Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: Star Wars: Last Shot: (A Han and Lando Novel) by Daniel José Older

Star Wars: Last Shot: (A Han and Lando Novel) by Daniel José Older

Paperback, 368 pages

Published April 2018 by Del Rey

I read plenty of EU Star Wars books back in the day. I know many of the fans felt burned when Lucasfilm reset the canon and ejected the EU. I was OK with it even though I spent a lot time reading them. One of the things I like about how it is being re-done at this time is the strength of authors is much higher.

Take this Han and Lando Last shot. Daniel Jose Older is a author I respect. I have a couple books on my shelf I have meant to read, I admit I have yet, but I have listened to a few interviews with him and I have read several short stories of his. I knew he was a excellent and thoughtful story-teller so I was excited to dig into this one.

I was rewarded with a solidly plotted non-linear time jumping adventure story with larger stakes than the average SW novel. What is most impressive about this novel as a Star Wars tie-in is how the story uses seeds from the the latest film (SOLO). This would not be that special of a thing except that it takes place in the narrative into events between episodes 6 and 7. It is hard to discuss with out spoilers, and I was happy I went into the book pretty much blind. I mean this is for hardcore SW nerds but if you were just wondering about the writing and storytelling I would say it is great. Even better is DJO does a wonderful just of bringing the humor and weird aspects of the SW to the forefront. He does this while telling a twisting and exciting story.

So that said I will talk spoilers from here on out. Last Shot is pretty well split from it's focus on both Han and Lando, and certainly jumps from different eras. I am not sure what it means in Star Wars when it says Now, 15 years ago or 10 years ago. What is a year in a society spread across many worlds? I know don't over think it. ( I understand in the new republic time is based a year on the capital but whatever) The events pre-Solo are said to be 15 years before the events when Ben Solo is a toddler. my only confusion with the was math and timelines. That said I eventually just forgot about the numbers and rode with it.

The stakes in this novel are bigger than a ever for a Han Solo novel, sure there is a smuggling run to kick off the story and in a well plotted twist they end up facing a galaxy spanning threat. This all ties back El3 and a droid rebellion she helped to start before being uploaded to the falcon. How awesome is that?

I don't have much else to say other than the characters are recognizable and that is important for a tie-in. DJO is clearly a talented writer and even if I was not already interested I would be now. Shadowshaper was already on my to read list but I am going to bump it up now.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Review: The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

Paperback, 326 pages

Published April 2017 by Sinister Grin Press

They say in marketing that you have to hear a pitch a couple times before it hooks you. That I am afraid is why we talk so often about our books. This is a classic example. I first heard of this novel and Kozeniewski on The Horror Show with Brian Keene. When Kozeniewski was on the podcast the second time he talked about this book and I thought the novel sounded right up my alley. I requested it at the library as I do many books. (By the way if you can get a library to to get an author's book that is better than just buying a copy)

I checked the library website a few times but every time Brian Keene mentioned Kozeniewski on the podcast which is often I would think about The Hematophages. So a few months back I bought a copy and saved it for an airplane read. Yesterday thanks to a delayed flight and long lay-over I read this book in about 4 hours during a trip from Indiana back to San Diego.

The Hematophages is a blend of horror and science fiction. Kozeniewski is most well known for his zombie detective bizarro novel Brain-eater Jones. I hope this novel signals a blending of genre he will continue. The story of Paige Ambroziek a young woman who has lived the majority of her life on a space station. Paige's history makes her a perfect narrator, because she has no experience out in the ink(cool slang for space) or being on worlds. This fish out of water aspect is thankfully not used for comedy but is subtly applied to help world-build in the narrative.

Paige is a student who has expertise on ship salvage and is given a mission by a mega-corporation to find the wreck of a famous spaceship lost for hundreds of years. The major problem with this operation is the ship is on a fleshworld with oceans of blood. I enjoyed the universe of this novel that involved nasty corporations, wormy blood drinking monsters, cancer-ridden zero-g Mutant pirates (the Skin-wrappers) and a planet with bat-shit crazy ecologically that was more surreal than hard sci-fi.

It is clear that Kozeniewski was inspired by Aliens and the Thing and working from that sense he came up with a cool hook for this kind of Sci-fi tale. Once he got to the insanity of the Fleshworld I was sold. If it seems like I am harsh or critical of the book it is important to that I am doing that because I really really LOVED it. There were just a few things that kept it from being a masterpiece for me. That is no slight, I loved it and I think you should read it. It is 1,000 better than most attempts to marry sci-fi and horror.

Let us start with what is great about this novel. I liked that Kozeniewski didn't bother trying to explain the science of deep space travel. He assumes in this first person narrative Paige would expect understanding from her readers. When writing about a coast to coast car trip do modern writers feel the need to explain the science of cars? I suspect that will turn off a few sci-fi readers stuck in their ways, but I found it was refreshing. My mind filled in the gaps.

The world(universe)building is effective, with enough clever and sometimes funny elements like the opening interview and the skin-tight airlocks. The Skinwrapper pirates who lived in zero-G for so long they barely looked human were so well realized that Nia was one of my favorite characters. The paranoia in the second half is well done, never going overboard but just enough to give us a sense of distrust the survivors at the end felt. The planet is soaked in blood before the over the top gore comes in but it is done in smart was, including a fantastic chapter break in the last act that got a "Oh shit" out of me.This universe that Kozeniewski has built is rich and deserves more stories set in it.

That said I had a few minor problems. I have seen the society in this book described as Matriarchal. It is true that in this future men are extinct and referred to as the dead gender. This is a cool set up, and certainly enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I might be nitpicking without men or patriarchy the society is not matriarchy it just is. I felt like this culture just seemed like any other corporate structure in our world. There was not enough of what makes a a woman's society for me. There was some ball-busting and macho behavior that I think undermined the potential of a different looking future with-out us men.

Sci-fi has played with those gender roles as far back Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness and bit more subtle in Carrie Vaughn's Coast Roads books. I loved the idea of a all-woman culture but thought that was weakest part of the execution. If Kozeniewski returns to this universe needs some attention to that aspect.

Also one aspect that this novel is rightly getting lots of praise for is world-building. The Fleshworld is a crazy and cool place that this novel visits. The problem for me is that it is very similar to the world of Splatterjay from the Neal Asher novel The Skinner. I suspect Kozeniewski has not read the Skinner, but the eco-system of the Flesh world is very close. The Skinner is my favorite Sci-fi novel of the 21st century so it was a little hard for me to ignore. In the end they are different enough that I am glad both exist.

The Hematophages is one of the best books I have read so far this year. It is bold and weird science fiction that feels old school and insane at the same time. It is bizarro, dark sci-fi and horror in equal measure. A super neat book that I am glad I picked up. It is a little bit a parallel of Aliens, A reversal of Carpenter's The Thing (paranoia with all women) and with a world-building that reminded me of Neal Asher's The Skinner. That is a good mix.

Podcast Book Review: The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, 168 pages

Published November 2002 by Vintage (first published 1956)

PKD's third released novel is sci-fi take on communist China with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The world building, characters and sci-fi humor are all top notch in this novel. PKD was coming into his own here. The ending was panned for being a rip-off of Swift's Modest Proposal and it sounds like rightly so. I didn't write a full review because we broke it down on the Dickheads podcast. For a full and detailed review listen here:

My Dickheads interview of UCSD Physics professor Brian Keating

Professor Brian Keating is an astrophysicist with UC San Diego’s Department of Physics. He and his team develop telescopes to study the Big Bang. He is the author of over 100 scientific publications and holds two U.S.Patents. He received the 2007 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at the White House from President Bush for a telescope he invented and deployed at the U.S. South Pole Research Station called “BICEP". Professor Keating became a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2016 and is the author of Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor, selected as one of Amazon.com’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books of the Month and one of Nature Magazine’s Six Best Books of the Season.

Brian Keating - briankeating.com/

Brian's Book - amzn.to/2sa5UpA

TEDX - www.youtube.com/watch?v=T22s4jCZ4Ho

I had the chance to interview Dr. Keating for the Dickheads podcast. I am not gonna lie when Dr. Keating said I missed my calling and should work in the Physics lab was a pretty great moment for me.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Book Review + Interview: The Wild Dead (The Coast Road #2) by Carrie Vaughn

The Wild Dead (The Coast Road #2) by Carrie Vaughn

Paperback, 272 pages

Expected publication: July 17th 2018 by John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books

As the co-host of the recently launched Philip Dick podcast Dickheads I was first clued into this series when the first Coast Road novel Bannerless won the Philip K Dick award for 2017. So a few months back I read and reviewed that novel for the blog, but also interviewed Vaughn for the podcast. (linked below) I was a big fan of the first book. I loved the anarchist and social themes and thought it was excellently woven into a Leguin-like five stars out of five novel.

I was excited during the interview that Carrie said the sequel was almost out and that she would send me a copy. I loved the world of the coast road, a post collapse California coast that has turned to a more just society. Enid is an investigator in this mostly utopia she doesn't get alot of work, and in the wake of the the rare murder that she solved in the first novel she has been able to relax a bit.

Now she is training Teeg a young investigator, and her family is eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child as they were just given their first banner. Enid and Teeg are called to a far off town on the south edge of the coast road to settle a dispute. It seems like a simple task a man wants to maintain the family house that is about to fall down a cliff. The community considers it a hazard and wants the investigators to tell him to let the house go.

It seems like a simple case when the body of a young woman no one can identify washes up on the shore. Now for the second time Enid must solve a murder. Vaughn writes another great mystery, what I really enjoyed about this one was I had no idea how she would ever solve it. There are hundreds of mystery novels put out each year but the thing that makes this one special is the setting.

The post-modern world setting and the social dynamics are really interesting. The victim was from the wildlands beyond the coast road where there is no organized society. One excellent element of world building Vaughn pulls off is the people in the wild lands. She does a great job making them feel almost inhuman, like they are a different species. in fact she actually reminds the reader at one point that they are just human, and it struck me because I did need that reminder.

Before Enid goes to the wild lands I was not even sure how she would identify the victim. Without spoilers this mystery is really well done. Perfectly weaving the fascinating social and political dynamics of this bizarre post-ecological collapse attempt at utopia.

The characters are strong, and the narrative is perfectly structured with surprises and reveals. This is a very worthy sequel to Bannerless. Both novels are masterpieces in my eyes. When this book comes out July 17th Mystery fans, dystopian fans, and political sci-fi fans should have this book ready to go. The Bottomline is this: The Wild Dead is a perfect sequel that ups the ante on all the elements that made Bannerless great. A masterpiece of socially aware world-building and mystery that will entertain as it makes you think.

In case you missed it here is my Dickheads Podcast interview with author Carrie Vaughn:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Paperback, SF Masterworks, 240 pages

Published February 2013 by Gollancz (first published 1955)

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1956)

Leigh Brackett may not be a household name to most Sci-fi fans in this day and age but she was a ground breaking writer during the pulp era. At time when Ace was publishing most of their science fiction in doubles Leigh Brackett published dozens of space operas and fantasies ( that took place on Mars and Venus) far enough back that it seemed possible. One thing that made her a trailblazer is she didn’t hide her gender like a several women writing at the time.

She is most often remembered for the screenplay she wrote just before her death for the Empire Strikes Back. She also wrote several classic westerns and noir films like Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep. The word is that her screenplay for Empire was very different from the final product that was greatly over hauled by Lawrence Kasdan. So What? George Lucas thought enough of her space opera to give her the first crack. It is cool that Brackett was one of the first people to sit down with Lucas and has out the story. I think in high school I bought a couple of her books because she wrote Empire I have vague memories of reading them. During the Solar Lottery episode of Dickheads (the PKD podcast I co-host) we talked about that book being a double with Leigh Brackett novel. That book sounded interesting. I looked it up at the library and they didn’t have it. They did however have The Long Tomorrow and It was considered a masterpiece of 50’s post apocalypse fiction. Anyone who has read my blog for anytime knows I love a good end of the world story.

It was a cool surprise for me by the time the book showed up on my library holds and I got around to it, I had forgotten what it was about. Interesting timing as I was about to read Carrie Vaughn’s sequel to Bannerless that is set in a similar world. It is interesting to compare those novels and how they reflect the fears of the times. Brackett’s novel is inspired by the very real nuclear fears of the 50’s while Vaughn’s Bannerless books see the reset of the world being a outcome of environmental waste and climate change.

The Long Tomorrow is one hundred years after a Nuclear war in the Midwest. This is a very different novel from the bulk of Brackett’s but it is a hero’s quest just like many of her books. This quest is more Tom Sawyer than Frodo because the midwest of this future has gone back to the primitive, not by choice they are survivors. That said the beliefs and laws of this society have adapted and despite surviving books the idea of embracing technology and going back is a big no no.

So enter our Hero Len Coulter who is very focused on the journey to find the city where technology and the old world are embraced. Along the way there is a love triangle with his brother, and many adventures. He dreams of this place and the central question of the third act is this dream all he believed it would be. The society that survived is fighting to prevent any of the seeds that destroyed the past world from being planted again.

You may be thinking – I have read or seen this story one thousand times, and this story is cliché. Well this novel was released in the 50’s so this is one of the trailbliazers along with Alas Babylon and On the Beach. It is the reason for the Cliche and is very different.

The Long Tomorrow shows its age at times, but I am glad I read it. It is a classic of the genre and it is important that we don’t lose these classics. I wouldn’t say it is a barn burner, but it has enough important themes and its role in the genre is undeniable. Yeah you should read it.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Book Review: Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published May 1st 2018 by St. Martin's Press

One the hottest debates in the space nerd community over the last couple years surrounds the little planet Pluto. Out at the far reaches of our solar system Pluto has only been known to our science since the 1930's when Clyde Tombaugh using math and an analog telescope proved that there was another object out beyond Neptune. Eventually this planet was given the name Pluto, and in recent years it was demoted from Planet to Dwarf Planet. Look I am not a planetary scientist but being small in my opinion should not count against Pluto. Dwarf people are still people. Dwarf planets are planets.

We as a species had not been to Pluto, if you are not as into these things you might wondering why neither Voyager went to Pluto despite going deeper into interstellar space. Voyager 2 was supposed to but the mission was altered to do a pass of Saturn's moon Titan, they just couldn't pass up the amazing science at the mission planner's finger tips. Pluto again got the diss.

In fairness we as a species had not explored Pluto so we didn't know much about it. That was until 2015 and the New Horizons spacecraft. Once human beings sent a space craft called New Horizons we learned a lot so of course it was a no-brainer that we did it right? This book is not just the story of the journey to the planet but the one taken on earth to make it happen.

I know this is not the typical book I review, I mostly review horror novels and science fiction. I was sold to check out this book by the authors when they appeared on one of my favorite podcasts "The Weekly Space Hang-out." That show is linked here:

We learned so much about Pluto and the excitement level from space fans and the general public I assumed it was smooth sailing from earth to the millions of miles away in the deep solar system. This book is a fun read because it not only tells you the story of the planet but the mission and the human beings at the center of it.

I am not sure people understand the joy and excitement that mission planners feel at moments like the "Fly-by" or the Phone-home when a hibernating space craft wakes up after months alone in the void, but that is much of what makes this book special. Of course on the surface those things are cool but when you know the struggles it took to launch it makes it all the more intense.

I don't think most outsiders understand the tension involved in launching the spacecraft for example. You have a limited window when the planets line up. You have to hurdle your space craft at the exact right time 30,000 miles an hour into space. Get it wrong and it is for nothing. You also spent millions and millions of dollars to build 1 functioning machine. Spent years building, testing and loading software. No re-do's and not to mention you are putting it on a rocket. This book got the drama of that moment, the dueling proposals and planning right.

Even though I knew they made it to Pluto I shared in the ups and downs as a reader rooting for them. Once the spacecraft got into space the story of the science was compelling. We learned that Pluto has 5 moons, got video of the amazing dance the planet does with it's moon that is almost the same size. Who knew we had a binary planet in our own Solar system? (check out the video below) The topography on Pluto was so much more interesting than we expected. in the end the mission was beyond NASA and the planners wildest expectations and it is still going with another Kieper Belt object getting a fly-by this upcoming New Year's day.

In the end I suggest this book to people interested in space or science. New Horizons is a spacecraft built by human hands that has gone to the farthest depths of our Solar System. This is an amazing achievement and no matter how craft we send out into the solar system we should not lose sight of that. We need to celebrate the success of the mission but also the heart of human determination at the core of it.