Publisher: Baen; Reprint edition (November 15, 1986)
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m quite the Timothy Zahn fan. I can’t entirely explain why, save that his writing style and plots tend to hook me, and keep me hooked, through most of his stories and novels. Even his weaker offerings (like Outbound Flight), still keep me pretty well entertained. There’s not a lot of authors I can say that about.
Spinneret is one of Zahn’s older novels, and one I knew almost nothing about before reading it. I’m not even sure where I got it. It was interesting going into a novel totally blind, especially when it’s by an author that I’m such a huge fan of.
The setup of Spinneret is both straightforward and complex at the same time. It’s the year 2016, and humanity has finally made it to the stars. What they’ve found, however, is that the stars are already occupied. Alien races of varying stripes have already colonized most of the galaxy, and there’s really nowhere for humanity to go. Except Astra, a small planet that has the peculiar distinction of having have absolutely no metals, at all. Humanity is offered the planet, and after some politicking and discussion, the
Of course, none of them care about Astra initially, until the colonists discover exactly why there are no metals on the planet; the Spinneret, an enormous alien machine which leeches metal right out of the planet’s surface and processes it, creating enormous, super-strong, lightweight, metal rods that are launched into orbit around the planet. No one is sure exactly what the machine is for, or who built it, but everyone wants in on the action. What follows is a combination of political and military intrigue, as various factions among the colonists, the humans, and the aliens all try to figure out how to work things to their best advantage. And of course, the mystery of who built the Spinneret, and why, overshadows all of the political maneuvering.
I was pretty well pleased with this one, overall. The book is fun, fast-paced, and interesting. Some of the characters are a bit two-dimensional, like Perez, who is a radical taken to ludicrous extremes, but overall, it’s well done. The various alien races, while only touched upon, are all fairly unique—I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we got of the M’Zarch, a warrior culture that actually has jobs like “Cowards Advocate” (whose role seems to be offering suggestions that don’t involve killing things), and the Pom, a water-bound race of Dolphin/Octopoids. The mystery of the Spinneret does get answered, and if the answer is not entirely satisfying, it’s enough to satisfy the needs of the plot. In the end, this book is less about the Spinneret, and more about people’s reactions to it, and to each other. Good stuff.
Note: The publisher and ISBN for this one are for my version of the book. There are certainly many others available. As far as I know, the text is the same in all of them.
The Basics: For those who somehow missed it, the Time Machine is H.G. Wells’s classic story of a man who invents a time machine, and uses it to travel far into the future. He discovers a world that is completely alien two him, populated by two strange races that are descendents of humanity: the beautiful, child-like Eloi, who live a life of comfort and ignorance on the surface of the world, and the ugly, malevolent Morlocks, who live in underground tunnels and prey upon the Eloi for sustenance. The Time Traveler’s plans are complicated when they Morlocks steal his Time Machine, trapping him the future with no way home.
This was not my first reading of this book by any means. I started rereading it for a variety of reasons I won’t bore anyone with here (the short version: it was portable), and loved it just as much as I loved it the last time. The Time Machine is possibly one of my all time favorite novels, and might even pass the “stranded on a desert island” test (if I was stuck on a desert island with a limited supply of books, I would take this one with me).
The Good: Damn near everything. The writing is spectacular, and Wells does a marvelous job of painting a picture of the future that feels odd and alien, yet completely believable. His characterization of the Time Traveler is likewise well-done.
The plot itself is pretty straightforward, but it moves along at a reasonable speed. There’s enough time to savor mysteries when they need to be savored, but the story doesn’t ever come close to dragging. Once the Time Traveler gets to the future, it’s non-stop events all the way. I hesitate to use the word “action”, because it’s not just fighting and harrowing escapes, though there certainly are plenty of those.
The Bad: This was written in the late 1800’s, and it shows. To me, that’s not a bad thing, but people offended by Victorian sensibilities and views of the world might find some of Wells’s attitudes insensitive. Personally, it doesn’t both me one bit; I like older novels, and I’m perfectly willing to overlook alterations in views over time. That said, if it bothers you, this might too.
The Ugly: The scariest part of this book is not the Morlocks; it’s after the Morlocks, when the Time Traveler goes even further into the future, where the world is overrun by nothing but strange crab-like creatures, and the sun is turning into a red giant. Creeped the hell out of me as a kid, and it still creeps me out now.
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Basics: I’ve loved LeGuin’s writing ever since my father introduced me to the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy when I was a child. I even named one of my dogs after the main character in that trilogy (though, as my father was fond of pointing out, the dog was no wizard). I’ve yet to read a story of hers that I really disliked; some are, of course, better than others, but I love ‘em all.
Changing Planes is a collection of sixteen short stories grouped around a single conceit; in a world very much like ours, it is possible to travel to other dimensions, but only if you’re stuck in an airport for long enough to become sufficiently frustrated, bored, and irritated to simply will yourself into another dimension. It’s a neat little idea, and mostly just serves as an excuse for LeGuin to shunt her narrator to a bunch of different planes where she can play with different ideas. As is her wont, most of the stories involve her playing with ideas about alternative social structures, or ordinary people thrust into strange circumstances. It’s social-science fiction, essentially.
The Good: I love Leguin’s writing style; it’s simple, but evocative. She paints beautiful pictures with words, and it all just flows. There are very few writers who can keep me distracted enough to nearly miss a T stop. LeGuin is one of them.
The stories themselves are all fairly interesting. I particularly enjoyed “Porridge on Islac”, more for the atmosphere than for the bits about genetic engineering; “Woeful Tales from Mahigul” does some interesting story-within-a-story things, “The Building” tells a weird and sort of haunting story about a race of people who keep constructing an enormous building for no apparent purpose, and “The Fliers of Gy” posits an society where some people get wings, and it often kills them.
Really, all the stories are excellent. I can’t think of any I didn’t enjoy.
The Bad: Not much, though some readers might be turned off by the political/moral messages in some of the stories. “Porridge on Islac”, for example, is pretty clearly a parable about the dangers of playing with genetics. I enjoy LeGuin enough that I tend to just enjoy her stories regardless of whether or not I agree with her politics (and I don’t, always), but those more firmly entrenched in their politics might not enjoy it so much.
The Ugly: “The Immortals” is kind of gruesome, in a subtle sort of way.
Overall, I liked this collection a fair amount. It’s not my favorite LeGuin collection ever (I think that goes to Birthday of the World), but it’s definitely worth reading.
Dragon and Slave: The Third Dragonback Adventure
Publisher: Starscape (June 1, 2005)
Dragon and Slave is the latest addition to Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series. It’s a young adult science fiction series that follows the adventures of Jack Morgan, a young thief/con man, and Draycos, the lone K’da survivor of an expeditionary force that Jack encounters at the beginning of the series. The K’da are symbiotic beings that require a host to survive, and Draycos ends up teaming up with Jack because, well, there’s no one else available; ever since then, Jack and Draycos have been trying to figure out who ambushed Draycos’s people, and how to stop them from ambushing the main refugee fleet that’s coming towards human space. They are aided by Uncle Virge, an artificial intelligence created by Jack’s deceased Uncle Virgil, who somehow uploaded himself into their ship’s computer core. Uncle Virge is also an unrepentant con man, thief, and general ne’er do well, who feels that Draycos’s poet-warrior philosophies are lunacy at best, and certainly not the sort of thing that Jack needs in his life. Naturally, Draycos disagrees.
In Dragon and Slave, Jack and Draycos’s quest for information takes them into the slave compound of the Chookoock family, which they believe is connected to the plot against Draycos’s people. Jack gets a taste of slavery, and discovers that there are things a lot worse than being a solider.
This is good, fun, fast-paced space opera. Jack’s plan to get information from the Chookoock compound is an act of lunacy that is rivaled only by the sort of plans concocted by the average gaming group; there’s plenty of action, intrigue, danger, and narrow escapes. It’s a good time all around.
The relationship between Jack and Draycos continues to develop in an interesting way; it’s nice that they both seem to be rubbing off on each other, rather than Draycos simply transforming Jack into a good and noble warrior. Draycos’s interaction with Uncle Virge is interesting as well, though Virge doesn’t really get very much “screen time” compared to the other two.
Not much, really. The writing is a bit simplistic, but that’s to be expected—the book is aimed at a younger audience.
My only real complaint is that Zahn seems to have a very fleshed out universe behind these books, and we really only get the barest hints of what it’s like. This isn’t entirely a bad thing—it gives the series the nice, pulpy sort of flavor that makes it so much fun. But all the same, I wouldn’t mind getting just a few more details; Robert E. Howard’s writing is about as tight and pulpy as you can get, and he still gets some great world-building/explaining done in his stories.
The Brummga: they’re basically space orcs. Did we really need space orcs? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with space orcs, I guess, but they aren’t even INTERESTING space orcs. Which is kind of sad, because I know Zahn can make some really interesting aliens when he puts his mind to it. Oh well. They aren’t awful, just…space orcs.
If you’re searching for deep, thoughtful, provocative science fiction, read something else. But if you like space opera, pulpy sci-fi, and a general good time, this is definitely worth the read.
Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner
Publisher: Tarcher; Reprint edition (March 2, 2006)
Yes, I finished this fast. I finished it fast because I enjoyed it (and the semester is ending, which is giving me a bit more free time). It’s good, interesting, and admittedly quick read that’s given me a lot to think about (some of which may go into a locked post).
In 490 BCE, a Greek messenger ran from the Battle of Marathon to the city of
There are a few, however, who find the idea of running a paltry 26 miles to be not nearly enough of a challenge. Dean Karnazes is one of those select few who choose to pursue ultramarathons, running distances of over 100 miles in a single outing. These rare athletes push themselves to the limits of human endurance, and prove that those limits are a lot further than people think.
Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner is Karnazes memoir/chronicle of his love of running, his eventual transition into the ultramarthonning maniac that he is today, and some of the more interesting/amazing experiences he’s had (running a marathon at the South Pole, running 226 miles…non-stop, and a few others).
A lot, really.
Karnazes has a very breezy, easy writing style, that makes the reader feel as though he’s sitting around listening to some incredible stories over dinner. It would be very easy for him to present himself as some sort of inhuman tough guy, who never feels pain or fear, but Karnazes makes it quite clear that he experiences all of those feelings and emotions as he runs. In doing so, he makes it clear that the man behind the feats that he’s accomplished is, well, a man, subject to all the faults and foibles there in.
Karnazes also does a good job of getting in the psychology of how and why he runs, as best as he’s able to. He freely admits that it’s not an easy thing to describe or rationalize, but he does make a good effort at it, and ends up with some interesting insights into the mindset of the serious athlete.
And if you need something to kick you in the pants and get you motivated to go get a workout, this book will do it. It’s definitely having that effect on me.
I can’t really say I had any complaints. Reader’s looking for a deep, difficult, and contemplative read won’t necessarily get what they want here; Karnazes’s style, as I said, is pretty breezy—the language itself won’t challenge a serious reader. But there’s still an awful lot to think about, and I didn’t pick this up expecting Tolstoy.
Near total dehydration, excruciating muscle cramps, projectile vomiting, crawling bloody handed towards a finish line; pushing the human body to it’s limits sometimes results in nasty sensations. If you don’t want to read about them, don’t read this book.
Overall, I really enjoy this. As I said—its served as a great kick in the pants for me, and forced me to think about some issues in my own life I might not have thought of otherwise. Definitely worth checking out.
The White Rose
Publisher: Tor Fantasy
The White Rose is the third book of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, and the end of the first trilogy of books. I reviewed the second book, Shadows Linger, about a year ago. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get to the third one.
The Chronicles of the Black Company follows a group of mercenaries (the Black Company) as they become embroiled in a centuries-long war between the Lady, who rules the world, the Dominator (her ex-husband, who wants to come back and, well, rule the world) and the White Rose, who wants to stop her.
The White Rose is the climax of that storyline; the Black Company has switched sides, and is aiding the White Rose in her quest to overthrow the Lady. Of course, there are complications, mostly in the form of the Dominator, who is not nearly as well imprisoned as everyone thought, and is coming back. Something that no one on either side of the war wants.
The plot is interesting and engaging. Cook provides enough details to move things along, without getting bogged down in absurdly long explanations about the physics of his world, or something similar. His characters are unique and memorable, and he manages to bring a great touch of humanity to the Lady, making her a fully fleshed out character instead of a villain.
Likewise, Cook’s locations are well described, and appropriately fantastic. The Plain of Fear, with it’s windwhales and menhirs (sentient rocks) is appropriately bizarre and creepy, as is the Barrowland where the Dominator is buried.
Cook ties things up pretty well. That may not sound like much, but for something that’s ending a trilogy, it’s nice to get to a point where everything is more or less set. Sure, there’s possibilities for the future, but it’s possibilities, not unanswered questions.
Sometimes, Cook’s sparse details are a little TOO sparse. I couldn’t draw a map of this world if I tried (and there isn’t one). I know there’s a place called the Plain of Fear, the cities of Juniper and Oar, and the Great Barrowland. There’s probably one or two other locations I’m forgetting, but I think my point is clear—Cook just jumps from location to location without filling in even the barest details. It sometimes makes the story a bit confusing, and makes it hard to get a sense of scale.
Also, while the Lady isn’t a caricature of a villain, the Dominator kind of is. Though that’s really his role.
I was disappointed to see one character come back, since he had ostensibly died in the second book. Cook seems above that sort of thing to me, and his return is only marginally important anyway.
Toadkiller Dog and Tracker, while having a great pair of names, confuse me. I’m still not entirely clear what was up with either of them.
Overall, this is a solid-ending to a solid series. It’s much grimmer and nastier than some traditional fantasy, and the main characters aren’t the movers and shakers of the world as much as they are the people who work for them, but that’s the charm of the series. It’s neat to watch events from the ground.
Outbound Flight (Star Wars)
Publisher: Del Rey (January 31, 2006)
My usual caveat: I am a Timothy Zahn fanboy. I have yet to read a work of his I didn’t like. Some, of course, are better than others, but I’ve loved ‘em all. So read this review understanding that.
For those not in the know; a number of years ago, Timothy Zahn effectively re-launched the Star Wars novels with his Heir to the Empire trilogy. It was a smash hit, and rightly so. Zahn managed to capture the SW universe perfectly, while introducing plots and threats that were actually interesting, instead of just throwing our heroes up against another version of the Death Star (Kevin Anderson, I’m looking at you!). Zahn eventually followed that series up with a duology, and finally, a stand-alone book that serves as a bit of a prequel to the New Jedi Order series, which I have not read, though I own the first book of it. I can’t decide if I should read it or not.
But I digress.
Somewhere in the course of his novels, Zahn introduced the Outbound Flight—an
Outbound Flight is (surprise) the story of Outbound Flight itself. It begins with the last minute negotiations of the set-up, the flights launch, and its ultimate destruction. The story moves along at an appropriate clip, and as always, Zahn does a nice job of setting up some intriguing politics, mysteries, and manipulations along the way. We also finally get to see the original Jorus C’baoth, and the return of (or prelude to) Mitth'raw'nuruodo, aka Grand Admiral Thrawn, the greatest non-movie villain in Star Wars canon.
Outbound Flight has its downsides too. There’s a little too much Republic politicking that goes on, in part because of what seems to be a very forced cameo by Obi-Wan and Anakin. This takes up a part of the book that really could have been spent doing more interesting things with the Outbound Flight itself, or with Thrawn’s activities. It also ends up distracting from Zahn's characters, who are frankly, way more interesting than Obi-Wan and Darth Child. Besides, we already have a bunch of movies about them. I want to see other characters now! I have the distinct impression that this was editorial decision-making getting in the way of good storytelling, though I have no proof of that.
Also, there’s a twist/big reveal concerning Darth Sideous/Chancellor Palpatine/The Emperor that I really didn’t like. I GET why it’s there (it serves to tie ALL the SW stuff together) but it feels wrong to me. It also serves to make Palpatine vaguely sympathetic, which, in my opinion, he should not be (I love Palpatine, but sympathetic he ain’t).
In the end, I enjoyed Outbound Flight quite a bit, and any Star Wars fan, or Zahn fan, ought to read it (fans of both, doubly so). While Zahn is somewhat hampered by what I think are bad editorial decisions, he still manages to tell a fun and interesting Star Wars style romp, and answer some questions about Zahn-specific plots that have come up before.