Off the Bookshelf: Cole Protocol, Skies of Pern, Century Rain

After a fiendishly busy January and February, I’ve finally had a chance to take a deep breath and spend some time reading. First up on my early spring reading list is The Cole Protocol by Tobias Buckell, a Halo Universe novel involving the quest to prevent the alien Covenant from securing navigation data leading to Earth.

On deck is The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, one of her last in the classic science fiction setting which features telepathic dragons and their human riders battling the alien, sky-borne menace of Thread, followed by Century Rain, near-future apocalypse/time travel/alternate reality book by Alistair Reynolds.

The Cole Protocol by Tobias Buckell

I keep meaning to read the Halo universe books, particularly the original trilogy of books recounting the events of the first video game. It’s a compelling universe that’s only just barely been touched by the video games, and I’d love to delve deeper. When and Macmillan went to war over ebooks, and all of the Macmillan titles were dropped from Amazon, I decided to take up John Scalzi on his call to support the authors caught in between by buying Tobias Buckell’s The Cole Protocol. The Halo universe book, published by Tor, takes place in the opening days of the Covenant/Human War. The United Nations Space Command has initiated the Cole Protocol, which is systematically wiping any and all navigation data that could lead to Earth from captured (or soon to fall) star systems.

That mission brings a UNSC stealth frigate and a team of Spartan super soldiers to The Rubble, a renegade human colony lurking in a gas giant’s trailing Trojan moons that’s some how established a truce with a faction of Covenant aliens.

It’s a good read that scratches that itch to delve deeper into the Halo universe. It’s got what you want from a Halo book: Spartans battling behind enemy lines, noble UNSC fleet officers and ODST warriors on a desperate mission, and a suitably “big science” structure in the form of the Rubble, and an AI that just might be on the brink of going insane.

Is it a great book? No. Buckell relies too much on our familiarity with the Halo universe, and doesn’t spend nearly enough time describing the Spartan armor, energy blasts, or the look and cant of the alien species. Those who haven’t played the series are likely to be lost reading this novel; there’s some background provided, but these are mostly touchstones for fans.

Characterization is thin; I liked Lieutenant Keyes (who goes on to become Captain Keyes in Halo) but the Spartans and ODSTs are relegated to secondary characters. All of this serves a rapidly-moving plot that quickly skips between the human factions and those of the Covenant. It makes for a fast read, but I wish the book had another 50 pages to flesh out its characters and environment. That having been said, I loved the idea of the Rubble, and book’s works in some nice hard SF touches (particularly in the destruction of a certain Covenant base). It would have been easy to let the science slide in a book like this, and it’s a credit to Buckell that he didn’t succumb to that temptation.

The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

One of the last novels in the Dragonriders of Pern series, The Skies of Pern takes place after the Dragonriderrs have unearthed the ancient starship that brought them to the planet in the first place, and have taken steps to deal with alien menace known as thread that rains from Red Star.

I first read the Pern series when I was in high school, and I loved the first three books — Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon — but then what teenage geek wouldn’t want his/her own telepathic, time-traveling dragon?

I don’t know if it’s a question of me getting older, or the books declining in quality (or a little bit of both) but I didn’t find the later books to be nearly as good, the sole exception being Dragondawn, which recounted the settling of Pern and the first flight of the dragons.

The last book I read was All the Weyrs of Pern, which saw the dragons deal with the Red Star once and for all. It was a decent read, and a good conclusion to the series, but it begs the question … what will the dragons do when there is no longer any Thread to sear from the skies? The Skies of Pern looks to answer that question, while simultaneously setting up a new skyward thread.

Century Rain by Alistair Reynolds

On deck is the hard SF novel Century Rain, which involves an alternate Earth whose environment has all but been destroyed by a runaway plague. A worm hole is discovered to the 20th century, before the plague was unleashed, but that wormhole could lead to the destruction of both time periods. I’ve enjoyed Reynolds’ work, which features big ideas backed up by detailed prose, and I’m looking forward to this one.

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