SF&F Mini-Reviews

It’s time to take a little break from the busyness that engulfs my life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and catch up with a few mini reviews. In the order I read them, here are a handful of Fantasy & Sci-fi(ish) books that I read over the last few months:

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Wells, Martha]Title: All Systems Red
(Murderbot Diaries – Book 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Survival/AI Sci-fi
Pages: 154
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Meet Murderbot. Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment…but dangerous, sinister things keep happening on this seemingly routine scientific mission.

I loved the characterization of Murderbot as it tries to keep its independent status a secret while struggling with what it means to be human. I plan on eventually continuing the series, but that brings me to the one downside: the way this is sold feels like a cynical money-grab. This could easily be one longish book rather than spreading it out across 4 or 5 novellas and charging $9.99 a piece for most of them!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by [Ligotti, Thomas]Title: Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Author: Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

If you are into Lovecraftian horror, you need to check out this collection of Thomas Ligotti’s early fiction. These stories don’t feature Lovecraft’s alien god-monsters (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!), but more subtly toy with the same themes of forbidden sanity-blasting knowledge and an ominous something/nothing lurking out there.

As with any collection, the quality varies quite a bit. There were a couple stories that left me saying “that was just gross/dumb/pointless,” but this was by far the best cosmic horror collection I read this year.

Title: How To:
Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: Randall Munroe
Genre: Absurd Science
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 of 5

So, this isn’t fiction, but (as the subtitle states) it is a collection of utterly impractical scientific advice. It covers everything from how to host a pool party (focusing on how to make and fill your pool), to moving your house (using jet engines), to the practicalities of installing a lava moat. All of this is accompanied by illustrations in the author’s classic XKCD style. It’s both funny and educational!

Title: Prophets of the Ghost Ants
(Antasy Series – Book 1)
Author: Clark Thomas Carlton
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 608
Rating: 3 of 5

First of all, thank you to Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum for the giveaway where I won this! The best part of this book is the world-building: a world in which the only land or air-dwelling creatures are bugs and bug-sized people. How the author develops the societies, politics, and warfare of this world is quite interesting. There are lots of scientific goodies related to ant colonies…and a lot to be grossed out by if bugs (and eating bugs) disgusts you.

Personally, I was a bit annoyed at the overall preachiness of the book (monotheism is the cause of most suffering, all religion is purely man-made, the utopian society is based on secular humanism that condescendingly tolerates the foolish theistic beliefs of others as long as they keep it to themselves, etc.). The protagonist comes from the lowest/untouchable caste in his colony and by turns I admires his pluck and ingenuity and was turned off by his brutal pragmatism even as he preened in his moral superiority. Overall, it was interesting enough that I’ll eventually get around to reading the next book, but the preachiness and inconsistency was a bit off-putting.

Title: Mechanical Failure
(Epic Failure – Book 1)
Author (& Narrator): Joe Zieja
Genre: Hilarious Military Sci-fi
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and/or the Discworld novels, you should read this. There’s nothing terribly deep here, but it’s good stupid fun.

The 200 Years (and counting) Peace has made the military a haven of slackers and swindlers…at least that was the case when R. Wilson Rogers left the military to pursue more lucrative (and less legal) ventures. When Rogers reluctantly reenlists, he quickly discovers that military discipline is now the order of the day and the military may actually have to fight someone. Cue a series of absurd command decisions, whiney complaints, interaction with overly-logical robots, all-around ineptitude, and several epic failures.

This book had me laughing harder than anything else I read this year. Granted, physical exhaustion from current work schedule may have contributed to that a bit, but it’s a funny book! I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, and his expression (including a synthesized filter for some of the robots) added a lot to the experience. Highly recommended!

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

Title: The Book of Cthulhu
Editor: Ross E. Lockhart
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This Lovecraftian anthology is fairly middle of the pack. It didn’t have any of the stupid last sentence is an incredibly obvious twist ending in italics stories, but neither did many of them have that sense of creeping dread that really makes a good cosmic horror tale. Most of the stories seemed to be along the lines of trying really hard to come up with a clever, modern take on the “gods” and other beings of the Lovecraft mythos (Shogoths and Innsmouth seemed to be the two most popular targets). This made for interesting stories but not necessarily atmospheric stories. A few evoked the proper tone (the offerings by Laird Barron and Brian Mcaughton were probably the best), and most are well-written enough that the collection is worth your time if you’re a fan of cosmic horror.

In conclusion: here’s a picture that I took from my front yard back in April. (“The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”)

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

A Condescending Whodunnit

Title: I Am Providence
Author:
Nick Mamatas
Genre: Mystery (with a touch of Cosmic Horror)
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

A Lovecraftian, nihilistic worldview underlies much of the narration, in this book, but this is no Lovecraft pastiche. It is primarily a murder mystery set at a Comic Con style gathering of Lovecraftian writers and fans. The book as a whole lampoons fandom in general and Lovecraftians in particular. I recognized characters who were clearly S. T. Joshi and Robert M. Price and if I were more into this particular fandom I’m sure I would have gotten other in-jokes. While the satirical portrayal of rabid fandom was fairly amusing at times, it felt just plain mean spirited and condescending for the most part. With very few exceptions, the convention-goers (and Lovecraft fans in general) are portrayed as creepy white male social outcasts who spout racism, sexism, and/or some other form of prejudice…apparently if you like Lovecraft’s fiction you’re likely to be as horrible of a person as he was.

The story is narrated from two points of view: the first-person lingering/disintegrating  consciousness of the murder victim (probably the creepiest/cleverest part of the book), and a third person account which follows a first time convention-goer who is a female author (one of only three at the convention) and proud vegan (which has next to nothing to do with the plot but is mentioned repeatedly and self-righteously). Both characters reminded me unpleasantly of Holden Caulfield in the foul-mouthed, derogatory way that they talked/thought about practically everyone else; an impression heightened by the dead guy having written a mashup called Catcher in R’lyeh. The mystery itself was okay with the resolution striking exactly the right note for a Lovecraftian book. Overall, everyone in the book was so unpleasant that this just wasn’t a very enjoyable read.

Race-obsessed Horror

The Horror Stories of Robert E. HowardTitle: The Horror Stories of Robert E Howard
Author: Robert E. Howard
Genre: Pulp Horror/Weird
Pages: 560
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a major contributor to the development of the Swords & Sorcery sub-genre. This book collects a number of his creepier short stories, most of which were originally published in Weird Tales and show the influence of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft. Calling most of them “horror stories” may be a bit of a stretch – they’re more like action/adventure stories with a creepy, Lovecraftian element.

The usual Robert E. Howard theme of “barbarian purity vs. civilized decadence” figures heavily in many of the stories, but even more of them revolve around his racial stereotypes. Most of the stories prominently feature one or more of these characterizations: Aryans/white people who are heroic, courageous, and intelligent but out of touch with the supernatural; Semitic/Arabic people who are greedy, decadent, and cruel; “Swarthy” southern Europeans who are adept at dishonest political maneuvering; Africans/black people who are cowardly, devious, and uneducated but in touch with genuine supernatural power; and a de-evolved “mongoloid race” who serve as recurring villains.

There’s no doubt that the man could write captivating escapist fantasy, but I found the pervasive racial stereotyping (and occasional racial slurs) fairly off-putting. If you want to get a feel for Robert E. Howard, this is a good place to start since it samples a wide variety of settings and characters (but no Conan stories). Also, as with any pulp author, don’t read too many of his stories in a row or they all start sounding the same.

What Really Happened at Red Hook

Title: The Ballad of Black Tom
Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 160
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The works of H. P. Lovecraft shaped the genre of cosmic horror. While I don’t practically worship him like S. T. Joshi, I enjoy his work, and if I read something in the horror genre it’s usually “Lovecraftian.” Unfortunately in addition to being a gifted writer, Lovecraft was an incredibly xenophobic racist. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his The Horror at Red Hook in which the Syrian, Yazidi, etc. immigrant communities in Brooklyn are portrayed as a dangerous hive of sinister criminals, devil worshippers, and other undesirables.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (who is black) retells The Horror at Red Hook from a completely different point of view, mixing in some “Five Percent Nation” (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam) mysticism along the way.  It still deals with issues of racism, but not in a “those dark-skinned people are all dangerous inferiors” way (though there might be a touch of “all white men are racist jerks”).

The book is well-written with the right feeling of dread. The horror comes from fear of the completely inhuman something “out there” rather than stooping to the lazy “graphic gore = scary” route. For me, a lot of the interest derived from seeing the tweaks made to The Horror at Red Hook, so I’m not sure how well it stands on its own. As a companion/improvement of the Lovecraft story it was a blast!