Books

The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century

This is another large collection of short stories edited by Harry Turtle dove with Martin Greenberg. However, compared to the other collection I reviewed here, this book had many great stories. The book contains a total of 13 short stories, three of which are predecessors for successful novels by their authors: Hero by Joe Haldeman is part of his Forever War novel; Ender’s Game is a short version of Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name; and Dragonrider by Anne McCaffrey is one of her first Pern stories.

I really enjoyed all of the stories in this book but one. I did not like the story by Cordwainer Smith because it was difficult to follow and imagine and not too interesting. McCaffrey’s story was not high on my list either; I had never read any Pern novels, but the story was more about character interaction and creating the world of Pern than great military battles. Maybe the fact that the characters’ great enemy was pieces of a planet that passed Pern every so often and destroyed organic life also suppressed my interest, especially compared to the other stories in this collection.

I had read The Last Article by Turtledove before in a collection of alternate history stories. While I like this story and it has military themes in it, I think Turtledove was pushing it by including it here. It is most definitely alternate history and not military science fiction, and contrasts greatly with the other stories here.

Of the remaining stories I liked, I think Second Variety by Philip K. Dick and Wolf Time by Walter Jon Williams were my favorites. I have a collection of Dick short stories that I have not read yet; after reading Second Variety I am anxious to read more. I liked Williams tale so much I purchased the three books in his Drake Maijstral series from Amazon. One of the good things about this collection is that each story is prefaced with information about the author and his or her works if one wants to explore other books by a particular author.

For fans of good science fiction with military themes, this collection of short stories will give you many hours of reading pleasure.

The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century

The first thing I’ll say about this collection is that not all of the content lives up to the title. In fact, after reading the first several stories which comprise about the first third of the book, I was only happy with a couple out of eight stories. The others were either too short to be interesting or too political for my taste. The last six stories, though, ranged from okay to outstanding. My favorite of the book was “The Death of Captain Future” by Allen Steele, which was more of a straight science fiction story than alternate history. Ward Moore’s “Bring the Jubilee” was the longest story in the book, but very good as well; it dealt with an alternate Civil War history and the consequences of time travel.

Some other good stories included “Islands in the Sea” by Harry Turtledove (also an editor of the collection), “Dance Band on the Titanic” by Jack Chalker, and “Moon of Ice” by Brad Linaweaver. Turtledove deals with a history where Byzantium falls earlier to Moslems and Bulgaria must choose between Islam and Christianity. Chalker’s story is about a steamboat that follows a route through several different alternate Earths on each leg of its journey. Finally, Linaweaver spins a tale of a Nazi victory in WWII and the startling events that transpire in a German Europe in the 1960’s as told by Joseph Goebbels.

Overall, this collection is similar to many collections of short stories: some are good, one or two great, and many okay or not so good. Also, I had read three of these previously in other collections, so one also runs the chance of encountering stories more than once. I would not call this the best collection of alternate history stories from the 20th century; I have read many other stories that are better than some of the stories included. However, depending on your taste, there are some good stories here to read.

The Dwarves

The Dwarves and its sequel The War of the Dwarves by Markus Heitz were very good fantasy books. Heitz created a very detailed world with mystery, political intrigue, and a group of races (dwarves, humans, and elves) that don’t get along anymore, including the separate human and dwarf kingdoms. Heitz, of course, focuses on the dwarves. He explains things to the reader through the main character’s (Tungdil’s) ignorance of dwarves, even though he is a dwarf, but a dwarf who grew up with humans. Thus we get an interesting character in Tungdil, a dwarf who becomes known as “scholar” because of his knowledge but who must learn the ways of other dwarves such as fighting with an ax and dwarven customs.

The first book takes us on a tour of much of the world and many of the dwarf kingdoms where we meet new characters and learn of the good races’ common enemies, namely the orcs and dark elves. What starts out as a journey of discovery takes us through a fight for the dwarven throne, a mission to save the world, and a confrontation of a great evil, with many battles in between. By the end of the story we have learned much, but some mysteries remain including an event at the end of the book that sets up the sequel.

The second book was good, but not as good as the first. My main complaint is that Heitz seemed to have too many ideas on what be wanted to explore, but decided to fit them all into one volume. Some things don’t seem to get a good explanation while others feel forced, with a great many things handled near the end all in one fell swoop. Also Heitz seems to rush through certain plot items a bit fast before we really get to enjoy them. This is not to say the author did not have some great ideas to explore, only that I would have liked a longer book or another book to really enjoy some of his interesting storylines.

All in all though these dwarf books are a great read. I found myself having difficulty putting them down. Highly recommended.

Old Man’s War series

I finished reading the first three books in this series and enjoyed them very much. For those unfamiliar with the series by John Scalzi, it includes Old Man’s War, Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale. The series take ideas from such great novels such as The Forever War, but blends them into a new situation. The premise involves humans colonizing space, but Earth itself is overpopulated and technologically behind the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) which controls all human colonies. Older people are given an opportunity when they reach 75 to join the CDF and fight for humanity. If they survive, they are provided with a new place to live a second life. You see, the older people, who can never return to Earth, are transformed into younger people again. How this occurs and the implications of this situation with regard to our main character, John Perry, are explained in the first book. Scalzi develops many good characters and some really cool technology. There is also a lot of humor and great action here.

The second book takes place after the first one. John Perry is only mentioned in the book, but other characters from the first book take part in the story; we also meet many new characters and learn a lot more about the CDF and the Ghost Brigades. Of course we get more action, throughout the book and more mysteries to solve. We also learn more about some of the other races and some things that will be important in the third and fourth books.

The third book changes to first person (the first two book are told from third person) from John Perry’s perspective. It works okay for the story of this book, but this book had a lot less direction and much less action than the first two. We get more cool technology, but we also get a haphazard story that tells a little of this, then shifts focus to a little of that. This book does a good job of bringing the story to a close, but I think it was the weakest of the first three books.

In case you are wondering, I don’t plan on reading the fourth book because it is a retelling of the third book only from Zoe’s perspective. I wanted to read the third book first to decide if I needed to read the fourth, and the answer was no. There is one part of the third book where Zoe is away that is fleshed out in the fourth book, but I don’t think that part of the story is crucial to the telling. The summary we get of the events in the third book is sufficient. There is also apparently some further part about the natives of the colony planet that Scalzi sort of just quit talking about at one point in the third book, but again their part in the story is not relevant to the overall picture. With this in mind, I didn’t see any reason to read an entire book which many reviewers online have said at least part of which is annoying teenager speak.

If you are looking for some good military and political sci-fi, check out the first three books of the Old Man’s War series. The fourth book is optional in my opinion.

Ringworld

I just finished reading Ringworld by Larry Niven. The copy I had was part of a masterworks collection by the Science Fiction Book Club. I thought the characters and their interaction was all very good and Ringworld was a great setting for the book.

However, there were some problems that kept me from really liking this book. From the beginning I felt this was hard sci-fi. There were very complicated ideas mentioned with very complicated technology. That is all fine and good, but trying to understand some of this became tedious and detracted from my enjoyment of the book. The mystery of the Ringworld engineers and how Ringworld came to be in its current condition was finally explained toward the end, but it was explained in such complicated terms that while I think I understand what happened I don’t feel fully comfortable with it.

Also, the ending of the book felt very rushed. After setting up the characters, their journey to Ringworld, and their exploration of Ringworld, the final attempt to leave Ringworld was put together in about 20 pages of a 280+ page book. Even the final paragraphs leave the story open for a sequel (Niven wrote three more books about Ringworld). I just didn’t like the lack of finality at the end.

If you like older sci-fi or hard sci-fi you will probably like Ringworld. I came away from the book with mixed feelings and no desire to read any of the other books about Ringworld.

Forever War, Peace, Free

I just finished reading Forever Free, the sequel to The Forever War. I read the Forever War and Forever Peace (which is not the sequel to nor has anything to do with The Forever War) some time ago. I first became interested in these books after reading part of The Forever War in a book of short stories called Command Brigade 3000. The idea of The Forever War, that soldiers fought in a war on planets so distant that by the time they returned to Earth, decades or even centuries would have past, was very interesting. The Forever War was definitely the best of the three books, is a classic science fiction novel, and should be on anyone’s reading list who enjoys sci-fi, especially military sci-fi.

Forever Peace, which came next, I found in a used book store and like many others thought it was the sequel to The Forever War. It was not, but it is still a good book in its own right. Forever Peace is about a war on Earth in the future where the U.S. uses remote-piloted fighting robot suits to wage war on some foreign countries. I forget the specifics of the causes of the war, but the main character’s girlfriend and another researcher find out some things about the war the government or military don’t want people to know. The book also has some cool Matrix-like tech, which is how people “jack-in” to the robots. Other things are possible like two people jacking together through a machine and experiencing each others bodies, etc., as well as some group mind stuff. Once the main character and the girlfriend are found out, they are on the run, but come up with a creative way to end the war. There is also a cool assassin character chasing the main character through part of the book.  This book was also good and worth reading.

Finally, there is Forever Free, the real sequel to The Forever War. The story begins about 20 years after The Forever War. The main character, William Mandella, is married and has 2 grown children. However, he and other vets are restless on their new world and do not like the current state of evolved Man and their pals (the vets former enemies) the Taurans. So Mandella and other vets plot to steal a ship and leave for 10 years which will be like 40,000 years past when they return to the planet. After 150 people finally leave on the ship, they encounter a problem a couple of months out and have to abandon ship. By the time they return to their planet, 24 years have past, but there are no people anywhere to be found. I won’t say anymore for anyone who wants to read this book, but for me it turned out to be a major disappointment. Most of the book is spent telling us in great detail about Mandella’s life and life in general on  his planet. The author describes the friction between Mandella and his wife and their children and also the Mandella’s relationships with other friends. We also get some of the same treatment when they get onto the ship. It is well-written, but not exactly action-packed. The best part of the story was when they actually take the ship. That whole segment was exciting, but unfortunately the rest of the book is not. But the ending was what really ruined it for me. I kept waiting for some great explanation of what happened, but it turned out to be pretty lame. It involves religion, which I should have recognized as every section of the book is called The Book of … . What made The Forever War so good was the combat and training sequences and how human society kept changing for the main character. Forever Free basically takes you in a circle from start to finish; at the end certain things are a little different, but otherwise everything’s the same. Unless you really need to read all of the “Forever” books, I would skip Forever Free.

Retief!

This is a great collection of the Retief stories written by Keith Laumer. I bought this book from the Sci-Fi book club. The stories were picked for the collection by Eric Flint, who does a nice job of grouping the different stories and providing some basic information at the beginning of each section of the book. The character Retief, who is an up and coming diplomat throughout the stories, is absolutely hilarious. He is the smart person among the doofuses for whom he works in a diplomatic organization. The stories are very creative and involve many different alien species. There is one complete novel in the collection, but the rest are short stories ranging from about 30-60 pages each. If you like science fiction with some humor and smart writing, you will love Retief!

AVATAR and Midworld

I just watched Avatar for the first time today and thought it was a good movie. However, as I watched it I immediately began to see similarities to Alan Dean Foster’s classic Midworld. So many similarities in fact that I was surprised there was no mention of Midworld as an inspiration for this movie. Sure the plots are not the same, but the environment and parts of the story are way too similar for this to be a coincidence. A quick Google search confirmed my feelings as I found several sites saying the same thing (and including Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe” as another inspiration). At the blog site Preserving Privacy, Sanity and the Individual, I read comments by people saying the movie was a total ripoff, the movie was nothing like Midworld, and opinions in between. There are some good arguments outlining the similarities between the movie and the book so I won’t repeat them here, but I do agree with the sentiments of some of the comments which say Cameron should acknowledge that he drew inspiration for Avatar from these two classic sci-fi stories.

Batman – Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight Strikes Again

I just finished reading these two graphic novels (I read at least part one of DKR a long time ago, but I don’t think I read the other 3 parts). DKR was a great book; it had a good story with Batman, Joker, Gordon, Superman, and a new Robin. It was a nice way to show Batman’s “last story.” The art was different, but good.

DKSA, on the other hand, was not as good. I did not like the art, a lot of pages were huge drawings (nice) or very cluttered (no so good). I did not like how the story focused on the whole world as opposed to just Gotham. We had only a cameo of Gordon, but we had lots of cursing and trashy pictures like “Nude on the News” which served no real purpose. I thought there was too much noise distracting from a decent story. And when the Joker-want-to-be’s identity was revealed, that pretty much ruined it for me. Even the ending came abruptly and was not as neat and tidy as DKR.

In my opinion, enjoy Dark Knight Returns, but skip the sequel unless you must have every Frank Miller or Batman book.

Midworld

I just finished reading this book by Alan Dean Foster after I became interested in it from reading his short story Mid-Death in the book Forbidden Planets. This is an older book , but I was able to find it on Thrift Books, a great place to find used, out of print books. Where Mid-Death took the reader into Midworld from the point of view of a search and rescue party, Midworld was told with a native as the main character and went much farther into the specifics of the dangers and environment of the planet. Foster’s environment is highly complicated and interesting and the eventual conflict between the natives and the outsiders (and their different views of the ecosystem) is a great theme for this book. There were some twists on how the story played out; Foster also explained some things at the very end of the book that were only hinted at during the story. I can’t remember if Mid-Death took place before or after Midworld, but where Mid-Death was a great horror story, Midworld was a nice good native versus evil, greedy outsiders story. It was definitely a fun read and I recommend it.