Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction/Mystery: Head On, John Scalzi

Fans of John Scalzi’s previous novel Lock In will be delighted with this 2017 sequel. Head On features the return of FBI agent Chris Shane, his partner Leslie Vann, and the world of the “Hadens,” people who have survived a usually fatal illness only to be completely frozen in bodies that cannot move. They are awake and aware, but permanently immobile. In this world, Hadens are able to physically interact by using “Integrators,” people who have had a neural implant inserted to allow their bodies to be remotely controlled, and by using “Threeps,” androids also designed to be remotely controlled by Hadens.

 

Agents Vann and Shane specialize in crimes involving Hadens. In Head On, an athlete is killed during a game of Hilketa. Hilketa is a sport where specially designed Threeps physically assault each other, with the goal being the literal decapitation of a specified opponent Threep and sending that removed head into a goal. Since Threeps are not alive, what could go wrong? Apparently quite a lot, as Agents Vann and Shane explore the world of professional sports, where sex and money lead to a trail of bodies that hits too close to Shane’s home.

 

Scalzi specializes in these genre-bending novels and stories. Head On is fully science fiction. A world reshaped by a global plague which led to specific new technologies and adaptations? Check. But Head On is also a mystery and FBI procedural. Two agents pursuing clues that lead to a surprising conclusion? Check. The beauty of Scalzi is that neither genre suffers from the combination, and both are essential to the story. This is not a story that could be written into any other world than the Lock In universe. Agents Shane and Vann know Hadens. He is “locked in,” and spends most of his time in a threep–often one that will soon be destroyed. She was an integrator. Their relationship is often familiar to the mystery/procedural fan: good cop/bad cop, grizzled veteran/young rookie. But it is their experience with Hadens that gives them the extra insight needed to solve these challenging crimes.

 

Some series do not require their books to be read in order. This is not one of those series. If you have not read Lock In, stop. Go buy it or check it out, and read it first. Trust me, you will thank me. Scalzi is a funny writer, and one of the most humorous passages of Head On is in chapter 1. If you have not read Lock In, you won’t get it, and that would just be a shame. It is funny enough that I had to read it aloud to my family, but then I had to explain the background before I could read the passage, and that just took some of the joy out of the joke. Read Lock In, then read Head On, and laugh out loud. In this case, the sequence matters.

 

John Scalzi is one of the top writers in science fiction today, and with Head On he proves that he can be equally effective when writing mysteries. He is a busy man, with four active series currently in development (in 2018). Fortunately, the quality of his writing, his plots, and his characters, are all excellent. Head On is a winner!

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Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

 

Book Review: A Book Without Dragons, Olivia Berrier

Book Review: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

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Science Fiction: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

The year is 2054, and the world is falling apart. All technology has become dependent upon the “Unitime” satellites. Clocks, GPS, cell phones, the Internet, even the thermometers in smart coffee cups rely on the Unitime satellites for their accuracy and coordination. And the Unitime satellites are failing. Clocks no longer are synchronized, GPS is inaccurate. Cell phones and the Internet are down. And the blasted smart coffee cup can’t even tell the temperature of the beverage! Worse, a world dependent on their technology doesn’t know how to react. Business are closing. Looting is rampant. Violence is increasing. Chaos is spreading. And poor Cider, a very good dog, is locked out of his house.

 

But, true to the title, this is A Book Without Dragons. At least none of the scaly, reptilian, fire-breathing sort. So although everything else is going wrong, people (and dogs) do not have to deal with dragons.

 

When I first saw the title of this short (244 pages) novel, I was immediately intrigued. Dragons are cool. Dragons are popular. Dragons are “in.” Being sometimes a contrarian and a curmudgeon, though, I liked the boldness of the title. By the time I got to the end of the book and the story explained the title, I realized just how bold.

 

 

I met Olivia Berrier at the Central PA Book Fest. She is a local author from Carlisle, PA (near Harrisburg), and is just getting started in her writing career. You may not have heard about her. That needs to change! A Book Without Dragons. is creative, engaging, and fresh. Early on, there are some apparent discrepancies in things that make most English teachers twitchy: tense, perspective, shifts in person from “you” to “her” to “I.” As the story develops, Berrier makes it clear that these are intentional. They are features, not bugs. Once that “Aha!” moment comes, the entire story takes on new life.

 

The story shares the perspective of several people and one dog in the small town of Chagrin Heights, ID. (Something about the name of that town makes me chuckle, but that’s not particularly relevant to this review.) When the crisis with Unitime begins, each of these characters is living his or her separate life. The book draws these different characters together. Some of them had a history with each other which comes out through the narrative, but the response to the challenge posed by technology’s failure brings them together in unexpected, sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing, ways.

 

Berrier’s characters are terrific. Early on she introduces her main characters with titles: The Police Chief with No Stories, The Wife Who Answers Phones, The Waitress Who Failed to Be a Nurse, The Dog Who Is a Good Boy, The Scientist in Charge of Unitime. Other characters are also important: the FBI agent guarding the scientist, the husband/college professor, the angry and vengeful brother of an accident victim. Berrier, though, does not leave her characters stuck in their introductory descriptions. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that the police chief finds he has more stories than he remembers, the wife is much more than a mere receptionist, the waitress is not a failure…but the dog is indeed a good boy. More than just a cute presence in the story, though, Berrier uses Cider as a tool to further the action in a very natural way. Just by the dog being a dog, doing what good dogs do, Cider’s presence in the novel is valuable. The book may not have dragons, but I prefer dogs anyway.

 

I love the way A Book Without Dragons ends without forcing conclusions or final answers upon the reader. It explores interesting questions: what kind of people are we becoming in our tech-dependent world? Could we survive without all the tech? Would we possibly even be better? Does technology bring us together or drive us apart? Berrier does not really answer those questions for us. She poses one set of possibilities…then takes them away and leaves the reader to answer whether anything was ultimately gained or lost in the transaction. Some of the characters are arguably better off in the end. Others are undeniably worse. And some are just in a different place. Whether society is better or worse, though, is something the reader will have to decide.

 

Ultimately, we all live in A Book Without Dragons. We can’t rely on mythical creatures or even creative authors to come in and save us from ourselves. Olivia Berrier’s book reminds us that we are more than just homo technologus. What we do with that reality is whatever we choose.

 

It may go better, though, with the help of a very good dog!

 

One final note: although this is not a YA book, I think younger readers who like SciFi would enjoy it. The writing is accessible, and even young teens would relate to the characters. There is one intense scene near the end, but it is handled well. Again, it is a book about adults and one that adults would enjoy, but not one to be afraid of giving to your younger science fiction fan.

 

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Book Review: A Book Without DragonsOlivia Berrier

Book Review: The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

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SciFi Mystery: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

 

Part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery, and all Scalzi. The Dispatcher is set in a near future when the rules of death have changed. People no longer die violently. For reasons no one understands, with no warning or preparation, violent death just stopped.

 

Tony Valdez is a “dispatcher” in Chicago. If someone is nearing death from natural causes, it is his job to kill them. Quickly, violently, and legally. When someone is killed like this, 999 out of 1000 times their body disappears from the site and they immediately wake up naked in their own bed. Death is still possible from natural causes and from suicide, but murder is next to impossible. Shoot or stab someone and their body resets to the state it was in roughly twelve hours before–and they find themselves at home, memories intact, in need of new clothes.

 

Dispatchers legally work in hospitals and limited other venues. If an operation goes wrong, the patient is killed by the dispatcher and wakes up at home. However, there is a demand for their services as well in less legal settings. Fight clubs now feature deadly weapons; dispatchers make sure that the severely injured are reset to fight another day. Young rich men have started dueling again, using swords to maim each other for real and perceived slights. Rather than face lifelong crippling injuries, the dispatcher makes sure that the healthy walk home, and the wounded…wake up at home. No one knows how this works. No one knows why this works. But it works almost every time.

 

Valdez is called in to help the police solve a mystery. A fellow dispatcher has disappeared. Clearly he has not been murdered, as his body has not reappeared at home. But equally clearly, something has happened to him. Police found signs of a struggle at his home, along with some blood. The only lead they have is his occasional involvement in services on the grayer side of the law. Valdez may have been the last person to speak with him before he was taken, and his knowledge of the ins and outs of dispatching on both sides of the law makes him valuable to the police detective working the case.

 

In this short (130 pages) novella, Scalzi raises a number of interesting questions about life and death. How does police work change when murder is no longer easy? How does crime change? If violence does not result in death, is killing someone who is about to die from natural causes giving them a second chance? At what point should we let someone go? And if you cannot murder someone in the old fashioned way, how can you successfully murder someone? These questions challenge us in these days when violence easily leads to death, but the questions and the answers both change when death is no longer a natural consequence of violence.

 

Another reason to read Scalzi: characters representing different populations. Tony Valdez is an urban Chicago hispanic, not a group typically chosen for the protagonist of a science fiction story. Detective Nona Langdon is an African American woman. Although their personal characteristics are not central to the story, it is refreshing to see characters in books that reflect the reality of our multi-ethnic society. The easy choice for an author is to write characters that look and sound like her or him. John Scalzi often chooses to take the more difficult and rewarding choice of populating his fictional worlds with the same type of people we see in the real world. This adds a layer of realism to a book with a very fantastical premise.

 

The Dispatcher is a quick read. Although it is short, it is packed tightly with plot, characters, dialog, and intriguing ideas. I easily read it in one afternoon, but I suspect story will come back to my thoughts again and again like a dispatched character from the story. 

 

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Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Metatropolis, Edited by John Scalzi

Book Review: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

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Science Fiction: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

 

Imagine a future where cities are built on the remnants of the cities we know. Portland/Seattle/Vancouver have merged to become “Cascadia.” These meta cities transcend national boundaries and have cultures, alliances, and citizenships of their own, sometimes coming at the expense of the surrounding countryside that used to support their previous iterations.

 

This is the world that John Scalzi and four other science fiction authors have imagined in Metatropolis. No longer are people American, or Canadian, or Chinese, or Swedish. Rather, they are part of the larger and pan-national metatropolis, or they are not. Citizens of, say, St. Louis, can travel without need for passport to Hong Kong or Stockholm or Cascadia. Travel to geographically nearby St. Charles, Missouri, is much more problematic. Technology has divided these green cities from the “wilds” surrounding them, and a private corporate police force (or other militia) enforces the separation of the people within from those without.

 

Metatropolis is an anthology, five stories by five authors, set in a single “world,” but very different in their approach. Jay Lake introduces us to Cascadia, structurally overlaid on the Pacific Northwest, struggling to both create a new utopia and escape from corporate and nationalistic interests that would bring it back to the carbon-using heritage it rejected. Lake’s “city” is both anarchic and rigid, both urban and agrarian, high-tech afraid to show up on the grid. Tobias S. Buckell writes of a Detroit that ultimately moves to reject cars. Elizabeth Bear also looks at Detroit, at a community within the community that finds trust and interdependence are essential to life in this new world. John Scalzi moves us to St. Louis, where placement exams determine your role within the city and refusal to conform means banishment to the wilds that have replaced former suburbs. And Karl Schroeder takes us to Europe and to a new, virtual reality that is looking to replace the metatropolis, perhaps at the expense of everyone not part of the experiment.

 

Anthologies bring both strengths and weaknesses to a world. They bring different perspectives. None of the authors see the world (either ours or the one they’ve created) the same way, which creates both a fullness that would be impossible from a single writer and certain inconsistencies that would not be permissible in a tighter narrative. They are five distinct stories. It is possible they happen consecutively, but that is not required by the format nor spelled out within the narratives. There is no specific relationship between the stories, other than they all take place in the same general landscape. No characters move from one story to another. Even the two stories set in “Detroit” make no direct mention of each other, except for a brief and oblique reference in one to an event that occurred in the other. Frankly, were the stories not in the same book, I would not have necessarily recognized that they were set in the same world. Even the shared names (e.g., Cascadia) barely acknowledge any relationship among the stories. These are five solid individual stories, but their differences are more noticeable than their common heritage.

 

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable in court. Having five writers tell us their vision of the same world gives us both larger picture and and occasionally a disjointed and even contradictory picture. It is not my usual cup of tea, but it makes for a nice change of pace from the usual novel.

 

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Book Review: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

Book Review: The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

I will admit it. Part of me is still 13 years old. It probably always will be. So when a book’s opening chapter involves a complex plot to murder an alien trade negotiator using provocatively scented flatulence to send coded messages, messages understood by the negotiator as questioning his virility, I could not help but laugh. Loudly. As I said, part of me will always be 13.

 

The Android’s Dream may be the funniest science fiction book I have read in a decade. Written in 2006, I am so sorry that I was not aware of it years ago. It has the trappings of serious sci-fi. An alien race, nominally aligned with the earth, is facing a succession crisis. Part of the succession plan for the ruling clan involves the sacrifice of a sheep, a sheep specially genetically designed for the ruling clan by biologists on earth (a result of a previous treaty between earth and this planet’s rulers). However, all of the sheep on the alien planet succumbed to an illness, so the original line is only available on earth. And someone is killing those sheep.

 

Harry Creek is a low level state department employee, but he is much more than that. A computer prodigy, he won the Westinghouse Science Award as a teenager. A war hero, he single-handedly saved the few members of his battalion who were not wiped out in a pivotal battle. Back on earth, he just wants to live a quiet life. When he is asked to try to find the sheep for the government, he traces their DNA to a very unlikely source: Robin Baker, a young woman who owns a pet store near Washington, DC. What follows is a combination of humor and hijinks that send Harry and Robin from a shopping mall to an interstellar cruise ship to the halls of power on the planet Nidu. All of Harry’s formidable skills are needed to keep Robin and himself alive and one step ahead of their adversaries.

 

Scalzi is hilarious. He introduces us to characters like Takk, an alien on a religious quest to experience sin, who occasionally eats people when his job requires it (were he not on a quest to experience sin, that sort of thing would be too sinful to contemplate). We meet Chet, whose job it is to monitor a play space in the mall (it uses an anti-grav generator that requires the use of special shoes) and who lives to regret giving those special shoes to Harry and Robin before they get into the play space. A computer possessed of a human consciousness (uploaded upon the person’s death) realizes just how horny she is. These are not the usual tropes in science fiction, and they make for some laugh out loud moments throughout the story.

 

And, because it’s John Scalzi, we are asked to consider some deeper questions. What are the ethics involved in genetic manipulation? Is a computer with a human consciousness a sentient being? Do the rights of individuals trump the needs of a planet? With his usual deft touch, Scalzi presents the dilemmas without being heavy handed or dogmatic. His characters find their own answers, but seldom does he leave us thinking that their answers were the only possible right answers.

 

Science fiction as a genre has long been marginalized, not considered worthy of serious consideration by literary critics. Frankly, this is ridiculous, and says more about the critics than it does the genre. Any who still hold this prejudice should be silenced by two words: Margaret Atwood. The Android’s Dream is not a literary classic, but it is a delightful work by an author who himself is creating great books that belie that stigma. Even in a book that is comedic and lighthearted, Scalzi tackles deep, current issues of identity and ethics. He might be playing in The Android’s Dream, but he is playing with grownup toys in the grownup’s playground. And he proves with each new chapter that he belongs.

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Book Review: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

Also see

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Also read Head On: A Novel of the Near Future (Lock in) — the next book in the series.

Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Book Review: Lock InJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: Lock InJohn Scalzi

In Scalzi’s Near Future universe, Haden’s Syndrome, named after former first lady Margaret Haden, who was one of its first victims, has claimed millions of lives worldwide. Over 400 million have succumbed to the disease, which usually presents with meningitis symptoms. Most die. A lucky few survive without apparent long-term effects. But for a small percentage of survivors, there is a permanent change. They suffer from “lock in.” Their minds are alert, but they have no control at all of their bodies. With care, they can live a normal lifespan, but they will never be able to so much as blink their own eyelids.

 

To help these lock-in survivors, three major technologies have been developed. One is called the “Agora.” More than just an online meeting place, the Agora allows lock-ins to inhabit an avatar, create their own private and public spaces, and interact with each other in a virtual reality. A second is called “threeps.” Androids that can be completely controlled by the minds of lock-ins, threeps (short for C-3PO) can interact in the real world and allow lock-ins to hold jobs that healthy persons can do. A final technology allows lock-ins to control neural networks implanted in the minds of people who are both willing and able to get them. These people recovered from Haden’s, but the neural mapping of their brains was changed allowing them to become “integrators,” able to host the neural network that allows those fully locked in to share their bodies temporarily. This allows lock-ins to actually experience life in a working physical human body, though the technology does not completely remove the body’s owner from the equation. It is a shared experience, giving lock-ins sensory experiences like taste that would otherwise be impossible.

 

This is the setting for John Scalzi’s masterful work, Lock In. Chris Shane is a Haden, locked in since infancy but now an adult and just hired by the FBI. He is partnered with Agent Leslie Vann, a former integrator. They are part of the Washington, DC, field office in charge of Haden related crimes. Since location is not a factor in Haden involved crimes (a person’s physical body can control a threep or be in an integrator from anywhere else in the world), the FBI is automatically in charge of any crime involving a Haden. And on his second day on the job, Chris falls into a doozy. One man is dead, his throat slit, and an interrogator is sitting in the room with the body, refusing to talk.

 

Shane’s investigation takes him via threep to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, to Los Angeles, and all over Washington. In the process, we the readers get to know him. A former “poster child” for Haden’s, his father was a Hall of Fame basketball player who later became a billionaire real estate investor and a very politically active resident of Virginia. Seemingly everyone knows who Chris Shane is. This opens doors, but also makes people think they know him without having met him. There is a tension between the public “boy with Haden’s” and the private man trying to become a good agent that Scalzi does an excellent job probing. I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of John Scalzi’s books, and although this book did not win the big awards that some of his others have, in my mind it is one of his best. Every character, even the fairly minor ones, is written with compassion and understanding. They are complete, whole people. Some are likable, some are appalling, but all are whole. You feel the pain of being locked in, the freedom and constraints of living life in the body of an android, the challenge of sharing your own body with someone else, the pain one character has being mentally challenged and how that leaves him open for manipulation and abuse by others, and the tension between those who are “able” and those who are “different.” Scalzi does not avoid the live electric wires of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Rather, he grabs those wires to give power and life to the wonderful characters in Lock In.

 

A more timid author would shy away from some of the topics in Lock In. A lesser author might try for a simple or easy answer. Scalzi is a master. He is able to introduce subjects that make you think, yet avoid being heavy handed or dogmatic. Part of the backdrop of the novel is the political battle over rights and funding for Hadens. The fault lines look familiar to anyone who reads today’s news. But Scalzi avoids stereotyping or judging. Some are for, some are against, but all have their reasons and no one is completely with the angels.

 

Read Lock In. Read everything by Scalzi. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Review: Lock InJohn Scalzi

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Also read Head On: A Novel of the Near Future (Lock in) — the next book in the series.

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Also see — Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Series Review: Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Series Review: BintiBinti: HomeBinti: The Night MasqueradeNnedi Okorafor

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Science Fiction Series: BintiBinti: HomeBinti: The Night MasqueradeNnedi Okorafor

Binti is one of the most extraordinary students on earth, so special that she has been accepted to Oomza University, the best university in the galaxy. Adding to her uniqueness is her tribe, the Himba, a fairly insular people not known for their scientific prowess or for their desire to interact with any other people, either on Earth or from other planets. Few Himba ever leave their African homeland, and none have ever gone to Oomza Uni. Defying the traditions of her people and the wishes of her family, Binti leaves her home before sunrise one morning, travels to the spaceport, and boards the ship.

 

So begins an extraordinary journey fraught with danger, shocking twists, and a hero’s journey unlike any other. Nnedi Okorafor paints beautiful word pictures, and Binti is a special subject for those word pictures. Himba women paint themselves with clay from their desert home. The color, consistency, and composition of the clay are unique to the Himba homeland and the process of making it and wearing it identifies the wearer as Himba. When that clay is gone, what does that mean for Binti’s self-identity? A lesser writer might overlook or gloss over that transition. Okorafor puts it near the center of Binti’s journey. Does ojitze make Binti Himba? Or can Binti make the ojitze from the soil of another world?

 

Ojitze features prominently through the books, and Binti’s relationship to the earth–and to the Earth–is metaphorically expressed through her use and making of the special clay. In her times of greatest distress, the clay grounds her, reminds her of who she is, connects her to her people and her planet. As long as she has ojitze, she is never fully alone. Even when she is the sole remaining human on a ship full of hostile intruders, the clay keeps her connected to her people. Later, when she has transitioned to a university student and erstwhile citizen of the galaxy, the clay reminds her of her home and her need to reconnect to her family and her tribe. The clay helps some species recognize her as a fellow citizen of the galaxy, yet at the same time separates her from other humans who see the ojitze as strange and other and primitive.

 

Binti is a master harmonizer. Among the Himba people, her work creating astrolabes is respected and valued. Her gifts in mathematics let her make connections in the technology, creating devices that are beautiful and functional, bringing wealth and fame to her family. In space the harmonizing is much more challenging: harmonizing between species long at war. When she returns home, finding harmony is much more difficult than it once was. Binti has changed. Literally. Finding harmony between herself and her family, her people, her land, is more challenging than ever, especially when old enemies find new opportunities to make war.

 

Okorafor was born in America of Igbo (Nigerian) parents. Her voice is unique. Fully African, fully grounded in the rich soil of a continent too often disparaged or ignored by a more Euro- and American-centric genre. Okorafor’s language is beautiful, her metaphors deep, and her characters brilliant. She may (or may not) be done with Binti, but I hope there are many more powerful African women coming from her wonderful imagination.

 

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Book Series Review: BintiBinti: HomeBinti: The Night MasqueradeNnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too, Curtis C. Chen

Book Review: Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo TooCurtis C. Chen

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Science Fiction: Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too, Curtis C. Chen

May is Asian-American History month, so in honor of that we wanted to review one (or more) Asian-American authors on Scintilla. Curtis C. Chen has written two books in his “Kangaroo” series. Both are delightful, funny, and solid science fiction novels with a quick witted protagonist who fancies himself to be part James Bond and part Han Solo–and tries to avoid tendencies toward Inspector Clouseau.

 

Kangaroo is the code name for an earth-based spy. He is smart, though perhaps more smart-mouthed than wisdom would recommend. He is supported in his field work by Oliver, who handles his high tech gadgets, and Dr. Jessica Chu, who keeps him healthy. And he brings a special talent to his spycraft: the ability to access a parallel universe at will. This allows him to store things (and sometimes people) and access them again at will. No one, including Kangaroo, understands how or why the process works, but as long as the objects can endure space (no gravity, hard vacuum, extreme cold) he can pull them back out when he needs them. He cannot enter the other universe himself, but the ability to pull a lockpick or a squadron of space-suited soldiers out of the air can be incredibly useful in the spy game. Since this alternate dimension is called “the pocket,” it inspired his codename of Kangaroo.

 

In Waypoint Kangaroo, our hero is on a vacation to Mars that proves to be not very relaxing. When the ship is hijacked and turned into a weapon, an unresponsive hulk aimed toward a Martian city with the intent to destroy it, Kangaroo is the only one who can stop the ship and save both the passengers and the residents on Mars. In the sequel, Waypoint Too, Kangaroo goes on a mission to the moon with Dr. Jessica Chu. They are there to meet an old acquaintance of Dr. Chu’s, but when another contact of hers is murdered and she is accused of the crime, Kangaroo’s fieldwork, pocket universe, and smart mouth are put to the test.

 

Chen never loses sight of his characters. Science fiction sometimes focuses on the tech to the detriment of the people. Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too focus on the characters. Kangaroo is emotional, volatile, and sometimes immature. Dr. Chu is stern, surly, and often frustrated at her patient. The other characters are also well formed and make very human, often unpredictable, decisions. The future envisioned by the Kangaroo novels has sophisticated tech and settlements throughout the solar system, but is populated with the same kind of people that we meet daily. They fall in love and out of love, they drink too much, they fight with their siblings, they support each other and they betray each other. Sometimes they tell bad jokes, sometimes their feelings get hurt, sometimes they make mistakes.

 

Chen’s Kangaroo novels are fun. They do not take themselves too seriously, but they do show that Curtis Chen is a writer to take seriously. Hopefully there are a lot more Kangaroo novels, and other novels from this young writer, to come.

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Book Review: Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too, Curtis C. Chen

If you like this review, then try —

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Foreigner Series,  C. J. Cherryh

Book Review: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

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Science Fiction: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

The first Foreigner book was published in 1994. C. J. Cherryh won her first (!) Hugo Award in 1979. Sustained excellence is hard. Bands come and go. Companies wax and wane. Even countries rise and fall. In any walk of life, maintaining a high standard is a constant struggle. After twenty-four years, nineteen novels and two short stories, she could perhaps be forgiven if she went through the motions on her latest offering. Instead, she continues writing must-read books in a must-read series. In a genre that has tended to overlook talented women, Cherryh’s body of work demands respect.

 

Bren Cameron is the main protagonist through the series. Cameron is the “paidhi,” an intermediary between the native (non-human) “Atevi” population and the human colony on the planet. The role developed almost 200 years earlier, created to maintain peace between the species after a war almost wiped out the humans soon after they landed. Traditionally, the paidhi translated documents, negotiated trade deals, and basically tried to stay out of sight. Largely ignored by the atevi and forgotten by the humans, for two centuries the paidhi was kept in the dark and left to his own devices, unable and unwilling to serve the needs of either species.

 

A young Bren Cameron accepted the position straight out of college, about the same time as a new ruler became “aiji” of the Atevi. “Tabini” became supreme leader of the Atevi with a vision to unify the Atevi and to reconsider the relationship between humans and Atevi. In these goals he found a willing ally in Cameron. The need for change accelerated when a new spaceship appeared in the sky. The space station humans had built and abandoned two centuries before still orbited the planet, but when a new ship with humans arrived, the Atevi realized they needed to catch up technologically to their visitors and the guests they shared their planet with.

 

Through the Foreigner series, Cameron strives to be the impartial mediator that the “paidhi” role requires. He redefines it multiple times, developing it under Tabini’s direction into essentially a cabinet role within the Atevi government. He becomes a negotiator, not only between the island community of humans and the mainland population of Atevi, but between the spaceship humans and the planetary populations, between different Atevi factions and Tabini’s government, and ultimately between a new species, the Koh, and the two populations he serves. Cherryh does a remarkable job shepherding Cameron’s growth as a character through the series, changing his perception of himself from that of a human serving a human function to a human serving an Atevi function to a person–still human–but representing people of whatever species they may be.

 

The other main character of the books is Tabini’s young son, Cajeiri. Cajeiri is born early in the series, but as he becomes a boy his role in the books becomes more prominent. The most recent books in the series split their attention and their perspective between Cameron’s activities and Cajeiri’s. Cajeiri starts as a brash, immature child who tries to escape his caregivers and find adventure. Not appreciating that as the son of the ruler, adventure could quickly become danger, Cajeiri is wont to make poor choices and rash decisions–just like many 7-year-old humans do. As he ages through several of the books, though, Cajeiri matures. He learns from his mistakes, he embraces his role as future ruler of his people, and he begins to attract followers who are loyal to him personally. A bright and precocious child, he brings a point of view to the books that is both childlike (and sometimes childish) and distinctly non-human. He deeply admires both his father and Bren Cameron, and they in turn grow to trust him. Through his adventures in space with Cameron, he develops his own human friendships that violate tradition and precedent. Cajeiri will clearly become a leader who takes his father’s vision of interspecies cooperation to new heights.

 

Cherryh is remarkable at switching perspectives from human to Atevi, from adult to child, and from planet to space. Atevi dialog is distinct from human. Relationships are different. “Love” and “friendship” mean very different things to humans and Atevi, and those relationships and the words we use around them figure prominently through the series. Loyalty and service, politics and tradition, all the sundry inner workings of family and clan and city and community are outwardly similar in many regards between the species, but the devil is in the details and without understanding the differences misunderstandings are easy–and potentially deadly. Cherryh weaves a tapestry that is both familiar in its threads and yet deceptively intricate in its stitches.

 

The Foreigner series is actually several series, each a trilogy. The most recent book (2018) is Emergence. Although you can enter the series at almost any point and quickly capture the direction, it is well worth the investment of time to go back to the original book (Foreigner, 1994) and start from the beginning.

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Book Review: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

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Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

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Science Fiction: An Unkindness of GhostsRivers Solomon

I love finding new books from authors with different voices. Often, their characters are refreshing and also speak with different voices, representing populations that open my eyes to people I might otherwise overlook.  Rivers Solomon is such an author, and the lead character “Aster” in An Unkindness of Ghosts has that voice. Aster is poor, mixed race, sexually ambivalent (“they” is the preferred pronoun for the character–and for the author), and leaps off the page with fire and rage.

 

The Matilda is a spaceship that has been searching for a new home for humanity for centuries. On board the spaceship, differences between race and class mean everything. A religious/military government, basically comprised of white people, rules harshly over the entire ship. Lower decks are lower class–and largely black or brown in skin color. Into this stratified world walks Aster. Aster is brilliant in many ways: studying under the ship’s Surgeon General Aster has learned traditional medicine. Aster has also learned from books and from experimentation how to grow plants and distill medicines that replace those withheld from the lower classes by the ruling elites. That genius is both recognized and resented by people throughout the ship. Others with darker skin appreciate the skill, but resent that Aster has access to parts of the ship they cannot visit. Guards and rulers also appreciate Aster’s skill, but feel compelled to remind Aster constantly that they are in charge. Aster is a freak, and few can see past the freakishness to appreciate the person inside.

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a powerful book, creating a world that pulls the reader in. It is dark. The book does not offer easy answers, it does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” Aster is a survivor. Sometimes, survival is ugly. It is also triumphant, though. Aster’s answers may not be the answers they, or we, were looking for. But life often refuses to give the answers we want. What matters is what we do with the answers we are given. An Unkindness of Ghosts demands that we examine who the “freaks” are–those who are born differently, who choose a different path, who wear a different skin, who love fiercely the people they love whatever their gender, or those who draw lines between “us” and “them,” who use skin color and gender to divide, who treat power as the opportunity to abuse and mistreat. The Matilda may be a dystopian nightmare. Perhaps, that type of misery is the fertilizer needed for an Aster to fully bloom.

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