Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: WOOL

wool-uk-cover-finalReading Hugh Howey’s WOOL got me to thinking – again – about just what it is that makes a good story great. When does it rise above the level of mere entertainment and into the realm of the Gobsmackingly Grand? What is it, Mr. Ruskin, that divides “the books of the hours” from “the books of all Time”?

That, I am sure, would be fascinating material for a first-rate dissertation. But I shan’t be the one to attempt it. It is 2:17 in the morning and I have exactly this much interest (that is to say, none at all) in waxing loquacious. Especially when the only fortifying beverage in my glass is chocolate milk.

No, I’m just here to tell you that this is a terrific book and you really ought to buy it and read it and buy copies for your friends so they can read it and buy copies for their friends and so on and so forth ad infinitum. Yeah.

I was impressed with WOOL from the first page, but not until the last did I realize just how impressed I really was. Mr. Howey has created something truly remarkable here. His post-apocalyptic world – centered on a community that dwells in a giant underground silo hundreds of stories deep – feels at once fantastic and grittily, grimily, dirt-under-your-fingernails real. The characters who populate it are a compelling jumble of heroes (the kind you love to love) and villains (the kind you love to hate) and in-betweeners (the kind you generally feel rather sorry for). The story that sweeps them all along is epic without being impersonal; intimate without sliding into melodrama; and intelligent without ever losing its head in the clouds. Howey’s sense of pacing is simply beautiful.

And with all due respect to Jonathan Hayes, Howey’s “supple, muscular writing” is not just “the icing on the cake.” His writing is what holds the whole bloody thing together. It is the skeleton to wrap the flesh around, the frame on which everything else hangs. Icing on the cake? Nonsense. If we’re really going with the cake metaphor, Howey’s writing has got to be the flour.

I’d rather it be a pie metaphor, because pie is far superior to cake. But whatever.

I will only add that I love the story behind the story. Howey wrote WOOL while working as a bookseller, writing faithfully each morning and during every lunch break for nearly three years. He self-published in 2011, and the book has since become a hit that nobody ever saw coming. Knowing nothing else about the book, this fact alone is what originally sparked my interest. I’m glad I paid attention. It’s gonna be a classic.

Oh, and this: I hear the inimitable Ridley Scott has already optioned the film rights. I love this, too, because frankly, I can’t think of anybody else with a better chance at successfully bringing Howey’s story to the big screen in a suitably epic fashion. While we’re on the subject, here’s a vote for Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Holston, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Bernard, and Jessica Chastain as Juliette.

Book Review: A Princess of Mars

250px-Princess_of_Mars_large Meet John Carter. Gentleman of Virginia. Civil War veteran. Fighter, adventurer, treasure-seeker. Did I mention he’s also been to Mars? Well he has. He’s rather famous there, too. All things considered, this guy makes Indiana Jones look like a couch-potato with a fedora fetish.

Mr. Carter gets his introduction in A Princess of Mars, the first in an eleven book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The author’s name may not ring any bells for you, but you’re probably familiar with his work. He’s the writer behind Tarzan of the Apes, and his Barsoom series – which began with A Princess of Mars – went on to inspire the likes of Bradbury, Heinlein, and Clarke. Whether you realize it or not, E.R.B. has left a giant Tharkian footprint on science fiction. I for one am mighty glad he did.

The story opens with a lengthy narration by Carter, as he explains how he went from hiding in cave in Arizona – he ran afoul of the local Apaches, it seems – to waking up on the fourth planet from the sun. It’s actually a non-explanation (the details of this weird transportation are never fleshed out), but that’s something you’ll have to get used to if you read A Princess of Mars. Sometimes things just happen. Deal with it. Once the story gets going, you won’t care much about how John Carter ended up on Mars; you’ll just be happy things worked out that way.

In no time at all our hero is picked up by the Green Men of Thark and held as prisoner. Carter isn’t exactly suited to captivity, though, and he soon earns a reputation among his “hosts” as someone not to be trifled with (having a body count on your resume will usually help with that). His strength and skill eventually gain him a high position in the tribe, and he becomes the friend and ally of Tars Tarkas, a noble Thark chieftain.

All this is but a prelude to the real story: the one involving Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, captor of John Carter’s heart. Throw in some political intrigue, lots of derring-do, a touch of romance, and a sense of humor, and you’ve got yourself one of the most shamelessly entertaining popcorn novels ever written. Grab your favorite beverage and prepare to watch a plucky little sword-wielding Earth-man wreak havoc on another planet (Barsoom, as the natives call it). It’s good pulpy fun.

Burroughs is a great writer, and his vibrant descriptions of the Martian landscape lend the story a firm sense of place, bringing the planet and those who dwell there to strange but exciting life. The story is about as straightforward as they come; it’s not stupid, and it’s not Heinlein – it’s just entertaining. And frankly, in a literary scene dominated by cynical, world-weary protagonists, there’s something refreshing about a hero as square and unironic as John Carter: loyal friend, fearsome enemy, determined lover, helper of the distressed. I read one review which described him as “egotistical in the extreme,” but I never found this to be true. The man is simply confident in his abilities. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what that looks like in a hero. I’d love to see more of it.

Book Review: Old Man’s War

81uiGyQP67L._SL1500_Old Man’s War introduces itself with some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a novel: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

So simple, so compelling. Further, it points us to the two great themes that dominate this tale – that of love and that of war. Far from being a lightweight interstellar shoot ’em up, Old Man’s War has the heart and brain of a modern classic. It’s not just a good read – it’s a great one.

In Scalzi’s futuristic world, the good news is that mankind finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets suitable for human habitation are few – and our claim to those few is violently challenged by other alien races. So we hit back: for the sake of the old world, Earth, and for the sake of new ones. This war has been going on for decades, and signs of a reprieve are nowhere to be seen.

Back on Earth itself, most of our resources are in the hands of the CDF (Colonial Defense Force). Once you reach retirement age, you can join up with the CDF. Youngsters aren’t wanted; people who carry a lifetime worth of experience are. If you sign up, you’ll be whisked off Earth and never permitted to return. You’ll serve at least two years on the front. If you survive, you’ll be given a homestead of your own, on one of the newly colonized planets you helped fight for. If you survive.

“In this room right now there are 1,022 recruits,” Lieutenant Colonal Higges said. “Two year from today, 400 of you will be dead.”

Higgee stood in the front of the theater, again. “In the third year,” he continued, “another 100 of you will die. Another 150 in years four and five. After ten years – and yes, recruits, you will most likely be required to serve a full ten years – 750 of you will have been killed in the line of duty. Three-quarters of you, gone. These have been the survival statistics – not just for the last ten or twenty years, but for the over two hundred years the Colonial Defense Force has been active.”

There was dead silence.

“I know what you’re thinking right now, because I was thinking it when I was in your place,” Lieutenant Colonel Higgee said. “You’re thinking – what the hell am I doing here? This guy is telling me I’m going to be dead in ten years! But remember that back home, you most likely would have been dead in ten years, too – frail and old, dying a useless death. You may die in the Colonial Defense Forces. You probably will die in the Colonial Defense Forces. But your death will not be a useless one. You’ll have died to keep humanity alive in our universe.” (p. 107-108)

John Perry (the old man of the title) is signing up – survival statistics be darned. Of what awaits him he has only a vague idea. As he soon discovers, fighting the real fight, light-years from his home planet, is far more brutal and life-altering than he could ever have imagined. So…

… who wants to kill some aliens?

While casting about for a punchy way to describe this book, the first thing that sprang to mind was a comparison to Pixar’s UP. No joke. Think about it. In UP, the elderly Carl Fredericksen mourns the death of his beloved wife, Ellie, and thereafter embarks on an adventure. In Old Man’s War, John Perry (also elderly and also a widower) sets out on his own adventure in the aftermath of his wife’s passing.

Obviously, we’re talking about two different kinds of adventuring here – rescuing exotic birds vs. blowing away alien beasties – but the situational similarity is neat to consider, amiright?

(Don’t take that the wrong way, by the by: Old Man’s War is intended for adults. It is most emphatically not a candidate for family read-aloud time.)

Lovers of military sci-fi, take note: Old Man’s War is a ripping yarn that pays homage to the likes of Starship Troopers and The Forever War. This isn’t to say it’s a recycling of those works (quite the contrary), but the influence is clear. What raises this story above many of its peers is the deeply human element. The soldiers here aren’t just so much cannon-fodder, and Scalzi refuses to let the action – as thrilling as it is – get in the way of good old fashioned character development.

The story itself is brilliantly wrought, giving a tip of the space helmet to greats such as Heinlein while firmly establishing its own uniqueness. As a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it, “This virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF’s past while showing that well-worn tropes still can have real zip when they’re approached with ingenuity.”

This is what I call a triumph.

Oh, and Santa – if you’re reading this, pay real close attention to this next bit: I want a CDF MP-35 for Christmas. Seriously. Get me one, and I’ll let you live.

Book Review: The Children of Men

9780307275431The year is 2021, and the human race is coming to an end. Literally. And we’re going out, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

No children have been born since 1995 due to mass infertility among males: an infertility which all the powers of science can neither understand nor reverse. The last generation to be born is now adult, and the population is growing steadily, inexorably older. England is supervised by a dictatorial Warden and the SSP (State Security Police). Brutal prison camps, forced labor, and roving thugs bear witness to the deterioration of society, as does “the Quietus” – an organized slaughter of the elderly, staged to look like mass suicide.

Theodore Faron – Oxford historian and also cousin to the all-powerful Warden – watches in despair as the world around him crumbles in the face of a future that is no future. But in the midst of his drab day to day routine, he’s approached by Julian, a bright young woman who asks for his help in getting an audience with the Warden. Julian and her band of revolutionaries may just revive Theo’s will to live – and they may also hold the key to salvation for all mankind.

P.D. James is best known for her detective fiction, but The Children of Men proves that her talent isn’t restricted to one genre. This is dystopian science fiction of the highest caliber – beautifully written, engaging, and profound – and I trust I don’t overstate my case when I say it’s more than strong enough to stand with the towering achievements of Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury.

First and foremost, The Children of Men is a biting critique of our own godless, self-absorbed culture. The irony here is perfect: the world of 2021 is dying because it got exactly what it wanted – sexual pleasure without the “risk” of children. If you’re be tempted to think society would welcome such an arrangement with open arms, think again. James proposes something different:

Sex has become the least important of man’s sensory pleasures. One might have imagined that with the fear of pregnancy permanently removed, and the unerotic paraphernalia of pills, rubber and ovulation arithmetic no longer necessary, sex would be freed for new and imaginative delights. The opposite has happened. Even those men and women who would normally have no wish to breed apparently need the assurance that they could have a child if they wished. Sex totally divorced from procreation has become almost meaninglessly acrobatic… Sex can still be a mutual comfort; it is seldom a mutual ecstasy. The government-sponsored porn shops, the increasingly explicit literature, all the devices to stimulate desire – none has worked. Men and women still marry, although less frequently, with less ceremony and often with the same sex. People still fall in love, or say that they are in love. There is an almost desperate searching for the one person, preferably younger but at least one’s own age, with whom to face the inevitable decline and decay. We need the comfort of responsive flesh, of hand on hand, lip on lip. But we read the love poems of previous ages with a kind of wonder.

Equally striking is the book’s pervasive use of Christian imagery. The title itself is an allusion to Psalm 90:3, and James’ narrative bears a marked resemblance to the Nativity story. And is it a mere fluke that the penal colony on the Isle of Man is depicted as a place of deep darkness and debauchery? Hardly, I think.

Make no mistake: this is a deeply theological novel, wrestling with deeply theological questions. I would even go so far as to call it a Christian novel, though not of the preachy, Bible-thumping, God-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life variety. James’ (a devout Anglican, from what I hear) is much too good for that, and the way she weaves Christian ideas into the story is so seamless, so artful, that the lazy reader may not even catch on. It’s as if she were bearing in mind the words of Francis Schaeffer: “A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God; not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.”

Ralph Wood, who has written extensively about James and her work, published an essay on The Children of Men back in 1994. He made this observation:

The key to P. D. James’s fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause… Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt… James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.

I’m going to end this review with two cautions. First, this is not a book for younger readers, due to sexual themes, violence, and some strong language. James never goes into lurid or sensual detail, but she doesn’t whitewash anything either. This isn’t a tale for the squeamish or easily unsettled.

Second, do not, I repeat, do not watch the movie.

Alfonso Cuarón adapted The Children of Men for the silver screen in 2006, but the resulting film bears little resemblance to the source material – I know because I’ve seen it. They share the title, the futuristic setting, the basic premise, and that’s about it. Cuarón’s approach is far more sanitized, far less Christian, and rooted in a politically-correct agenda. Characters are erased or reinvented (Jasper as a weed-smoking ex-Hippie? Please). The terrors of universal childlessness are overshadowed by a right-wing totalitarian regime obsessed with border control (take that, George W!). Euthanasia and suicide are “cleaned up” (and even subtly condoned). And the Christian characters and themes are replaced by an Ode to Man As the Savior of Himself (which is much easier for most people to stomach).

Cuarón has learned much from the Hollywood left. But from James? Not much at all.

Book Review: Starship Troopers

The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…

In Starship Troopers, Jaun “Johnnie” Rico signs up with the Federal Service and struggles through the toughest bootcamp in the Universe, determined to make it as a cap trooper with the Terran Mobile Infantry. But the hardest part is yet to come – when he’s thrown into battle against an enemy unlike anything mankind has faced before.

Looking for futuristic weaponry, space soldiers, and nasty aliens? This is the book for you. Looking for a mental workout to get the old lemon throbbing? This is also the book for you. Or to put it another way: are you a sci-fi enthusiast with a taste for politics and moral philosophy? Read Starship Troopers. It has both in equal measure.

Continue reading Book Review: Starship Troopers