Wednesday, March 29, 2017


When I decided to binge-read science fiction, I consulted the websites of the Hugo and the Nebula, the two premier awards given for that genre, and ordered books which had won one or both of the awards. What I didn't consider is that both designate the best of each year's science fiction or fantasy novels. Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula, but it is definitely not science fiction; it is instead a fantasy of the swords and sorcery variety, with some G-rated courtly romance thrown in.

I have not read too much in this sub-category of fantasy, but I think it likely that this is better than most. For one thing, the central character is a 40-year-old widow, which is unexpected and refreshing. Also, the book is more than competently written in an engaging style. Still, it mostly adheres to the conventions of the genre and contains few surprises.

When the heroine, Ista, is at long last freed from the restraints of her castle at the death of her mother, she departs on what is purportedly a religious pilgrimage. In reality, she has rejected the gods -- all five of them -- and only wants to experience freedom and the world once again. She meets with more than she bargained for, however, including an invading army; demons lurking inside men, women, and animals; an animated corpse; and one of the gods, who bestows upon her the power to cast out demons. And, oh yes, she encounters a well-built and handsome fighting man with a winning smile and long black hair streaked with gray, who has been placed under an enchantment.

Bujold is an extremely popular author who has won more Hugo Awards for Best Novel than any other writer with the exception of Robert Heinlein. I perhaps judge her too harshly. I do tend to compare all fantasy novels to The Lord of the Rings, so they all come up short. I judge this a cotton candy kind of book; I enjoyed myself while reading it, but it left no lingering nourishment and I felt a bit guilty afterwards.

Monday, March 27, 2017


I was looking forward to reading this science fiction novel because I really liked Haldeman's 1977 novel The Forever War. I am sorely disappointed. In my opinion, this book lacks focus and logic and a consistent message.

Haldeman actually tells three stories here, and they don't mesh very well. The book begins with a war scene, as remotely-controlled robots battle against conventionally armed insurgents in Central America. The robots are controlled from many miles away by so-called "mechanics" who are "jacked" together through shunts into their brains in order to coordinate the actions. The jacking technology allows those connected not only to read each other's thoughts but also to feel what the others feel. This is an intriguing set-up, allowing the author to portray the mechanics as they actually experience the death of one of their number from brain-overload or actually feel the guilt one of their number feels from the killing of adversaries. Haldeman also lets us know how beneficial to the sexual experience jacking together can be, as a participant feels not only hia/her own physical sensations but also the sensations of the partner.

From this beginning, Haldeman jumps to the discovery by one of the mechanics (who happens to be a physicist) and his lover (also a scientist) that a project nearing completion around the planet Jupiter will bring about a second Big-Bang, which will destroy the galaxy. How can they convince their country to stop the project?

The third story hinges on the discovery that being continuously jacked with a group for about two weeks results in such overwhelming empathy that the participants can no longer bear to injure or kill others, except in self defense. Thus, to bring about worldwide peace, everyone would need to have a jack installed. Simple, right? This is the point where many lapses in logic enter in. To detail them would reveal the entire plot of the latter part of the novel. Just take my word for it--this is not something that could even be possible and if it could it wouldn't even work.

Haldeman's message seems to be that peace could be achieved if people had more empathy, which is undoubtedly true. Yet the novel's most riveting passages are scenes of violence and mayhem, which would seem to weaken the plea for peace.

Forever Peace won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1998, so this is a minority opinion. I would not recommend this novel.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The Fall of Hyperion is a continuation of the story which Simmons began in Hyperion (reviewed here just previously). Neither book would be complete as a stand-alone novel. As this part of the story begins, a group of pilgrims has just arrived at the valley of the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion, each hoping to confront the Shrike, a fearsome creature covered in spikes, thorns, and blades, who has emerged from the Tombs. In the meantime, humanity has begun an all-out war between the planets of the Hegemony (who are essentially super-capitalistic and environment-destroying) and the Ouster planets (who are essentially empathetic and environmentally protective). I thought of them as Republicans and Democrats. Ostensibly aiding the Hegemony is the TechnoCore, the artificial intelligence community which had given the Hegemony the Farcaster Web, which allows instantaneous transport from one planet to another.

Thus begins an extremely convoluted plot which contains so many twists and turns that it is impossible to summarize. Suffice it to say that it includes many betrayals; much political maneuvering; space battles; some dubious metaphysics; time travel; the continuing stories of the pilgrims; musings about God/god and religious belief; deaths and resurrections; many references to 18th, 19th, and 20th Century poets, music composers, and artists; and more than a few plot threads left dangling.

All of this is narrated by a cybrid the TechnoCore has created by combining the DNA and memories of the poet John Keats with an artificial intelligence. He is able to describe events at which he is not present because he dreams them. I kid you not.

This is a mess of a book, with too much happening and too many story lines and too many characters and too much left unexplained. It jumps around from character to character and situation to situation. It is confusing. It doesn't always make sense. And yet....

This part of the story was diverting and kept me reading despite its excesses and lack of coherent logic. The first volume was much better. As space operas go, this one is better than many, but not nearly on a par with Frank Herbert's Dune, to which it is often compared.


The Fall of Hyperion won the British Science Fiction and Locus awards for best novel in 1990.

Friday, March 17, 2017


Far in the future, when humanity has spread across the galaxy, on Hyperion, a planet far far away, a mysterious creature called the Shrike begins appearing in the area of pre-history artifacts known as the Time Tombs, which seem to be moving backwards in time. He is a murderous creature with four arms and a body covered in thorns, spikes, and blades who kills with discrimination. Some view him as a devil meant to punish mankind, and some view him as a god meant to save mankind from itself. On this planet and on other far-flung worlds a religious cult arises that worships him. On the eve of a galactic battle which will determine the future of humanity, seven men and women set out for a final pilgrimage to meet the Shrike, each with a different reason, each knowing that only one, if that, will be granted a wish and left alive to return.

Simmons structures his excellent novel in the manner of The Canterbury Tales: During the course of the long journey, the seven pilgrims agree to pass the time by telling their personal stories, revealing their reasons for wishing to confront the Shrike. These are the seven:

THE PRIEST--one of the scattering of remaining Catholics whose previous visit to Hyperion left him with an almost unbearable burden which threatens to destroy his faith;

THE SOLDIER--a man of violence and war whose life and dreams have long been haunted by a mysterious lover, who might or might not be an incarnation of the Shrike;

THE POET--a cynical alcoholic who believes the Shrike to be his Muse that will allow him to finish his great poem;

THE DETECTIVE--a young woman of dedication and loyalty who travels to Hyperion in place of a murdered former client who had also been her lover;

THE SCHOLAR--a father who is desperate to save his infant daughter, who is traveling backwards in time toward non-existence as a result of her previous visit to Hyperion;

THE CONSUL--a former bureaucrat on Hyperion whose goal is revenge against humanity for the ecological destruction of many worlds;

THE STARSHIP CAPTAIN--a man of mystery who suddenly disappears without a trace before his story can be told.

Framing the stories of the seven is the preparation for the battle for Hyperion between the Hegemony, many worlds under a central government who have reshaped the ecology of planets to fit their perceived needs, and the Ousters, renegade worlds who have adapted themselves to fit the ecology of their planets. Purportedly advising the Hegemony is the TechnoCore, the artificial intelligence community once created by humans but now operating independently under its own mysterious agenda.

Science fiction is often faulted for its reliance on plot at the expense of character development, but this science fiction novel surprises by putting the emphasis on the characters. I became so totally invested in their dilemmas and motivations that when the book ended abruptly with their arrival in the valley of the Time Tombs, I rushed to my computer to order the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, rather than just give up on the story, as I did with The Three-Body Problem, the book I just previously reviewed. I can strongly recommend this to anyone wishing to escape reality and be taken to someplace else for a couple of days.

Hyperion won the Hugo and Locus awards for best science fiction novel, and is near the top on many Best Of... lists.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by CIXIN LIU (2006, in China; US translation 2014)

I decided to binge read science fiction novels after reading an interview in the New York Times with outgoing President Barack Obama concerning what books mean to him. He said that there are occasions when "I just want to get out of my own head. Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be somewhere else." Then he mentioned that The Three-Body Problem was one of the best escapist books he had read lately.

I, also, would like to be somewhere else right now, so I am beginning my science fiction readings with President Obama's recommendation.

This is old-school hard science fiction, with the emphasis on science, so much of the information and jargon went right over my non-scientific head. However, it is not imperative that a reader have a working knowledge of physics to follow the plot. Wang Maio is a nanomaterials researcher who begins to experience seemingly impossible phenomena aimed at getting him to stop his research. He learns also that several prominent physicists have recently committed suicide. Someone or something appears to be trying to stop the progress of science. Various colleagues either urge him to give up his research to prevent something terrible from happening or urge him to continue so as to help save civilization. The first half of the book should have been a suspenseful mystery as to what is going on, but it is effectively spoiled by the revelation on the back cover of the book that aliens from outer space are on their way to earth. I would have enjoyed the book more if that bit of information had been left off.

The second half of the book concerns the responses of those in the know to the looming threat. Some believe that the aliens will try to destroy humanity and want to prepare for defense. Some believe that aliens will merely subjugate earth's population and believe that an advanced culture will save humanity from destroying itself. Some welcome the idea that the aliens will destroy all human life, believing that it is not worth saving. This half chronicles the efforts of the groups to attain their desired goal: to defeat the aliens, to submit to them, or to aid in humanity's annihilation by preventing scientific progress that might lead to effective weapons.

And then the book abruptly ends.

I did not realize until I finished the book that it is the first in a trilogy, and that after 400+ pages it would just stop, years before the aliens are expected to arrive. I guess I will never know how humanity fares because I don't believe I will read the next two. It was an interesting read but not interesting enough that I am willing to devote time to read 800 more pages.

The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 2015 and was nominated for the Nebula Award.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


These three things have brought me the most joy in my time here on earth: first and always, my family; second, books; and third, music. This excellent autobiography by one of my favorite musicians happily brings together all three of my loves; besides being a book about music, it was lent to me by a member of my family, my son-in--law Andy. I have enjoyed reading several biographies and autobiographies of musicians in the past, but none as much as this one. First, it appears to have been actually written by Springsteen himself, as opposed to the usual practice in such instances of a celebrity telling his story to someone else, who cleans it up and writes it down. Mainly, though, I was impressed because it is unexpectedly well written.

I don't know why I am surprised that Springsteen would prove to be such a good writer; after all, this is a man who can tell an entire novel's worth of story in a five-minute song, complete with arresting images and gut-deep emotion. The authenticity that he brings to his lyrics is also present in this account--it seems true. He does tend to overwrite at times and his navel-gazing does become a bit much at times, but overall he does a very fine job.

This is not a gossipy tell-all about fellow musicians or the story of wild and crazy shenanigans and bad behavior. Instead, it is an introspective look at the events that shaped him into the man he is, which in turn shaped his music and his message. He is self-deprecating to a fault, except for his honest evaluation of himself as a hard worker and a highly effective song writer. The one surprising revelation he makes is that he has periodically suffered from crippling depression.

As one of the perks of the computer age, I was able to go from the book to Youtube to give myself a more informed listen to a great many Springsteen songs, as I read about their inspiration and intent. I have to admit that I probably spent as much time listening as I did in reading, because I got carried away and played whole albums. More than any other musician since Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen has brought to our attention the marginalized, the overlooked, the unfortunates still searching for the American Dream. Since much of his music is delivered in the rock format rather than in a singer/song writer format, casual listeners may be oblivious to his message. I am sure many consider "Born in the U.S.A." to be only a patriotic celebration, while the words actually depict a failure of the nation to live up to its promise.

I highly recommend this autobiography to those who love the music of "The Boss" and to those who appreciate honest and effective writing.


Thomas Berger wrote several black comedies, and I found his most famous novel, Little Big Man, to be very funny indeed. In contrast, I did not find Sneaky People to be humorous at all. It was downright depressing to me, in fact. I didn't like his novel The Fued either, even though it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. So is something amiss with my sense of humor?

This is a short review which may, or may not, be expanded later.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


The Spire is such an ambiguous novel that it is extremely difficult to write about. It has many layers and the narration from an unreliable source becomes more and more hallucinatory as the story progresses. One could write a whole Master's degree thesis about the possible interpretations and implications and symbolism. However, the core story is easily describable.

Father Jocelyn, the Dean of an English cathedral, is inspired by a vision to add a high spire to the existing structure, which already rests on an unstable foundation. He overcomes all objections, including those from a master builder who tells him that the project is impossible. Bolstered by his hubris and convinced that the spire is the will of God, Jocelyn, believing his faith and his vision to be strong enough to overcome any obstacle, ignores and even utilizes the tragedies of human consequences.

The novel is written from an unusual third-person omniscient point of view in a stream--of-consciousness style. and as it progresses it becomes apparent that Jocelyn is growing increasingly irrational and is subject to visitations from both angels and devils. Golding convincingly draws the reader into the mind of someone who is obsessive and self-deluding.

One of the most rewarding aspects of William Golding's novels, for me, is that his obvious use of symbolism is seldom forced and is left for the reader to interpret in his or her own way. His most well-known novel, Lord of the Flies, is straightforward enough that inexperienced young readers can interpret much of Golding's intent; i.e., Piggy's glasses represent the intellect, the conch represents law and order, the beast represents the evil impulse inherent in mankind, and so forth. His later novels were not so transparent. For example, in this novel, the spire could be a phallic symbol, representing Jocelyn's unacknowledged lust, or a symbol of the Tower of Babel, representing his hubris. Or a combination, or something else entirely. I once read an interview with Golding wherein he said that many readers saw bits of symbolism in Lord of the Flies that he had not consciously intended, but that they nevertheless made perfect sense. I perhaps see meanings in this novel that Golding never intended, but they make perfect sense to me.

William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 for his entire body of work, not just for Lord of the Flies. This is another outstanding example of his extraordinary body of work.