Book Review – Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller

Stayed up late to finish The Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller by Hans G. Schantz because I had to – this is not the kind of book you stop with only 20% left to read. Nope, gotta see what happens. Short and sweet: a very good read, very much old school pulp, early Heinlein hard science + heroic heroes and derring-do. The story opens with some almost bucolic high school stuff, and establishes the main characters as believable denizens of a small country town. Then it adds electromagnetism and science history, mystery, conspiracy, and murder! Good stuff, good Sci Fi.  

The Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller by [Schantz, Hans G.]I had to laugh out loud at all the points in the story where a poor sensitivity reader’s head would gratifyingly explode. Schantz keeps a completely straight face about it all, which only makes it funnier. Stuff like a most motherly mom who also can put a bullet between your eyes if you need it; free-market patriots armed to the teeth who the author of  “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” would no doubt call rednecks are the *heroes*; a slightly alternative history in which Gore won, was killed when the 9-11 attacks succeeded in hitting the White House, and Lieberman (his vice president: McCain) got a bunch of carbon taxes through and is now taking credit for the last 20 years of flat temperatures even as atmospheric carbon keeps rising. The easily recognizable bad guys, they who are hiding the Hidden Truth, all have our best interests at heart, like a rancher has his cattles best interests at heart. 

Simply, men are men. Women are women. Boys aspire to be men; girls aspire to be women. People pray before meals. The government is assumed to be of, by and for the people – or else. Somebody here didn’t learn his Crimestop. Thank goodness. BUT – I hasten to add that all this is done organically, as part of a very good story, not through  preaching or uncalled for digressions. If I were a kid reading this, I probably wouldn’t even much notice.

The protagonist and 1st person narrator (whose name I think is Peter, but his name is mentioned so rarely in the book I’m suddenly unsure) a very bright kid (comparisons with Kip from Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel are apt) stumbles across a curious passage in an old book on electromagnetism. He enlists the help of his best friend and debate partner Amit Patel, a leet computer geek and would-be lady’s man, to investigate.

They snoop around a bit, looking for other references that might explain the peculiar wave interactions described in this one dusty book from a mostly forgotten library at what used to be the local technical college. All hell breaks loose. A girl bookstore clerk who helped them out is found murdered along with her boss. Dad, mom and Uncle Rob all get involved, trying to lay low while also trying to figure our what’s going on.

And it gets more interesting from there. Schantz writes in a direct, no-nonsense style and ladles out the science in easily-digestible portions. The ending is a bit of a cliff-hanger – so, on to volume II, A Rambling Wreck. It’s like he planned it that way!

Check it out. Under 300 pages, so you can read it in a few sittings. 5 stars.

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Quick Book Review: Superluminary

I think somewhere on his blog, John C. Wright mentioned that in his latest novel Superluminary: The Lords of Creation he decided to go as over-the-top cosmic pulp adventure as he could. If that’s so, the author of the Eschaton Sequence, the Golden Age series and Somewhither  has finally cut loose ? Stopped toning down the SFF crazy?

Superluminary: The Lords of Creation by [Wright, John C.]What? I would say that when it comes to piling on more wild SciFi speculation into a book or story, Mr. Wright is without conscience. And that’s a good thing. That said, this book is a wild ride.

The Lords of Creation, the first of four books that compile the weekly serial Superluminary, starts fast and never stops. Somebody wants to kill Aeneas Tell, the upstart young Lord of Creation, and very nearly succeeds. The first chapter ends with the first of many narrow, death-defying escapes, characteristically employing wild yet tethered to reality SciFi gadgets.

The extended family of an insane (or is he?) god-like ancestor have nearly limitless power due to an alien artifact that the original Lord discovered. The offspring overthrew him, and have solved all want and war, but treat mere mortals as nothing more than pets. Aeneas thinks the Lords have grown too powerful and complacent, but his plans to overthrow them and share their technology with the peons backfire. He gets assassinated, after a fashion.

Aeneas finds himself headless and freezing to death on the forbidden planet Pluto, losing precious heat through the bloody stump of his neck (he keeps a backup brain in his torso for just such contingencies), when his enhanced senses discover a gigantic tower on the horizon, which turns out to be a long-lost spaceship with an undead, life-sucking crew of 300 – you get the picture. And it never stops!

No planets get blown up in this volume, an oversight I trust Wright will remedy over the next three.

So if you’re jonesing for a rollicking good old-style space adventure with boatloads of modern tech speculation and undead spacemen and a deftly and memorably drawn cast of characters, this story is for you. 5 stars.

Got a couple more books/magazines to review when I get a minute. Also, started rereading William Brigg’s excellent Uncertainty: the Soul of Modelling, Probability and Statistics, which I never quite finished and reviewed – it’s not a light read, but a book to be pondered. Must give that a write-up as well.

Book Review: For Steam & Country

For Steam and Country, a steampunk adventure Jon Del Arroz, is a lot of fun, a fantasy with airships and steam cars, knights and mysteries, castles and kings and a war with an implacable enemy. The story is told in first person by Zaira, the 16 year old daughter of the famous hero and inventor Baron von Monocle. He has been missing since leaving in his steam-powered airship 2 years earlier. Since Zaira’s mother had died a year before then, Zaira is left to care for the family farm alone. She is aided by a friendly neighboring family and their handsome son James.

The cover catches the flavor nicely. 

The story opens with an earthquake that severely damages the farmhouse. Zaira is fretting, as she cannot both repair the house and get the next crop of vegetables ready for market. James has dropped by to help her clean up. A tall well-dressed stranger and a woman in military garb appear at the door.  They have a message for Zaira, and whisk her away in a steam car.

Adventures ensue. Derring-do is done, heroes emerge, and dreams come true.

Del Arroz creates a series of memorable characters and fun steampunk, and puts them in a fast-paced plot full of action.  I had to laugh early on at how perfectly the story followed the classic Hero’s Journey, but quickly forgot about that as the action intensified. We do have an epic here, and if you want to map the story and characters to Star Wars, you can do it pretty well. That said, reminding readers of a classic epic fantasy is hardly a bad thing.

This story is suitable for adults and children. Bad guys and couple good guys do die, but again, if your kid thought A New Hope was not too scary, they should be fine with this as well.

So, go buy and read this book! Fun, action-packed adventure. With steam-powered airships!

Short Book Review: The Ophian Rising

The 4th and final book of Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle, The Ophian Rising  is I think the best of the four books – and that’s no small complement, as each book is in its own way very good to excellent. Short & sweet: if you’re a fan of mind-bending fiction, and epic tales spun out over centuries, of heroic heroes you can love and disturbingly inventive and evil monsters, then check out this book and the whole Soul Cycle series. And buckle in for the ride.

The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book 4) by [Niemeier, Brian]Throughout the series, a continuing theme is how truth and reality are not obvious to us, the readers, or to the characters in the story. The greatest heroes in this fourth book, Navkin and Astlin, are two women who at first do not even understand their own origins, eventually end up queens and builders of society, and finally are willing to die and surrender what they thought they were in order to banish evil from their worlds. Even that is not exactly what’s going on – but any more would risk spoilage.

The ending is a very cool and surprising twist. I will say that I long suspected some amazing reveal at the end. Hints are dropped. As mentioned in reviews of the earlier books in the series, Niemeier is not world building, but universe building.  What I mean: world building takes place in this universe – the worlds thus built, however wild, are posited to exist, somehow, with us here. From very early in the Soul Cycle, it’s clear Niemeier’s  universe of prana, the Cardinal Spheres, the Strata, substantial ether and techno-spiritual magic is not in this universe in any material sense. So the questions lurks: where is *our* universe in this story? Are we in this story simply in some other place entirely, where the elves are Gen and the magic is Factoring and warp drive is ether-running? But otherwise unrecognizable as home? Or is there a deeper home?

After an exhausting Sunday following an even more exhausting work week, I collapsed on my bed around 9:00 with the last 20% of the book to read. Fell asleep and woke at 11:00 – and didn’t get back to sleep until after midnight. Then, immediately upon finishing the book, reread the author’s glossary and cast of characters, because I know I missed 75% of what was going on. Then considered rereading Nethereal, the first book in the series, to see what I missed. That’s a pretty good book that makes you care enough to want to make sure you didn’t miss too much.

Because there is a lot there. Some of it is merely mechanical – dozens of characters and worlds and cities and ships and circles of Hell to keep straight. Some of it is the kind of convoluted plotting one should expect over a 4-book series. But there’s also a lot going on in the realm of ideas – right and wrong, true and false, loyalty and treachery, which are loved or rejected for about every flavor of reason one can imagine. The reader must keep it all straight or, alas!, some key action by some secondary character will cause a ‘what?!?’ moment – that then makes sense once you parse out where we last left things with that character.

But it’s worth it. Excellent read.

I read somewhere that this series had been percolating in the author’s mind for a decade or so. It does have a bit of a ‘everything & the kitchen sink’ feel to it, sometimes. I’ve found Niemeier’s shorter works, such as The Hymn of the Pearl and Elegy for the Locust from Forbidden Thought to be easier to get my brain around and so more immediately satisfying. That said, these are the first 4 novels Niemeier has written – I can only imagine with happy anticipation what the next novels will be like, given the quality already present and improvement evident over the 4 books. Bring it on!

Short Book Review: The Secret Kings

The next-to-last book in Brian Niemeier’s Soul Cycle, the Secret Kings is, essentially, the continued adventures of Teg, Navkin, Elena and Astlin – and a whole bunch of other characters – as they face off with and kill, are killed and/or resurrected by an array of evil maniacs. All the Way Cool Powers ™ that the players have been picking up throughout the adventures over thee books now, the connections both mundane and eldritch, and who needs to save or revenge whom from what, are put in play.

The Secret Kings (Soul Cycle Book 3) by [Niemeier, Brian]A fun read. Check it out.

The climactic scenes are drawn in a way that defies mere cinematic imagination – and that’s a compliment, after having read stories over the years that read more like outlines for movies that actual novels. Here, Niemeier uses a device favored by Dante: paint the picture in broad strokes while having the viewpoint character recognize that what he sees is fundamental incomprehensibility. You are imagining the unimaginable. It works – the reader sees something partial, but gets the full emotional import.

For the first time in the series, I found myself caring about the characters. While normally this would sound like a fatal criticism of the earlier books, it’s weirdly not – at least in my case. Two reasons: the action and universe-building is good enough to keep my interest, and I learned the hard way (read the first book 3+ times) that I needed to approach these books as if they are works from an unfamiliar culture.

Because they are. That culture unknown to me includes role-playing games, comic books and anime. And Dune, which I could never get more than 100 pages into. John C. Wright’s books have much of the same issues for me, and he’s a great writer, so it’s not a reflection of writer’s skill by any means.

Here’s an example: role-playing games, based on what I’ve picked up from my sons, who are very much into them, have this idea of assigning roles and powers to characters that come into play and are added to over the course of adventures and quests, and that ultimately only fully reveal themselves in climactic battles. It’s the difference between Raymond Chandler’s description of Philip Marlowe:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

…and a D&D character sheet.

Now, a writer certainly can build a compelling character from a Bard with +15 Charisma – whatever the hell that means – but it seems to me that in this series the *character* character, such as understood by Chandler, is build ON the D&D-style definitions rather than the other way around. Marlowe packs a .38, and all you’ll ever find out about it is that it’s a .38. (1) Teg packs, among many other things, a Worked Rodcaster, which is lovingly described in some detail, critical to several plot points and battles, and requires the reader to keep in mind an entire system (or 2. Or 3.) of magic/science to understand. He’ll pull it out in certain exact situations where it, among all the weapons in his kit, is the one and only thing to address the exact challenge he’s facing. Which seems random UNLESS you remember all that other stuff.

Marlowe uses his .38 to put holes in people once in a while. Now the demands and expectations of Science Fantasy are way, way different than Detective Noir, but even: the reader, I think, is expected to share the author’s delight in the level of detail needed for the Rodcaster to work in the story. I am not of that culture, and so it was work.

This all no doubt seems completely normal to role playing gamers, who spend hours going over who has what powers and characteristics and what the rules of the magic system are before they ever start playing. Reading the Soul Cycle, such a one is probably making exactly the sort of mental notes the gamers are habitually taking, about who can do what and how a Nexist differs from a Factor and so on.

Me? All this stuff, with which the Soul Cycle is packed, seems like weird trivia. So I must read these tales like I’m reading Gilgamesh or something, recognizing that there are cultural considerations to be made for it to be enjoyable or even just understood.

Wow, that was waaaay heavier than I intended! Gilgamesh and Dante in a SFF novel review. Need more coffee.

By book 3, however, while I still can’t quite keep all the rules and powers straight, nor remember the exact relationships between the various factions and planets, nor even keep all the myriad players and who is betraying whom straight without considerable effort, at least by now I know and care about a few core characters, and so can sympathize when Astlin is threatened, for example, even if I’m unsure what exact power she now has to address it.

The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book 4) by [Niemeier, Brian]If your standard for complicated storytelling is, say, Vance, this is going to be a challenging read. If Tolstoy, OK, that’s better, at least for keeping vast numbers of characters straight. But ideally, you’re a reader who has played role playing games all your life, and so will take active delight in Neimeier’s  lovingly and well-thought-out details and be undaunted by how many there are.

That reader is not me – and I still enjoyed the book, and plan to start The Ophian Rising soon. So check the Soul Cycle out!

  1. In one Chandler story, a hit man’s gun is described in some detail – a .22 target pistol with the sight filed off – in order to show what a cocky SOB the dude is. But that’s it, as far as I can remember.

The State and Revolution

The State and Revolution (amusingly referred to as TSAR – hilarious, if you’re not a Romanov) is a short book by Vladimir Lenin that I have not read, but intend to read. The indomitable Amanda Green has begun a series of posts discussing it here. 

Which post triggered the comment below, and, sticking to my policy of making sure I’m not read in as many places as possible, I repeat here:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the fundamental Hegelian roots of all this: Hegel teaches that the world is becoming, not being – in the philosophical senses of the terms. This means that simple statements of fact, of being, are always fundamentally nonsensical, as nothing really *is* but rather is *becoming*. Therefore, logic doesn’t apply, because a fundamental claim of logic is that a subject can *be* something and *not be* something else (law of non-contradiction). Things, for Hegel, are always becoming something else, so they’re not really being anything!

So, what’s really going on for Hegel (a practicing Lutheran) is that the Spirit is ‘unfolding’ in History – that some few enlightened people (specifically, people who agree with Hegel) gradually come to see the new state of becoming coming, as it were, into the next stage of transient being (that whole synthesis schtick). The people who more or less consciously get on board are on the right side of History. Everyone else is consigned to the dustbin thereof.

Marx tosses almost all the sophistical subtlety of Hegel, but latches on to the whole History and becoming nonsense. This is why arguing that no real people will go along with money-free socialism (“The reality, ignored by all too many, is that the producers of the world would become the slaves to the takers.”) is pointless – 1st, because argument with Marxists is by their own definitions pointless, but also because ‘human nature’ as a claim of being is irrelevant – “human nature does not exist” – because what those who survive the purges, those on the Right Side of History, will *become* New Soviet Men.

How do we know this? Just asking the question puts you on the Wrong Side of History and marks you for culling.

That’s why there’s no arguing with convinced Marxists.

In the 105 (!) draft posts currently cluttering up the YSOTM backlog is one addressing these issues in more detail. You know, summarizing my amatuer understanding of thousands of pages of philosophy from writings spanning millennia in a blog post of a couple thousand words ripped off between dinner and bedtime.

One classic philosophical mistake, one seen explicitly and implicitly in the arguments of New Atheists all the time, is thinking of eternity as ‘a lot of time’ or ‘all time’. Instead, eternity is the realm of the unchanging, within which, as Paul says, we live and move and have our being. (That the Eternal is God – that the Eternal is the One Whose existence is of His essence, is the compelling result of a long string of arguments in Aristotle’s Physics and is expanded on in his Metaphysics – which is why, I think, those tomes are consistently ignored or misrepresented. That, and they’re really hard.) Who better to tackle such a topic than an armchair intellectual poser such as me!

Clearly, it will be a masterpiece worthy of your exquisite attention. As Chesterton once quipped, like all things I’ve never written, it’s the best thing I ever wrote.

Maybe I should get on it, clawing it from perfect potential into crass, flawed actuality.

 

Book Review: Tithe to Tartarus

Highly recommended. Book 6 in John C. Wright’s 12 part Moth and Cobweb series, Tithe to Tartarus completes (for now, one hopes) the adventures of Yumiko Moth, AKA the Dark Avenger’s Sidekick, begun in  Book 4: Daughter of Danger and continue in Book 5: City of Corpses. A totally fun and uplifting series, suitable for kids of all ages yet plenty action-packed and deep enough for any adult as well. These are the books we need – heroism, high stakes, lovable and honorable characters, suitably villainous bad guys, yet with a theme of redemption offered again and again despite the evil done. Even the perpetrators of the most vile crimes can still turn from them, an eternal and eternally needed message!

Just as in the tales of Arthur upon which these stories are built and in many movies from the 30’s, Christianity is simply assumed. Nice, for a change. Whatever your beliefs, if you enjoyed le Mort d’Arthur and It’s a wonderful Life, I’d bet you’ll like Moth & Cobweb.

Through the first two books, Yumiko has struggled to discover who she is after awaking in a hospital bed with a near-complete loss of memory. The last thing she remembers is a dream or vision, in which a beautiful lady told her that her life was being given back to her, that all her previous vows were void, and that she needed to save the one she loved. She is also to relay a message to the elves and other twilight creatures she meets. She has somehow also acquired a magic ring.

By this the third book Yumiko has learned she is a ninja assassin with a sacred ghost-slaying bow and gadgets to put Batman to shame, as well as a magic super suit wherein to keep it all. She has found and lost a cousin and friend, a magical half-human fairy  Elfine captured by an elf knight, and learned that her beloved is to be sacrificed to Hell. She now knows her mother, a Grail matron, was murdered in the line of duty. An order of anarchists strive to overthrow all laws human, elfish and divine. She is the disowned former sidekick to a winged vigilante, who has told her to kill herself in dishonor (she refuses).  And everybody wants her magic ring, especially the anarchists.

So, in the next couple days, she hopes to free Elfine, save her beloved, avenge her mother all while keeping the Ring out of the wrong hands. She is aided more or less by the Last Crusade, which consists of a young Dominican friar Matthias, the Swan Knight Gilberec Moth and Ruff the Dog, everybody’s favorite pooka.  Gil wields a sword of blue flame that sets the blood of enemies afire, Matthias uses an exorcist’s tools and prayers as well as some hidden magic to defend against evil, and Ruff, as he repeatedly says, is a very smart dog. (Ruff is pretty much everybody’s favorite character. He is a Good Dog.)

Adventures ensue. There’s love, horror, heroism, magic, sword fights, and all manner of creatures eldritch and fell. I was sad to see it end, especially since the next book isn’t out yet! Noooo!

Get these books, read them, give them as presents to your friends.