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.


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.

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.

Mini-review: Riverworld, the Short Story

Riverworld and Other Stories: Farmer, Philip JoseWhile I suspect that John C. Wright, in his list of essential Sci Fi reading, meant to include one or more of the 5 Philip Jose Farmer novels set in Riverworld, what the list actually says is ‘Riverworld‘ which is a short story set in that universe. So I read and will review the +/- 80 page story here.

Riverworld is one of the great feats of imagination and speculation in all of sci fi. Farmer envisions a world that consists of millions of miles long river valley boxed in by impassible high mountains on either side, so that one must travel along the river and valley to get anywhere. On this world have been reincarnated the 36 billion or so people of earth – everyone who has ever lived past the age of 5. Most people are reincarnated among others of their time and place, but some appear more or less at random among strangers.

Why? By Whom? No one knows. When one awakens in Riverworld, he finds a grail – a container – that, when placed atop certain large mushroom shaped stones at the times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, will be filled with food, drink (including alcohol), smokes and other essential and luxury items. If you miss a mealtime, you might have to live off the river fish, which, besides some large worms, seem to be the only animal life on the planet.

Further, everyone is reincarnated as they were at age 25, and healed of all deformities and flaws. Except for those who died younger, who age up until age 25 and stop, no one ages on Riverworld. There is no disease. Further, if you die on Riverworld, you are reincarnated the next day at some other point along the river. While sex is a common pastime, all the people are infertile.

We find all this out over the course of the story of the movie star Tom Mix, who we meet fleeing down the river in a catamaran with two Jews, Yeshua, from around year 0 A.D., and Bithniah, a woman from the time of Moses. Seems they had fallen into the hands of the tyrannically puritanical Kramer, “the Hammer,” who tortured and killed any ‘heretics’ and witches that fell into his clutches.

Kramer doesn’t take kindly to people escaping. He has sent his men after them. Mix executes a daring strategy and manages to sink the pursuing craft – despite Yeshua refusing to help, as he has vowed to never kill or help kill another human. The three fall in with John Wickel Stafford, a 15th century English noble, in his settlement of New Albion. Stafford and his people are much more tolerant than Kramer – they realize that this whole Riverworld thing has seriously upset their assumptions about this life and the next. The Hollywood actor and two ancient Jews are welcomed.

Everyone fears Kramer, who has conquered and subjugated and purged his way along the neighboring stretches of river. Mix and Stafford decide they must do something, and plan a daring attack.

All this action – and it’s good – provide an opportunity for Farmer to explore a wide range of philosophical, theological and moral issues. In a world full of healthy 25 year olds and free of disease and pregnancy, sex seem to be a universal pastime. Yet jealousy, envy and lust are not eliminated, and so neither is violence. As people come to grips with the reality of Riverworld, many lose interest in what had been their passions back on earth – religion and traditional enemies get reexamined. But others, most notably Kramer, double down on their fanaticism.

Any more and I’ll give the story away. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Starship by Brian W. Aldiss

Image result for Starship aldissA comment by theofloinn on my review of Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky directed my attention to Brian Aldiss’s  Starship as another good example of a generation ship story. Thanks, it was good.

Published in 1958, Starship (also published under the name Non-stop) is the story of Roy Complain, a hunter who lives in the long passages of the Quarters as a member of the  violent, impoverished Greene Tribe. Beyond the barricades that mark the current extent of the Greene tribe’s village at either end of the passageway they currently occupy grow ‘ponics’ – huge, rapidly growing thickets of near impassible viny plants.

Roy hunts in the ponics, and trades his bush meat for other goods. Beyond the barriers live not only wild animals, but other tribes and mutants either alone or in small groups. It’s a jungle out there.

Tribes move slowly along their chosen corridor, laboriously clearing the ponics and moving the barriers forward. As they move, they uncover compartments, many locked behind doors. These compartments sometimes contain useful items, and so they are routinely broken into. The Greene tribe owes its existence to Grandfather Greene, who opened a compartment containing a store of dazers, weapons that stunned or killed man and beast, and thus was emboldened to form his own tribe. There were also higher and lower and branch passages as well of the main corridors.

Roy and his tribe live by the Teachings, a mish-mash of half-remembered Freud, such that violently expressing every feeling is considered virtuous, and those who keep theirs under control are considered weak. Makes for nasty, brutish and short lives.

In addition to the various tribes and mutants there are Giants, thought by many to be extinct – giant skeletons are sometimes found in fresh compartments – but with enough sightings to make others convinced giants still live.  Mysterious Outsiders, who look like men but are unnatural and suspected of doing harm, are also believed to have come from outside into the Ship, the name people give to the world. Ousiders are externally indistinguishable from tribesmen. One tribe, the Forwards, have better tech and live better lives. They occupy a different part of Ship, and so have passed almost into legend.

A set of circumstances eventually propel Roy and a couple other men to desert the tribe and follow the priest Maraper on an adventure of discovery. Maraper had come across a book that showed the circuit layout of the Ship, and therefore showed the general layout. Maraper has discovered that Ship really is a ship, and wants to find the Control Room.

Adventures ensue, with plenty of twists, mysteries and action to keep you reading, and a surprise ending that works pretty well. We have here what amounts to another post-apocalyptic survival story, just set in space. I’ll stop here just in case anyone doesn’t want spoilers. Good read. Recommended.


Reading & Writing Updates

Currently have 4 books going at once (not counting the ones with dusty bookmarkers in them from goodness knows when). ‘Going at once’ meaning here that all four are beside the bed (mostly in the Kindle) and I’ll read some of one, then for whatever reason decide that another sounds more interesting at the moment, then move on to another. This is not my normal practice – I’ve got a lot on my mind these days, and so my concentration is not what it usually is.  It seems to be working out OK.

City of Corpses: The Dark Avenger's Sidekick Book Two (Moth & Cobweb 5) by [Wright, John C.]John C. Wright’s the City of Corpses: the further adventures of Ami, the Daughter of Danger reviewed here. Ami is trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on, what with her not knowing how, exactly, she came to have an invisible magic ring, a Batman-level outfit and gadgets and major ninja fighting chops, not to mention the legion of werewolves and other even worse monsters out to kill her. And who her beloved is whom she is supposed to save. She has a lot on her plate. So she has infiltrated the headquarters of the creatures out to get her. Sounds, um, Dangerous! Just getting into it. So far, so good.

Niccolo Machiavelli, the History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy. The weird thing: this is my ‘light’ reading – I find it lots less stressful, somehow, than fiction. There’s not as much emotional investment, and when I’ve got a lot on my mind, such as now, it’s good to just dump info into my brain.

Machiavelli starts his History right around the timeframe covered by Lafferty’s Fall of Rome, and tells, in brief summary form,  the story of Stilicho and Olympius and the disaster of the Fall of Rome. His take is somewhat different in terms of motivations and results than either Lafferty or Belloc, in that he is trying to show a Roman Republic crushed and shattered by foreigners. Lafferty wants to show what a tragedy it was that Rome fell before Europe was sufficiently civilized and Christianized; Belloc want to emphasize that the Fall of Rome was not as complete a destruction of the Res Romana as all that with an eye to England especially. Machiavelli wants to restore the Roman Republic after a fashion. Therefore he emphasizes that the native Latins were conquered by foreign barbarians – a contention that Lafferty would dispute, as it is debateable – and Lafferty debates it – what constitutes a foreigner let alone a barbarian in the eyes of the Empire in the 5th century. Also not very far in.

Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. Rereading this for the Bay Area Chesterton Society reading group. It’s Chesterton, so it is awesome.

Sudden Rescue by Jon Mollison. A space adventure and love story with hard nosed space shipper/smuggler, a princess, evil alien AIs, a sassy ship AI, funky planets, dive bars, miners with attitude and a galactic war to be prevented. Some neat sci fi speculations. Most of the way through, will review when I get it done.

As far as writing goes, PulpRev issued a “very short call for very short stories” which somehow popped up on my radar – Twitter, maybe? – and, since the deadline and the stories needed were short, almost Flash Fiction level short, I said to myself, I did, what the heck? And fired off a 1,500 word adventure with “muscle and heart” in the Pulp tradition, meaning in this case a dude named Martin in a giant Mech and a scantily-clad beauty who manages a nanite army. Together, they fight crime! Or, in this case, a nasty alien-bureaucrat monster suffering from a megalomaniacal need to get Our Heroes. Things done blowed up good! It’s a freebee, but it was fun and only took a few hours to write. Let’s see if it gets used.

On the more ambitious story front, when I last looked through my pile of incomplete drafts for ones I should just finish, came across an Arthurian story I almost finished but chickened out on last year when SuperversiveSF  was calling for submissions for an anthology of Arthurian stories. As I approached the end, I started getting all these ‘this isn’t good/original/researched enough’ feelings, and it ground to a halt. I got the feeling (BTW: we have minds so that we may be freed from slavery to our feelings. Just FYI.) that I was a clueless interloper into a subject that had been worked over by much better writers than me, and that I was bound to fall far, far short of what the *real* writers of Arthurian-based fiction write.

A completely logical and reality-based concern.


Upon rereading it – it seemed pretty darn OK.  I even read the first 3rd or so to my kids, and when I had to stop, I looked up and the story had totally hooked them. They wanted to know how it ended! AHHHH! So: when we get back from Idaho (we’re going to look at the eclipse, leaving Thursday) I’ll have to finish this one up.

One other story is too close to stop, although to be frank I’m not sure I’ve got enough drama in it to make anybody care. The sci fi conceits are OK, and I like the characters, so maybe a little thought-smithing before any more wordsmithing? Or just finish and be done with it?

Then, it’s back to the pile.