Re-Reading, The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

My recent visit to a used bookstore netted me a couple of relics from my past reading, including a paperback of Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose. For those who have not read any of Asaro’s Skolian saga, this book might make a good starting point, but it is probably a better read for those who are already familiar with this rather involved science fiction/fantasy/romance series.

The Quantum Rose won the 2001 Nebula Award

Asaro’s bio is almost as mind-boggling as her stories: She holds a doctorate in chemical physics, and she is a former ballerina, jazz dancer, and sometime singer. Her books include near future science fiction, such as The Veiled Web and the Phoenix Code, the 14 (or so) volume Skolian saga, which begins with Primary Inversion, The Lost Continent series, The Uplift Saga series, and more.

For me, this book is really hard to quantify. One tag line is that it is a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Uh, not really. Another is that it is a physics allegory, and the author ‘s note at the end makes every effort to explain the book via that lens, and while interesting, I kinda got lost in her description of particle physics after a while. Certainly this book is a romantic science fiction story, and there’s really not much high brow competition in that sub-genre. While readable, Asaro is never simplistic.

This story does fill in some gaps in the Skolian saga, which generally tells the story of members of the Ruby Dynasty in a book (or two.) Interestingly, the point of view character in The Quantum Rose is Kamoj Argali, a young ruler of an impoverished province on a backward planet, and not a member of the Ruby Dynasty. Kamoj does end up entangled in their saga, because she becomes involved with Vyrl, one of the Ruby Dynasty, who is sojourning on her planet for a while, and they end up falling in love.

The first part of the book is all about Kamoj, Vyrl, and the complications of her previous engagement to a local leader of questionable morals, Jax Ironbridge. This first half is more romance than sci-fi, although sci-fi elements are present. The second half is mostly set off of that world, filling in certain backstory aspects of the Skolian saga, with more science fiction and a heavy dose of fantasy. At this point, the romance takes a back seat to the political machinations that are part and parcel of the Skolian yarn.

While I enjoyed The Quantum Rose once again, I have trouble understanding why it won the Nebula award, which goes to the best science fiction novel of the year (via a vote of the SFWA). Yes, it is skillfully written and the quantum part of the title is justified, at least in the author’s notes after the novel, as “playing with quantum scattering theory.” Still, I have to wonder if it was really the very best science fiction novel of 2000. I like most of the Asaro novels I have read, and I think some of the others are better than The Quantum Rose. Hum, maybe it was the lack of competition.

Re-reading, Goddess by Mistake

Recently, I got my hands on a used copy of a book I loaned and lost, Goddess by Mistake by P.C. Cast. Often, books are so similar that I don’t remember them well enough to write a decent review a week or two after I have finished them. Goddess by Mistake was memorable for me, so much so that I remembered it almost two decades after my first reading of it, so when I scored a used one on eBay, I put it at the top of to be read pile. The story still seems fresh, but the sassy narrator is the main reason I liked it then, and why I still like it. For those who want to know more, here’s a link to my “old” blog.

http://pamspages.blogspot.com/2007/08/

Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration

While all Star Trek series are worthy, some are just more interesting than others. Deep Space Nine has some great characters and acting, but initially suffered from being “stationary” rather than zipping around like the Star Trek ( the original series) or Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Roddenberry’s vision had sharpened and the syndication model freed him from many constraints, probably TNG is the overall best series. Certainly, the acting is amazing and the scrips are often really great, too. But, as special effects have become better and better, TNG suffers a bit in that area. Enter Star Trek: Voyager, which had a seriously huge void to fill, as it debut was a mere six months after TNG ended its seven year run. I also reviewed a book, Star Trek Voyager, A Vision of the Future, written during Voyager’s run, which is good, but last year, this volume, written as an anniversary edition, does a much better job of explaining the series as a whole, from development to the two part ending episode, “End Game.”

Upon receiving the book, I thought it would be one of those “coffee table” books, long on pictures and short on words. Nope, although there are many pictures. Indeed, the use of now decades old still pictures from the series is sometimes a weak point. However, there are drawings, pictures of behind the scenes contributors, and plenty of text. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is written in short segments which can be quickly read, but there are many sections, and these don’t necessarily need to be read in any fixed order.

The book begins, logically, with series development, and then there’s a short (two page) section devoted to the title sequence. I had no idea that this part (often “skipped” while streaming) was nominated for an Emmy award. Interspersed with the more technical aspects of the series are longer passages about the characters, beginning, of course, with Captain Janeway. The authors (two principal and two others, along with a general editor and a sub-editor) rely upon previously published material as well as newly conducted interviews with some cast members, as well as writers, producers, artist, and a host of others. Kate Mulgrew, who played Janeway, is among those who share memories in this book, and she discusses how much pressure was upon her as the first female captain of a Star Trek series, and how she approached the character as well as learning the scientific language necessary in this sort of show.

As there were many episodes (16 the first season, and 26 in each of the following six seasons) not all of them are featured, but sections devoted what are termed “key” episodes are mixed in with the other segments. The first, “Caretaker” is the two part pilot, and some of the other key episodes include “Tuvix” a character created by a transporter accident in which Neelix and Tuvok are blended into one individual. Each character gets a section, and most of multi episode villains do also. There are a couple of segments about the ship, one about the Delta Flyer, which is a smaller ship built by the Voyager crew about halfway through their journey, as well as segments about the special effects department, the makeup artists, the costumers, the writers, and the directors. As a fan of Voyager since it originally was broadcast, I knew quite a bit about the series, but there’s a lot of new material. For instance, I knew that some of the actors directed certain episodes, but I did not know that Star Trek actually fostered this by holding a “director in training” program. Roxann Dawson, who played Lt. Torres, directed a couple of episodes of Voyager, but went on to become a sought after director. She states that the program changed her life.

Bob Picardo took advantage of the DIT program and directed episodes of Voyager, but he also gets a writing credit, as he pitched a story line which was used, and he co-wrote the script. Robbie McNeil, who played Tom Paris, also directed multiple episodes of Voyager and went on to direct other projects.

When TNG was in production, many of the special effects were done with models, but by the time Voyager was being produced, digital graphics were beginning to be more cost effective, as well as allowing more creative shots, so as the seven seasons went by, more and more VFX were done digitally. However, in the show’s 100th episode, “Timeless”, the ship is depicted as crashing into a snow and ice covered planet. The visual effects crew found that digital snow wasn’t working, so they ended up doing a practical shot with a model crashing into a tray of baking soda. I’ve seen that episode several times, and I am amazed by how good it looks on the screen.

For fans of Star Trek Voyager, this book is a real treat. For readers interested in television, particularly directing, writing, and special effects, it is worthy. Casual readers or those who just “look at the pictures” might be a tad disappointed in this book, but I read it cover to cover, with a couple sections earning a second reading. For now, it has a spot on my “keeper” shelf, too.

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—review and commentary

A Y/A science fiction yarn

As the pandemic has continued to plague businesses, many of them are accelerating their transition to robots and artificial intelligence, thus replacing or supplementing their all too frail human employees. Semi/Human is set in the near future, and in this novel Silicon Valley has finally written an adaptable code that makes most human employees obsolete. Vehicles drive themselves, dealers in Vegas are all robots, police have been replaced by armed drones, and so forth.

Main character Pen(ney) Davis is more than depressed, because like most other human jobs, her intern job at a Silicon Valley computer firm has been eliminated. However, Pen has come up with a less than practical scheme to steal a ridiculously expensive treasure from her former employer and get rich enough to care a lot less about being unemployed.

As Alexander Pope once observed, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” and recent intern Pen re-writes the code of a self-driving truck, intending to hijack it for a trip across the country, but ends up making the aforementioned truck autonomous instead. Fortunately for Pen, the truck, Lara B, is both friendly and grateful.

Lest I ruin this tale for readers, let me just say that this yarn is cogent, examining the societal damage which would ensue if gainful employment ceased, as well as the ethics of dealing with a self-aware, nearly omniscient super computer. There’s a dash of economic reality sprinkled in as well, because with no work, there’s no money coming in for the vast majority of the populace, so they end up fighting over whatever is left behind in the technological revolution.

There’s also more than a little suspense, as Pen and Lara B join forces to accomplish the original mission, wherein Pen hopes to acquire both riches and revenge in one fell swoop. Semi/Human is one of those rare books that blends a cautionary theme with an entertaining plot. Most of the characters are well drawn, and there is sufficient description of settings to keep the reader entertained but the plot never bogs down.

As a frequent reader of science fiction, it is rare for me to call a novel memorable, but for me Semi/Human is such a book. Perhaps I simply read it a the right time, or perhaps the book is really that good. If you like youthful, sassy heroines, self-aware computers (and trucks) along with a suspense filled story line, you really should try Semi/Human.

The Night Manager (television series)—a brief review and commentary

managerOften, the best stories begin as, well, stories. Before The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking film, it was a book by L. Frank Baum. Before 2001 A Space Odyssey was an influential science fiction film, it was a book by Arthur C. Clarke. Television series have also been book based, including such diverse stories as Little House on the Prairie, based on a series of books by Laura Ingles Wilder, and Game of Thrones, which was based on a series of books by George R. R. Martin. There are literally dozens of others, but I’m going to discuss one that you might have missed: The Night Manager, based on a book by John Le Carré. A friend recommended this six part series, and we usually enjoy the same sorts of stories.

The Night Manager is currently on a streaming service offered by a large online reseller, the one that starts with an A. Originally, however, the series was made for British television and shown in the states on AMC. As I don’t subscribe to cable, I missed it there, but my hubby and I saw this winner of three Golden Globe awards recently. The plot, although updated a bit from the 1993 novel, is intricate enough to puzzle, but not nearly as confusing as modern teleplays tend to be. The direction is subtle but sure. The acting is simply outstanding, with a star cast including Hugh Laurie (who starred eight seasons in House M. D.) and Olivia Coleman (who dons The Crown in seasons 3 and 4 over on Netflix.) The main character is brought to life by Tom Hiddleston, who has several Marvel movies as well as a video game in his resumé. This series was rather expensive to make, by BBC standards anyway, and was filmed in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s a bit of plot summary: A former soldier for the British army, Jonathan Pine, is portrayed as the night manager of a Cairo hotel as the story begins. He gets involved with a mysterious guest who is the girlfriend of a local gangster. Through her relationship with the gangster she has acquired information linking illegal international arms sales with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an English billionaire. Just after leaking information regarding the illegal arms, she is found murdered.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Fearing for his own life, Pine flees, and is next seen, a few years later, doing the same job at a remote hotel in Switzerland. When super villain Roper visits the Swiss hotel, Pine longs to have some revenge, and soon he is enlisted by British Intelligence to spy on Roper. Before long, he has a new identity and an opportunity to infiltrate the small network of arms dealing. Getting information out, while staying alive and undercover is quite a challenge.

One reviewer called it a “classy thriller.” That nails it, but do check out this amazing bingeable series.

ARC review—Edge of Extinction by Kim Borg

EdgeOfExtinction_CVR_SMLI read Kim Borg’s debut novel as an ARC, and published public reviews on Big A and Goodreads, and I stand by that review. This one is going to be a bit different, however, and there are gonna be a few spoilers, so if that bothers you, go read the Goodreads version.

Science fiction is a modern art form, which probably begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although there is some debate on that. Actually, there is also debate as to the exact definition of science fiction, along with what works should be classified as science fiction. For instance, many works of horror and some that are largely fantasy end up in the SF basket. As I don’t especially like either of those genres, that bothers me, but the lines are often blurred. Anyway, science fiction generally takes what is known (science fact) and extrapolates that is some manner (the fiction part.) I like to say it this way, science fiction asks “What if______?” In this case, we have a novel which poses several questions.

Borg’s novel is set in 2086, when Teslas drive themselves, which isn’t much of a stretch, and population control is a world-wide mandate, which extrapolates a bit more. Oh, and the Earth is a polluted mess, and rather than clean it up, at least one rich and famous guy  is looking to find a new spot to colonize. Apart from the one child per couple population control, which China tried a while back, none of this is much of a mental stretch.

However, after a few more scenes, the point of view characters, Dr. Amber Lytton and Dr. Joel Carter, become members of a space going team who board a ship called the Hermes, launch into space, and rely on a Phoenix drive to take them to the pristine Earth type planet, Arcadia. During their training, the couple learns that they are actually the second team to venture to the planet to assess it as a possible location for colonization. Once there, the travelers must dodge aliens of various sizes and levels of ferocity, while looking for clues as to the fate of their predecessors. Problems, both external and within the group, complicate the mission. Borg’s debut novel has quite a bit of suspense, a good character development, and lots of world building. The gadgets, although present, don’t over-power the story, either, which I like.

As in many worthy stories, the bad guys (or critters) aren’t all bad, and the good guys aren’t all good. There are a lot of questions to answer, such as will the villain who is only along to steal a valuable hunk of mineral get away? Will our point of view characters both live through the conflict between species which rule Arcadia? Is Arcadia a parallel planet to Earth, wherein the dinosaurs were never killed off? And, perhaps most important, are humans too wicked to trust to colonize any planet? This novel reminds me of some excellent science fiction writers, especially Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes.) The ending isn’t quite a cliff hanger, but it opens the door for sequels, and I hope the author continues the story line in other novels.

Edge of Extinction is skillfully written and worth the reader’s time. Kim Borg states in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel that her goal is to both educate and entertain the reader, and while she certainly tries to educate, she does entertains. Borg is a new author for fans of classic science fiction to watch.

 

Retro Review: Moondust and Madness by Janelle Taylor

MoondustA friend (a generation older than I am) recommended books by Janelle Taylor, saying she is a prolific series romance writer from Georgia.  That’s true. Goodreads lists lots and lots of titles by Taylor, and apparently she sold quite a few books in her heyday. The series my friend recommended was “western” but as I am a science fiction fan, I chose to read book one in the Moondust series, Moondust and Madness.

Reviews for the ebook, which I read, are not plentiful, but are mostly positive. However, a deeper dive into those reveal that the positive reviews are mostly by readers who remembered this yarn from way back, whereas younger, first time readers are not impressed. I understand both points of view.

Moondust and Madness is a traditional 80s bodice ripper novel, which just happens to be set in space. Heroine Jana Greyson is a scientist who is abducted by an alien gathering up human mates for a large system of planets in another galaxy. These alien abductions are sanctioned by the alien powers that be due to the devastation of an engineered virus which caused a lack of fertility amongst the alien females. BTW, these aliens look just like humans, and can breed with them, so the only thing Jana (and her five hundred companions) need is an inner ear translation device and some brainwashing to help her get ready for her new life. Much of the science fiction trappings seem to have been lifted from Star Trek, from “Star Fleet” to transporters. That could be viewed as “ripping off” Trek, but I think it was more to give readers some familiar science fiction props. This is a romance novel, so there are very few explanations of how gadgets or space ships work.

Lots of political intrigue and the on-again off-again romance between Jana and her captor, Varian Saar, make up the more than five hundred pages of this novel, which begins a series featuring other characters set in the same universe. While I liked the book at times, it is just too retro for most readers. I won’t continue the series, but I did finish it.

For readers who like alien abduction and then fall in love plots, Myra Nour used this same basic plot for her much better novel, Love’s Captive. And, if you want a dose of reality wherein the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her captor, try my novel, Trinity on Tylos.

 

The Functional. Fragment. Celebrated. Or reviled.

ARC5Claimed (which may or may not also have the title of Rescued) came to me as an advanced review copy (ARC) which I read recently for a review site. Actually, I am glad to have the opportunity to review again, as it has been quite a while since I’ve done this. Most such sites really want a positive review, and I have written one. My comments for the site are true but censored a bit. What you’ll read here is more genuine.

First of all, sometimes minor mistakes are in an ARC, and I certainly understand that. The author used “fussed” for “fussy” for instance. That’s the kind of minor mistake that should be corrected before the final book is published. This book is a science fiction romance, with the emphasis on romance. For me, science fiction should have a bit science, but in Claimed/Rescued there aren’t many science fiction elements, apart from characters (lots of aliens) setting (a spaceship and a space station) and plot (alien abduction.) Apart from vivid descriptions of aliens, the other elements are not especially detailed.

Romance comes in several flavors these days, from very hot (nearly pornographic) to sweet (think Amish stories that talk about feelings rather than body parts.) Claimed/Rescued is skewed well on the sexy side of the continuum. For those who read romance for vicarious sex, this novel is a winner. From a science fiction standpoint, this yarn disappoints a bit. Okay, I don’t have to know how the ship goes or how the remote control on her wicked slave collar works, but a little more detail concerning the gadgets would be welcome. The most sci fi part of the book is the afore mentioned vast array of aliens, and those are described in varying levels of detail.

For me, the most annoying aspect of the book was the author’s reliance upon the “functional fragment.” Of course, lots of dialogue depends on the functional fragment. Think about one side of a phone conversation:

“Hey!”

“Oh yeah.”

“Really?”

“No kiddin’!”

I have no problem with the construction in that context. But. This author. Tends to write. Like. This. The words shared in this manner tend to be feelings or observations, such as “Handsome.” “Kindness.” “To Bond.” “To become as one.” “Tenderness.” “Aroused.” “Stay strong.” “Traumatized.” “Wary.” “Forever.” Y’all, I just listed a few of the functional fragments. Every once in a while, this could be an effective technique, but Claimed/Rescued is far too reliant upon these pseudo sentences.

No doubt Claimed/Rescued will be published, and there will be enough positive reviews that some science fiction romance fans will read it. And, those who want to experience sex vicariously may well enjoy it. But. All I seem to remember. Are. Those. Fragments.

For All Mankind—on Apple TV

MankindWith the purchase of a new device from Apple comes a free subscription to their relatively new paid streaming platform. As hubby and I are often seeking a new television series to binge watch, we just finished For All Mankind on the Apple platform, and overall, we liked it quite a lot. However, I read several reviews, with criticisms being at least as numerous as the accolades, and often both are well deserved. The series was developed in part by Ronald D. Moore, who has a stellar (pun intended) reputation for writing and producing excellent science fiction, from Star Trek the Next Generation to Outlander, and with the simply superb reboot of Battlestar Galactica in between.

The scenario is quite promising: In an alternate history, the Soviet Union beats the United States to be the first nation to put a man on the moon, and the growing rivalry between nations causes the space program of the United States to flourish, rather than founder. Neither our citizens nor our politicians like being second best, so the need to catch up and surpass drives the plot. As an alternate history, many of the characters are based upon real people, but quite a few characters are inventions. Even those who are based upon real people have different adventures (or mis-adventures) due to the fictional nature of the series. The acting is good, as is the writing. The effects are very good, also. The sets, props, and costumes are really amazing—it’s truly a back to the 60s look. So far, so good.

But, as many negative reviewers have noted, the series is typical of our “social justice” modern agenda. Immigration, same sex relationships, race relations, and feminism are more than just sub-plots in this re-imagining of the space race. Each of these social justice themes has a story arc devoted to it, and these themes are every bit as strong as the “what if America had continued to send people to the moon?” theme that is the advertised plot line.

Alas, any subtle use of themes is no more. This alternate history is very good, but the social justice warriors are using a sledge hammer to right perceived wrongs. For All Mankind is just like many modern day productions in that regard. What could have been A+ for Apple’s streaming service is instead closer to a B-.

If you have Apple TV, check it out. If you don’t, I wouldn’t buy it for this series alone.