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Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society

Redshirts was John Scalzi’s homage and love-letter to all the tropes and cliches of the original (and still the best) Star Trek.

With his latest novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society, Scalzi brings the same level of love, homage, and poking fun to monster movies involving large creatures destroying large swaths of our world.

I’ll admit I’m not as steeped in the world of kaiju as I was Star Trek, so I probably missed a lot of the deeper nudges and easter eggs that Scalzi includes in this book. However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy another great offering by one of my favorite writers.

As 2020 begins, Jamie Gray’s professional career is set. Heading into his performance review, Jamie sees great things ahead at his tech company that offers an alternative to UberEats or DoorDash. Jamie is blindsided when his boss not only demotes him but takes away his opportunity at a huge financial windfall that could see Jamie up for the foreseeable future. Instead, he’s offered the chance to be part of the team delivering meals to people.

At first, Jamie is dead-set against it. Then a real-world pandemic sets in and Jamie finds himself unable to find other work and so he begins delivering meals. While delivering one, he meets an old friend from college who needs a guy to “lift heavy stuff.” The pay is great and Jamie jumps at the chance — only to find himself on a plane to Greenland and a whole other universe that includes real-life kaiju creatures like the kind we’ve all seen in movies.

What follows is a fascinating, fun story that, like all good science fiction, brings up more than its fair share of big ideas and world-building. You can be forgiven if you don’t notice that as Scalzi is tickling your funny bone that he’s also engaging your thought processes along the way. In his afterword, Scalzi compares this book to a pop song–an entirely accurate description since a lot of the books will get stuck in your head and pop up when you’re least expecting it.

Overall, this is yet another winner by an author who’s been on a heck of a streak since Old Man’s War debuted all those years ago.

I received a digital ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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#VintageSciFiMonth: “Nightfall,” “Green Patches” by Issac Asimov

One of the great things about Issac Asimov is his prolific body of work. This means there will probably be no shortage of material for #VintageSciFiMonth featuring Asimov in my lifetime. I’ve read Asimov since my teens and it looks like I won’t soon run out of new (to me) stuff to read.

And while I’ve read a good portion of his longer works, I’ve not sampled as many of his short stories as I should or could. So, this year for #VintageSciFiMonth, I decided to dip into his prolific short story output with the collection Nightfall and Other Stories. Over the course of the next month, I will be offering up my thoughts on the stories from the collection as I read through.

Nightfall (1949): Five stars

Asimov prefaces this story by saying that many consider it to be his best story and that while it was anthologized elsewhere he had never included it in one of his collections. Fifty-plus years later, “Nightfall” is the selling point of this collection and it’s interesting that Asimov puts it upfront instead of making us wait until the end to read it.

The planet Lagesh has multiple suns, meaning that people of this world are rarely without light. Once every two thousand or so years, the suns all set, sending the society of that work into chaos and ruin since the mere concept of a sky without at least one sun in it sends much of the population into madness. As the story opens, it’s a few hours from the last sun setting and civilization as we know it ending.

In many ways, this feels like Asimov trying on some of the concepts he will later explore in his Foundation novels. There’s a society on the brink of chaos, facing a coming dark age with a group of learned scientists who attempt to preserve some of the civilization and its learning in a secret location. “Nightfall” shows us the beginning of the fall of the Lagesh civilization and the madness that comes when people who have never missed light are deprived of it.

As with a lot of Asimov, this story features a lot of characters sitting around and having deep conversations about what’s unfolding. And yet, there is still a bit of action as the sun slowly sets and people dread the coming of the mysterious objects known as stars. The world-building for a short story is nothing short of remarkable and the growing sense of dread is palpable.

It’s easy to see why many consider this one of, if not the, best Asimov short stories.

The story was expanded to a novel with the help of Robert Silverburg in 1990. I’ve read that book but don’t recall much about it. I may have to dip into it again this year.

“Green Patches”: Four stars

The second expedition to Saybrook’s Planet wants to determine why the initial expedition destroyed itself after sending back one final message. Turns out the planet’s life is all part of one organism with a unified consciousness. This consciousness wants to help organize the chaos is that is humanity and Earth.

Everything lives in balance with the plans producing enough food for consumption and being allowed to thrive. Biological lifeforms that have been fertilized by the planet are known by the green patches in the place of eyes.

The story is a bit of a race against time to keep a rogue lifeform from getting to Earth and taking over the planet. But the concept of a world where everything is in perfect balance is one that intrigues me. Reading this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the Borg on Star Trek and Mary Doria Russell’s superb The Sparrow.

While this one isn’t as strong as “Nightfall,” it’s still pretty solid and one I really enjoyed.

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Audiobook Review: Foundation by Issac Asimov

Foundation (Foundation, #1)

One of my reading goals for 2021 was to re-read or experience anew the classic sci-fi series getting pop-culture adaptations — Foundation and Dune.

Halfway though 2021, and I’ve made good on part of that with my listening to Issac Asimov’s Foundation. I have to admit that listening to the novel was a different way of experiencing one of the giants of the science-fiction genre and one of the pillars (notice I didn’t say foundation) that all of science-fiction is built upon.

The good news is that Foundation still holds up. It’s a rich, episodic novel that is less concerned with space battles and space opera and more on having characters debate big ideas and moments. The Galatic Empire is failing and historian Hari Seldon says there is nothing that can be done to stop it’s fall. However, the length of the coming Dark Ages can be shortened if all of humanity’s knowledge is collected together on a single planet in a single resource.

Early on, humanity looks to Seldon to guide them through various crises, before realizing that Seldon has pulled a bait-and-switch. There is no intention of publishing an encyclopedia with all of humanity’s knowledge included. Instead, Seldon has created a group to be a beacon of light in the dark times and to possibly consolidate and wield power. And so, over the course of several thousand years, Asimov details the men who will come to power and the crises that will face civilization continuing.

It’s a fascinating series of stories — ones that never fail to intrigue me or hook me. I will go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think Foundation is quite as solid as Asimov’s robot novels, but that’s probably because I read the Robot novels first. The first entry holds up well, though it does concern me how this might be adapted for the screen since most of (OK, all of) the huge dramatic action tends to take place off-screen and we’re treated to various characters talking about what happened and the ramifications of those actions.

I’ll still be tuned in for the upcoming series, though based on the previews, it looks like they’re adapting the first two books for season one. But after listening to this one again, I don’t hold out much hope that the series can and will be as good or as impactful as the book.

Now, time to keep that resolution and start the second installment….

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Audiobook Review:The Effort by Claire Holroyde

The Effort

An updated take on Lucifer’s Hammer, Claire Holroyde’s The Effort speculates that it (still) wouldn’t take much for civilization as we know it to collapse and our world to descend into chaos. In the case of The Effort, it’s a large comet that is on a collision course with our planet. Holroyde bounces between multiple characters in the story, from members of a team, tasked with finding a way to save the planet from destruction to those dealing with civilization as we know it falling into chaos as some of humanity’s more base tendencies toward self-preservation kick in.

Like Lucifer’s Hammer, I found myself slowly starting to root for the cosmic calamity to befall the planet and start getting rid of certain characters, chief among them the head scientist Ben. Ben’s worst tendencies include not allowing members of his team to manifest any physical appearance that time is passing and his lack of consideration for those he doesn’t consider of immediate benefit or impact to the group trying to find a last-second way to save us all from destruction. Continue reading

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Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Space OperaIf you’re coming to Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera with visions of it being this generation’s Hitchhhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may be disappointed.

But, if you can put those expectations to the side, you’ll find a charming, funny, witty novel that takes shots at not only the tropes of science-fiction, but also singing shows and multiple genres of music.

In the wake of the last galactic war, sentient species decided to conduct their battles in a more civilized manner — a singing competition. Each year, the species enter a contestant into the battle and the universe watches as they vie for universal supremacy.

This year, the Earth has been invited to join the contest — and it’s an invitation we can’t refuse. The only living musician deemed worthy of the talent show is burned out rocker, Decibel Jones. As our planet’s musical savior, Dess has to do well or else the Earth faces bitter consequences.

Valente pulls few of her punches and there are sequences of Space Opera that are hysterically funny and worthy of comparison to Douglas Adams. However, there are a few stretches in the novel that feel like Valente is working too hard to set-up a joke and then deliver a few extra punchlines for the reader’s amusement. I found myself, at times, wondering when we’d just move past the witty asides and humorous observations and get to the actual business of the talent content.

And while I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Space Opera, I can’t say that I’m exactly sold on it. As I said, there are patches of utter brilliance and fun but there are a few moments when the novel gets bogged down a bit by trying too hard to be funny.

 

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Review: Machine Learning by Hugh Howley

Machine Learning: New and Collected StoriesIn an afterword to one of his stories, Hugh Howley suggests that the sci-fi trope of AIs rising up and going to war against humanity probably won’t be the way things really happen. Instead, he sees how AIs could go into battle with each other, with humanity being little more than ants in the /8956-9battle between intelligences. We’d be a distraction and little else..*

Several stories in his short-story collection, Machine Learning, delve into this question with varying degrees of success. One memorable story finds humanity falling because of an oversight involving a Roomba. Other stories look at what will happen when we have artificial lifeforms and people begin to fall in love with them and engage in a romantic relationship.

Howley’s stories (collected together by theme) show a wide range. Howley includes a story he thought was long lost from his website as well as several short stories set in his popular Silo universe. If you’re a fan of the Silo universe, those stories alone make this a must-read collection.

Howley also offers an afterword to the stories, giving us a bit of insight into the creation of the stories or further reflections on some of the central themes and questions raised. Using the afterward to address these questions allows the reader to go into each story fresh and without having anything of what’s to come given away by a well-intentioned introduction.

If you’re a Howley fan, this collection is a worthy addition. If you’re not, this collection is a nice way to dip your toe in and see why Howley is one of the more respected writers in the business today (though I will warn you that having a familiarity with his Silo universe lends more enjoyment to that section of stories).

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday Top Ten: Ten Books Sci-Fi Books Everyone Should Read

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I came to sci-fi (and fantasy) through my love of Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who.  And after reading a lot of tie-in novels for those universes, I found myself a couple of decades ago wanting to expand my reading palate a bit.

But the question facing me was where do I start?  As I skimmed the shelves at my local bookstores and library, every book’s cover shouted at me that it was a “great” sci-fi novel and I should definitely pick it up and read it first.

Luckily, I stumbled across a sci-fi/fantasy book discussion group that met at my local bookstore.  It not only gave me a reason to read the book for each month’s discussion, but it also brought me into contact with other sci-fi fans who had more read more than I had to look to for recommendations.

So, for this week’s edition of Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by the Broke and the Bookish), here are ten recommendations, if you’re looking for a few good entry points to the sci-fi world.  Continue reading

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Review: Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain By Issac Asimov

vintage-sf-badgeFantastic Voyage II:  Destination Brain

In his introduction to Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, Issac Asimov tells us that he wasn’t satisfied with his novelization of Fantastic Voyage and that this novel is an attempt to correct some things he didn’t like about the first novel.

The result is this book which is less a sequel to the original and more a re-telling of the original story and concept. Asimov tries his hardest to make the concept of miniaturization more scientifically plausible, but it’s at the the cost of making the second installment far less interesting and page-turning. The first novel took about half its page length to get the crew miniaturized and inside the human being in question to try and save life. Unfortunately, so does Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain. At several points, I found myself muttering “Let’s get on with the shrinking already” as our hero, Morrison expresses a sense of trepidation about the procedure he is about to undergo.

And it may be with Morrison that this book finds its biggest flaw. Asimov sets up our protagonist as a scientist whose fortunes and favor in the scientific community are on the decline. When approached by a Soviet agent about coming to the Soviet Union to help in an experiment, Morrison is quick to decline, despite the fact that he has no prospects on the horizon in the United States. Even when asked by his own government to go, Morrison declines and eventually has to be kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Union in order to become part of the team.

Morrison protests this treatment a lot over the course of the novel. It feels almost like Asimov wants to remind us every ten or so pages that Morrison has become part of this project against his will. This works to the detriment of the book. Part of the fun of the original was no matter who fantastic the situation, the participants were at least enthusiastic about the opportunity to travel inside a human being and possibly save his life. Here the motivation isn’t so much saving a life but not allowing a scientist to die without passing on vital knowledge that could make the process of miniaturization easier and more cost effective.

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the motivating factors for this journey inside the body of a man and to his brain is to unlock his secrets is entirely budgetary. A good reason, sure. But not exactly one that compels you to turn pages and wonder what will happen next. At least the first novel had the specter of the Cold War hanging over it to drive some of the character and plot motivations.

I kept hoping that once our team of scientists got miniaturized and injected into the subject that things might pick up. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and the novel plods along at its leisurely pace even once we’re injected and running against the clock. The only moments of tension come when the ship is diverted by a white blood cell and later when Morrison is forced to go to extreme measures to try and make the mission a success. (And even then, he has to be blackmailed into it by the Soviet team though threats of destroying what little is left of his academic reputation.)

The book also suffers from the same flaw that several later Asimov projects do — his desire to tie all his universes together. Thankfully it’s not quite as egregious as Robots and Empire, but there’s a coda that makes Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain a stepping stone toward Asimov’s Robots and Foundation novels. It’s only a couple of pages and it’s meant to serve as a coda, so it’s a bit easier to overlook and forgive than some of the other examples from the Asimov library, but it’s still there.

Had I not read the original novel first, I might have liked this one more. Of course, had I not read the original I might not have been willing to give Asimov the benefit of the doubt I needed to keep plowing through this one in the hopes things would get better.

This one just validates my theory that 80’s Asimov output is no where nearly as entertaining and readable as those stories from his early career. I can see what he’s trying to do here, but I still think the original novel, despite all of its scientific implausibilities, is a more entertaining and enjoyable reading experience.

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Review: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Tunnel in the Sky

For years, a good friend has been recommending Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky to me and for years it’s sat on my to-be-read shelf, silently accusing me of neglect. One excuse I’d used was I was part of a sci-fi/fantasy book group that read a novel by Heinlein to start the year and I figured we’d eventually get around to Tunnel.

But the book group became extinct and the book just kept sitting there, expectantly. So, I finally dusted it off and cracked the cover.

If you follow my reviews, you know that I’m not a huge fan of Heinlein. I know he’s an influential writer in the science-fiction genre, but I find that I enjoy less of his output than most people do. Part of it could be that my first entry into the universe of Heinlein was some of his later works, which I’ve come to understand aren’t the best entry points or examples of what makes him so well regarded.

I will also say that I find his “juvenile” novels to be far more entertaining and readable than some of his novels intended for more “mature” readers. And that’s the case with Tunnel in the Sky.

With Earth exploring the universe by a series of gates, young Rod Walker wants nothing more than to leave Earth behind and explore a new horizon. Signing up for a survival course, Rod and his classmates’ final assignment is to take a trip through the gate to an unexplored, unknown world and survive for up to a week. Encouraged by his older sister (who is a member of the military and took the course during his school years), Rod sets out on the assignment, but soon finds something has gone wrong. Cut off from Earth and hopes of returning home, Rod and his classmates set out to not only survive but also to create a society for themselves.
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Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In

After a flu-like virus sweeps the world, a percentage of the population is “locked into” their bodies — unable to interact or communicate with the outside world. One of the victims of the virus is the wife of President Hayden, leading to the nation and world putting an emphasis on research to find ways to combat the disease as well as help those suffering from its after-effects find a way to once again become a participating member of society.

The result is a variety of new technologies stemming from a neural network that allows victims to download themselves into mechanical bodies known as threeps or into the minds of willing flesh and blood surrogates, for a limited amount of time.

As John Scalzi’s Lock In opens, governmental subsidies and funding for the victims of Hayden’s syndrome is about to be reduced, leading to protests and conflicts on both sides of the issue. And that would be the week that Chris Shane, one of the most visible victims of the syndrome thanks to famous parents, is about to take a job with the FBI’s crime unit that investigates crimes related to the neural network.

To welcome Chris to the job, a murder has taken place — one that could have implications far beyond those that are immediately apparent. And it’s up to the team of Chris and a partner who was trained to be part of the mind-sharing program but dropped out years before.

In many ways, Lock In reminded me of Issac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. And if you know my preferences in reading material, you’ll know that is some pretty higTh praise since Caves of Steel ranks among my favorite novels — genre or otherwise. The pairing of two unlikely cops on a case that has implications far beyond the initial blush feels like it’s right out of Asimov. But there’s also an examination of how changes in technology can reveal what it means to be human and the implications for that on our rights as we move forward. Like a lot of the more memorable science fiction, Lock In if offering up an examination of certain issues of our time, all under the disguise of a future world setting.

And, for the most part, it works very well. The novel is part science-fiction novel, part procedural and it works very well as that hybrid. The familiar nature of the police procedural helps Scalzi set the table to some of his bigger ideas and concepts to the table, keeping them palatable to readers and not feeling like he or we have bitten off more than we can chew. He also weaves in enough detail to make the resolution of the mystery fit not only as from the murder mystery aspect but also within his science-fiction universe.

Reading Lock In, I can’t help but feel as though this is an early front runner for the Hugo Award for best novel next year. It’s certainly on the running to be one of my top five books I’ve read this year.

One final note.  I’ve seen a couple of reviews stating that you have to read an earlier Scalzi novella in order to fully enjoy Lock In.   I’ll say that I went into the book without reading the prior story and had no issue with figuring out what was happening or losing patience with Scalzi for not filling in certain details quickly enough.   I’m certainly curious to go and read the novella now, but I don’t think it’s essential to have read it in order to fully enjoy the novel.

Of course, you can take that with a grain of salt since I also love with the current series of Doctor Who and from what I gather, I’m in the minority there as well.

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