Off the Bookshelf: Summer’s End

The final third of my summer reading list proved to be more challenging than I expected, mostly because of the amount of time I spent on Kim Stanley Robinson’s dense-but-enjoyable 2312. The book dominated my August, and forced me to finish up the last book on my list, Forsaken Skies, after Labor Day.

As for my larger summer reading list, I read almost everything including 17 books and 8 graphic novels. The one that got away was the Expanse novella Strange Dogs. There’s nothing wrong with the novella; I just ran out of time.

2312

Easily the most challenging book on my reading list, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (Amazon) is also the first book I wish I’d read in digital, rather than print, form. The book is set in its namesake year and imagines an Earth attempting to deal with the consequences of global warming. Meanwhile a separate civilization spread throughout the larger solar system via massive terraforming efforts on Venus, Mars, and Titan as small projects that hollow out and transform asteroids. The book opens with a potential murder on Mercury, which quickly sends protagonist Swan Er Hong flitting through the solar system trying to put together clues.

Robinson uses this as a way of introducing us to the imaginative toy box he’s created, from the always-moving city of Terminus on Mercury to the hell fields of Io to strange worldlets with niche ecosystems that flit between planets. There’s a larger plot that seeks to transform humanity’s relationship with its environment itself as well as an existential threat to both, but the book’s more about it the journey than the destination.

Why read it in digital format? The novel is packed with cultural references dating back centuries, and I found myself regularly reaching for my phone or iPad to look things up. The Kindle would have streamlined that process by allowing me to quickly look up terms and individuals. Contrary to what some might think, this actually keeps me in the book because it’s less of a distraction — I get the quick hit of information I need, and then I can move on with the story.

Overall, I enjoyed 2312 more than I expected – I thought that Robinson might have gone overboard with a certain brand of leftwing politics, but I think what he wrote makes sense given the world he’s constructed. My only regret is that I didn’t anticipate just how long it would take to read; it would have been better to start the summer with this book rather than end with it.

Proxima

When you read as many books during the summer as I do, certain trends start to emerge. This summer’s was “colonizing worlds with prisoners”. The theme shows up in Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes (Amazon) and then again in Stephen Baxter’s (Amazon). There a sort of prison-uprising feel to to Dark Sky (Keiko, #2) as well (though in that case it’s more about political dissidents than colonizing worlds with prisoners).

On the one hand, I get it. There is historical precedent for using prisoners colonize distant lands (e.g. Georgia, Australia) and from a plot perspective, it gives you built-in conflict. On the other, it seems like a terrible risk for something as expensive as an interstellar mission. Packing your crew with murderers, thieves, and mentally unstable people seems like a surefire way to have your mission end in disaster. That’s great if you’re looking to throw away a few trillion dollars, but not so great if you’re looking to spread humanity to the stars.

Proxima‘s take on this is that no one actually wants to be a colonist on another world; they’d rather show up when the work is done. So humanity sends a press-ganged crew of human prisoners and political dissidents to a habital world orbiting Proxima Centuri, the nearest start to our world. These people are given minimal training and are then dropped off — at the point of a gun — at different sites around the planet. Each landing site has only a dozen or so people; the minimum amount necessary to create genetically health populations. Note that this plan has a certain amount of inbreeding built into it, which is an unfortunate recurring theme in certain science fiction novels (e.g. the Rama sequels). Thankfully while the novel toys with the concept, it never gets farther than speculation. It’s time is better spent on the nature of the Proxima planet itself. Baxter does a good job of exploring the implications of living on a planet that is tidally locked to its star, meaning that one side always facing the sun, and the other always faces away. That causes interesting side effects from perpetual daylight in the habitable regions to unique weather patterns. Further complicating things is Proxima’s white dwarf classification, which causes the star to be far less stable than you might expect.

It took me a while to get past the idiocy of the government’s plan to colonize Proxima, but once I did I started enjoying Baxter’s exploration of an alien world, as well as certain moral quandaries surrounding artificial intelligence. The book ends with a deus ex machina, albeit one that was hinted at during the various Sol system interludes. This deus ex machina does provide an interesting spin on things, and I can see how it works to setup the sequels … I’m just not sure I want to read them.

Dark Sky (Keiko, #2)

Mike Brook’s Dark Sky (Amazon) picks up not long after Dark Run. In true Firefly-esque fashion, the ragtag crew of the Keiko is out looking for another job, maybe even a legal one. Led by the charming scoundrel Ichabod Drift, their quest takes them to the mining planet of Uragan, where Drift is hoping to run a quickly little data grab job. All they need to do is meet a contact and get out before a massive storm shuts down the space port.

Uragan is a Soviet-style mining colony that belongs to the Red Star Confederate, a Russian-dominated interstellar conglomerate. Far from being a neocommunist utopia, Uragan is divided into the haves (the ruling bureaucratic elite — and the have-nots — the miners who do the actual work.

Unsurprisingly, things don’t go according to plan. The miners launch of a revolution just as the planetary storm is approaching, separating the Keiko’s crew. Drift finds himself in the unexpected position of working with the planet’s law enforcement in resisting the rebellion, while his partner (and former galactic spy) Tamara Rourke ends up advising the revolutionaries.

It’s a by-the-numbers novel that unfolds pretty much the way you’d expect, though once again I enjoyed Brook’s combination of diverse characters combined with witty dialogue. I also enjoyed the addition of a rival crew captained by Ricardo “[expletive]” Moutinho, who everyone knows they shouldn’t trust, but do anyway. The novel wasn’t the fast paced adventure of Dark Run, which was filled with betrayals and a plot to nuke Amsterdam, but it was an enjoyable summer read.

Blue at the Mizzen

Blue at the Mizzen (Amazon), Patrick O’Brian’s final complete novel in his Aubrey/Mautrin series, sees Captain Jack Aubrey and his long-time companion and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin once again dispatched to the far side of the world. This time they’re helping Chile assert its independence from Spain, and with a stop off in Africa for a little bit of romance for Stephen. That side quest is decidedly odd. After O’Brian unceremoniously offed Stephen Mautrin’s wife Diana in an earlier book, he established a new romance for him in the form of biologist Christine Wood.

In Blue at the Mizzen, Maturin proposes marriage to Wood. She initially turns him because bad experiences in her first marriage, but she starts to warm to the idea when Maturin proposes it could be an entirely platonic and intellectual relationship. It’s an odd pairing, particularly when O’Brian delves into their sexual relationship (or lack there of).

The novel gets better when Aubrey and Maturin get to Chile and O’Brian can focus on the political interigue and military maneuvers that he excels at. In many ways this is familiar ground — the manipulation of foreign governments, the cutting out of enemy ships, the gun play on the high seas — but that’s not a bad thing. It feels like coming home, and that’s exactly what I was looking for in the final book of the series. Even better, Jack Aubrey’s story concludes on a suitably high note in the final pages of the novel, making it impossible to finish this book without smiling. Sure, Mautrin’s left at the start of his own storyline, but that’s ok. The novel ties up Jack’s storyline, and leaves open the possibility (unrealized) of future stories.

The Honor of the Queen

The Honor of the Queen (Amazon) is the second book in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. The series’ namesake protagonist is Honor Harrington, an officer in the Royal Navy of the Manticore Star Kingdom. Manticore is ruled by a monarchy and appears to closely match the ethos of the British Empire in its hey day,

In the first novel, Harrington’s successfully defended Basilisk System from a covert incursion by the People’s Republic of Haven, a much larger star empire who’s reckless military and welfare spending have forced it to constantly acquire new star systems. In the second novel, set three years after the first, Harrington comes off of an extended anti-piracy campaign to lead up a task force to the planet Grayson in the Yeltsin’s Star system. Manticore wants to establish an alliance with Grayson as a hedge against Haven’s interest in the area.

There’s a wrinkle though: Grayson was settled by anti-technology fundamentalist Christians who came to Yelstin’s Star looking to reject technology and all of its associated evils. They found themselves having to rely on space colonies and terrestrial de-toxificiation technologies in order to survive on their new planet. It’s a chauvinistic world and its leaders have a hard time accepting Honor, who is female, and her queen.

Yet accept her they must, because Grayson is up against a splinter faction of their own faith: the Masadans. Exiled to another star system centuries earlier, the Masadans inhabit a kinder, gentler planet that allows them to be less reliant on technology and to maintain the old, crushing orthodoxy in its purest form. Worse, they’re backed by Haven, which covertly supplies them with the warships they need to conquer Yelstin’s Star.

There’s a lot of scheming and maneuvering in the book, and a rewarding number of battles between rival star fleets. Weber’s Harrington remains a non-nonsense captain, but not an infallible one. She’s capable of making military and political mistakes, and the engagements in Yelstin’s Star don’t leave her unscarred.

It’s old school military space opera, and those in the mood for such a thing will enjoy it. I certainly did, but there are aspects of the book I disliked. I found Harrington’s disdain for civilian government ham-handed; almost every civilian leader is weaselly, dishonorable individual who just doesn’t understand what needs to be done. Similarly, her steadfast appreciation for strong military leadership — which of course always knows the right course of action, if only the civilians would let them take it — is also frustrating. I’ve read enough Weber to know that Harrington is a proxy for his own opinions here, and their lack of nuance in this novel is frustrating.

There are also aspects of the book that make this more than just a summer popcorn novel. Harrington has to deal with the sexism of both factions. It fills her with self-doubt early in the novel as she realizes how much of a distraction she’s become, but she surges back later on as she realizes that not confronting the creeps empowers them. War time sexual assault by the Masadan faction further steels her resolve. The scenes aren’t explicit, but they are there and may be difficult for some folks to read, so be advised that it does make up part of the story.

The Bands of Mourning

The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson (Amazon) is the sixth book in the Mistborn series, and the third novel in the “Wax and Wayne” trilogy. In it our heroes are questing for the legendary “Bands of Mourning”. The artifact was once wielded by the Lord Ruler, the tyrannical overlord who was the focus on the first Mistborn novel, and grants full access to the arcane abilities known as allomantic and feruchemical powers.

The Set, a shadowy organization with plans for world domination, seeks to recover the Bands; Waxillium Ladrian (aka Wax) and his sidekick Wayne need to stop them. Accompanied by their usual collection of friends and allies, they set off on a quest to do find the bands before their rivals.

The themes of the earlier novels continue in this one. Set three hundred years after the events of the original Mistborn trilogy, the civilization of the planet Scadrial is struggling with complacency. In an effort to make up for the disastrous environmental upheavals that took place during the earlier era, the “god” Harmony recreated the world in a kinder, gentler form. The capitol city of Elendel resides in a sort of environmental paradise, with fertile fields, ample water, and a good climate. This retards civilizations’ progress however, and the entire world is decades, if not centuries, behind where they should be.

It’s not that there isn’t progress — the new series introduce trains, electricity, and automobiles to the world — but it’s happening at a slow pace, and concentrating humanity’s population in a single region. The Set seeks to accelerate that progress … and rule the world in the process.

The novel introduces a major new faction, and provides a few more connections to the Cosmere, the metaverse in which many of Sanderson’s novels are set. I was expecting this book to conclude the current Mistborn trilogy, but surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, when you consider Sanderson’s prolific writing pace) there’s going to be one more book, The Lost Metal. That was somewhat disappointing — did we really need a fourth book? — but the revelations at the end of this novel are sufficient to bring me back for the next novel.

Forsaken Skies

The last novel on my summer reading list was Forsaken Skies by D. Nolan Clark (Amazon). It’s the first book of The Silence, and as its name implies its about profound lack of alien civilizations in our galaxy. Depending on how you fill in the variables in the Drake equation, the galaxy should be crawling with aliens, but it’s not … so what happened to them? The novel is about happens when humanity finally encounters an alien intelligence that just might know the answer to that question.

In someways its unfortunate that Forsaken Skies was the last novel on my list. I had certain expectations going into this novel — I was hoping for a certain epic kind of military space opera involving the desperate defense of a frontier world against alien encroachment. I got that, but it’s told in a sort of Magnificent Seven sort of way, with a handful of down-and-out pilots defending a world against a vastly superior invading force. There’s a sort of The Last Starfighter vibe to the novel (kind of like Ernest Cline’s Armada, but without all the pop culture and video game references). The book’s filled with cliches – the grizzled fighter pilot, the washed out fighter pilot who will never fly again, the over-eager acolyte who inadvertently unleashes social chaos, the schemer, etc. It’s a tolerable mix, but having this ragtag band fend of an alien armada seemed overly contrived to me, and coming at the end of a 16-novel reading jag, I just wasn’t feeling it. I might give Book 2 a chance, but if so I’ll read it earlier in the summer to avoid the fatigue factor.

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