Book Review Archives

REVIEW SUMMARY: 5 standouts + 17 good stories – 8 less-than-stellar = a very good anthology.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 30 sf stories from the year 2005

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 22 stories good or better, 5 of them outstanding.

CONS: 8 stories mediocre or worse.

BOTTOM LINE: Another good collection of stories on par with the past few volumes.

Continuing the much-loved, annual tradition of picking the top short sf stories of the year, author/editor Gardner Dozois’ presents the twenty-third volume of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, an anthology containing 30 stories from 2005 and spanning 800 pages. The anthology has much of what we come to expect from the series – a representative sample of science fiction that showcases the breadth of the genre. There is also the voluminous summation of the science fiction year. As comprehensive as the series’ summations are, I can’t help but think that they get even better as time goes on. Looking back at early editions in the series (yes, I have most of them and no, I have not read most of them) proves that the summations increase in nostalgic value with each passing year.

Overall, this anthology is on par with the other volumes I’ve read, which sits at a very comfortable “very good”. (See the reviews for #19, #20, #21 and #22.) By my tally, 22 of the 30 stories were good or better with 5 of those rising to the outstanding level. That means that eight of the stories were mediocre or worse. This can be expected as the tastes of editor and reader are sure to differ. It should be noted that there are two stories this year by Alastair Reynolds, whose fiction tends to agree with me. Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that’s why he snagged two of the top five ratings.

The five standout stories were “Beyond The Aquila Rift” and “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory, “The Canadian Who Came Almost All The Way Home From The Stars ” by Jay Lake And Ruth Nestvold and “Burn” by James Patrick Kelly.

As noted below, twelve of the stories contained in this volume have been previously reviewed by me. Also, stories available online are linked.

Reviewlettes follow…

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MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Another collection of essays from BenBella’s Smart Pop line, this time covering Star Trek, the original series.

PROS: Very entertaining read, lots of interesting essays, a quick, easy read.

CONS: A couple of weak essays, mostly for the Star Trek fan.

BOTTOM LINE: If you are a Star Trek fan, especially of the original series, this is a book you will enjoy.

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REVIEW: Revelations by M. Scott Byrnes

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Astronauts on Mars make a startling discovery lying underneath the Martian sands. Back on Earth, Tim Redmond struggles to make sense of his abilities and why, exactly, he has visions of Mars.

PROS: Quick read, interesting premise, series of revelations elevates the scope of the story.

CONS: Paper thin characters, superficial theological discussions, ambiguous ending.

BOTTOM LINE: Reads like a Hollywood SF movie (but a bit better then usual) that rarely slows down. Another book in the SF thriller vein, and a good one.

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REVIEW: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In 2025, Robert Gu, poet extra-ordinaire, is cured of Alzheimer’s, but at the cost of his talent. While trying to cope with a high-tech future he doesn’t remember living to, he becomes embroiled in a plot to perfect a ‘biological’ super weapon.

PROS: Interesting future, cool technology

CONS: Somewhat Byzantine plot, fairly flat characters

BOTTOM LINE: A SF thriller that does a good job of creating a believable, high tech future.

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REVIEW: Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio

REVIEW SUMMARY: A visual feast of eye candy.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Collects the artwork of John Picacio and provides insight into his artistic process.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Visually stunning book; high-quality production; images have much to offer on many levels (content, color, texture, symbols, aesthetic, etc.); I…can’t…stop…looking…at…it…

CONS: The behind-the-scenes commentary on the individual pieces was informative and fun – I wish there were more of that.

BOTTOM LINE: Visually stunning.

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ON THE GRID: Task Force 1

Task Force 1 is a web comic by Image Comics. (See preview.) From the press release:

A generation after 9/11, the world is paralyzed by terrorist sects of every persuasion. In this bitterly divided, terror-struck United States, General Abigail Rhodes takes on the thankless job of heading up the Department of Homeland Security. She could only watch her country get its nose bloodied by these threats for so long before she decided to put a stop to the reign of terrorists once and for all. General Rhodes initiates “Operation: Damocles,” a top-secret project too risky for any of her predecessors to try. Now, Rhodes commands a covert unit of super soldiers, codenamed TASK FORCE 1, and she intends to take the terror to the terrorists.

The SF Signal crew had the opportunity to preview the full Task Force 1 web comic…

  John Kevin Scott Tim
Rating:
Pros: Interesting premise; attention-grabbing openeing scene; a little gory at times, but not too much. Alpha’s ability to not only read minds but manipulate them in a minor way. At one point she uses this power in a pretty neat way to move on. I loved the art, fantastic, top-notch – this guy could be drawing for any of the top comics. The statement that not all the experiments were perfect. Superheroes need flaws to make them more acceptable.
Cons: Scene transitions too abrupt. Too many heroes had one-word names. The art; nothing in the story interested me enough to read the second issue. The writing – ugh! The story was hard to follow (what exactly happened in the team’s first mission?) Too many hackneyed phrases, and the origin story is borrowed. The story was way too disjointed, and felt rushed due to the space he had. I think that the first experiment should have been given much more focus to help us understand what is possible.
Artistic Style: Nice. Reminds me of the Justice League comics of my youth. Some of the color seemed a bit washed out, though. Very pedestrian – nothing in the style stood out from other comics. I loved the style of “US military today w/ an homage to WW2-era art”. Very cool. The style was okay, but not to what I like to read.
Coolest Idea: Alpha’s mind control powers used to loop opponents’ short-term memory. The mind reading/manipulation power. I guess the idea of superheroes originating from military projects isn’t too overused. I guess. The fact that the heros from team one really were designed for combat roles – a true stealth sniper (but with a visible gun – sheesh).
Favorite Line: “Reports are coming in from news stations all over Europe about body parts being delivered to them in the mail.” General: If your team can’t do its job, then we’ll remove that hardware and give it to soldiers that can.
Research Head Guy: But that’d kill or cripple my entire team!
General: Well then, looks like you’ll be properly motivated to get the job done.
“This is..it’s just..I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Well, not exactly… Alpha: Stay out of sight and escort Blast to the target as planned.
Blast: Escort? Did you clear that with my wife because…
Commander: Alpha, stay outta my head.

REVIEW SUMMARY: A good read, but I was expecting more.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Marid Audran and his crime boss, Friedlander Bey, are exiled to the Arabian desert for a murder they did not commit.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: The flavor of prose is very enjoyable and easily consumable; colorful characters; the Budayeen is a great setting.

CONS: Weaker first half; pacing issues.

BOTTOM LINE: This late-blooming story did not quite match the enjoyment levels of the previous two books; if you haven’t read them, start there.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: More hits than misses.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of nine novellas from the year 2005.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 6 stories ranging from good to excellent, the best being a fantasy piece.

CONS: 3 stories mediocre or worse.

BOTTOM LINE: A good assortment of stories from 2005, 3 of them award nominees.

Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels: 2006 aims to collect the best science fiction and fantasy novellas from 2005; whether or not it meets that goal is left up to interpretation, of course. While I can say there were stories from 2005 that I enjoyed better than some of the entries, there are still quite a handful of really enjoyable stories in this volume. As with any anthology, your mileage may vary.

The least enjoyable stories for me this year were hovering in the realm of fantasy. This is not surprising, really, given my preference for science fiction. As I mentioned with last year’s volume, the varied genre selection turns out to be a double-edged sword for readers like myself who may not find a particular genre suitable to their tastes.

That said, I was absolutely blown away that the most enjoyable story was indeed a fantasy: “The Cosmology of the Wider World” by Jeffrey Ford. This story worked on so many levels for me and really made me think hard about why I sometimes do not enjoy fantasy. That fact alone makes it a stunning achievement.

Statistics-wise: Three of the stories in this volume turned out to be award nominees; two for the Hugo (“The Little Goddess” and “Inside Job”), one for both the Hugo and Nebula (“Magic for Beginners”). I had already read all of these as part of my Hugo and Nebula Award nominee reading projects.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.

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MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Star Wars and George Lucas are brought up on charges for crimes against science fiction.

PROS: Covers a lot of ground that relates to science fiction, thought-provoking essays, just a darn good read.

CONS: A few weak essays, uneven tone and a bit too much author bias in some places.

BOTTOM LINE: Star Wars On Trial should be read by every fan of Star Wars and should be enjoyed by readers of science fiction in general.

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REVIEW: DC Universe: Inheritance by Devin Grayson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A super hero book that looks at relationships between the hero and their sidekick.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A boy of a foreign dignitary is almost killed while in Gotham City, and Batman recieves unexpected aid from Green Arrow. Green Arrow decides to pull in thier former sidekicks into the investigation.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: A great discussion about the sidekicks of Batman (Nightwing), Green Arrow (Arsenal) and Aquaman (Tempest).

CONS: Not very much superhero type action.

BOTTOM LINE: The story is more a discussion of parental techniques than about heroic action.

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MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Chuck, Jerry, Sally and John gallivant across the galaxy in a 747, fighting for truth, justice and the American way against the evil, mind controlling Lortonoi.

PROS: Dead on parody of ‘golden age’ space opera, story moves at a breakneck pace, silly/humorous fun.

CONS: Even at 212 pages, the style becomes old very quickly.

BOTTOM LINE: I suspect that if you enjoy the old style space opera, you will really like this one. Otherwise, Star Smashers is a good read that, stylistically, goes on for too long.

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REVIEW: Vellum by Hal Duncan

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: There is a war between angels occurring in throughout the Vellum, the meta-reality that contains our world and countless others. The Book Of All Hours allows its possessor to re-write reality at a whim.

PROS: Unique idea, interesting ideas, some really cool SFnal ideas.

CONS: The narrative is broken up into loosely related chapters, time/reality shifts occur regularly, sometimes within the same paragraph, requires knowledge of myths and legends.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for something different, and you happen to be familiar with many myths and legends, Vellum has a lot offer. Otherwise, it can be very difficult and frustrating to read.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A first-rate story with widespread appeal.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jake Sullivan uploads his mind into a new, artificial body.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Gives rise to thought-provoking issues; never a dull moment; compelling and page-turning; offers something for casual and hardcore sf fans alike.

CONS: The multiple references to twentieth-century pop icons were distracting.

BOTTOM LINE: A thought-provoking, page-turning book.

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REVIEW: Of Fire And Night by Kevin J. Anderson

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Terran Hanseatic League is falling apart and with it, the sanity of its Chairman, Basil Wenceslas. King Peter and his Queen attempt to escape Earth to protect their unborn child from the erratic Chairman. The Ildiran Empire strikes an accord with the Hydrogues to save itself, at the expense of betraying Earth. The Klikiss robots, allies of the Hydrogues, begin their final attack on Earth to eradicate humanity. The other sentient elemental entities, the Verdani and the Wentals, join forces to attack the Hydrogues. And some other stuff happens too.

PROS: Interesting far future galactic setting, intriguing aliens, cool SF ideas abound.

CONS: Workman-like writing, illogical happenings and plot contrivances.

BOTTOM LINE: Anderson has warmed up his characters for this, the fifth volume in his The Sage Of Seven Suns series, but overall it is still a competent space opera that doesn’t rise above its parts.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: Lots of gems, only a few misses.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of thirty one science fiction stories that first appeared in 2005.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Twenty seven stories that are good or better; eight of those are exceptionally well done.

CONS: Four stories mediocre or worse; a bit heavy on the posthumanism theme.

BOTTOM LINE: A fine collection bursting with lots of cool science fiction ideas.

David G. Hartwell’s and Kathryn Cramer’s annual Year’s Best SF series makes it to number eleven this year. While other annuals play with the definition of the genre, this series strives to collect stories that clearly lie within the science fiction domain. Thus, science fiction fans will not feel cheated that this series offers a diluted selection. Instead, all the stories are clearly sf.

The only factor that could possibly limit the series’ range is that it is constrained to the mass-market paperback format. (I think that hardback editions eventually appear later through the Science Fiction Book Club, but the target format is MMP.) Because of the smaller form factor, you won’t find the 60+ pages of introduction that you would find in the Dozois anthologies. Nor will you find a large number of novella-sized short fiction. In fact, the story length tally for Year’s Best SF 11 comes in at zero novellas, 9 novelettes, 12 short stories and 10 vignettes. That’s a whopping 31 stories of varying length. That’s a fairly decent story count.

There was one noticeably recurring theme throughout the anthology: posthumanism. (Oddly, there were also a couple of stories where rats played a prominent role.) Before I read this anthology, I had no idea that posthumanism was so prominent in 2005. Actually, it almost got to the level of annoyance as it put a slight damper on the variety that I look for in an anthology. While it’s true that even the posthuman-themed stories provided some diversity amongst themselves, perhaps the story selection could have been chosen to provide more variety overall. Just my 2 cents.

As expected in any anthology, the quality of the stories is not entirely consistent. A small handful of the stories failed to entertain. But the good news is that the large majority of the stories were good or better.

Standout stories in Year’s Best SF 11 are “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory, “Mason’s Rats” by Neal Asher, “The Forever Kitten” by Peter F. Hamilton, “City of Reason” by Matthew Jarpe, “What’s Expected of Us” by Ted Chiang, “Bright Red Star” by Bud Sparhawk, “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Alastair Reynolds and “I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow.

Reviewlettes follow…

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REVIEW SUMMARY: More of an enjoyable warning than it is story.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Man meets aliens; man shoots aliens.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Well-thought-out aliens; well-crafted prose; interesting premise.

CONS: Flat characters; minor story offshoots don’t lend much to the main thread.

BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful and look at first contact.

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REVIEW SUMMARY: A very good group of stories that’s better than many best-of-the-year anthologies.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Original anthology of six far-future SF novellas.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 4 standout stories

CONS: 1 mediocre entry

BOTTOM LINE: Four out of six is a very good score.

I’ve been reading lots of short stories and it amazes me how original anthologies can sometimes be better than some best-of-the-year types. I suppose it stands to reason that the best-of anthologies are the opinion of (usually) one editor whose tastes might differ from that of the reader. On the other hand, given the law of averages, an anthology of original stories should be equally hit or miss.

Along comes Between Worlds edited by Robert Silverberg. Two of these stories were chosen for Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction #22: “Shiva in Shadow” by Nancy Kress and “Investments” by Walter Jon Williams. I did not re-read them this time around. Pity I didn’t take better notes on the Kress story, though, which I thought was perfect.

Standouts in the collection were “Between Worlds” by Stephen Baxter, the Kress story, “The Colonel Returns to the Stars” by Robert Silverberg and “Keepsakes” by Mike Resnick. Four out of six is a very good score. The weakest story in the bunch, by my reckoning, was mediocre. But then again, that was the Williams story that got chosen for the Dozois best-of anthology. So what do I know?

In addition to providing an excellent story, Silverberg tasked each of the other writers with providing a snapshot of life in the far future and far from Earth. I don’t know that all of the writers met that challenge as life remains pretty much the same. Or maybe that’s the point? No matter, there are some really top notch stories in this anthology.

This makes the second original anthology I read this year from the Science Fiction Book Club that is well worth the read; the other being Down These Dark Spaceways, which also featured stories that have since gone on to be collected elsewhere and nominated for awards.

Reviewlettes follow…

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REVIEW: Paragaea by Chris Roberson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A contemporary pulp adventure that injects some fun back into the genre.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Retro-style adventure story in which cosmonaut Leena Chirikov is transported to Paragaea and must search for a way home.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Fast-paced and action-packed; wondrous setting; likable characters; fun!

CONS: Slight pacing issues at times. Characters sometimes acted questionably.

BOTTOM LINE: True to its promise, if you like old-school pulp adventure, you’ll like Paragaea.

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REVIEW: 2006 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees

Like the previous project to read the 2005 Nebula Nominees for short fiction, I undertook the task to read the short fiction nominees for the 2006 Hugo Award. Once again, all of the nominees were available online this year. Thanks, Al Gore!

Overall, the stories were very good and stronger than the Nebula nominees. Indeed, many of these stories have already been chosen to appear in one “Best of…” anthology or another due out this year. Three of the Hugo nominated stories (“Identity Theft”, “Magic for Beginners” and “Singing My Sister Down”) are also recent Nebula nominees. Besides those stories, a couple of authors appear on both ballots as well: namely James Patrick Kelly and Paolo Bacigalupi. Michael A. Burstein has the distinct honor of having two stories on the Hugo ballot this year.

Most of the nominees’ names are familiar through previous award wins and nominations, so I was expecting some good things. For the most part, I was not disappointed. The two least enjoyable Hugo nominated stories for me were not bad, but somewhat mediocre. This was unexpected as Waldrop is considered as master of the short form (I loved “Calling Your Name“) and, if this is any indication, he’s had 10 stories chosen for the first 23 volumes of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology series. The other mediocre story was by Michael Burstein – surprising since I thought his other story, “TelePresence”, was the best novelette in the bunch and most deserving of the win.

So, in a nutshell, here are my impressions of the stories in each category, sorted from most to least enjoyable. Obviously, the winning picks are the tops ones listed in each category.

Novella

Burn” by James Patrick Kelly

Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer

Inside Job” by Connie Willis

The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald

Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link

Novelette

TelePresence” by Michael A. Burstein

I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow

Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle

The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The King of Where-I-Go” by Howard Waldrop

Short Story

Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan

Down Memory Lane” by Mike Resnick

Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine

The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green

Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein

Reviewlettes follow…

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REVIEW: Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

REVIEW SUMMARY: Fine hard science fiction from a very capable author that could have been so much more.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Earth as been rendered devoid of life thanks to nanotech gone awry, and humankind has been split between those that eschew nanotech and hope to repopulate Earth the old fashion way (the Threshers or those who want to stand up to the threshold of nano use) and those who have embraced nanotech throughout their bodies and would like to terraform Earth with more nanos (the Slashers, named after those who use Slashdot – I’m not kidding.) An archaeologist from the Threshers Verity Auger becomes embroiled in interstellar intrigue when she discovers a duplicate Earth, held in stasis by alien technology, has become active and in fact can now be visited.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Great use of science fiction staples like nanotech, wormholes, and the unique concept of a giant sphere big enough to hold a copy of a world in quantum stasis.

CONS: Slow story in parts. Reynold’s characters seem cold and lifeless.

BOTTOM LINE: Still a good read, but I had expected more from Reynolds.

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