Welcome to the Science Fiction Hyperdrive Blog. I'm currently reviewing novels, but I hope to get along to movies soon. As an author, I am very busy, so please be patient with the posts. I welcome all comments and will answer them as soon as I can!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Introduction to the Universe of the Academy Novels of Jack McDevitt

By Paul W. Baker

(Rewritten, with additions and corrections, and posted 7/11/11.)

In the realm between hard science fiction and space opera there is a zone where some of the rules of science may be broken very carefully, but the author may still make his or her universe look and feel realistic.

The works of Jack McDevitt certainly belong in that zone and none more squarely than the Academy Novels, which I am about to begin reviewing. The purpose of this introduction is to present a basic understanding of the world that McDevitt has created. For those who have not yet read the novels, it will serve to set up the reading. For those who have already read the series, it will be a refresher to make the reviews easier to follow. As for the reviews themselves, I will be assuming that the reader has already finished reading the novels, so there will be spoilers. Not so for this introduction.

The Academy Novels officially begin on the date of February 12, 2197, which is where the Prologue to The Engines of God (1994) kicks the series off. The other novels in this series include Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey, (2006) and Cauldron (2007). The conclusion takes place in the year 2255.

At this time in future history, governments have consolidated in order to control the gradual, but sure, devastation of Earth. Although there is a governing World Council, it is made up of political entities that were previously two or more countries. The North American Union (NAU), for example is made up of the United States and Canada. However, between overpopulation, drought, economic ennui, degrading weather patterns, religious strife and global warming, death has become so commonplace that no one thinks twice about a few million dying in India due to a grain shortage. Melting of the polar ice caps has raised shorelines around the world, so the people have had to re-engineer their cities to go on. The wealthy and those who cultivate professions that are in demand still do quite well. There are expensive restaurants, dinner parties and diverse live entertainment. The poor are generally never seen.

What McDevitt has done in his future history is to show that no matter how bad things get, most of the population will continue to go on as if nothing was wrong. He has taken this attitude directly from the present situation on Earth and extrapolated on it. We are at this moment presiding over the initial stages of Earth’s deterioration: the world economy fluctuates dramatically with widespread unemployment and collapsing markets, the earth is suffering from multiple natural disasters, we continue to depend on fossil fuels and, yes, we are pretty much ignoring global warming. Yet, if you turn on a television today, you would think that we were at the height of prosperity with no problems in the world.

Media plays a large part in these novels. McDevitt drops in news headlines throughout the Academy Novels and the news is both devastating and understated. No matter what happens, life goes on and we all pretend that everything is okay. In fact, as long is everything is okay for me, then it is okay for everyone.

One criticism that McDevitt receives quite often is that his characters are shallow and two-dimensional. Although I would not argue that point in general, I believe the characters in the Academy Novels are that way on purpose. They fit in with his extrapolation of the present into the future. Although everyone today tries to look on the bright, happy side of existence, the truth is that most people are terribly mundane. We are gradually becoming a society of specialists, of people who concentrate on their own little niche. Very few people are well rounded intellectually and most of them are not intellectual at all. Most people today – and in McDevitt’s future – are shallow and self-involved. We tend to feed off of tawdry news events, social gossip, games, images and social interaction aimed at our own personal well-being.

In the Academy, most of the scientists, academics, engineers and technicians are specialists who burrow into their own little worlds, so caught up in their own careers and specialties that most of them have no life outside of their areas of expertise. And within those areas, most are concerned with their own ego more than they are with actual technological development.

The politicians are pragmatists who flow with the general tide. They don’t think for themselves. Instead, they take polls and roll with whatever will keep them in power. When the Greens finally become a political powerhouse, they are just like the Democrats and Republicans of today. They do not listen to others, they do not think things through and make rational decisions. Instead, they push their agenda unconscionably regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

I think that this approach to future history by McDevitt is very smart indeed and it is something that we all can see and understand just by looking around us. He isn’t really introducing any new conflicts here, but he has extrapolated fiercely on what is and that realism sticks in your brain. Issues that we debate at this moment are still being debated nearly 200 years in the future and people and attitudes haven’t changed. It is both deeply chilling and bizarrely reassuring at once.

Throughout the novels, news organizations play a big role and McDevitt again has extrapolated from our present to our future. Most of the reporters are plainly superficial; they are suave, beautiful manikins, who play up whatever appears to be an emotional event and they mostly ignore more difficult, in-depth stories. Man jumps off building. Congressman caught in love tryst: details at eleven. Like scientists and entertainers, reporters are more concerned with their own future than they are with the news.

The exception to this is the magazine, The National, whose editor, Gregory MacAllister, delights in attacking pompous airheads. He is definitely similar to the curmudgeonly journalist H. L. Mencken of the Twentieth Century. Although, in many ways, he is dislikeable (for example, he is an outspoken chauvinist and he distrusts religious leaders on the grounds that they have become more important than God), he also provides one of the deeper characters in the series. He is capable of listening, analyzing problems and changing his mind. At his best, he truly does reach for the underlying truth of existence. This level of complexity sets him well apart from others.

Technologically, some big changes take place during the next 200 years.

Of course, the big thing – and the first thing that really takes the Academy Novels outside the realm of hard science fiction – is the development of faster than light space travel (FTL). At a time when space exploration was believed to be dead, scientist Ginjer Hazeltine developed a theory of transdimensional transit. Once a drive unit was perfected, it was named the Hazeltine Drive. This is a rather murky theory, but most science fiction that crosses the threshold into space opera depends on some mechanism or other to allow transit across many light years in a short period of time. If you don’t worry about the details, you will be fine.

The Academy, by the way, is the space exploration arm of the NAU, controlling all official flights throughout the galaxy. Eventually, of course, private companies contract to have their own vessels built. Kosmik, Inc., for example, is involved in the business of terraforming. Orion Tours allows the extremely wealthy to go site seeing. And the media have their own vessels so that they can rush to the scene of any intergalactic hanky panky.

Since development of the Hazeltine Drive, the Academy has been looking through the Orion Arm of our galaxy (our immediate neighborhood) for two things: planets with an Earth-like biosphere that would be good for colonization and alien life.

Several planets have been found that meet the first criteria, some with only single-celled life, some with much higher, non-intelligent life, but most simply sterile. One planet has been found that possesses intelligent life: Inokademeri. But the inhabitants, referred to as Noks, have not developed technologically past where humans were at in World War I. Due to their innate intolerance, they are constantly at war; they have used up most of their natural resources and are considered (in MacAllister’s words) “idiots”. It is so bad on Nok that scientists are not permitted interaction with the locals. A few of the planets capable of supporting human life have actually been colonized, one by religious zealots and the other by political malcontents. Both colonies are failing.

And although humans most deeply desire to find another intelligent species, one that is technologically mature, they haven’t had much luck. In fact, mostly what they have found is archeological treasures: races that evolved a complex society and then (for one reason or another) died off. These discoveries – and others that will be discussed later – become a major plot element in several of the novels.

The other breakthroughs that keep the Academy Novels firmly outside the realm of hard science fiction are anti-gravity devices, artificial gravity and Flickinger fields.

Anti-gravity is used for a number of functions. There are vehicles that skim through the sky, depositing their passengers on special landing pads. (Apparently ground transportation has all but disappeared.) There is also the “spike” which is used to lift vehicles beyond a planet’s gravity well. And anti-gravity comes in really handy if you have to move anything that is large, massive or unwieldy.

Artificial gravity is, of course, used to keep people upright and functioning in a zero gravity environment, such as a space ship.

And the Flickinger Field is a kind of personal force field made of energy that molds itself to the human body. When connected with air tanks, these fields act like a space suit, protecting the wearer from harsh environments. They do have two problems: they are not impermeable (leaving them open to breaching) and they have a hard shell that forms over the face so that the wearer can breathe. Rest assured that these problems will be exploited by McDevitt.

Two of the best technological advances are easily within our grasp.

Artificial Intelligence has become a booming business in the Academy Novels. An AI runs every household; it serves as friend, cook, butler, maid, alarm and communications system. It’s like having a Google you can chat with. In addition, all complex operations are now exclusively handled by AIs and they even serve as back-up systems for pilots of space ships.

What’s really neat is that AIs can also appear as holograms. The common AI system on every Academy vessel is named Bill and he interacts with every captain in a unique individual way, projecting different images of “himself” throughout the ship. Contrary to the official line, AIs do have a sense of humor.

The disappearance of television isn’t spectacular because it is replaced (as is actually happening now) by the net and by 3D interactive entertainment known as Sims. The Net is huge, but as we see now in television, there are a few “channels” that rise to the top. In this way, there is a common experience, much the way we have now with the major broadcast networks. Some programs and personalities always rise to the top. And the desire for common entertainment experience will always funnel viewers in specific directions.

The Sims are like watching a movie that takes place around you, but you can also program your image and voice to appear as one of the characters. If you have a number of people doing this, it is apparently quite a bit of fun.

The protagonist of the Academy Novels is a pilot named Priscilla Hutchins (everyone calls her Hutch), a diminutive, black-haired beauty imbued with her own particular hang-ups and fears. She is tied to the Academy pretty much throughout the series, but in the beginning she mostly works with the archeologists. In fact, it is her association with one of the most prestigious of these, Dr. Richard Wald, which leads to the beginning of The Engines of God.

Hutch lives in Arlington, VA, just outside of what remains of Washington, DC. With all of the coastal flooding that continues as a result of polar ice melting, the former capital of the United States is now partly underwater, with the rest bolstered by levees so that the buildings may remain as tourist attractions.

She is one of those people matched perfectly with her job. In the first few novels, one can feel the excitement of space exploration through her eyes: the awe of discovery, the wonderful little social groups that form during a long flight, and the vastness of the universe. Hutch is smart and sexy, she has a grip on reality that others could benefit from touching. She is heroic, but not for the reasons that others behave heroically. She is immensely likeable, a terrific character to carry a series through six novels.

But the time she spends on Earth is pained. Her mother wants grandchildren and a stable relationship for her daughter. Hutch herself would like some stability, but her long absence hampers this ambition. The men who are interested in her simply cannot tolerate the absences, so Hutch remains frustrated on that level. However, her relationship with academics and archeologists is most stimulating - the time that they spend traveling between systems (normally a few months) is really the basis of her social life. She is both intelligent enough to hold her own with them, so whether they are just playing games, running sims or engaged in arcane discussions, she gains a great deal emotionally from the trips.

The most fascinating and puzzling discovery by the archeologists is the existence of gigantic sculptures scattered here and there along the rim. Perhaps the most fascinating is an alien’s self-portrait left on the snow-covered surface of Iapetus, the third largest of Saturn’s moons. That these aliens, referred to as “the Monument Makers” (for lack of a better term), actually visited the solar system some 24,000 years ago is a source of amazement to archeologists. Most of the sculptures are cubes or rectangles – shapes with straight lines and right angles – but the one on Iapetus is clearly a self-portrait.

It is at this point, on February 12, 2197, that The Engines of God begins. Hutch has piloted Dr. Wald to view the Iapetus sculpture and the opening words of the novel paint a chilling picture:

“The thing was carved of ice and rock. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow covered plain, a nightmare figure of gently curving claws, surreal eyes and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual… stamped on its icy features was a look she could only have described as philosophical ferocity.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review of Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Spoiler Alert!  This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin.  It is recommended that you read the book before you read this review.

Rite of Passage is an easy book to pigeon-hole as a "coming of age" novel, but to do so would be a mistake and a disservice to this excellent little science fiction novel that steps beyond the genre.

The book is written first person past through the eyes of the central character, Mia Havero, looking back at herself from the ages of twelve through fourteen. She is the daughter of the elected leader of a group of scientists and engineers who live on a spaceship at the end of the twenty-second century.

Through internal strife, Earth has essentially destroyed itself. The ships were created to ferry passengers from Earth to new worlds that they might colonize to continue the existence of humanity. But the ships' leaders have made a conscious decision to separate themselves - and their knowledge and expertise - from the farmers who are actually carving out the new worlds. These elitists decided that the knowledge they possess would be useless on worlds barely hanging on for survival, that the knowledge would be lost if they joined in that fight for survival, so they stay on their ships and merely trade bits of knowledge to the farmers ("Mudeaters" they are called) for supplies.

Mia herself, after being separated from her parents for years, recently left the common dormitories to live with her father. She is a precarious character at the beginning, having suffered from her separation, nervous to a fault around others, and easily frightened. At the beginning of the novel, her father is moving them to a different part of the ship and she is losing her tenuous hold on security.

But she begins her new existence by being teamed with a boy named Jimmy Dermently, precocious and just a few months older. They are assigned a tutor who is very old and who has been an opponent of Mia's father. He teaches them to think outside the box and they both jump at the chance. Their major line of study becomes ethics and that leads to the central crisis of the novel.

How nice it is to have an entire novel based around a major ethical crisis.

During the next two years Mia and Jimmy educate themselves and prepare for the Trial that they must endure when they turn fourteen years old. The Trial is a survival ordeal that all juveniles on the ship must undergo to reach adulthood. They are dropped individually onto a planet's surface, supplied with a horse, a gun, a knife and a tent and they must survive for thirty days until they are picked up. Many do not survive the "savagery" of the Mudeaters.

As Mia gains confidence through her survival training, she also studies the great philosophies of Earth’s past, picking each one apart, finding things that she can relate to and ideas that she must outright reject. She is forced to think and to make a major decision that will separate her from her family permanently. It is this part of the novel that it seems many critics completely ignore. But Panshin had some big ideas when he wrote this book and I think it is important that I share at least some of Mia’s thoughts:

“I’ve always resented the word maturity, primarily, I think, because it is most often used as a club. If you do something that someone doesn’t like, you lack maturity, regardless of the actual merits of your action. Too, it seems to me that what is most often called maturity is nothing more than disengagement from life [my emphasis]. If you meet life squarely, you are likely to make mistakes, do things you wish you hadn’t, say things you wish you could retract or phrase more felicitously, and, in short, fumble your way along. Those “mature” people whose lives are even without a single sour note or a single mistake, who never fumble, manage only at the cost of original thought and original action.”

To readers more accustomed to slam-bang action (which is, I think, a major pitfall in the writing of science fiction), this book may appear slow and way too thoughtful for them. What is mature deliberation is mistaken for plodding and a reader can miss all of the salient points that the novel is meticulously honing.

When a novel wins the coveted Nebula Award and is nominated for the Hugo, it usually means there is something very, very good about the book. I have now had the opportunity to read many reviews of this novel and most of them are frankly superficial and miss the point of the novel. But this is a fine little book, filled with the inner life of a fully realized character struggling to attain confidence and finding it at the point of a knife called ethics.

(As a side note, I read the Timscape paperback by Pocket Books, March 1982, with a terrific cover painting by acclaimed illustrator Rowena Morrill - see the copy above - it captures the absolute essence of Mia Havero, especially in the eyes and the wary set of her face. Great cover art can really help a book to come alive!)

As I said at the beginning of this review, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole this book. It is a much larger and more challenging novel. I strongly recommend Rite of Passage, not just to science fiction readers, but to the general reading audience.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review of Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Spoiler Alert!  This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel Foundation by Isaac Asimov.  It is recommended that you read the book before you read this review.

Foundation is the first in a series of novels by the esteemed Science Fiction Grand Master Isaac Asimov. It evolved from a series of short stories first published in Astounding Magazine beginning in 1942, under the direction of John W. Campbell. It reflects the very beginning of Asimov's career as a writer and has been hailed as the beginning of one of the greatest space operas of all time. Indeed, the Foundation Trilogy was voted the Hugo Award in 1966 for "Best All-Time Series".

The first book written in the series takes place many years in the future when the galaxy has been completely populated by humans due to faster than light speed travel. A Galactic Empire now rules the political spectrum and has ruled with an iron first for 12,000 years. However, much like the Roman Empire, the Galactic Empire has started to fall.

A mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon has created a new branch of science called psychohistory which combines statistical analysis with sociopolitical prediction. Seldon predicts the fall of empire and a dark age to last 30,000 years before a new galactic empire arises.

Naturally, the Emperor, on the home planet of Trantor, is disturbed by this prediction and arrests Seldon and some of his colleagues. Seldon believes that the length of time of dark ages can be reduced by creating an Encyclopedia Galactica that will allow mankind to pass on the civilization and scientific knowledge to future generations. In order to rid itself of Seldon, the Empire allows him and his followers to create their Foundation on a planet called Terminus circling a sun at the very edge of the galactic rim.

We later learn that Seldon actually manipulated the Empire into doing what he wanted them to do all along and that the Encyclopedia was merely a ploy for him to create a political body destined to eventually become the Second Empire. Manipulation itself becomes a major theme in the novel.

The book is divided into the following sections: The Psychohistorians, The Encyclopedists, The Mayors, The Traders and The Merchant Princes, following the development of the Foundation through a series of crises. These crises are invariably solved by a shrewd leader who generally uses the folly of their enemies against themselves. And every so often, Hari Seldon himself appears in the form of a hologram to give them hints as to where they are at and where they are going.

The book's story is completely dedicated to political machinations and involves an inordinate amount of dialogue to serve the plot. The characters are sparsely drawn and serve specific functions in the development of the story.

The theme of the novel may be found in one of Mayor Salvor Hardin's favorite slogans, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Throughout the novel, one character in each section must overcome the greed and arrogance of a Foundation adversary that is bent on taking over Terminus. In each case, the protagonist is able to manipulate the adversary into failure - and this is usually accomplished despite the wishes of most of the citizens of the Foundation. I see this as a flaw in the novel, in that psychohistory is based upon predicting the reactions of great masses of people over time. By having an individual outsmart the rest of the Foundation, it would seem that Seldon's predictions are skewed completely by individual actions and that psychohistory is pure bunk. I can't quite grasp how the actions of masses determine the future, yet one individual's actions fuel the change. I don't get that part.

The other problem I find with Foundation and with much of Asimov's writing is his dependence on dialogue to tell a story. I was taught that a writer must show and never tell a story, yet Asimov's characters constantly explain and argue back and forth for pages on end, with the only action being one character smoking a cigar or the other standing up and turning around. As a writer, I find this style highly problematic.

One of the basic issues with most science fiction writers is failing to see the future in any kind of creative way. Generally, the Masters and those others who have written very far in the past are given a pass because it would have been difficult for them to envision even the technology that we have today, let alone to envision it so many thousands of years in the future. I am inclined to grant that pass most of the time, but I also have some issues with Asimov's future technology and society in Foundation.

I find it hard to believe that 20,000 years in the future people will still be reading newspapers, smoking cigars and watching "book-films". I find it short-sighted to believe that atomic power would be propelling starships and running cities. Surely, something better would have been developed by then - and must have been. And I can't really see a future in which leadership structures resemble that of the middle-ages. Even in 1942, even with Hitler and Mussolini, it should have been fairly obvious that mankind just wouldn't continue with kings and dukes. Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but I see it essentially as a failure of imagination.

Ultimately, I don't find Foundation to be among the very best of science fiction novels. Perhaps it has other, more historical accomplishments to recommend it. But I find the novel to be slow, bogged down in way too much dialogue, shallow in characterization and short on imagination.

Review of Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

Spoiler Alert!

Dragonsdawn is a prequel to the entire Dragonriders of Pern saga. In fact, there is only one story which occurs in the timeline before Dragonsdawn and that is the short story, The Survey: P.E.R.N.c, which covers the brief period of time that the Exploration and Evaluation team discovered and conducted their examination of the planet that came to be called Pern. The short story may be found in The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, a collection which includes The Survey: P.E.R.N.c, plus four other terrific stories which occur chronologically after Dragonsdawn.

This novel tells the story of the group of colonists who actually settled Pern and it explains most of how the society devolved into what readers encountered when they opened their first Pern book, which is normally (and should be) Dragonflight during the Ninth Pass of the Red Star. If readers had any difficulty understanding that world, this will explain all, from the difference between a wherry and a watchwher to how the dragons were evolved from fire-lizards.

In addition, if anyone has ever wondered how the Holds of Pern got their names, you will get introduced to the people they were named after. For example, Benden was named after Admiral Paul Benden, one of the leaders of the colonial expedition. The other leaders, Emily Boll, Jim Tilleck, and Ezra Keroon, likewise have holds named for them, as well as three villains among the colonists, Avril Bitra, Bart Lemos and Nabhi Nabol.

It is important to note that Dragonsdawn stands on its own as a novel. It may be read completely independently of any of the Dragonrider series and it will certainly entertain the reader. It is the book that absolutely marks the Dragonrider series as science fiction and not fantasy.

The description of the three space ships which bring the colonists to Pern and the debarkation itself makes for marvelous science fiction. McCaffrey envisioned colonization from pretty much every perspective she could and she truly makes it work. One senses the excitement of these war-torn people landing on a pastoral world that they can make all their own. The work that they do to integrate native flora and fauna with Earth varieties, the pastoral society that they are setting up, and their interrelations are all written with superb understanding.

The characters are brought to life with immaculate detail - especially young Sorka Hanrahan and Sean Connell, the main characters of the tale. But most of the colonists are extremely well written, from the leaders to the botanists, veterinarians, farmers, gypsies, communication specialists, engineers and supply people. Once again, Anne McCaffrey has performed a great job of drawing her positive characters.

But if McCaffrey has a weakness, I think it is in her creation of villains. I have noticed time and again the disconnect between the characters that we love and the characters we are supposed to hate. The love works fine, but the villains are thinly drawn caricatures, their motivations paper thin and the evil putty thick. Here again, Avril Bitra, the central villain, is almost comically unbelievable, having joined a colonial party and given up essentially fifteen years of her life so that she can take a few jewels from Pern, steal one of their small space ships, and spend another ten years of her life in hibernation so that she will be rich when she gets back to Earth. Even if she could be certain that she could pull this off, why? Luxury? It makes no sense. The other villains are even more unbelievable.

I don't mean to take anything away from the novel - I love it and highly recommend it - but beware that the parts dealing with the evil people are a little unbelievable.

I've felt for a long time that Anne McCaffrey should have primarily focussed on the people that we care about, because that is her strength. And in this novel, surviving on the planet itself and the deadly fall of Thread are enough of a challenge to the characters we care about without having to throw in some bad guys.

And I have to include a note here also about the edition that I read, which was the Book Club edition published in 1989 or 1990 (there is no notation in the book). I have never read a book so completely full of typos that it actually detracted from the enjoyment of reading. Most editors can be allowed a few mistakes in any long book, but this Del Rey editor missed over thirty major typos, including repeatedly calling Jim Tilleck "Jim Keroon" (obviously confusing him with Ezra Keroon). It is hard for a first time reader to keep things straight with this kind of editing, but it makes a frequent reader grind teeth. Just beware of this particular edition - hopefully they fixed the problem in later editions.

On the other hand, the cover art by Michael Whelan (one of my favorite sf book cover illustrators) is really terrific, featuring Sorka Hanrahan standing outside a cave seaside surrounded by a fair of fire lizards.

I highly recommend this novel to all lovers of science fiction and fantasy, but particularly to readers who love the world of Pern. Enjoy!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review of Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

Spoiler Alert!

I first came onto Dragonsong after I had read The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy (which sets up the entire series of Pern books). I read the trilogy in a gulp, as the world of Pern and the life of the Weyr totally fascinated me. I immediately went looking for anything more about Pern and I encountered Dragonsong.

Menolly was a minor supporting character in the third volume of the Dragonriders trilogy, The White Dragon, and I was surprised to find a complete novel built around the character, but I jumped in with no preconceptions.

Menolly is the youngest daughter of Yanus, Holder of Half-Circle Sea Hold on the wild Eastern part of the northern continent on Pern and she is 15 years old at the beginning of the novel. Petiron, the Hold Harper, had found her to have an exceptional musical talent when she was very young. Even though girls were not allowed to be Harpers, he taught her how to play all of the instruments, to sing the traditional songs and eventually to write music. He even sent some of her music to Robinton, the Masterharper of Pern, for evaluation.

The novel begins with Petiron’s death and the subsequent abuse of Menolly by her family, who believe a musical daughter is disgraceful. Her father forbids her to write music and even beats her when she disobeys. When the replacement Harper arrives, Menolly is hidden from him, even though he is seeking the composer of the wonderful music sent to the Masterharper. After she badly cuts her hand, her mother intentionally mistreats the wound so that Menolly believes she will never play music again. Menolly falls into a deep depression.

Caught out during threadfall and stuck in a cave, Menolly witnesses the hatching of wild fire-lizards (miniature dragons). To prevent them from dying, she feeds the small creatures and bonds (or imprints with) nine of them, who will then be her friends for life, linked telepathically. Deciding that she will not return to the hold, Menolly makes a life for herself on the coast, living in the fire-lizard cave, spending most of her time just finding food for the ravenous creatures. She makes herself a set of pipes and the fire-lizards learn to sing with her. During a later threadfall, she is caught away from the cave and must run for cover in her worn boots, tearing her feet to ribbons in the process. Fortunately, she is rescued by a dragonrider, who brings her to Benden Weyr.

For the first time in her life, Menolly begins to understand what it is like to be treated with respect and affection. Her nurse is Mirrim, one of the most enigmatic characters throughout the saga. They are about the same age and quickly become friends. Afraid that she will be sent home, Menolly hides her fire-lizards until she is found out by Weyrwoman Lessa. Breaking down, she begs not to be returned home and is asked to stay in the weyr. Once accepted, she becomes overwhelmed by all of the attention.

It is at this point that events from the novel Dragonquest become interwoven into Dragonsong, most notably, Brekke’s recovery from the death of her dragon and Jaxom’s impression of the little white dragon, Ruth. For those familiar with the earlier novel, it is really great to see the same events from a very different point of view.

The book ends with Masterharper Robinton’s discovery of Menolly as the composer of the songs that Petiron had sent him. Overjoyed, he asks her join the Harper Hall. At last, she will be able to pursue her love of music and to begin her new life as a musician.

McCaffrey tells the story of a hero overcoming adversity extremely well. It is completely believable that Menolly suffers unbearably in order to pursue her dream. Her suffering is even more poignant in that it is at the hands of her own family, those who should love and support her. McCaffrey takes the time to detail these familial characters, so that they do not feel two-dimensional and so that their mistreatment of Menolly is understandable, if not agreeable.

Menolly’s love of music is treated in such a way that the reader develops an amazing sympathy for her plight. Everyone should have such a love of something that it would be the whole purpose of his or her life. This is a terrific foundation for the rest of the novel and also for the sequel, Dragonsinger.

When she realizes that she has left her hold for good, there is a miraculous sense of freedom, which is punctuated by the miracle of the fire-lizard hatching. Menolly literally saves their lives, as she has saved her own, and both she and her fire lizards may live free. This freedom is referenced again several times in Dragonsinger when, under the pressures of life in the Harper Hall, she remembers the complete freedom of living in the cave.

After her rescue, Menolly can scarcely believe her luck – she almost always worries that what she is doing is wrong or that someone will come down on her for her actions. This is the result of her mistreatment at the hands of her family. She has been conditioned into believing that she is always in the wrong. Part of the poignancy of the story is that the weyrfolk and harpers have to convince her of her own worth. And when she realizes that she can both play and write music to her heart’s content and to the joy of others, she feels an amazement and gratitude that the reader can share in completely. It is cathartic.

For me, Dragonsong is a perfect little novel.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review of Polaris by Jack McDevitt

Minor Spoiler Alert!

Polaris is second of Jack McDevitt's series of novels about Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath - and it is probably the best of the group.

This is a series of novels that need not be read in order, as there is no real development from one to the next. However, the reader might benefit from reading A Talent for War first as it is the opening book in the series and sets up some of the past influences. It is also the only novel of the group that is told from the point of view of Alex Benedict; the others are all from Chase Kolpath's point of view. All of the novels are written in first person past.

These stories are all mysteries first and science fiction second and that is really what drives them. Set in the far distant future, when the planet of Rimway is the primary seat of power for the current ruling government, the Confederacy (no, not that one), the novels detail the adventures of an antique dealer named Alex Benedict. Descended from good money and raised mostly by his uncle Gabe, Alex lives in a country home well outside the capital city of Andiquar. His business to buy, broker and sell rare artifacts from the history of humankind. Chase Kolpath, a beautiful woman in her early 30's works for him, serving as assistant, broker, lunch partner and most importantly as his pilot. Naturally, they must travel frequently throughout the galaxy and they do so in style with a vessel named the Belle-Marie.

Technological advances include space vessles travel at faster than light speed , small planetary vehicles using anti-gravity called "skimmers", some practical robotics, advanced artificial intelligence and holography.

Socially, there have been very few advances. One of them is that all citizens are now given a stipend to live on and do not have to work. Otherwise, society is much like that of America from about 1940 onwards. Capitalism is the primary monetary system. Democracy is the primary political system. Parts of the novels remind one of the suave patter between Nick and Nora Charles. When dining out, people are entertained by a piano bar or diva, people hold parties and honor themselves and their accomplishments, they attend university, perform in plays, publish, and work in prestigious jobs from realty to dentistry. Men and women still don't really understand each other, but they accept each other - and they have worked out more of the tricky details than we have. It's not actually that much different. For those who think that having a government dole is a bad thing, it works in this society because people still crave money, fame and power, just like they do now. And they are willing to work for it. Work is good for one's feeling of self-worth.

At this point in time, mankind has discovered only one other sentient species - a telepathic race which had been quickly dubbed "the Mutes". Fear drove both species into a long and bloody war which was eventually resolved before both sides exhausted their ships and weapons. (Part of that war is the subject of the first Alex Benedict investigaton, A Talent for War.)

Polaris is both the title of the novel and also the name of a rather famous space vessel. Nearly sixty years before the beginning of the book, it was one of the ships that traveled from Rimway to witness the death of the star Delta Karpis as it was smashed through by a white dwarf. The compliment of passengers onboard Polaris consisted of famous scientists and popular personalities, handpicked by Survey (the agency directing space exploration for the Confederacy) for this amazing viewing. Their pilot was a beautiful middle-aged flier who had her own following of lovers and wannabes, a very romantic and heroic figure.

However, once the explosion had passed and the ships were returning to Rimway, Polaris, the last of the group to announce departure, went silent. Once the other ships had returned, Polaris remained silent and unseen. Rescue vessels were sent to find out if something had happened prior to departure and they did find the ship, but it was empty of people. Pilot and all six passengers had simply disappeared and had never been found.

Alex and Chase become involved when Survey decides to hold a public auction of the items that were left behind on Polaris, from uniforms to glasses to books. As a favor to Alex for sharing a valuable past find with them, Survey gives him first choice of artifacts. Following the reception and viewing, the building explodes and the mystery is on. Apparently someone has decided that it is dangerous to have the artifacts out in the public, so they have attempted to destroy them all. Fortunately, for Alex and Chase, they escape the building with his artifacts safe and sound.

Naturally, those artifcats will become important as the mystery unfolds.

It is a very well-told tale that also involves a thoughtful scientific dilemma. The characters are charming and the entire universe of the story is very well-thought out. It contains adventure, mystery and science in sufficient doses to make any SF reader happy.

I only have one issue with the story - and it is something that bothers me in general about writing. There are a few times in the novel when it seems like McDevitt dumbs down his characters in order to allow them to get into a dangerous situation. For example, when one's life has been threatened twice while traveling in a vehicle, would it not behoove an intelligent person to assume that there might be a third attack? And if so, wouldn't it be prudent to have that vehicle checked out before blithely taking off? Especially if there was any indication at all that something might be wrong? It begs credulity.

I think that this kind of problem comes from forcing something into the story that doesn't really belong. The best writers find a way for danger to happen organically, from seeds that are already there in the story, rather than imposing a lapse of thinking upon basically intelligent characters.

However, that said, I loved the book. It was a highly entertaining page-turner and something I would definitely recommend to both science fiction and mystery readers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Review of Foundation And Earth, by Isaac Asimov

Spoiler Alert!

Foundation And Earth is the final volume in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga and it attempts to not only wrap up that particular story stream, but to merge it with the Robot story stream which also occupies a significant portion of Asimov’s fiction.

For fans that have followed the Foundation story to this point, there are a lot of fascinating details that will delight. The most obviously compelling thing about the book is that Asimov is looking back on his little universe from 20,000 years in the future and seeing it from a completely different perspective. That – and the final wrap up – will certainly interest long-time fans.

For those who are not fans, or are simply casual science fiction readers, I would recommend that you skip this volume and begin at the beginning with the first volume of the story stream, Foundation and read your way through until you get to this book.

However, a brief synopsis of the story up to this point is required in order to put the book into perspective. Foundation begins near the end of a long period of time in which a Galactic Empire has ruled our galaxy. In Asimov’s Foundation story line, humans began to colonize the galaxy in our near future when they developed faster than light transportation. The first worlds to be settled were dominated by humans with a large robot contingent and the people of Earth called them “Spacer” worlds.

At a certain point in time, the people of Earth objected to the use of robots and set out on their own to colonize planets without using them and eventually became the dominant political body of the galaxy to the complete exclusion of the Spacer worlds. This is the original point at which robots disappeared from the Foundation future history.

Although humans expected to find other intelligent species in the galaxy, it was not to be. Mankind was alone, at least in this particular galactic niche. As faster than light drives were perfected, man moved farther and faster in colonization until the entire galaxy was filled with human life. Smaller political entities bound together until they grew larger and clashed. New bodies were formed that were larger and so on until the Galactic Empire was created, uniting the galaxy for the first time. (Asimov admits that he used the Roman Empire as his inspiration for this part of the story.)

After a long period of peaceful rule, at last the Empire begins to fall. A brilliant mathematician, Hari Seldon, virtually creates the science of “Psychohistory” so that he may predict the future based upon the actions of large groups of human beings. Foreseeing the end of the Empire, Seldon creates two different groups of historians whose sole purpose is to negotiate through the coming Dark Ages and create a second empire, which will be much stronger than the first and result in a peaceful and more egalitarian political body. The first group of historians is called “the Foundation” and they are established on a planet at the “end of the galaxy”: Terminus. These active psychohistorians work to shape history so that civilization will be reconstituted in a mere 1,000 years. Seldon himself appears to them as a hologram, long after his death, to show them the path they must take. As time passes, the Foundationers become merchants and statesmen and begin to knit the fallen Empire back together until they have become the most powerful political body in the galaxy by the halfway point in the reconstruction.

The other group of psychohistorians are hidden from sight and are apparently inactive in the regrouping of galactic politics and they are called the Second Foundation. Located in the ruins of the planet which had once been the home world of the Galactic Empire, Trantor, they work to influence events by watching the Foundation’s progress and subtly influencing it to stay on track. Gifted with mental powers, the Second Foundationers toil in silence and obscurity – until the Foundation becomes aware of their existence and attempts to root them out.

Foundation’s Edge is the novel in which the Foundation and Second Foundation finally meet with the threat of mutual obliteration. It introduces us to the characters of Golan Trevize, a councilman of the Foundation, and Janov Pelorat, a historian and mythologist. These two are sent by the Mayor of Terminus to find the Second Foundation for her. The initial goal is to go to Trantor, but Trevize believes the answer will be found on a missing planet named Earth, a planet that Pelorat believes to be the planet of human origin.

The journey of the two unlikely friends eventually leads them to a planet called Gaia, a living organism that entails everything from the humans living there to the rock deep within the planetary crust. Gaia has brought Trevize there because it believes that the future of the galaxy rests not with either Foundation, but with the evolution of Gaian consciousness to a galactic level (Galaxia). The one facet of Trevize that no one can deny is that he has an infallible ability to determine what is true; whether he reasons it out or simply goes on gut feeling, he is always right. Thus Gaia will depend on him to make the decision as to the future course of the galaxy: Gaia or Foundation.

With the two Foundations facing off near Gaia, Trevise decides that the fate of humanity rests with the development of the super organism, Galaxia. With ease, the two Foundations are dismissed and their knowledge of the encounter wiped from their minds, so that Galaxia may proceed apace.

This is where Foundation And Earth begins. Trevize begins to doubt his decision on Galaxia and has suspicions that the true answer still lies on Earth, so with Pelorat and a Gaian woman named Bliss, he sets back on the trail. This journey takes him to three Spacer worlds and we are able to see what they have evolved or devolved into.

I won’t reveal the ending, but I can say that they do eventually find Earth.

This is a difficult book to enjoy, even for dedicated fans. Among all of Asimov’s science fiction, this book is the most talkative. All of the other books are ultimately suffused with action, but Foundation And Earth is not. Most of the action takes place on their space ship, The Far Star, and most of it is long-winded dialogue between the characters. Before they go down to a planet, they talk about how they approach it and what might be there. There are long explanations of scientific ideas couched in long paragraphs where one character explains something to another. Or they argue about certain things in depth and over and over.

Pelorat is a very likeable character, but he is like a British twit from the 1950’s with his regular stream of “dear fellow” and “my dear chap” and his fuddy-duddy obsession with taking any straight four word sentence and turning it into a full paragraph of perfectly logical babble.

But the real problem exists with the characters of Trevize and Bliss. They are both quite dislikeable people. Trevize seems always angry and short-tempered and it is hard to find anything about him that you might care about. Bliss continually nags him and manages to make herself and Gaia appear to be quite out of touch with reality. Frankly, I’m not sure that I would support either Galaxia or the Foundation with these two characters as representatives. On the one hand, you have a bitchy, nagging, arrogant planet and on the other an obsessive, arrogant bureaucrat with no redeeming qualities.

The best parts of the novel are when they actually visit a planet’s surface to discover how 20,000 years of isolation have changed them.

As I stated at the beginning, I think this is a novel for dedicated Asimov fans that are interested in seeing how the whole thing turns out. I imagine others will tune out the book within the first 10 pages.