Category Archives: Book and Movie Reviews

Anathem: A Sci Fi Novel With An Exceptional Amount Of Science

Anathem by Neal Stephenson is a difficult book to review and at times to read. It’s a thousand page book. There’s a lot to love in it, but other parts fell flat for me. Here’s my take on it without any major SPOILERS.

The protagonist Erasmus, an avout, lives a monk-like existence in a scientific monastery on a world that is Earth-like, but it isn’t Earth. There is minimal contact between the avout in their monasteries and the secular world. What made it a slog is that the reader must negotiate a plethora of strange English-sounding words. Most these words have a meaning similar to something in English, but it takes a while to figure out just what. Nonetheless, the book intrigued me enough that I kept reading.

Stephenson likes his science. Anathem has more pages devoted to science and mathematics than any sci fi book I’ve read. For me, the many problems in logic and scientific descriptions weren’t necessary for the story and often slowed it down. I’m scientifically oriented, but I found myself skimming over portions.

The narrative picks up in the middle of the book. An alien ship is orbiting the planet. The avout and the seculars join together to deal with this possible threat. As a result, Erasmus finds himself on a quest through the secular world, which he is largely ill equipped to deal with. This middle part of the novel was my favorite.

The last third, which could have been a page-turner, became another slog. The alien ship is evidently from one or more parallel worlds or existences. Page upon page was devoted to discussing this. Enough! Someone studying the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanical may find this fascinating. I found it tedious and skimmed over large sections. For me Anathem has too much science. I need character, plot, and a gripping narrative.

Ironically, despite Anathem’s strong rooting in science, I found several unrealistic aspects of the novel, which pulled me from my suspension of disbelief. Most of these revolved around the unrealistic roles of Erasmus and his young colleagues in the last third of the book.

Young Cary, Krin, and Oliver in my Truth-Teller books have an impact on the world around them, but they do it in a credible way. Twenty-one year old Luther in Truth-Teller Revenge does assume leadership of the Jacombers, but he does it in his small, religiously charged community.

For being a logically oriented novel, Anathem has other disconnects. I don’t want to give out SPOILERS, but, among other issues, I don’t think the method of signaling the alien ship would have worked.

Anathem seems written for the YA scientific geek. I’m glad I read it, but I think less science and a more realistic plot would have made it a better novel.

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Fuzzy Nation, a fun fast read, versus Hyperion, a monumental mindbender

John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion are both in their own way great books, but they couldn’t be more different.

Three hundred page Fuzzy Nation is a fast paced tale about Bruce Holloway, an ethically challenged prospector on a planet that may or may not be home to one of the few sentient beings encountered by mankind. Holloway is a disbarred lawyer who called his girlfriend a liar in court to save his own ass. A disbarred lawyer? Lied about his now former girlfriend? Did I say Holloway is ethically challenged?

Holloway is wrangling with Zaracorp over the ownership of a sunstone discovery. If he wins, he’ll be richer than Bill Gates. Then he meets his first Fuzzy. Per law if the Fuzzies are sentient, then it’s their planet, including the sunstones.

Are they sentient? And even if they are, is Holloway willing to give up billions for some little furballs? What is Holloway going to do?

Fuzzy Nation is a fast, humorous read with a libertarian flare, which reminds me of some of Heinlein’s novellas.

The combined thousand pages of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion is at the other end of the science fiction spectrum. I believe these two books should be considered as one. I started reading Hyperion without realizing that. At Hyperion’s end, I was like “you can’t end the book like that!” I immediately bought The Fall of Hyperion.

Hyperion’s setting is the far future, which is populated by the Hegemony, the Ousters, and the TechnoCore. The Hegemony is a human civilization in many ways not unlike our own, but with technology far beyond ours. It exists in an uneasy symbiotic relationship with the Artificial Intelligences comprising the TechnoCore, which is responsible for much of the technology upon which the Hegemony is dependent. The Ousters are humans at odds with the Hegemony and genetically evolved to live in mostly non-planetary space.

The book begins with seven pilgrims journeying to visit the Time Tombs of the planet Hyperion, where they expect to meet the fearsome Shrike. Supposedly, they can ask the Shrike a question, but it seems more likely they’ll find their own death. The pilgrims include a diplomat, a warrior, a priest, an elderly scholar with an infant, a poet, a private investigator, and an enigmatic Templar. Why do they want to meet the Shrike?

Each of the pilgrims in turn tells their urgent reason for going on the pilgrimage and why they want to meet the Shrike. I found all the pilgrim’s tales interesting, although for me some of the tellings got a little tedious. I suspect, though, that readers will have different favorites among the pilgrims and their stories.

There is another important character, a cybrid, who is the human clone of the English poet John Keats, but also an artificial intelligence. This being spans the human/A.I. world.

Those are the bones of the book, but this isn’t the Canterbury Tales. Simmons gives you a heavy dose of religion, the interaction of human and self-aware artificial intelligences, what might be the aspirations of a group of unimaginably advanced A.I.’s, time travel, the evolution of mankind, and among other themes.

It is perhaps the most ambitious sci-fi book I’ve ever read. I can’t say everything is executed perfectly, but, hey, the book is over a thousand pages. Every page can’t be perfect. This book is a must read.


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Odds and Ends

I planned on reviewing the 1989 Hugo Award winning novel, Hyperion, this week, but…when I got to the end of the Dan Simmons novel I discovered…it wasn’t the end! And I had to know what happened. So I’m nearing the end of The Fall of Hyperion. These two books are really one thousand page plus novel.

I love Hyperion and will soon publish a full review of it. I did find myself skimming over some of the descriptions in it, which made me reconsider my own writing. Champagne’s editor of November’s Truth-Teller Revenge  said she found herself skimming through some of my descriptive passages. Hmm. It can be a fine line between giving your reader a vivid image of the setting, and boring the reader or slowing down the story. So I find myself cut, cut, cutting, as I rework my works-in-progress.

I expect to see the cover art for Truth-Teller Revenge any day now, which I’ll share. I should also soon have the galleys to proof, which will mean a week of intensive work.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the final days of this wonderful, sunny summer. Tomorrow I’m off to Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection to see their B-25 and Hellcat fly at noon!

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Waiting Weapon – The Clash of Humans and Me’Aukin

I just completed Waiting Weapon, a science fiction novel by fellow Champagne author K.M. Tolan. It was a satisfying read and one that required my full attention to follow the sharp twists and turns of its plot.

The story is of the clash humans and the Me’Aukin in the future. Faster-than-light space travel is a reality in Tolan’s future, but few inhabitable planets exist and the competition for them is fierce. Humans with their fusion weapons have driven the Me’Aukin from their planet. The Me’Aukin, though, are masters of nano-technology and have left behind a Waiting Weapon to destroy the colonizing humans.

Me’Aukins Rick and Jamie were discovered as embryos and raised by human colonists. Rick is the novel’s protagonist. Me’Aukins are similar to humans, only shorter, with olive-colored skin, large doe-like eyes, and with long fingers. However, there is more to them than meets the eye. Their psychic or telepathic skills are far beyond ours. Rick wants justice for his fellow Me’Aukin, yet he can also sympathize with the humans that raised him.

Events move quickly along. Rick and Jamie realize they’re pawns between different human factions. They flee to search for their fellow Me’Aukins. They want to disarm the Waiting Weapon, but also to reconcile and meet their own people.

What made the novel for me is Tolan’s intricate and fascinating portrayal of the Me’Aukin, which is a proud species. There is some similarity between the Me’Aukin and old Japanese samurai society in that clan and family, and honor and personal history are all important. But, there is so much more to the Me’Aukin people. For them revenge beyond the grave is still possible and marriage ten times more intimate.

I recommend Waiting Weapon.

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Size Doesn’t Matter If You Are in Love

I recently read Shawndirea: Chronicles of Aetheaon: Book One by Leonard D. Hilley II. The book’s captivating cover art caught me and the book fulfilled my expectations. I recommend the book to any readers of the swords and sorcery genre.

Shawndirea is a pint size faery that technophobe biologist Ben snags in his butterfly net, destroying her fragile wings in the process. It’s love at first sight. Or is there something magical about their meeting? Ben vows to return the plucky faery to her homeland to repair her wings even if he has to go through Hell to do that.

He does have to go through Hell. Eventually they reach her world of Aetheaon. What follows is well-told tale of swords and sorcery. I haven’t read any recent books in this genre, although I’m a fan of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion and the Lord of the Rings. There are many similarities between Moorcock’s books and this one.

This book is the first of what appears to be a sweeping saga. There are many subplots, which hopefully will be resolved in future books.

I look forward to reading more books by Mr. Hilley starring Shawndirea and Ben.


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Xenophobia, a unique first contact novel

Xenophobia is a good first contact novel, but could be better. I quickly became invested in the main character, a Dr. Bowers, and the U.S. Rangers that guard her. They’re in the midst of an African civil war when first contact occurs. Surrounding them are warlords with too little brains and too many drugs and guns. Can Bower and the Rangers get to safety?

The plot was good, the aliens were unique, and I cared about the characters. The Rangers were not just cookie cutter soldiers.

I give the book three and a half stars. It has two flaws. First, there are occasional long preachy soliloquies that slow down the book if you read them and are unnecessary if you don’t read them. They are a clear case of author intrusion. The other flaw is that the reader learns of most the human/alien interaction by Bower and the Rangers listening to the radio. Yeah, it’s all fiction, but I could believe what was happening to Bower was real. The reports on the radio just seemed like made up stuff. I think the author should have had another protagonist, perhaps a brother of Bower, who directly experiences the human/alien confrontations, rather than have a periodic telling of the first contact.

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Authors lust over getting good reader book reviews on Amazon. Good reviews help drive sales, plus it also feels good. Therefore, as a courtesy, I make an effort to review each book I read. I take this responsibility very seriously. I put a chunk of time and thought into my reviews. The hardest part, for novels, is the star rating I assign.

Fiction is subjective. I don’t have a problem giving a non-fiction book a low rating. Hey, if it has errors in fact or logic, it deserves a low rating. Fiction isn’t nearly as easy.

I typically look at a few five star, three star, and one star reviews before buying a book. Too often, I see a review that says, “I received this book free in return for an honest review. Now I don’t normally read (fill in the genre, it could be romance, sci fi, fantasy, or …).” Then why did you accept the book? Invariably the book’s given a three star rating. I mentally toss out that review. A bad or mediocre review isn’t useful unless it’s for a genre the reader enjoys.
Similarly, there are different writing styles. I don’t think my rating should reflect my like or dislike for a writing style. I started Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. I didn’t finish the first page. Many people like the book. The book has sold over a million copies and was nominated for a Nebula award. Personally, I didn’t care for its muddled stream-of-insane-consciousness writing style. Some readers have thought the same. Should I give Dhalgren a one star rating? I did hate it, but that was a reflection on my dislike for the style. I’d be rating a writing style, not the book itself, if I gave the book one star. I chose instead to simply not rate Dhalgren.

So my fiction reviews tend to be four or five stars with an occasion three stars. I focus on how imaginative the plot is, how engaging the characters are, and overall how well the book entertained me.

What are your thoughts on rating and reviewing books?

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