Been a while since I posted...
First, OMG Heat Wave of death these last couple days, but it's finally over. Not as cool as I might like, but at least it's reasonably comfortable. I suppose in the end it wasn't all that bad, I'd suffered through worse and longer (as have others), but it was at the point where I couldn't do much beyond lie back and blerg.
Secondly, I got my first smartphone! Which also happens to be my first cell phone. Except, aside from receiving a couple spam text messages, I haven't yet used as a cell phone, despite having to buy 3 months service to get the phone (it was discounted a fair bit though so, in the end, I came out ahead). Heck, nobody even asked for my number. But really, all I wanted it for was so that I could be out and about and access free wifi, and for the 13mp camera that I can use when going to Toronto Fan Expo. I'll get to that in a moment, but for the record, it's a Sony Xperia T, that they're selling as the James Bond phone because apparently he used it in Skyfall. So therefore I assume it can also be made to explode or let out a smokescreen or shoot tranquilizer darts, but I haven't pressed all the buttons yet. Otherwise, it's nice, takes a little getting used to the interface, and typing can be an annoying chore, but I'm getting better at it. I've already loaded a few free SF books on it so I have something to read on hand whenever I carry it, and a few free games and a police scanner so I can figure out if they're closing in on me! Well, actually, every time I've tried the scanner in my area, it doesn't seem to get anything (the transit police and fire department ones work), and I don't believe the police want me for anything, so I'm good. Actually, I haven't really taken it 'out in the wild' yet, since I first set it up, the farthest I've gone with it is the laundry room. That's because I want to ensure it survives, unwet and undamaged by the rigors of work, and unstolen, at least until the end of August. I'll take it out on baby steps (once I get some kind of waterproof container in case of rain), maybe when I visit my grandmother this week, but I'm taking it slow. I also plan to root my phone (for many reasons, but not the least of it is to delete the annoying bloatware apps I never plan to use but are by default undeleteable), but again, not until after August. Why then?
Toronto Fan Expo, of course. Yeah, I'm planning on going this year. After all, Nathan Fillion AND Gina Torres will be there. How could I not? (Morena Baccarin will also be there but I already have her signature on my Firefly boxed set, so, she's not enough, on her own, to go). A number of other cool people too, but I doubt I'll be collecting any other signatures... they cost so much these days, so I save it for the ones I really like. I do also hope to hook up with Adrian Alphona (err, not in the romantic sense, although I DO like his art an awful lot and it might be hard to say no if he asked! ;)), and see if I can get a commission done, because he's one of the few artists I would be willing to pay for. But I think the only way it'll work is if I can contact him in advance and just pick it up at the con.
I will not be wearing a costume (aside from my usual Blue Sun shirt)... still haven't thought of any I could pull off, much less assembled one. But I will enjoy seeing all the other costumes and, with my phone, hopefully will have a camera better able to capture some of them!
That's about all the big personal news I have (lame as it is), so let's move on to the 'discussing other media' portion of my post! This time I'll leave the Book Foo to the end. First, since it's relatively fresh news, let's talk Veronica Mars. At the SDCC, they released the first look at the movie footage! You can see it here! It's pretty much finished filming already, and really, I'm astounded not just at the fact that they managed to get it kickstarted, but also how many people from the original series they got back to make appearances. I mean, virtually everybody I wanted to see (who was still alive when the series ended), they got, with maybe one exception (and he was, though not dead, written out pretty definitively, and, with these people, might even still be coming as a surprise). And a lot of the actors seem super eager to be back, and have been recording thank you messages. The best of all of them, was indubitably Ryan Hansen (Dick Casablancas)'s awesome video where he clearly spent a lot of time and effort in it (and pulled in guest stars!). Seriously, you gotta watch. Well, you don't gotta, but it's fun.
Other news? Game of Thrones is over, good season... Falling Skies is ongoing, enjoying it, but not wowed. Defiance got a little better... also not wowed, but it was watchable, at least. Still waiting on Korra season 2, and beyond that, it's pretty much just the fall season I have to look forward to (well, I still gotta watch S2 of Continuum but I've been slacking). Oh, and Under the Dome, which was... disappointing. Not for the changes, I actually like MOST of them, but... I dunno, it feels too episodic (like 'ZOMG PLAGUE!' episode that gets comes up and gets resolved in that episode) and at times doesn't really treat the premise with the seriousness it deserves (for the most part everybody seems to be just going about their business as normal... and as I read somewhere else... they've been Domed for how many days now and they haven't had a big town meeting to discuss the issue and the possibilities?). It just makes for a big lack of tension. I'm still watching, but it hasn't met my hopes, and my hopes weren't all that high.
Movies? Nothing really new, though I did watch the Evil Dead remake (okay, bit too gory for my tastes, but even there I appreciate the effort that went into making that look good), Oz The Great and Powerful (reasonably cute), Superman Unbound (decent but kind of forgettable, except for one awesome Lois scene... really needed Nathan Fillion though, since it had two other Castle stars!), Jack the Giant Slayer (also decent-but-forgettable), John Dies at the End (funny at times, decent plot ideas, didn't think it came together completely, but I'd be willing to see a sequel). Oh, and Justice League, New Frontier... which I liked mostly (and I'm kinda surprised how occasionally explicit DC's willing to be in these animated movies... maybe not compared to other action movies, but at least far more than in TV cartoons. But I approve.)
And I guess that leaves us with books. As usual, mostly just cut and pasting my reviews from Goodreads.
Finished: The Living Dead, (short story collection)
A collection of zombie tales, with a variety of tones and even a variety of types of zombies. There are plenty of Romero-style zombie apocalypse, there are zombies raised by Voodoo, there are science-fiction zombies, there are intelligent dead seeking revenge on the living, and more. There are even stories where there are no zombies, and they're simply set during the filming of a zombie movie or have a character obsessed with zombies. However, for my tastes, the zombie apocalypse is the format I'm most interested in and the other types of tales largely didn't do much for me.
But it's still a good assortment, even if some didn't interest me as much as others, there were few real stinkers (I can only think of one I actively disliked, and it was done in specific homage to another novel I've never read, and I suspect both the stylistic elements and the plot elements that disinterested me both hail from that source).
Reading it all in a short period might tire you from zombies for a while, though, unless you're really hardcore into the genre. I'm a pretty big zombie fan and even I'm happy to be reading something else now.
Finished: A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge (reread)
It's been thousands of years since humanity has spread to the stars. There is no galactic empire, the physics of star travel don't really allow for that, but there are hundreds of worlds, some of which have fallen into barbarism and recreated their civilization several times over. But rarely has there been something truly new... until now. Two of these distantly separated branches of humanity reunite at an astrological anomaly, chasing radio signals that are truly alien... one is the Qeng Ho, an interstellar trading culture. The other are the Emergents, a high-tech totalitarian government. The two naturally clash, but then find themselves having to work together to survive and secretly watch the alien culture develop. Because neither of them can go home without the help of the alien Spiders below, who are decades away from their own Spacefaring Age... if they can survive war among their own nations.
This book is technically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep... however, there is only one character in common, and possibly hundreds of thousands of years separate the events, so it can be read independently. If you only plan to read one, it doesn't really matter which... but if you might read both, A Fire Upon The Deep is a better start, merely because A Deepness in the Sky definitively answers some things that are left mysteries in the other. I've read both several times, and this time around I'm reading them in chronological order, rather than publication order.
This is one of my favorite books. It's jam-packed with ideas, breaks my hearts at times, is at moments both inspiring and depressing, and is filled with plots. In this book you feel like you get something like 2 novels, and a bunch of extended short stories all in one package, but they all come together perfectly, and it explores enough SF concepts that could fill 5 or 6 books each focused on one idea. The book has one of the most chilling hi-tech tyrannies I've ever seen (all the more so because, at it's core, there's something extremely tempting), a well-thought-out alien race with an evolutionary history that suits its strange environment, and also has one of my favorite science fiction characters, the great Pham Nuwen.
It's not a perfect book by any means, though, despite my five-star rating. There are flaws... the villains are occasionally on the edge of too cartoony-evil. Some might feel the aliens are too "relatable" for a truly alien race (however, there is a deliberate purpose to this). I don't buy into some of the social theories. And it's heavy at times on tech and jargon: This is not a book to hand to somebody who's never read SF before, or has only read a little, unless they also happen to be very well-versed in science. If you're a big SF fan, you shouldn't have any trouble understanding what's going on, but it may still put you off a little (and the humans measuring all time in units like ksecs and Msecs can get frustrating even for me).
But I love it so much it deserves the score. Every time I start, it sweeps me up in the story and takes me on a ride like few others.
Finished: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge (reread)
A rescue mission to save two human children stranded on an alien planet populated by a race of doglike beings at a medieval level of development has implications for the whole galaxy because something on their spaceship may be the key to fighting a malevolent godlike being that has enslaved dozens of worlds and destroyed billions of lives.
This is a book that's hard to sum up, because any short description of the plot must necessarily leave out a lot, and the above simplifies things to the point that it risks giving people the wrong impression. Suffice it to say that it's a dense book, with a lot going on. Kid characters play a major role, and yet it's not a kid's book, and it mostly doesn't fall into the trap of making them annoying or overly competent for their ages (given that they're from a high tech society). There's a lot of action, both for fans of spaceship fights and lasers and on-the-ground fighting with hand weapons, but it's hard to describe it a straight action adventure. And there's a lot of insight into alien mindsets.
The latter is one of the crowning achievements of the book. Most writers would be content to create one SF race as compelling and interesting as the Tines (a race in which an intelligent person is made up of a pack of smaller creatures coordinating their thoughts with sounds) in a lifetime. But Vinge isn't satisfied with that, in the same book he also gives us the Skroderiders and somehow wrings incredible pathos out of the exploits of what are essentially intelligent potted plants on wheels.
The Tines are the real treasure though, as he puts so much thought into what it must mean to be able to, at least in theory, be able to swap out and replace parts of your mind over time, what that does to a person and a society. He effortlessly combines the alien and the familiar, making these unusual creatures still completely relateable.
Like A Deepness in the Sky (a prequel set in a vastly different part of the same universe, thousands of years earlier... you should read this one first), it's not a perfect book, but I've read it dozens of times and always leave satisfied.
Finished: Vortex, by Robert Charles Wilson
Vortex is the third book in the series that started with Spin. Spin was a great work of science fiction, seamlessly weaving incredible science fiction concepts with believable human drama, and it ended with a tease for wonder-inspiring stories to come. (More behind the cut, spoiler-free version: Okay, disappointing as a followup to Spin, but less so than the previous sequel)
The sequel, Axis was disappointing by comparison. It was just okay, the science fictional concepts were less interesting and I never quite felt as attached to the characters. In fairness, I've only read it the once, compared to Spin, which I've read several times. It's possible that, once I got past the disappointment of it not being the book I wanted it to be and could evaluate it on its own merits, it worked better. But I think it's telling that I didn't feel especially inspired to reread it even in preparation for the third.
And the third book is, unfortunately, a sequel to the second, involving a couple of the same main characters (who never appeared in the first), and although it provides answers to some of the overall mysteries raised in the first book... I was left wanting.
It's not an actively bad book, by any means. The story bounces back between the adventures of Turk Findley (after the events of second book) and others in his time, and people living on Earth between the first and second book's timeline, and that makes for a brisk read, without much chance to get bored with one storyline or the other between switching. And I remember being more invested in the characters than I was in Axis (although, again, it was a long time ago that I read that and disappointment that I wasn't following any of the characters from the first book may have factored in there).
At the same time, though, I never really felt either of the two sequels lived up to the greatness or promise of Spin. They feel, not just unnecessary, but almost frustrating, because they now stand in the way of the kind of sequel I wish had been written instead. But, since this is what we have, I'd rather have read it than not. I can see others disagreeing though.
Finished: The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, by Vernor Vinge
Short version: A few great stories, but the collection as a whole is probably worth it only for superfans.
I'm a big fan of Vinge's novel work, but it's only rarely that I find his work in short story form, so I thought this massive tome was just the thing for me.
And it is pretty valuable, for big fans. You get to see many of his favorite themes pop up, or him toying with an idea that he later turns into a novel. His skill at balancing character and cool ideas also makes huge leaps in his later stories... his earlier ones are a little on the dry side, stilted end of the spectrum (although, to be fair, not noticeably worse than a lot of SF short stories of the time) and, as a fan, it's fun to see that progression.
In particular, I was happy to finally get a chance to read "The Blabber", his first attempt at the "Zones of Thought" universe and the creatures "The Tines", though his later novel A Fire Upon the Deep is a much better introduction to both. The story, to an extent, can be considered a sequel set long after the book and, although you have to squint a bit at some of the (possible) inconsistencies and be prepared to cast it off as an 'alternate universe', it's actually still remarkably consistent with the direct sequel, The Children of the Sky, written after this collection was released. Unfortunately, "The Ungoverned" (set in the universe of his novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime) was a disappointment, owing more to the feel of the first book than the far superior second.
For everybody else, those who aren't particularly fans of Vinge... it's probably going to be a much less appealing book, and unless you've got a tolerance for (or particular appreciation for) SF in the style of the 60s and 70s. Although there are a few really good stories, most of them are only okay. Furthermore, reading it is a bit of a slog which has nothing to do with the writing style itself... it's merely a curious artifact of the length. Most short story collections have a variety of story lengths, so you might get through a particularly long story and then have a very short one which serves as a breather... in this, most of the stories feel about the same length, and it's a hefty length. There are a couple really short ones, but mostly it feels like trudging through a series of novellas.
If you're completely new to the author, it's probably best to start with one of his novels. But for fans, it might be worth a look.
Finished: Crypto-Punk, by George Traikovich (received free!
A sinister force is changing some of the kids at Bixby Elementary school, but as a new fad called "Crypto-Punk" takes hold at the same time, only a few ten-year-olds notice any problem, and have to act to stop it.
Full disclosure: I received this book for free through Goodreads' First Reads program. When I signed up to receive the book, it wasn't entirely clear what age-group it was targeted towards... the fact that it was set at an Elementary school suggested it skewed young, but not every book about kids is geared towards them, and Elementary school covers a wide range of ages. But upon reading it, it's pretty clear this is targeted towards preteens and early teens, at about the same level as the first Harry Potter book.
It's a somewhat typical kids adventure book, where most of the adults are either evil, incompetent, or powerless (which is always a good lesson to teach kids... they need to learn it at some point!), and they have to save the day. It leans a little more towards very soft science fiction, with fantasy elements, than some such books, or maybe you could describe it as a B-movie horror plot for kids, full of bad jokes, random silliness situations and a plot without much room for surprises. But it is definitely a kid's book.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, many such books can be enjoyed by adult readers. But when reviewing, I kind of have to not only evaluate it on my own terms, but also try to guess what a ten-year-old me might think of the book.
I think ten-year-old me would have gotten into it. It's not deep but the adventure is straightforward and there are several moments that would be exciting to a young reader, and I could easily put myself into the group of main characters. For a reader who's not especially demanding, there's certainly fun to be had here (although I'd probably be annoyed that so many elements were just left dangling).
For adult me? It's a little weak, even by YA standards. There are something like five main characters, not counting villains and teachers and older helpful people (all of whom get either paragraphs or chapters of viewpoint) and, in a short book like this, none really got much development... outside of stereotypes, I don't think I could remember one thing about them. There's also a lot of headhopping going on, where you seem to be reading a section from one person's point of view, and then suddenly it tells you exactly what a completely different character is thinking. The plot mixes science fiction (of the level you can get on popcorn movies or TV shows) and fantasy elements in a way I, personally, don't like (but I can see others might).
That said, it does a few things I didn't expect, turning an initially unsympathetic and rather stereotypical adult character completely around, and there are some good moments here. And I even found myself smiling a little at, with partially-rolled eyes and a suppressed groan, but smiling nonetheless, at some of the kid-targeted humor.
It's a little like the reading equivalent of a children's cartoon. It may not be what I'm looking for, but I'm not annoyed at having to sit through it. I wouldn't read it again, or seek out any of the sequels that are clearly intended, but I might pass it along to a kid of the appropriate age.
Finished: All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
This is an acclaimed Japanese SF novel (read in translation), about a common soldier fighting on the front lines against alien invaders who've ravaged much of the Earth. It's his very first battle, and despite the technological Jacket he wears and the weaponry he carries, he dies... only to wake up 30 hours earlier, before the battle starts. And then it happens again.
It's basically a "Groundhog Day" plot, grafted on to an action SF plot about fighting a swarm of aggressive aliens with no personality. He uses his loops to get better but somehow can't avoid dying and returning back to the start.
Before we talk about the quality of the story, let's talk about the title, since it's obviously the first thing on my mind when I see a book, and in this case, it's obviously a little weird, grammatically. So, does the phrase "All You Need Is Kill" have some special significance in the story, where either the ungrammatical sentence is used in the plot by somebody who doesn't speak the language, or where there's some context where it actually makes sense (like if KILL were an acronym for a special weapon)? No. As far as I can tell, it just appears to be an awkward translation that stuck as the title for historical reasons. It may bother you... it irked me for totally silly reasons, but it's not a serious knock on the book. However, the interior of the book is well-translated... there are blips here and there where some phrasing might not be as smooth as it might be, but on the whole it can be read without complaint, to the point where if they didn't reference particular aspects of Japanese culture regularly, you might not be aware that it's translated, most of the time.
So, the story itself... it starts out being a little bit dry, with the very nature of it being a "Time Loop" episode means it's going to give people with a lot of experience in SF the feeling of 'Haven't we done this before?' Sure there are some exciting action sequences and a few cool SF ideas, but in the end, it's yet another Time Loop plot, the kind every SF series eventually does.
But it picks up, particularly with the revelations that start around the 158th iteration of the loop (thankfully, most of them are skipped!), and when they start developing Rita Vrataska, the Full Metal Bitch more, and we start to get an idea why the loops are happening. From there, it really starts to get engaging, and, although they unfortunately ended up pretty much with the outcome I had expected, how they chose to get there was still an interesting surprise.
So, on the whole, I'm pleased. I have a feeling it's probably going to be more enjoyable than the inevitable Tom Cruise movie adaptation (that's not a random slam, there literally is one on the way).
Finished: Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge (reread)
This is the long-awaited sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, set about a dozen years later, with Ravna Bergsndot and what were once the children of a science lab that caused a galactic disaster, trapped on the world of the Tines, a species based on small hive-minds made up of four or more dog-like creatures that, only collectively, make up people. Ravna's doing her best to advance the world's technology level, for she fears that a monstrous evil is still on its way to destroy them all, decades in the future... only she discovers that the greatest threats might be closer to home.
The first time I read this, I was probably too excited about finally having it to really evaluate it objectively. On this, my second read through... I'm probably still too excited, but it's easier to notice and admit the flaws. The biggest are the twin disappointments, that not only is this not, in itself, really a complete book (ending without much resolved), and that virtually all of the action is confined to the planet, with all the space-based action of the previous book restricted to the looming threat of the Blight's fleet. These problems might both be solved if we get a sequel in a timely manner, and neither are crippling, but they are disappointing. Also, much of the conflict is among the humans in the book, which is a reasonable direction to go, however... in many cases (both with humans and, occasionally, among the Tines), at least for some of the specific people involved, it doesn't really feel like their motivations could withstand much scrutiny and I couldn't help the feeling that with a few fairly obvious arguments a lot of the tension could have been deflated... except, nobody made them, or if they did, only offhandedly, whereas pursuing it seemed like the natural thing to do.
The big human villain also doesn't ring entirely true, at least what we see of him, sometimes trending towards a caricature of a person evil down to the core but persuasive among the people.
And yet even acknowledging those flaws, I still really enjoyed this book. The race of Tines, explored thoroughly in the last book, gets even more development in this one, as Vinge seems to find endless way to explore that flexible form of mind, how it shapes their society, and how individuals can change simply because the members do. When a Tine character is reintroduced after a dozen years, you never know if they're going to be an ally or an enemy, whoever they may have been before. Of course, some of the same can be said of the human characters, where much of the drama hinges on beloved characters from the first book making decisions that you'd never have imagined... because even humans can change a lot in twelve years. There were several times my heart broke a little reading this book, sometimes to be repaired in the end, sometimes not. Vinge also pulls off a masterful trick tying in elements from the first book that I initially thought abandoned, and doing it right under our noses.
It's probably not the greatest book to go into cold... reading the first book may not be essential, but it's certainly highly recommended, but if you enjoyed A Fire Upon the Deep and are prepared to not get everything you want out of the sequel, you'll probably enjoy this.
I feel good about giving this a four star rating... however, if, for whatever reason, Vinge never manages to complete another sequel to this, even though it may not entirely deserve it, I'm going to be forced to take away a star for being an awful tease.
Started: The Rapture of the Nerds, by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow
Started: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons (reread)
Okay, 6 out!