Haven’t written up any book reviews in forever. Have been doing some reading, however. Time is tight: prepping for my 8th and 9th grade history & lit classes set to start in September, trying to schedule a boatload of deferred maintenance for the house, and writing some books and composing a Mass (what’s a fellow to do, to avoid a feeling of helplessness?).
So let’s take 3:
Combat Frame XSeed, by Brian Niemeier
This is fun book. Jumps right in with dramatic escapes, last-second rescues, and battles to the death, with moral questions about exactly how far one is justified to go in war. The story features a bunch of well-drawn characters who unfold and gain depth over time. And giant punchy mechs with swords and stuff!
Niemeier creates a world of space habitats, supermen, a sort of technological tyranny, freedom fighters, genius inventors, fem fatales, and daring soldiers, with enough political intrigue and plot twists to keep the reader on his toes. I particularly liked how each of the main characters has a distinct personality and motivations. Some are loyal to a fault, some have learned to function under an oppressive regime, some are eeeevil.
And mechs! Loving attention is lavished upon them, detailed descriptions, with blow-by-blow fight scenes and epic battles against impossible odds. They punch each other, sword fight, blast each other, fly in space, cruise under water. Very cool. Reminded me of this:
Except there actually are a plot and characters and stuff in XSeed. Fun stuff, check it out.
Here’s a truly irrelevant aside: mechs, and, indeed, any sort of relatively small, heroically-piloted military equipment – fighters, tanks, Imperial Walkers, guys in armor – tend to take me out of any sci fi story, and put me into fantasy right away. 40 years ago, dogfighting was replaced with pilots firing their missiles at a blip on a screen, then turning tail and trying to outrun the missiles similarly targeted at them. Similarly, tanks have become what they originally were: rolling artolatry, not armored cavalry dueling other tanks. It can happen, but that’s not what they’re for. (I await correction by people who know what they’re talking about.)
One can come up with a theory of battle where individuals in suits of really, really cool hi-tech armor are how you need to do things. It’s not like there are rules, exactly, but it’s just another thing to account for – and, it usually isn’t accounted for in my limited experience. You have your Dune conceit, where the standard defensive measures stop all the high-tech weapons, but not swords, so people can get all Erol Flynn on each other. Something like that.
All that said, twice now in stories I’ve worked on I’ve stuck in mechs – stupid, since I don’t know the tropes and clichés. Once, I ignored the issue (to me, at least) of why there were mechs in the first place; the second time, they are part of an ancient military tradition by an alien race that hasn’t fought any real wars for millennia. I really shouldn’t go there.
A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsey.
I dunno. This is a classic, and I sort of get it, but – not my cup of tea. It sold about 600 copies back in 1920 when it was released, and only gained status as a classic after the author had died. Like a lot of modern art, it’s more interesting than good, IMHO.
What’s interesting: Going back to Gilgamesh and Job, at least, is the problem put by Milton as the need to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ Classic literature from the Iliad and the Old Testament, through Dante, Milton and on and on are stabs, in one way or another, at addressing this issue. It might reasonably be claimed that it’s difficult to be great literature unless it at least touches upon these themes. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and the Silmarillion are more modern examples, and the Oracle Wikipedia says that both Lewis and Tolkien were fans of Lindsey’s masterpiece. So we have here an exploration of the eternal questions about God and man explored by a very capable writer, as part of a long and noble tradition of such explorations.
Lindsey displays an amazing imagination. His planet Tormance orbiting the twin suns of Arcturus is a constant stream of dazzling images and creative flourishes. He imagines it a young world still in a sense being created, where the battle between reality and illusion is being fought out every moment in every creature and feature. It’s a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, in that every new place on Tormance presents new sights and rules. It’s a wild ride, and almost worth reading just for the fabulous craziness of it all.
What’s not so interesting: Now suppose you’re a Nihilist, as Lindsey certainly seems to be. A modern Gnostic, who picks up the task, as he sees it, of debunking all pleasure, all love, all noble feeling, indeed, all material existence, as lies and frauds.
That doesn’t make for a very attractive story. Indeed, there is no plot, no real character development except that the protagonist, Maskull, simply changes and acts under the influence of the latest ‘delusion’ he is in the process of having peeled off. He at first falls in among rather too pure and saintly aliens, who are just straw men to be blown away. Maskull’s enlightenment takes the form of murdering people – or worse. He is described as a sort of giant of a man. The people he murders are always no physical match for him, a good many are women. He leaves a trail of bodies in 5 days that would make a serial killer proud.
And, at the end, he’s a nihilist, so it all doesn’t matter.
I read this book because it is on John C. Wright’s list of essential Sci Fi. He even wrote a book about A Voyage to Arcturus, which I got from Amazon a couple hours ago. (Wright’s Eschaton Sequence may have been inspired by Lindsey’s book, and is a much better (and vastly longer) exploration of the modern philosophical ideas under which we labor. Plus, Menelaus Montrose is a much better protagonist and a gas.)
Soooo – if you want to read a book demonstrating how out there a human imagination can go, give Voyage to Arcturus a try. Otherwise, not so much.
Mentioned a while back that I was rereading Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Finished it up. Now, we’re almost done with it as family reading out loud after dinner. I want my 17 year old son, who evidently tuned it out when read out loud years ago, to hear this book.
It’s good. Buy several copies. Reread it often. With Benson’s Lord of the World, That Hideous Strength is about a timely a book as you could read.