Off the Bookshelf: Lodestar, Ghost Brigades, X-Factor, Analog

One of the many pleasant surprises following the birth of my son NeutronLad on June 14 has been how much reading I’ve been able to do. This is partly because I chose some particularly good books to read, but also because I have a lot more time thanks to those early morning and late night feedings, not to mention those times when he just wants to be held.

Cradling the baby in the nook of your arm while perching a book just so is something of an art, but once I figured it out, I suddenly had an extra 45 minutes a day where I could just read. Being a veteran dad, I know this bubble of reading time is an aberration that will go away once Luc starts eating solid foods so I’m enjoying it while I can.

Lodestar by Michael Flynn

I’d planned on bringing some of the books from my summer reading list with me to the hospital for those 3 a.m. stints in the rocking chair, but unfortunately Borders and Barnes & Noble didn’t carry any of the books on my list. Instead I fell back on a book I’ve had on my shelf for a year or two, but never finished: Michael Flynn’s Lodestar (Amazon).  It’s third in a series of four books about a near-future in which single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft have been perfected, and low-Earth orbit commercial flights are every day occurrences.

This renaissance was engineered by industrialist and pragmatic libertarian Mariesa van Huyten who’s public goal is to send humanity into space … but who secretly fears an asteroid impact that could destroy Earth. In the previous novel in the series, Rogue Star (Amazon) we learned that she was right, even as her paranoia leads her to cut deals that shatter her industrial empire. Lodestar picks up the pieces of its predecessor and attempts to figure out how everything went wrong while simultaneously determining whether the asteroids presently targeting Earth were set on their courses on purpose.

Flynn’s an Easton native, and does a great job of incorporating the Pennsylvania/New Jersey region into his stories (giving the Lehigh Valley its own spaceport in the process) His novels are good reads, if a bit dated now, but I think the reason why I put Lodestar down the first time was lack of progress on the alien asteroid arc and the series’ increasingly dark tone — everything’s just a little too depressingly realistic. Fortunately, that begins to change in the second half of the novel, as a major character is vindicated, a new generation of space jocks gets ready to fly, and a hacker geek finally gets over his high school issues.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

I finally got my copy of The Ghost Brigades (Amazon)what was supposed to be first on my summer reading list — and blew through it in under a week in early July. The sequel to John Scalzi’s freshman effort Old Man’s War (Amazon) isn’t quite as good as the original, but is still a fast and fun read. In the first book, Scalzi successfully gets us into the skin of a 75 year old man who enlists in off-world Colonial Defense Force, which transfers his mind to the body of a fast-grown, genetically engineered clone. Anyone over age 30 (or maybe 18) can relate to wanting a new body, one without the aches and pains that accrue through a lifetime. He then joins in a galaxy-spanning war against myriad alien menaces who want to kill (and occasionally eat) humanity. In Ghost Brigades, Scalzi takes a different tact — he introduces us to the clone of a traitor named Charles Boutin, a clone created in an attempt to access the memories of said traitor. The attempt failed, and now we’re asked to relate to an individual “born” with a clean slate, one with no memories, no self, no identity save that which could be provided by the wetware crutch known as the BrainPal.

Scalzi does an admirable job of showing us how the clone Jared Dirac goes about integrating with a platoon of similar clean-slated soldiers. These artificially mature children in the bodies of adults form an elite special forces unit known as the Ghost Brigades, and as in Old Man’s War we follow them from their birth to basic training to combat to death. In the process we meet an old friend, Jane Sagan, who leads Dirac’s special forces unit, and who was the love interest of the elderly supersoldier John Perry in the first novel.

The problem is that you don’t get the sense that these children are as strange as they could and should be. Oh they all communicate at blinding fast speeds through their BrainPals, and they’d have some of the emotional immaturity you’d expect. But they aren’t nearly as alien as I expected them to be — I was hoping to see them spontaneously create their own myths, philosophies and insights, but there’s little of that here. Old Man’s War was often compared to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Amazon) and this novel could easily have incorporated the oddness integral to another of Heinlein’s classics, namely A Stranger in a Strange Land (Amazon) Instead we get a largely straight forward military SF tale, but I’m not complaining. Scalzi might not have gotten as weird as I’d hoped, but he still wrote a compelling page-turner.

X-Factor by Peter David

There are a lot of X-Men comic books out there right now, but X-Factor is easily the best. Written by Peter David, the comic book catches up with Jamie Maddrox, a.k.a. Multiple Man, who has returned to Mutant Town in New York City to setup a detective agency. He’s attracted a motley crew of X-Men third-stringers, including several who worked with him back when X-Factor was a government superhero team. Strong Guy is there, as is Wolfsbane. Monica St. Croix, formerly of Generation X moves in, as does Siryn and Rictor.

It’s a great mix of personalities, all of whom bristle and spark against each other in amusing ways. And that’s what this book does best — capture all of the idiosyncrasies and strangeness of life as an X-Men. So we have Jamie Maddrox sending out his duplicates learn new careers so that he can gain the resulting memories and skills when he reabsorbs his clones. We’ve also got Siryn, who when told of her father Banshee’s death shrugs it off as an impossibility — after all, how many times have key members of the X-Men died and returned? And then she orders Chinese food.

The book combines dark humor with noir-inspired storylines to create something that you won’t find in any other X-Title, and perhaps no other comic book being published today. A hardcover reprint, entitled The Longest Night (Amazon) and collecting X-Factor’s 1-6, is due out this month.

Analog, September 2006 Edition

When I subscribed to Analog Science Fiction & Fact earlier this year, I wasn’t sure if I’d have time to read it. Early mornings and late nights with NeutronLad have proven that won’t be a problem, as Analog is my reading material of choice during those aforementioned feedings. The magazine’s compact format means its easy to hold in one hand, and with a little practice, you can turn the pages with a single finger.

The September edition of the magazine saw the conclusion of Edward M. Lerner’s excellent space operatic serial “A New Order of Things”. In this final chapter, the alien Snakes — who hijacked the galaxy’s first interstellar spacecraft from the peaceful (and equally alien) Centaurs — finally get their comeuppance. In earlier chapters, humanity had acted under the mistaken belief that the Snakes had built their starship and traded a horde of antimatter for the secret of interstellar flight. Their honorable trade ended in disaster when the human antimatter stockpile exploded, destroying one of Jupiter’s moons. Now humanity knows the truth, and a contingent of Marines have been dispatched to take the starship. It’s an engaging story and while it doesn’t have many surprises, it doesn’t really need them.

Micheal Flynn shows up on the bookshelf a second time for his short story “Probability Murder”, in which a statician carefully plans out his wife’s “murder” by encourging her to undertake all manner of risky behaviors. The moral of the story is that if you’re going to kill someone with probability, be smart enough not to keep your calculations in a notebook next to your bed…

“A Pound of Flesh” by Richard A Lovett is one of those annoying cautionary tales in which a powerful new technology — in this case nanobots that compel people to tell the truth — get loose in the world and then must be destroyed to save humanity from the terrible tempation of using them. This class of knowledge-destroying story always urks me because almost all of them ignore the fact that once knowledge is known, its almost never “un-known”. Yes, ideas maybe lost for years or even decades at a time, but inevitably they resurface and I wish Lovett had busted the cliche instead of accepting it.

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