Saturday, January 20, 2018

Book Review: Usurper of the Sun by Housuke Nojiri, John Wunderley (Translator)

Usurper of the Sun by Housuke Nojiri, 野尻抱介

John Wunderley (Translator)

Paperback, 276 pages

Published September 2009 by Haikasoru (first published April 2000)

Nihon SF Taishō Award 日本SF大賞 Nominee (2002)

SF ga Yomitai for Best Japanese SF of the Year (2002)

Seiun Award 星雲賞 for Best Japanese Novel (2003)

I have read a few anthologies of short Japanese science fiction stories but this is my first full length novel. I can see why this book would not work for everyone. It is my first time reading Nojiri and I can't speak to the translation as I only read it in English. So lets keep that in mind up front. I can't speak for what was lost in translation and can only guess certain things.

Usurper of the Sun is a hard-sci-fi first contact novel that is international in scope but starts in Japan and follows Aki a Japanese woman through the discovery of alien life and a forty year journey to make contact. What we have is one of the best first contact novels I have ever read that is overflowing with ideas. As a space nerd myself I enjoyed that that the scope of space was not ignored the "Builders" are in a sense first discovered in ancient china when a star acts strangely in the sky. Of course it is hundreds of year later before we get answer to what happened.

The Story kicks off when Aki a young astronomy student in Japan uses the brief solar eclipse hitting Japan to train her telescope on Mercury while it is in conjunction with the sun. She sees a huge tower that appears to be constructed. Not only did someone build this tower but it appears it is being used to construct a more massive ring around the sun that will end up having the effect of blocking out enough light to disrupt the earth. This sets off a desperate mission to contact the builders and stop the earth from falling into a artificially created ice age.

This novel worked for me on several levels. As a space nerd I enjoyed how the book used real or very close to real facts about space, the solar system and astronomy. Nojiri played a bit with the ideas of space travel, skipped some huge chunks of travel but perhaps my favorite thing is how this novel told a first contact story over a long forty year process. The long span that the story is told over held the novel build to big reveals and make the pay-off work. This gives the first contact story a more realistic feeling, and it is hard to talk about this without spoilers for the third act but I thought he had a really interesting a creative take on aliens who existed in a way that was creative.

I know some will probably see the characters as flat, and that is perhaps the only weakness here. Outside of Aki the other characters in this book do not get much attention. That is a valid complaint, but for me the ideas and the story were good enough to carry the book. That being said Aki was strong enough of a character that I felt I knew here and was rooting for her that is all we can ask after all. Sure it could have been better but I still loved it enough to give the novel a full five star review. Those interested in creative idea expanding Sci-fi shoulod read it. Readers who want to check out sci-fi from other cultures NEED to read this.

Spoilers!!!!!!!

So some thing I was really happy with in this novel were the expansion of sci-fi concepts. The novel follows decades of attempts to communicate with "the Builders" Aliens. This fails again and again even though the go as far as destroying the huge object the builders are creating. The contact only happens eventually because a human created AI bridges the gap. The Aliens exist in six dimensions and a have a form of hive mind that exists on a much higher level. They barely register that we exist. The comparison who be if we tried to have a conversation with a fly. This was a neat concept that worked because the whole book built to that reveal. I loved it.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis by Andy Weir
Hardcover, 305 pages Published November 2017 by Crown Publishing Group (NY)

Goodreads Choice Award for Science Fiction (2017)

The Martian was one of the biggest hits in the field of Hard sci-fi I can think of. The Ridley Scott directed movie starring Matt Damon certainly helped but it is not every sci-fi writer that has lines out the door at signings.

I was really looking forward to this book since I heard the author Andy Weir promote it on five million podcasts. Into the Impossible, Weekly Space Hang Out and Star Talk to name a few. I also won a VIP ticket to see him speak here a UCSD, and met him briefly at the meet and greet. He did a really great job of selling the world of the book so much so that I worried I knew too much. Alot of the world building and the setting is the stuff that Andy Weir discussed in his many interviews.

Artemis is a heist novel that is set on the moon. The title of the book comes from the setting, a lunar city centered mostly around the tourist economy. Yes there is industry on the moon in this future but the majority of the people traveling there come to see the landing site of Apollo 11.

The main character is a Saudi born immigrant to the moon named "Jazz". She has lived on the moon since she was six years old and 1/6th gravity is all she really knows. Jazz has made a slow living for herself filling a vital role, she is a smuggler. She figured out a way to move product to the moon considered contraband. Officials look the other way because as much as no one wants to admit it they need Jazz. In a city with a population the same as a large high school, everyone knows everyone.

So it is a dangerous path when a rich industrial business man offers Jazz a million slugs (local money) to blow up a competitor's operation and take control of Oxygen production. She can resist and of course there are many twists and turns as Jazz tries to earn her money. What she didn't for see is a larger plot is about to unfold.

The city and the setting are vividly realized, it certainly is a strength. As it is Andy Weir so the science is key to the story, he seems to like this zone of smart sarcastic characters using their wits to get themselves out of trouble using knowledge and smarts. The setting of the Martian had a first person conversational narrative style that made perfect sense. For example the forth wall breaking sarcasm was understandable because it made sense that Mark left behind on Mars would likely write his story. He would talk to his readers.

Jazz wouldn't likely never sit down to tell a long first person narrative. She was involved in a major crime, maybe to set the record straight but I didn't buy it. I think a third person narrative with switching POV's could have made a more dynamic story. That being said I loved the setting, the story and the various twists that happened in the book. I liked quite a bit even if the method of prose was not my first choice. It is very much a crime novel that just happens to be set on the moon. Much like Outland was a western that just took place near Jupiter. The science and the details of the story work.

One problem Andy Weir has coming off the amazing success of the Martian is a very very high bar. One thing the book had going for it was that people liked and rooted for Mark to survive and get home. In Artemis Jazz is not quite as likable. Her personality doesn't come off that different from Weir's last protagonist. I am sure he was advised to keep the sarcasm as a part of his style.

Transferred from a astronaut desperate to survive to petty criminal it came off a little less likable. I really didn't mind personally. Jazz was entertaining enough of a character and I was rooting for her by the end. That said I could see why some would be turned off by some of the immature humor, and her habit of hurting her friends and long suffering father.

I liked Artemis but perhaps not as much as I wanted to. Hard Sci-fi readers and fans of the Martian should check it out. Check out a half an hour long audio review I did with fellow critic Marvin Vernon of the Novel Pursuit for more details below:

Here is the video of the event here in San Diego I attended:

Book Review: Perchance to Dream by Charles Beaumont (Penguin Classics)

Perchance to Dream by Charles Beaumont

Paperback, Penguin Classics, 304 pages

Published 2016 by Penguin Classics

A few months back I read a Penguin classics edition for Richard Matheson stories. The Penguin line is devoted to the finest voices in literature. So it is really cool that in the last couple years we have seen collection from Penguin for Lovecraft, Liggoti, Philip K. Dick and Richard Matheson. I was surprised and pleased to see Charles Beaumont get the same treatment as he died at a tragically young age and didn't get the chance to build the career that the other writers did.

This edition comes with a wonderful and personal forward by Ray Bradbury written for an earlier collection, and short but heartfelt Afterword by William Shatner who played the lead role in Beaumont's most intense film script - the Intruder.

Richard Matheson had a huge impact in TV, movies and prose. Beaumont was starting to have the same kind of success when he died looking like a 95 year old man at the age of 38. Little was know about what caused his death, and it believed that had early on-set Alzheimer.

Check Sunni and Jason Brock's Documentary on Beaumont if you want more of the story:

None the less with a couple of films including Roger Corman's masterpiece the Intruder that CB adapted from his own novel, and some of the most classic Twilight zone episodes, his work is remembered but fading. That is sad and that is why young writers would do themselves a favor and read this book.

If you read these in a 2018 context some might seem totally out of date and readers have to keep there mind on when they were written, most in the late 50's. Take for example Blood Brother, a simple but funny story about a Vampire who goes to get counseling. It might see silly that he decides to wear a cape, but this was written in 1956.

Many of my favorite stories turned out to be Twilight Zone episodes but outside of the Howling Man I had not seen them in a enough time that I didn't remember the stories.

My favorites in this book included Night Ride, The Howling Man, Place of Meeting, and the Beautiful People. Night Ride was a silky smooth tale of supernatural tied to the world of nightclub jazz. The Howling Man is probably the best episode of the twilight zone that CB wrote the concept that peace time comes because the devil is locked away in a European castle. I really enjoyed reading this tale, even though I have seen the Twilight Zone episode many times. The Beautiful People was a TZ episode with a different title, and honestly I didn't remember it. This sci-fi story written in the fifties becomes a odd surreal out of date period piece. I loved it. My favorite story however was Place of Meeting. I kinda liked the concept even though it was a little goofy.

That is the thing. I don't normally do this but I skimmed through a few goodreads reviews and read a few of the bad ones. I admit that Matheson stories felt a little more timeless. It is not just the concepts but CB pretty much always builds ALL his stories to be a twist. Can you blame him when the TZ was a huge chunk of his income? William F. Nolan is a author who came from the same circle of friends often uses the trick concept or the twist ending often. Matheson and Bradbury stories might feel more timeless because they wrote with a wider variety of style. Beaumont however was a fantastic writer and those who write Bizarro, Sci-fi or horror shorts should read this book to discover the work of a master.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Book Review: Defy the Stars (Constellation #1) by Claudia Gray

Defy the Stars (Constellation #1) by Claudia Gray

Hardcover, 503 pages

Published April 2017 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

I knew nothing about this book going in. I didn't look at the cover, read the dust jacket or anything of the sort. I read this book purely on the strength of the two Star Wars novels I read by author Claudia Gray. I knew it was space opera and that was it. Gray's two Princess Leia books deeply enriched the character and provided several exciting action adventure moments. Her abilities storyteller that sold on reading this.

I am not the target audience, and I don't mean this in a reductive way but after reading this it seems like the audience is young teenage women. I think that is awesome. Because young ladies deserve space opera as much as the young boys. That said it is fun space based adventure with excellent characters and some cool world building so yeah- I liked it.

I wouldn't say I LOVED it but I had fun reading it and this book really didn't need to provide more than fun.

Defy the Stars is a a romantic space opera that centers on a character named Naomi she is a colonist from a former earth territory named Genesis. The people of this world have rejected earth and technology to live simply. The only tech they have left is their war machine, despite being out gunned they are struggling to fight back.

Naomi opens the novel a pilot on a recon mission. In a few weeks she will be part of a suicide mission to save her world, they plan to destroy the wormhole gate that connects their world to earth and the other six colonies in a loop. On this mission in a desperate attempt to survive she finds a ship that has been left floating in space for 30 years.

Once aboard she finds Abel. He looks like a young man, but he is the most advanced AI ever created. Made to look like the scientist who created him a famous scientist named Mansfield. He is programmed to always obey his commander. He has been alone basically locked in a room for 30 years. Naomi takes command of the ship and thus Abel.

Naomi realizes with this ship and this AI she can prevent the suicide attack her world was planning by winning the war on her own. Thus begins a adventure with Naomi and Able that takes them to all six worlds and of course Abel learns what it means to be human.

There is a moment when Naomi goes through the last of the 6 wormholes and she taps the console in a silly way. She says it is just something spacers do when they have gone through all six gates. That is great world building and I loved it. I know the romance is apart of the the promo materials but I didn't read any of those so the first 100 pages I didn't see it coming. The characters are great and the romance as syrupy sweet as it is totally works.

The science fiction is good each of the worlds is built and fully realized and the characters even the briefly seen ones are complex and forward the plot. The skills Gray brought Star Wars translate well to this original story. Defy The Stars are great for young readers.