book review: red mars

Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4410885928/ shared under a cc-by-2.0 license

I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.

I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.

The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).

We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.

One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).

The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.

Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.

book review: planetes (vol. 2)

Book Two of Planetes by Makoto Yukimura was just as good as the first one. Hachimaki gets into the training program for the Jupiter mission and we see him train his replacement on the junk-clearing crew. We meet some of the scientists who will stop at nothing to get people out to Jupiter and some terrorists who want to stop them. It’s excellent science fiction, and I’m very glad there are a bunch more volumes to read.

book review: the god engines

The God Engines is a short SF book by John Scalzi. It’s set in a distant future where ships adhering to the Mighty Lord ply the stars fighting battles and the like – a very Warhammer 40k-ish bleak setting. What makes any given ship (and the story) go is the defeated god chained up in its lower decks. These gods (one per ship) are the defiled unworthy competitors to the One God who defeated them in ages long past, and the only thing letting people survive in the coldness of space and travel across the galaxy.

The story is about a captain with very good judgment and the mission he is called upon to perform. He has a stalwart first officer and a lousy priest on board. I won’t spoil the story but the book is a very interesting examination of the nature of faith in a SF context. It’s short, but does its job well.

I think having read this just before seeing Prometheus might have shifted my expectations for the movie a bit, through no fault of either Scalzi or Scott. I thought they would be dealing with similar questions but one treated them thoughtfully while the other posed like it did.

book review: ocean

Ocean is a great little scifi story about a UN weapons inspector who heads out to Jupiter’s moon Europa because a scientific team there found a shitload of billion-year-old alien coffins. There’s another corporation out in orbit of Europa too and they’re interested in the weapon potential of these alien devices.

The book is full of good Warren Ellis dialogue between bitter cranky people trying to save the world. The evil corporation guys have all had personality replacements for the length of their contracts so they’re full on corporate drones, while the heroic real people make terrible food and talk about sex a lot. There are some cool ideas about weapons in space, a great fight sequence using manipulation of the space station’s gravity, and Ellis’ old-school rocket fixation (transferred to the main character) helps to save the day.

I really enjoyed the book and it’d make a great movie.

book review: rocket girls

I did not like Housuke Nojiri’s Rocket Girls. It’s a science fiction story about a teenager who goes to the Solomon Islands looking for her father and gets co-opted into a space program because she’s small enough to need less thrust on the rockets they’re trying to launch into space in the next 6 months or the plug will be pulled on the project. It is so fucking stupid.

It seems that Nojiri wanted to write a cool vaguely realistic story about low earth orbit. He probably did a bunch of research on rockets and Mir. But the situation is so stupid. Yukari finds her father on the island and he’s been made chief of an islander band that cheers for explosions of the rockets as fireworks. He has another daughter almost the same size as Yukari. Who can then be her backup on the mission! And if she goes through with the training he’ll come back to Japan with Yukari and get back with her mother and they’ll all live a normal life!

There’s also sketchy bullshit about the islanders cursing the rockets, and a plan Yukari has to get Chinese food delivered so she’ll be too heavy to go on the rocket, media people bursting into her room in the middle of the night for interviews, and gay Russian cosmonauts who accidentally destroy Mir (that was a spoiler).

It’s ridiculous enough that if it was written with a sense of humour, it could be pretty fun. But it’s trying so hard to make us take this seriously, it’s just aggravating. I wonder if it’s a translation issue.

Anyway, I cannot suggest this book unless it’s to someone really into orbital dynamics. Even then the unrealistic mad scientists and complete motiveless changes of character will probably get in the way of any enjoyment.

book review: zoe’s tale

I read John Scalzi’s blog but he’s not an author whose books I clamour for on the day of release. This week, though I felt an urge for his non-bloggish writing and got a bunch of books from the library. First up, the YA novel set in the Old Man’s War universe called Zoe’s Tale.

This book is about Zoe, the teenage daughter to two war-heroes turned colonists. She’s got a special relationship with an alien race and is kind of bored with her life on Huckleberry (though there’s a lot of exciting backstory to her life you can read in the other Old Man’s War books about her parents). She and her parents and her alien bodyguards head off to start a new colony. Zoe makes friends, deals with relationship issues and gets embroiled in interstellar politics.

It’s a really interesting book because of what it leaves out. It takes place at the same time as The Last Colony so you read this knowing that yeah you’re missing stuff, or having it summarized because Zoe heard about it secondhand. It had a different feel because of it. You really felt like Zoe was dealing with a world and events out of her control. I liked it a lot.

I was also reading this to see if I could suggest it as a standalone YA novel (I’ve only read the first book in the series and that was a few years ago). I think I can. It doesn’t hit quite the same beats as usual, but it’s different in a good way, and Zoe’s got a good voice and feels funny and real.

book review: sardine in outer space

Sardine in Outer Space is a science fictional story written by Emmanuel Guibert and drawn by Joann Sfar that’s much more goofball than y’know, serious speculation, but is also a tonne of fun. Sardine is a little girl who travels around in space with her pirate uncle Captain Yellowshoulder as they fight the terrible villain Supermuscleman in a collection of short episodes.

There’s lots of travel to one-note worlds where they deal with aliens and the stakes are always very high, loads of traps and clever escapes. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wished I’d had to read as a kid, like Spaceman Spiff adventures, but packed into a book. It’s translated from the French by Sahsa Watson but feels very natural in its voice.

Joann Sfar is of course responsible for the grownup comic The Rabbi’s Cat, but also for the kids comics Little Vampire and Dungeon which I also recommend. Sardine is much more madcap and targeting younger readers than the Dungeon series.