Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mission Child

By Maureen F. McHugh.

This is an expansion of the short story "The Cost to be Wise", found in Starlight 1. Interestingly, the student (secondary character) who appears in the short story was completely removed.

Janna is a young girl on a somewhat primitive world. She records in here the story of her life. I could repeat everything on the book's cover, but really, this book is much more about Janna than about sci-fi, and the state of her colony world is actually quite close to our own, if you recall that there are many, many areas who only receive the waste of America's industrialized society. We just aren't used to seeing things from their perspective.

Parts of the book are quite edgy: there are sex scenes, Janna has a pseudo-gender crisis, etc. The story and the language it's written in are quite heavy and really not light-hearted at all. Janna skips over five years in the middle in one paragraph.

So why did I finish it? The thought that kept coming to me was redemption. Janna doesn't use that word, but she calls herself (warning: spoiler about the first chapter) she is kinless and doesn't really expect help from anyone after her village is massacred. She needs someone to step down and lift her up. At the beginning 14, she seems, even at the end, to be slightly mystified about life.

I'm ambivalent about giving a recommendation. I did enjoy it, but I'm not sure why. Science fiction is really only used as the framing for the older journey-into-adulthood story. Despite the quotes on the back cover, I don't think I will read it over and over again.

Kiln People

By David Brin.

[Note: I originally wrote most of this post on 2/6, almost a month ago, but never published it. The book I read back near the beginning of January.]

This is a light-hearted "ditective" story with a sci-fi premise: dittoing. Dittoing is more than cloning: it copies a person's exact mental state into a short-lived clay golem, which can then go do all the things the person is unwilling to do with their own body. However, it's hard to take this book seriously when the tone is so light and supposed to be funny. The philosophical speculation (for example: what motivates you to keep going when you realize you're only a mayfly and everything you're supposed to do is only going to benefit your owner? Do golems have souls?), which our main character seems slightly obsessed with (he builds a compulsion to record subvocally into all his golems so he'll have a record of what happened to them if they don't get back intact so he can reintegrate their memories), takes a strange turn near the end of the book, but it still remains, in my opinion, light entertainment.

This is a fairly amusing story with some awful puns in line with the theme, and good for light reading. There is at least one risqué scene and several references to what other people use their dittoes for.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Probability Space (trilogy)

By Nancy Kress.

These are three separate books, instead of one book in three volumes: Probability Moon, Probability Sun, and Probability Space. They have this in their favor: they aren't overly long and the writing is clear and precise most of the time. (The explanation of how the space tunnels work is paradoxical, if not outright self-contradictory.) Probability Moon starts off with a couple interesting premises: one alien race, ancient and apparently extinct, has left the universe space tunnels and other artifacts; a second race has developed that functions on "shared reality", where consensus between its people is automatic and natural, and disagreement causes "head pain" (or headaches). Unfortunately, by the end of the trilogy, it has turned into a morality tale about why humanity isn't mature enough to explore space, and the aliens are basically dismissed.

The author copies a noticeable amount of explanation verbatim between books, which may be a blessing to intermittent readers or those who start with a later book, but I think it would have been better to do something like write "The Story So Far" at the beginning instead of forcing continuing readers to go through, by the third book, multiple pages of copied material. This was probably my pet peeve concerning the book.

What I would have liked to see is an explanation or reappearance of the ancient aliens, and why they created the space tunnels, instead of the same old speculation about how they work based on "macro-level quantum entanglement", whatever that is. I would also have liked to see a reconciliation with the Fallers, the mysterious enemies of humanity, or at least some type of armistice or understanding. Instead, they remain the mysterious enemy throughout, with almost the only human perception of them being that they are extremely xenophobic and can't stand to share the galaxy with other races.

Overall, it has some cute ideas, but doesn't really develop them beyond basic speculation. Probably not worth reading past the first book (somewhat self-contained, although some characters continue into the next book) unless you have nothing better to read (or do).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Many Waters

By Madeleine L'Engle.

Of the books I've reread, I think this one was the best so far. The story is practically given away on the back cover (Sandy and Dennys walk into one of their father's experiments accidentally and find themselves in Noah's time), but emotionally it's very powerful. Some of the theology is definitely questionable and the ending was probably too simplistic, but the story has a lot of impact, while sticking pretty close to what the Bible says (when it says). L'Engle paints a picture of a people who are "wicked, thinking only of evil all the time", but who are in a sense very naive, possibly because they're so new to sinning.

It helps if you have a vague idea about what A Wrinkle in Time was about to understand a few brief references in here (to tessers and space travel), but it isn't really necessary.

Definitely recommended unless you abhor fiction completely and prefer to stick to practical shipbuilding...