’s introduction to the writer and his work.

The first novel in this collection is A Trace of Memory, in which a ne’er do well drifter named Legion is hired by a strange millionaire to protect him and finds himself suddenly in charge of a younger version of the same man who has no memory of who he is. There are a number of chase and escape adventures on Earth leading to an initial plot resolution at Stonehenge.

The story picks up a few years later and ends with Legion involved in a revolution on another planet, a planet that seems to have been the source of our legends of King Arthur. From the way the story breaks in the middle I suspect this was serialized in a magazine in its original appearance. On this planet people are immortal in body but not in mind, and have developed technology that allows them to record their memories before their bodies reboot, so that their essential personalities can live on in their rejuvenated bodies, hence the title.

Planet Run is one of very few collaborations Laumer wrote, this one with Gordon R. Dickson. This is sort of a treasure hunt story but it’s also about a successful older man taking a younger fellow under his wing and turning him into someone worthy of the love of his granddaughter.

“The Choice” is a somewhat comical Star Trek like story in which the narrator manages to outthink an intruding alien intelligence and turn the tables on some fellow humans who have used him rather badly.

“Three Blind Mice” is a military SF story, but it hinges on the need to establish some means of communication between two quite different forms of intelligence.

“Mind out of Time” is also about choices, and hinges on the sacrifice that one member of an exploration team makes when an experimental star drive seriously out-performs any possible expectations. Structured like a mini-novel its 16 short scenes take us through several dimensions of reality and ends with one of the crew members in another universe.

“Message to an Alien” starts out seeming to be another war story in which an embittered veteran strives to undo years of diplomacy, but it spins on itself and reveals that this disgraced former serviceman is simply trying to prevent his own people and their alien foes from getting mired in a pointless and costly extended conflict. The protagonist is one of Laumer’s “competent man” types who gets things done in spite of the bumbling attempts by lesser minds to prevent him. In this case, he stops a war before it can begin by using a very physical style of diplomacy.

Laumer rates a Wikipedia entry and there are a number of fan sites devoted to his work. One I like is http://www.keithlaumer.com. The stories are somewhat dated in style, reading like a blend of science fiction and hard-boiled detective novels, but they’re fun and it was neat to visit them again after all these years.



Bookends: The Next Chapter of the Next Men February 6, 2013

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Bookends: The Next Chapter of the Next Men

Next Men

By Dan Davidson

November 7, 2012,      Star, Nov. 9/12

– 833 words –

John Byrne’s Next Men: Scattered, volume 1

by John Byrne

IDW Publishing

104 pages


Back in 1991, writer/artist John Byrne, who had done the 1986 revamp of the Superman franchise, and was previously famous for his run on the X-men, took some of Superman’s powers and distributed them among a group of young people who had been genetically altered and raised in a virtual reality environment.

He didn’t just give them the abilities; he explored what the downside of these powers might be.

Nathan got vision powers, by means of rather ugly looking mutated eyes that allowed him to see a wide spectrum of light but left him pretty much blinded to normal vision without the aid of special glasses.

Jasmine became super acrobatic.

Jack became super-strong but, in a reversal of the usual situation, had to wear a special exoskeleton to damp down his ability because he could not control his strength.

Bethany developed invulnerability to the point of having razor-sharp hair and indestructible fingernails, but she gradually lost her sense of touch and other physical sensations while her skin bleached white. In addition, she apparently no longer needed to breathe.

Danny, the youngest and most enthusiastic of the group, developed the ability to run at superhuman speeds, and the mutated legs and feet needed to support such activity.

The young people had to adapt to living in the real world, were the objects of a massive manipulation by a secret government agency and were exploited by a comic book company in sequences that appeared to be Byrne taking whacks at DC and Marvel comics.

The series ran for 30 issues during the big comic book boom of the early 1990s until 1995, when the bottom fell out of the industry. It ended with the explosive destruction of the White House and the apparent disappearance of the Next Men, each of them whisked away by a strange figure in a suit of armor.

That did sort of end a portion of the larger story Byrne was telling, but it left us with one heck of a cliffhanger.

Fifteen years later the comics field hadn’t improved that much, but the companies are making money in licensing fees, so they’re not as concerned with the print runs. Next Men was first issued by Dark Horse comics but, unlike most of what we see from the two big houses, that company dealt with creator owned material, so eventually their control of the series lapsed and IDW, another of the smaller houses, picked up the material, reissued it in collected hardcover and paperback editions and persuaded Byrne to pick up the story where he left it.

It turns out that he left the kids scattered through time, plopped down and isolated from each other as some sort of plot by the mysterious armored figure who states very clearly that he or she was somehow betrayed by them.

This volume collects the first four issues of a story that has a lot of twists and turns as it follows the adventures of Nathan, Jasmine, Jack and Bethany, along with their former government control agent, Tony Murcheson.

Nathan and Jasmine spend some years hanging out with dinosaurs before they are separated again. He ends up in a Nazi concentration camp and she lands in Shakespearean England. Tony is dropped off in Civil War era America where, as a feisty, combative, modern liberated black woman, she has a very hard time, but apparently ends up triggering a whole new alternate timeline where Lincoln did not die.

In this same timeline (but 150 years or so later on) Jack, who underwent a religious conversion experience during their earlier adventures, is, in fact, 15 years older and serving as a priest is Greenwich Village.  It is his discovery of Tony’s grave that tells us what she was able to accomplish in the past to which she was consigned.

Bethany is forced to watch all of this by her mysterious abductor, who also reveals that she has been plucked out of her own timeline years before an accident with an experimental particle accelerator would have left her buried alive miles underground for 238 years.

In another timeline we see her rescued all those years later, rescued but dangerously unbalanced by her ordeal, and we are not surprised to find that this insane version of Bethany is the one who is behind all the mysterious abductions and time shuffling which dominates this tale.

Mad Bethany has stolen time travel armor and has scattered her former teammates to the four winds of time as payback for them failing to rescue her, all the while trying to save her younger self from enduring the same fate.

I’m not at all sure just how Byrne is going to resolve all the time travel paradoxes that this first volume seems to have created, but it was quite a ride.


Bookends: The Great Detective Returns to Baskerville Hall February 6, 2013

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Bookends: The Great Detective Returns to Baskerville HallThe Moor

By Dan Davidson

October 31, 2012,     Star, Nov. 2/12

– 940 words –

The Moor

By Laurie R. King


320 pages


I admit to having overdosed on the Great Detective a few years ago. As a result there are several unread pastiche works sitting on my shelves that haven’t been touched. My interest was reawakened by the two Guy Ritchie movies and the delightful British television series. This column, I must admit, was prompted by my noticing that the volume at hand was back in print from a different publisher.

This series of novels might be seen as the Adventures of Mr. and Mrs., Sherlock Holmes, which will seem odd indeed to those who haven’t encountered them before. It’s been at least 7 years since I last reviewed one of these books so a slight recap is in order.

At the age of 15 a precocious and brilliant 15-year-old named Mary Russell stumbles across a middle aged Sherlock Holmes at his beekeeping retreat in the Sussex Downs and figures out who he is. It’s 1915 and the two of them get involved in a number of adventures over the next four years, with Holmes training her as a detective. Seven years later they finally admit they are more than colleagues and, despite the great age gap between them, get married. Mary keeps her maiden name. More adventures follow in two additional novels taking us up to about 1923.

In The Moor, King attempts something rather daring, which is to take Holmes and Russell back to the scene of his most famous adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles, from thirty years earlier. His godfather, Sabine Baring-Gould, asks Homes to look into the murder of a local moor dweller. This takes the couple to Dartmoor.

King is having a lot of fun here, since Sabine Baring-Gould is a real person (he wrote the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” and some 1200 other publications, from non-fiction to novels) and the ancestor of W.S. Baring-Gould, the eminent Sherlockian who penned Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. A biography of the world’s first consulting detective in 1962.

The Moor is in no way a sequel to Conan Doyle’s orginal story, and yet it mines the same Dartmoor locale for its atmosphere and even has Holmes and Russell revisit Baskerville Hall. There is a hound, the presence of which is played up on the cover of the new edition. I prefer my original copy. It emphasizes the ghostly carriage of Lady Howard, which is said to haunt the moor trails on certain nights. The coach is accompanied by a hound, but this is quite a different creature from the one in the Baskerville curse.

Indeed, something quite different from the original murder mystery is being concocted by the villains of the piece, and it is some time before any of it comes clear. Both Russell (who is no mere amanuensis for Holmes, though hers in the narrator’s voice) and Holmes are resourceful, clever and observant sleuths, but the solution to the ghostly appearances and the murders (for there is another about half-way through the book) is not easily uncovered.

The couple follow different leads and come to the same conclusions by different routes. Holmes’ is a physical search out on the moor. Russell spends her share of time slogging through mud and mire, but actually finds her answers amongst the copious written works of their aged host, the Squire of Lew Trenchard, Baring-Gould. Both also make use of telegrams and sources abroad to fill in gaps in their knowledge.

King’s books are not standard Holmes’ pastiches, and are really more about Russell than about her husband. In her 2006 book, The Art of Detection, part of her present day Kate Martinelli series, King unearthed a solo Holmes adventure set in San Francisco in the 1920s, and proved that she was quite capable of doing that sort of thing. The Russell narratives are mysteries, but they are also about a relationship between two gifted and interesting individuals who are truly fond of each other and compliment each other’s abilities.

Holmes once described Watson as being one who reflected light well, though he cast no light of his own. He would never say that about his wife.

Of particular interest to Yukon readers is the fact that the latest owner of Baskerville Hall, a Mr. Ketteridge, was a stampeder during the Klondike Gold Rush. Some proofreading error manages to scramble the dates in one of the references and place the rush in 1887, but the other dates around it on the same page are correct. While Holmes and Russell are dinner guests, Ketteridge regales them with tales of climbing the Golden Stairs, and getting caught in the avalanche at the Scales in April 1898. He subsequently continued on to Dawson, made a fortune in the Klondike, travelled the world and was captured by the moor and the opportunity to buy Baskerville Hall while travelling in the United Kingdom. By then the place had run down quite a bit and he tackled it as a restoration project.

The Moor is a bit of a slow starter, but it builds. I was able to hold it to a chapter a day while pursuing other reading, but it eventually pushed those books out of the way and demanded to be finished.

If the character of Baring-Gould stirs your interest, and it might, eight of his books are available on the Project Guternburg website, and cover every topic from werewolves, to Cliff Castles, Cave Dwellings, myths of the Middle Ages and a a book of sermons.


Bookends: A Look at Life in the Mundane World February 6, 2013

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Bookends: A Look at Life in the Mundane World

By Dan Davidson

October 24, 2012,      Star, Oct 26/12Rowling - Vacancy

– 940 words –

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown and Co.

501 pages


I read this book over about a four-day span. I might not have bought it, but someone gave me a Christmas gift certificate to our local bookstore, and I had not used it yet, so I made myself a present of the book.

I found it quite compelling. There are some very nasty muggles in this novel and several families that make the Dursleys look functional. Dawson was in the midst of municipal elections, so it seemed a perfect time to read a book in which filling a vacancy on a parish council is the maguffin which sets off the various events in the story. There are a lot of flawed people in this novel, and most of them don’t overcome their flaws, but one or two do, in rather surprising ways.

Okay, that’s pretty much got all the obligatory references to the Harry Potter novels out of the way, though I must admit that these thoughts really did run through my head while I was reading about the goings on in Pagford.

Local politics are a bit of a different game in England. The title comes straight out of the handbook for local council administration. A casual vacancy is declared when a seat is vacated by failure to attend, resignation, or death. This could trigger either an appointment or a by-election.

When Barry Fairbrother, who is probably the nicest person in the book (note the name), collapses with an aneurysm in the parking lot at the local golf club where he and his wife have gone to have an anniversary dinner, the game is afoot immediately. This happens on the third page of the novel, so Rowling wastes no time getting things underway.

Unlike her other work there is no straightforward narrative following the life of one individual. She uses multiple viewpoints to follow the affairs of the Mollison, Price, Weedon, Wall and Jawanda families, as well as the dysfunctional couple of Gavin Hughes and Kay Bawden. There are over 30 characters to keep track of, and one London paper published a reader’s guide (now available on Wikipedia) to assist people.

A good portion of the time is spent in the minds of the young people from these families. Indeed, it is safe to say that this is a very internal story in which not a lot happens compared to the amount of space given to people’s thoughts and reactions about events.

The big issue facing the parish council is what to do about the adjacent cluster of low rent homes called the Fields. Pagford, represented by most of the families in the book, is stolidly middle class – blue to white collar along with some professional people. The Fields, which many Pagfordians feel ought to be an extension of the nearby city of Yarvil, is composed mostly of people on social assistance.

Howard Mollison, chair of the local council, wants his son, Miles, to fill Barry’s seat and thus control the local issue, as well as indirectly shutting down a local drug rehabilitation clinic. When various contenders for the seat pop up, this creates the need for an election.

The messy family dynamics create a desire by a number of the children of potential candidates to attempt to sabotage their parents’ chances by posting damaging material on the parish website under the name The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.

That’s not only cybercrime going on. Fats, the adopted son of the local deputy headmaster, is guilty if bullying and cyber bullying one of the Jawanda girls.

There are issues of truancy, teen sex and lots of other un-Potter like behavior in this novel. The lines between good and evil are nowhere near so clearly drawn as in Rowling’s fantasy work. Some of the kids are quite bent, as are a number of the adults.

The prize, for those looking to complain about language, will be the Weedon family, whose use of the all-purpose f-word for all parts of speech is epic. The Weedons live in the Fields, where Krystal, who is no pillar of virtue, is trying to raise her little brother in spite of the habits of her drug addicted mother, Terri. Notwithstanding her loose ways, there is something tragically heroic about Krystal, and trying to lift her out of the morass of her life had been one of Barry Fairbrother’s pet projects.

Barry elevated himself from the Fields to Pagford by dint of hard work and some good fortune, and he believed in giving others that chance. Those who were his friends want that work to carry on. The other families don’t.

The book is divided into seven parts, the first of which moves us through the various reactions of Barry’s death by most of the families in the cast. Then we move into the machinations related to the election and the interplay amongst the various factions, and things just get messier and messier.

This is decidedly not a children’s book. It is not uplifting and there are no clear-cut victories of good over evil, though there are clear examples of both kinds of behavior in the story. Confusingly, they often come from the same people. The real world is somewhat grey in moral tone, and Rowling has captured that. It is a thoughtful book dealing with issues of class struggle, family violence, infidelity, politics, drug use, promiscuity and rape.

As I said at the beginning, I found it compelling even when it was telling me a story that was often depressing.


Bookends: Back and Forth Through Time and Place February 6, 2013

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Bookends: Back and Forth Through Time and Place

Cloud Atlas

By Dan Davidson

October 17, 2012,  Star, Oct. 19/12

– 873 words-

Cloud Atlas


Vintage Canada

528 pages


I was afraid that thinking of the structure of this novel as being like a set of Russian puzzle dolls might be too much of a cliché, but hearing the author himself describe it that way in an interview for the movie version of the story, I now feel vindicated.

Just how the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer could have managed to shoehorn Mitchell’s story into a movie length offering is beyond me, but I was happy to see the interview.

The novel is composed of six tenuously connected novellas, which move through time from the 18th century to the far future, from the heyday of the British Empire to the collapse of civilization as we know it.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is just what its title suggests, a journal written by a reluctant passenger on a sailing ship. The voyage does not go well for him and his observations of a certain kind of British colonial life are muted but disapproving.

“Letters from Zedelghem” is some correspondence written between World Wars One and Two, letters from a minor composer named Robert Frobisher who hopes to advance his career by acting as scribe and assistant to an ailing senior musician. Frobisher contributes the novel’s title, as it comes from one of his compositions.

The letters are addressed to one Rufus Sixsmith, who pops up as a character in “Half Lives: The First Luisa Del Ray Mystery”. This is a third person narrative set during the years when Ronald Regan was Governor of California. Luisa is a crusading reporter out to uncover a fraud in the nuclear power industry.

Her book is a minor feature in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, the first person misadventures of a vanity publisher who gets in trouble with the mob and is committed for safe keeping to an old folks home by his brother, who promptly dies without leaving anyone with an explanation of the plot. You correctly anticipate that this is the comedy portion of the show.

“An Orison of Sonmi -451” moves us well into a corporate dominated future where a serving class is bred and decanted to work for the real people of the world. The story is the transcript of the final interrogation of Sonmi -451, a server who ascended beyond her station in life and became a symbol of revolution, in a world where corporate brand names have replaced other parts of speech in the way that Xerox and Kleenex did.

In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After”, a young Pacific islander named Zachary, who lives in a world where Sonmi is something of a Madonna figure, recounts the fall of what is left of civilization.

Zachary’s is the only tale that is complete in one go, for all the others developed cliffhangers at crucial moments (sometimes in mid-sentence) as we entered Mitchell’s literary Tardis and were transported to another time, place, voice and literary genre for the next part of the story.

Zachary’s story is the mid-point of the book, after which we rejoin the other tales in reverse sequence, finding out how each of the nested stories concludes until we reach the end of Adam Ewing’s journal entries.

If this all sounds a bit mechanical and bit of a stunt, I suppose it is. Other than overlapping names and bits of bric-a-brac, the only other thing tying these stories together is the notion that each of the central characters seems to have an oddly shaped birthmark.  It is suggestive of some sort of genetic connection, but this is never really spelled out.

There is something dreadfully wrong with each of the societies featured in the stories and there’s a bit of name checking along the way. Sonmi, for instance, advances her education by reading books by writers named Huxley and Orwell on her sony (no books – just e-readers in her world, and the iPad hadn’t happened when Mitchell wrote this book). And the final fate of the serving class directly references a novel by the late Harry Harrison, which made it to the screen as “Soilent Green”.

Words matter. Zachary, telling tales to his descendents, speaks of the importance of the written word. Frobisher writes long letters, Ewing keeps a journal in spite of his illness. Del Rey is a journalist and Cavendish a publisher.

The voices, narrative styles, genres and pacing of the sections are quite distinct, and serve to mark the passage of time as well as changes in language itself. It can be a bit precious when technique pulls you out of the story and causes you to go “wasn’t that clever?” and this did happen to me a few times in this book, but not enough to ruin the overall effect.

As I said at the beginning, I have no idea how they could cut this down to movie size and still deal with all six narratives. Might be interesting. Might be awful. After all, the Wachowskis produced both the first “Matrix” movie and then “Speed Racer”, which certainly exist at opposite ends of any quality continuum.


Bookends: Revolution – Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss February 6, 2013

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Bookends: Revolution – Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss

By Dan Davidson

October 10, 2012,   Star, Oct. 12/12


– 785 words –

Mockingjay: The Final Book of the Hunger Games 
Scholastic Press

400 pages


You all probably haven’t been waiting with baited breath for my opinion on the conclusion of Suzanne Collins’ successful young adult dystopia. Sales figures and the eventual plan to make two movies out of this third book (following the lead of both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises) indicate that Collins needs no assistance from me. But I did manage to finish the book in a hotel in Toronto last month while travelling, so here I am anyway.

That I finished this trilogy is a testament to its power, seeing that I did so reading it on my laptop computer, my least favorite way to read anything. My wife had it in a KOBO version on her iPod and this was the only way she could share the file with me.

Collins left us at the end of Catching Fire with a tremendous cliffhanger, as Katniss Everdeen and some of the contestants in the special punitive edition of the Hunger Games were rescued from the arena by airborne rebels who took them to the legendary District 13.

The nation of Panem is what became of North America after some sort of social and ecological collapse. The opulent Capital (somewhere in the Rocky Mountains) is supported by the labour and production of the workers in Districts 1 through 12. The Capital, led by President Snow, enforces its rule through the mechanism of the Games. When Katniss and Peeta forced a change of the Game’s rules in the first book, “the girl who was on fire” became a rallying point for the rebellion bubbling under the surface of this society, and her signature pin, a Mockingjay, became a codename and symbol of the rebellion.

Katniss is hardly aware of this at first, but Snow sees it all, and forces an extra set of Games, a Quarter Quell, with the purpose of killing most of the living winners of the previous games. The resulting struggle in Catching Fire does more that simply repeat the action in the first book, The Hunger Games, and sets up a transition to something else, which is which the final volume delivers.

As before, the book is divided into three sections. Those hoping to have the action continue flat out will be disappointed. In “The Ashes” Katniss and her colleagues (minus Peeta, who was captured) have to adjust to the regimented life of District 13, where people have been living underground for the last 75 years, waiting for the time to take back freedom. Spend that long in a kind of cage and you might just lose sight of what the word “freedom” means. As any rate, they see Katniss as a propaganda weapon and not much else, at first, and it takes her some time to make the necessary adjustments. After all, she never really wanted to be a hero in the first place.

“The Assault” cranks up the tension as they rescue Peeta from the capital, only to find he has been brainwashed to want to kill the girl he has loved since he was a boy. That makes life even more confusing for Katniss, who has been torn between him and her childhood friend, Gale, ever since the first book. As the title suggests, this section leads into a series of assaults during which district after district falls to the rebels. They finally end up in the Capital, fighting a new kind of game, while Katniss and Peeta struggle to rebuild his shattered mind.

In part three, “The Assassin”, Katniss plays her own game, intending to end Snow once and for all, planning to go alone and kill him in retaliation for his destruction of District 12. By this time, however, she is beginning to be suspicious of the motives of some of the leaders of District 13, especially President Alma Coin, who seems to want nothing more than to replace Snow in his role at the Capital. There are some revelations about the rebel’s conduct of the war which resolve the Gale or Peeta question once and for all, and lead to a surprise climax.

There’s a chapter after the climax, and it might have been called “Katniss rising from the ashes” but it’s just chapter 27. There is also an epilogue, which takes place about 20 years later. In Harry Potter fashion it ties up some loose ends and closes the story nicely, without sugar coating anything. War is hell. The trilogy is clear about that, and the choices made during wars have consequences well beyond victory marches.


Bookends: The Fate of the World Hinges on a Sheepish Pet Shop Owner February 6, 2013

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Bookends: The Fate of the World Hinges on a Sheepish Pet Shop Owner
By Dan Davidson
October 3, 2012, Star, Oct.5/12
– 774 words –The Android's Dream

The Android’s Dream
by John Scalzi
400 pages
Tor Science Fiction
read by Wil Wheaton
for Audible.com
10 hours, 43 minutes

John Scalzi seems to be puzzling quite a few reviewers. His “Old Man’s War” future history series is being written very much in the vein of Robert Heinlein’s style: a positive look at an expansive human future. The God Engines was a very depressing look at a very negative future, with a bad ending for everyone.
The Android’s Dream is an adventure comedy is the mould of Keith Laumer, who excelled at this sort of thing back in the 1970s and 80s. Chapter one is an extended fart joke in which a determinedly xenophobic diplomat manages to scuttle negotiations between Earth and some lizard-like aliens by using scent manipulation to enrage, and actually kill, the Nidu ambassador who, like most of the Nidu characters in the story has a rather funny sounding name.
The basic plot after that involves a complex scheme by the some Nidu to use events on Earth to stage a coup on their own planet and take over Earth at the same time.
This might not seem to be the stuff of comedy, but it is, partly because of the number of SF allusions that pepper the book.
Let’s begin with title. Fans of the movie Bladerunner may or may not know that it is based on a Philip K. Dick novel called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The connection here is that the Nidu have a governmental coronation ceremony that requires the use of a special brand of Earth sheep, one genetically bred to have electric blue wool. It is called the Android’s Dream breed.
The breed was created by geneticists working for a company controlled by a faux religion called The Church of the Evolved Lamb, itself the brainchild of a hack science fiction writer who wrote a Nostradamus -like series of cryptic verses which the church is dedicated to making come true, even though all the church members know that their religion is a scam. (Any resemblance to Scientology, created by SF writer L. Ron Hubbard, is entirely coincidental, I’m sure) A rogue member of the church used its technology to create human/animal hybrids, which he used to blackmail influential people with sex tapes.
An entirely accidental byproduct of this criminal activity was the birth of a young woman named Robin Baker, whose junk DNA contains some Android’s Dream genes. Since the Nidu who are trying to stage the coup have arranged the death of every Android’s Dream sheep on several planets, it eventually emerges that Robin, who owns a pet shop and has no idea who her actual mother was, contains the only Android’s Dream DNA still in existence –which makes her a target.
Harry Creek is a former soldier working for the American State Department. Originally assigned to find some sheep, he finds Robin instead. The sideline to his search is that he uses the quantum MRI brainscan of his dead best friend to create the first really intelligent computer search engine/assistant, a self-aware artificial intelligence called Brian. Brian’s parts of the novel, and his role in events, turn out to be pivotal.
Once Harry has found Robin the novel becomes an extended chase story, with Robin and Harry trying to escape the attentions of the Nidu and some very nasty humans in the employ of both another branch of the US government and the same xenophobic organization whose farting assassin began this story.
So this novel has genetic manipulation, advanced computer hacking, interplanetary intrigue, lots of action and more plot twists that you can shake a stick at. It alternates between scenes of serious adventure SF and clever funny stuff in a nicely balanced combination.
In the most recent issue of Locus magazine (the news magazine of the SF world) there is a full-length interview with the author is which he discusses his writing style and his major concerns as a writer. Not surprisingly, he rates entertaining the reader as high on his list of priorities.
As you can guess from the publishing information I listed, I “read” this book by listening to it. The reader was Wil Wheaton, who Star Trek: Next Generation fans may recall as young Wesley Crusher, and Eureka fans may recall as Dr. Isaac Parrish. He apparently also has a recurring role as himself on Big Bang Theory. Wheaton proved to be an excellent reader for this particular story and carried all the many voices and intonations quite effectively.


Bookends: Examining the Future of Humankind February 6, 2013

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Smith -People FellBookends: Examining the Future of Humankind

By Dan Davidson

September 23, 2012,   Star, Sept. 28/13

– 995 words –

We the Underpeople

By Cordwainer Smith

Baen Books;

480 pages


When the People Fell

By Cordwainer Smith

Baen Books

848 pages


Both are $6.00 as eBooks from Baen, readable through iBooks

The future history is, as might be expected, a staple of the science fiction genre. In the early days writers like Asimov and Heinlein worked out timelines within which to tell many of their short stories and novels and, while that practice fell out of favour for a time, later writes such as Larry Niven kept it alive and a whole cluster of current writers are busy doing it again.

Many of the outlines are analogs of real historical events bumped into the future by scientific innovation. Colonization of new planets often follows the pattern of the arrival of settler culture in North America, for instance. Some writers take historical events, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and reshape them to tell their stories.

Whatever the case may be, one thing that tends to be a common feature is that they are stories of exploration and adventure, often with a fair amount of military action in them.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-1966), whose greatest output was in the 1950s and early 1960s, was completely out of sync with the general run of material being published at the time. His future history has an almost mythological tone to it, as well as a historical tone, for there is clearly a consistent narrative voice behind all of these tales. They are told out of sequence and frequently refer back to each other, so that you do get some sort of sense as to what happens first, but they are in no way a straightforward narrative.Smith -Underpeople

And rather than being adventures of conquest and battle, they tend to be stories of self-discovery. In Smith’s future history the galaxy has been colonized and humans live in a variety of strange places, which have affected them in many ways.

Some of this unique style was probably the result of their creator’s real life occupation. Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym under which Dr. Paul Linebarger wrote science fiction.

Linebarger was born in Milwaukee, grew up Japan, China, France and Germany; was the godson of Sun Yat-Sen (once the president of China); became a Professor of Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins University; was on the U.S. Operations, Planning and Intelligence Board during World War II; and became a Colonel in Army Intelligence.

After World War Two, he was advisor to the British forces in Malaya and to the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea, and wrote the book Psychological Warfare, regarded for decades after as the most authoritative text in the field.

This was a lot of original background to bring to a field that had tended to be dominated by science geeks and people whose starting point for a story was often “what if such-and-such a device or practice were real”, how would that effect people.

While Smith makes reference to lot of devices and practices (solar sails to drive spaceships, gene surgery to turn animals into humanoid “underpeople”, telepathy, drugs that enable immortality, faster than light travel through different dimensions of space and time), he makes no attempt to explain any of them and simply uses them as background dressing for stories about people who have to make difficult decisions.

His tales of the Underpeople echo the human rights struggles that were going on in the United States while he was writing. His version of colonization stories talks about the weird and wonderful experiences that people have on different planets. His ruling class, the Instrumentality of Mankind, seems to me to reference oriental patterns of organization and governance rather than the federal and western frontier arrangements that often dominate future histories. Indeed, a number of the stories deal with the time that the Lords of the Instrumentality decided that life had become too comfortable, too homogeneous and predictable, and therefore inaugurated the Rediscovery of Man, which entailed cultural revivals as well as the return of diseases and a certain degree of hardship.

One thing that Smith/Linebarger did have in common with a lot of other writers of the period is that he assumed the world of his day was going to move forward into some sort of global catastrophe, and that the history he was telling was about the future that rose from the ashes of that unfortunate event.

The Baen reissue of Smith’s works seems to me to work better than the old Ballantine Books paperbacks that I still have from the 1980s. Most of the contents are short stories, though there are some novellas, one novel, and one sequence of stories that runs to about novel length.

I decided to read his work again after coming across a couple of online sites dedicated to his work. You can download an illustrated 3300 word appraisal of his life and work if you Goggle “Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith” and it will give you a link to an even longer work (about 20 pages) called “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith” by Alan C. Elms. These are good reading.

I’ve been travelling this month. An internet glitch somewhere between Yarmouth and Whitehorse is why this column missed a week earlier on. I decided to take Smith with me, and downloaded the two collections from Baen Books to read using iBooks rather than lug along my four aging paperbacks. These seem to have just about everything in them and I found that the arrangement of the stories helped me to imagine a bit of a timeline for the events. I’ve enjoyed these tales of the cat woman and revolutionary C’Mell, the Underpeoples’ Saint D’Joan and the weird and wonderful adventures of the scanners, pinlighters, go-captains, and Ron McBan, the Boy who Bought the Earth.


Bookends: Musical Machinations Mingle with Murder February 6, 2013

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Bookends: Musical Machinations Mingle with Murder

By Dan Davidson

September 12, 2012,      Star, Sept. 14/13Mastersinger

– 790 words –


The Mastersinger from Minsk

By Morley Torgov


327 pages



This is the second in the adventures of Inspector Hermann Preiss, who debuted in 2008 in the book Murder in A-major. In that book he was involved with the musical social set of Robert and Clara Schumann, Franz Lizst, and Johannes Brahms. I haven’t read that book, but references to the earlier case lead me to believe that the solution to the problems encountered in it was less that satisfactory in some peoples’ eyes.

The present book is set a few years later and Preiss has moved from Düsseldorf to Munich, to become the new chief inspector there. This is much to the displeasure of one Franz Brunner, who had been angling for that post himself, and feels unfairly passed over. That being the case, office politics is just one of the many problems faced by Preiss as he works his way through the morass of problems engendered by the presence of Richard Wagner in town. Wagner is rehearsing for the opening of his newest opera, Die Meistersinger von Nünburg, and driving a whole herd of people to distraction with his autocratically arrogant ways.

We step into the story in the third person, watching as Wagner browbeats and humiliates a series of tenors auditioning for the lead role in Die Meistersinger, finally settling on an unknown young man, Henryk Schramm, who will turn out to have a mysterious past.

The remainder of the book is narrated to us by Preiss himself, who is not without his own quality of arrogance, but seems, on the whole, to be a decent enough fellow and quite capable in his role as top cop.

Some of his problems come from above. While Wagner was once banned from for his involvement in socialist politics, by 1864 he had gained favour with the King of Bavaria and had settled in Munich. Practically all of the upper crust except the King would have liked to have had an excuse to exile him from there as well. They do get him out of town for a while, but in 1868 he is back to stage his opera, with the King’s blessing.

When Wagner receives a letter threatening the ruination of his opera he calls on the police to investigate. Preiss takes the case, but is immediately summoned by his chief, who makes it clear than both he and mayor expect Preiss to dig up some dirt on the composer who is, by this time, living common law with the wife of the very man, Hans von Bülow, who is the conductor of his orchestra. As far as the senior authorities are concerned, Wagner can go down in flames as long as the flames shoot him out of town.

Then the murders begin and, one by one, major members of the cast and backstage crew are bumped off by someone using a long, thin, needle-like object. There are almost no clues at the murder scenes and the only connection between the victims is that they are involved with the opera, which naturally makes everyone connect the killings to the threatening letters.

Ah-hah, say Preiss’s superiors. It must be Wagner. Find him guilty, Preiss, if you want to serve your city and keep your job.

But it can’t be Wagner, because all of these deaths actually hurt his opera’s chances of success and he would never do that. He’s obsessed with succeeding, which is why he’s such a pain to work with. Besides, he actually has alibis for some of them, so it’s just not possible.

Morley Torgov (while still a member of a law firm at the age of 85) is better known in literary circles as a humourist, having twice won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour (1975 and 1983). There are those touches in this book, though mostly found in the pompous portrayal of Wagner and in Preiss’s internal musings on the situations in which he finds himself, whether he is dealing with Wagner, his superiors, his rivals, or the complicated matter of his own love-life.

There’s quite a high body count in this book and Preiss does allow himself to get distracted by what turn out to be red herrings, as well as by the dichotomy between his duty as a policeman and his duty to the commissioner and the mayor.

This is not a thriller or a police procedural, but more an historical novel with a mystery to move the story forward. As such, I found it quite enjoyable. Should I encounter the first of these books, I would be interested to see how it turned out as well.