Saturday, July 28, 2012

Time Travelers (Classic SF Novels)

Time Traveling. Cold War. Space Exploration. Aliens. Advanced Technology. Traders. Artifacts. 

Time Travelers by Andre Norton is a fun romp into classic science fiction. This omnibus consists of two relatively short novels -- The Time Traders copyrighted 1958 and Galactic Derelict copyrighted 1959 -- which share the same set of characters. The book has the feel of a 1960’s television program and reminds me a bit of the more recent Stargate series. Both books have a bit of the theme of the misfit finding his niche.

Briefly, in the first book we meet Ross, a misunderstood criminal who chooses to “volunteer” for an undisclosed project rather than submit to the more ominous sounding "rehabilitation." Ross soon discovers that the project involves traveling into the past to discover how the Russians are suddenly acquiring advanced technology. This leads him to a direct encounter with aliens. In the second book we meet Travis, an Apache who quit school because of racial prejudice. While in the desert, he accidentally stumbles on the latest time traveling project. His archeological background makes him a perfect candidate for time travel. But, the project ends up taking him and the team to distant planets.

The book isn’t particularly complex by modern standards, but it is entertaining. I could almost see the 1960’s special effects as I read the stories. Yet, the books left me pondering about the rise and fall of civilizations. As an aside, Norton was prophetic when she wrote in the book, in the late 1950’s, that the government stopped manned exploration of space after landing on the moon. Science fiction lovers like me owe a debt of gratitude to Andre Norton and her fellow writers who blazed a trail for modern science fiction

Thursday, July 26, 2012

West of Eden (SF Novel)

Warm Blooded Animals. Cold Blooded Animals. Revenge. Genetic Engineering. Longer Winters. Dissenters. 

Originally published in the 1980’s, West of Eden by Harry Harrison is an alternative pre-history novel. It explores the question of what would have happened if the major cold-blooded animals had not been wiped out by an asteroid and had continued to evolve.

Briefly, the ice-age is approaching. The cities of the Yilané, a reptilian species, are created from biological materials which cannot withstand the growing cold. The Yilané must begin to move to warmer climates. While building a city in a new location, they encounter the Tanu, basically early humans. Both sides commit massacres and seek revenge. Early on in the story a young Tanu, Kerrick, is taken captive. He is taught the Yilané’s language and to some extent is incorporated into their culture. The person responsible for overseeing the construction of the new city uses him for her own political gain. Years later when he finally escapes, he is confused about his identity and loyalties. He finally joins with his own people to prevent their total obliteration.

I really enjoyed this novel. Harry Harrison does a nice job of world building. He describes both species well. The biological engineering twists to the Yilané environment are interesting, though some border on fantasy rather than science fiction. Kerrick is a relatable character. The story has lost little relevancy in the nearly thirty years since it was first published.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Alien Heat (SF Novel)

Time-travel. Aliens. Menageries. Virtue. Love.

An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock is a short, quirky novel that was written in the early 1970’s. The novel is set in the distant future. Bored earth inhabitants continuously create and recreate their surroundings and bodies in ways that amuse them. Often they will base their creations on what they know —however accurate or inaccurate—of different historical periods. Many of the inhabitants also have menageries filled with people from different time periods, animals, and aliens.

At yet another boring party, an alien announces that the Universe is near the end of time. Instead of paying attention to his warning, the inhabitants put the alien into a menagerie. Also at the party is a woman from 1896. Jherek is determined to experience love with her. First, he acquires her from someone else’s menagerie. He then attempts to win her love. When she suddenly disappears, he pursues her back to her own time period.

I found the novel mildly amusing and a tiny bit thought provoking. When I first began the novel, I was bored by the bored characters. But I slowly found Jherek endearing in his own misguided way. This is the first book in The Dancers at the End of Time series and the novel left me curious about the other books.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Crucible of Gold (Fantasy Novel)

Dragons. Ambassadors. Gold. Drunken Sailors. South America. Slavery. Inca. Eggs. Ship Wrecks. Napoleon. Old Friends. Allies. 

Released earlier this year, Crucible of Gold is the seventh book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which is built on the premise that there had been dragons during the Napoleonic Wars.  In previous novels, Novak has taken us to Europe, Australia, China, and Africa. In Crucible of Gold, she takes us to South America. This is definitely a series where the reader needs to start from the beginning and read the books in order.

Briefly, Hammond gives Lawrence back his commission so that he and Temeraire can go to South America to negotiate with the Tswana, who have become allies with Napoleon. Lawrence and Temeraire are joined with Kulingile and the temperamental Iskierka. The trip to South America brings various disasters. Once there, the group of dragons and humans find an Inca population decimated by disease and coveted by their dragons. South America brings more challenges.

Like the previous books in the series, Crucible of Gold is appealing because of its world building and character development. Both humans and dragons feel like old friends. I enjoy catching up on their lives and seeing them mature and grow. I admire Novik’s ability to create a convincing alternative world. Perhaps because I am not a great history buff, I felt ho hum about the overarching storyline; the ending felt anticlimactic to me. Still, I look forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time (Novel)

Dogs. Mysteries. Prime Numbers. Red Cars. The Truth. Yellow Food. Math. Trains. Trust. Sherlock Holmes. Rhetorical Questions. Strangers. Family. 

A student I have been tutoring in English introduced me to The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Her son said that it was sold in Germany as a good book for people learning English. What a delightful discovery! The novel is funny and touching. It is narrated by a fifteen-year-old autistic (Asperger’s Syndrome ?) boy, who goes on numerous digressions. In the end, it is also a book about parents, who though flawed at times, do the best they can. This British novel won the 2003 Whitbread book of the Year.

Briefly, Christopher lives alone with his father. One day Christopher discovers his neighbor’s dog impaled with a garden fork and decides to emulate his hero Sherlock Holmes in order to find the murderer. As he does his investigation, he discovers that there is a bigger mystery, one involving his family.

I loved this book and plan to read more by Haddon. It had me laughing aloud, as well as looking at the world in a different way. Christopher is a likeable character that I wanted to succeed. The ending troubled me a bit, but perhaps I am looking at it too much from a real-world perspective.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Late George Apley (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

It seems to me that, although I have tried, I have achieved surprisingly little compared with my own father and his father, for instance. I repeat that this negative result has not been for want of trying. The difficulty seems to have been that something has always stepped in the way to prevent me. I have always been faced from childhood by obligations of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past. In some way these have stepped in between me and life. I had to realize that they were designed to do just that.
The above quote summarizes The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand. The novel won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel and was later made into a movie. The novel describes the life of George Apley, an upper class Bostonian, who was born in 1866. The storyline begins with some background about his ancestors and ends with his death. The novel is written as a series of manuscripts, almost all letters, with the narration of a long-time friend further describing the different events. The novel touches on the changing of the generations: George’s father, George, George’s son John, and John Jr. It does a nice job of describing a man who is committed to fulfilling his social obligations.

While the novel isn’t particularly exciting and doesn’t explore the depths of the different characters, it is an enjoyable story. I felt empathy for George. While the humor was satirical, I was able to understand most of it. This is a nice book to read on a day that you just want to sit back and relax.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Memory of Blood (Mystery Novel)

Punch and Judy. Madame Blavatsky. Memoirs. Madame Tussaud. A Play. Role Models. The Grand Guignol. Automaton.

The Peculiar Crime Unit novels by Christopher Fowler always make me smile. The recently released, The Memory of Blood is no exception. While fans will enjoy the return of Bryant and May, even those new to the series can enjoy the story. It is a delightful who-done-it with a splash of the arcane. Alas, this particular story has no underground London scenes or corrupting of youth.

Briefly, the major plotline involves people associated with a mystery play. During a cast party, someone is murdered. The chief suspect is the puppet Punch. More deaths follow. Again, the Peculiar Crime Unit’s fate rides on the success of the case. The minor plotline involves the death of Bryant’s editor. Is it natural causes, a local delinquent, or something more sinister? Bryant is definitely center stage for most of the novel. Janice Longbright shows why she is the heart of the PCU. Land faces the truth about his relationship with his wife. Alas, Crisppin make only a token appearance. By the end of the novel, the PCU begins to discover why Oscar has been trying to shut them down.

I love this series. It is a perfect match to my personality. I enjoy all of Bryant’s odd meanderings. The novel has a nice touch of heart. Like the earlier novels, I learned something new.