Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Blast From the Past: The Eskimo Invasion (1967)
September 19, 2008, 2039
Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , ,

The Eskimo Invasion Ah, 1967… the Vietnam War is in progress as hippies gather for the Summer of Love, a certain professor (John Archibald Wheeler) coins the term “black hole” for the first time, the world’s first heart transplant is performed… and the Eskimos invade? Not quite, but it appears as a title by science fiction author Hayden Howard, who wrote The Eskimo Invasion, published in November 1967 by Ballantine Books (New York). The book was nominated for the 1967 Nebula in the best novel category.

I first found The Eskimo Invasion at a book sale and was simultaneously taken aback and amused by the title’s pure inanity. I picked it up with the intention of never reading it–I just can’t manage it–but the intention of using its existence as an exemplar of cultural stereotyping (the book itself may very well break this down, though I don’t feel the need to find out). However, there comes a time when books that won’t be read must move on regardless. I figured I might as well preserve this one partly for posterity’s sake.

Cover blurb:

“Homo sapiens can atomize himself into extinction–but there are other kindly extremes just as deadly…”

From the back of the book:

Dr. West was puzzled, frustrated, and mad.
He knew something was wrong up there in Boothia Sanctuary, but what?
Why, really, did the government want to keep him out? He didn’t for a moment believe the spurious political excuse of preserving a “cultural sanctuary” intact. What were they hiding? What could possibly be wrong with a harmless, lovable group of Eskimos?
Dr. West could never leave a puzzle alone. Besides, if he went up there, maybe he could get proof.
Of something.
Unfortunately, even when he did, no one believed him…

And it only gets more over the top, as you can see from the inner lead-in:

It was a happy scene…
The winter wastes; the igloos; cheerful, laughing, roly-poly faces–his friends, the Eskimos–the gentlest, most warm-hearted people in the world.
And they were cheerful, laughing, gentle, and warm-hearted.
And busy, active, playful.
In fact, when Dr. West tried to take a census, he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t counted the same ones several times over.
Or had he?
And if not, how could they all be so very young? Where had they all come from?
But it was still a happy scene.
Then

More than forty years later, and even the title is offensive. What a difference time makes, eh?



Cry Wolf
September 13, 2008, 1024
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Cry WolfFollowing up a novella with a novel continuing the story and managing to hit the NYT Bestseller’s List at the same time is no small feat. That is exactly what Patricia Briggs does in Cry Wolf, the first book in a spin-off series set in the same world as her popular Mercedes Thompson books. Despite the travails of figuring out how to write a novel after a novella, this volume still presents an entertaining story that promises a series with a subtly different and subversive take on the werewolves found so commonly in urban fantasy.

Cry Wolf picks up where “Alpha and Omega” leaves off (you can read it in the collection On the Prowl; see my review here), though gives some small amount of back story. That said, reading the novella first would probably improve perspective on both character development and the unique twists Briggs offers in her heroine, Anna. Anna is an unwilling werewolf recently rescued from an abusive pack by Charles, the son and enforcer of the most powerful alpha werewolf in North America. She must now deal with both her own history, her new relationship with Charles, and being a rare omega werewolf, who tempers the violent natures of dominant wolves. Charles’ serious wounds necessitate her presence to calm him, but soon she finds herself trying to adjust to newfound independence and assisting in Charles’ search for a rogue werewolf in the back country of Montana.

This series in particular edges more into the realm of romantic fiction than the Mercedes Thompson books. We get to see much of Anna and Charles emotional interactions and a chance for some insight into werewolf psyches. Briggs’ writing in this volume places a central focus on character interactions at the beginning of the novel, though begins to slip into a more action-oriented tone towards the latter portion of the book. In fact, the action hits all at once when the characters realise it’s not just a rogue werewolf, but a different brand of ancient evil at the pack’s back door. Though the action struggles to maintain balance with the character depth encountered earlier on, it’s still nothing that upsets the book’s rhythm. The abrupt plot change lacks enough surrounding foreshadowing and lead-in events that it seemed like an easy way to Make Things Happen.

The ending also gave me pause since the post-action wrap up lasts a page and a half, yet several life-altering events occur for Anna. As a reader I felt cheated of the characters’ experiences, and I liken it to reading a series of “begats”from the Bible, where the writing became a list of things that happened next. Despite the sudden change in character importance with suddenly relevant pasts, and having a whirlwind ending, Cry Wolf remains a satisfying read.

Even with these faults Cry Wolf stands out since Patricia Briggs brings deeper themes to the table, infusing Anna and Charles’ story with meaning beyond themselves. Though certainly not all, a large chunk of urban fantasy on the shelves seems designed mostly for action and character entanglements, but lacks a means to connect to readers on a more intimate level. This is where Briggs’ writing excelled for me, more so than any of the Mercy Thompson books.

One of the themes in the book is acceptance and negotiation; of the self, of others, and of events. Werewolves must reach some sort of acceptance after experiencing the change in order to negotiate co-existence between their human and their “wolf” sides. While this creates a dichotomy between human and wolf (and the natural, or arguably the supernatural), the importance of merging these separate aspects resonated with me. And just as these two inner aspects must balance out, so must the social roles of werewolves–dominants and submissives. However, using the idea of alphas and omegas in hand with the socio-political pack structure allows Briggs to create that same brand of negotiation found on an individual psychological level. This draws the individual and the societal together in order to create links between characters and their social setting through deft structure in the story, and creates a greater sense of the importance of pack life.

While Cry Wolf isn’t a perfect book (what book is?) its faults were obscured by the emotional impact and meaning present in the story itself. Any writer can put together a werewolf story, but not that many of them can do it in a way that makes you suspend disbelief with ease and become truly involved with the characters. Patricia Briggs does it, and does it well. Now comes the hard part: waiting for the sequel.

Briggs, Patricia. Cry Wolf. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 294 pages. $8.99 (Canadian), paperback.



Reappearances
September 6, 2008, 1707
Filed under: Misc | Tags:

The Invisible ManAfter a full summer’s absence, I am now back.

First off, my apologies for the disappearing act, unintentional though it may have been. However, I’m considering it a personal sacrifice under the circumstances (feel free to consider it an annoyance; I’m ok with that *grin*). This post is going to be more personal than the vast majority of posts on here, since I know if I visited a site regularly I’d want to know why the writer suddenly dropped off the face of the blogosphere.

To be honest, the issues of using a long distance server that I don’t have full access to is a factor, but the largest factor is that I am pregnant. Which is great news for me and my husband, but it hasn’t been all that great for my health. For a little over three months I’ve had to limit my activity due to massive problems with dizziness and palpitations (being a regular gym-goer this drives me nuts). It also hasn’t let me keep up with blogging the way I used to, since my energy is going elsewhere.

So rather than creating reviews and offering up information about various SF & F related things, I settled back, gave in, and decided to let my body create life unimpeded for a while. When there’s not much you can do about things, you might as well roll with them.

And so, after much rolling, I’m back again. I’m difficult to get rid of really, even though I may be inconsistent. So give me a little leeway as I try to find my way back to normalcy again, tie up my loose ends with various promises, and get back on track with reviewing. After all, I figure Mr. Scalzi is probably right, so what the heck.

If there are any requests out there, you might as well let me know so I can add them to the queue…



Odds & Ends

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and take a nice leisurely stroll through the world of blogs. I figured I’d put up some of the highlights of the last little bit. It’s a start anyway, as there’s so much else out there that’s newsworthy, but will have to wait a little longer. In any case, here’s a few odds & ends for your perusal:

I’ve finished reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s third Sharing Knife book and Nalo Hopkinson’s recent-Aurora-winning New Moon’s Arms, and hope to get reviews up shortly. Wish me time more so than luck 😉



Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersFor a first exposure to Robert A. Heinlein, I sure picked a doozy. Historically speaking, Starship Troopers signalled the end of Heinlein’s “juvenile” science fiction era and garners a fair amount of controversy to this day. Do a cursory search online and you’ll see what I mean–there’s a lot out there. This book also helped to kick off military science fiction as a subgenre, along with placing powered armour in the spotlight. Let’s not forget it also won the 1960 Hugo Award, which Heinlein followed up with Stranger in a Strange Land, leading to another Hugo.

Starship Troopers is a densely-packed, brisk-paced novel narrated by Johnnie Rico, who enlists in Earth’s military as a member of the Mobile Infantry upon his graduation. The book follows him through basic training with the MI, into combat with the alien “Skinnies” and “Bugs”, and officer training. Johnnie’s training and his own thoughts on the military are in the forefront, with only brief instances of combat scattered throughout the story.

The story itself is simple, but Heinlein’s writing drew me in. However, I finished the book and was left thinking that not all that much really happened. Outside the military aspects of the story, there really isn’t all that much other than dialogues regarding moral and philosophical issues, which is interesting and provoking, but doesn’t do terribly much for character development. The relationships seem oddly skewed: there is no romance despite a date, and Johnnie’s father ends up as his platoon sergeant–which in and of itself seems inappropriate within a chain of command.

The political and moral philosophies espoused in the book are polemic, and the centre of many a debate. Heinlein held many controversial opinions about communism, nuclear weapons, and so on, but he isn’t really the focus of this specific review since he isn’t the book (if you are interested though, see these links where Michael Moorcock and Spider Robinson take different views on the man and his philosophy). The book itself is based in a world where to earn the vote and full citizenship one must serve in the military, where corporal punishment is accepted as a means to teach moral behaviour, and where aliens are all uniformly enemies. I seem to recall sometimes they are also the enemy of Earth’s enemy–that is, other aliens. Starship Troopers takes a strong us vs. them position and certainly the imagery is there to see “the Bugs” as a representation of a hive-mind communist society, circa America’s cold-war.

Unfortunately there’s so much background in the world left open to interpretation that it confuses the context of the philosophical arguments; we don’t have any evidence as to what sort of government Earth has, what its policy or motives are for space expansion (reacting to attack, or attacking first?), or anything else beyond Johnnie’s limited viewpoint. In fact, at times his vantage of his world is so narrow that I wondered if he really knew much of anything upon graduation.
In this respect, the construction of the future Earth in Starship Troopers is both thought-provoking and frustrating because of the obvious holes left in the story. Because of this, it’s difficult to build a well-structured argument about the book without relying on information about Heinlein himself, which is a questionable practice regardless.

I noted some interesting conflicts in the writing in terms of portraying gender and ethnicity. Women in the military mostly end up as Navy captains, reportedly in part because of their superior math skills which puts them in a position of power. However, they are almost completely absent from the infantry and seem to exist within cocoons of military protection for the most part. Ethnicity seems to be implied by name and what language the person speaks, which seems a little presumptuous to me. But if you accept that along with minor stereotyping of minor characters the book has a multi-ethnic cast, with the implication that since Johnnie speaks Tagalog he is Filipino.

It seems as though Heinlein perhaps was wanting to break out of the thought patterns of 1950s America, but couldn’t quite set his existing ideas aside. Or who knows, perhaps there was an editorial hand in this somewhere that made the book more “acceptable” for mass consumption, whichever direction the stereotypes were pushed towards. I doubt the political aspects of the book were massaged, as they are pretty explicit. Taken in context of the human-alien conflict, Heinlein makes an interesting commentary on conceptualizations of “the other” between cultural groups of one species and differing species, and certainly one influenced by when it was published.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a good read, and should not be missed due to its controversial nature and its influence on the military sci-fi subgenre (including John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero). Regardless of the flaws in this novel, I found I enjoyed it quite a bit and had lots to chew over in my head, which if nothing else, I’m sure Heinlein had fully intended.

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1959 [1968]. 208 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), used.



Out Flat
May 7, 2008, 0742
Filed under: Misc | Tags: , ,

In the interests of keeping you up to date, lack of recent content is related to a) a week of me being sick and too exhausted to even read for extended periods, b) the family pet dying, and c) a brief rise in hours required at work.

However, I have reviews of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Witness by Bill Blais, and another book coming up in the near future.  And things should be picking up again in the near future, so hang in there!

Plus, I’ve had a request to review some George R. R. Martin. Any other requests out there?



Leviathan Rising

Leviathan RisingJonathan Green‘s Leviathan Rising is an intriguing introduction to the UK’s Abaddon Books. It’s the third book in the Pax Britannia series featuring Ulysses Quicksilver, the “dandy adventurer and hero of Magna Britannia.” As a Victorian-style steampunk world, complete with remnant populations of dinosaurs, a Queen Victoria who celebrated her 160th jubilee, and a Bond-esque protagonist… well, really, what’s there to lose?

Ulysses sets off on the maiden voyage of the Neptune, a massive submersible cruise-liner, though his so-called vacation quickly becomes a whodunit murder mystery involving the ship’s high society contingent. In the midst of trying to figure out the initial murder, the massive be-tentacled leviathan attacks and the remaining passengers must figure out how to escape a damaged sub sitting on the brink of the Marianas Trench, avoid being murdered by the original killer who is still somewhere in the group, and not get consumed by the rampaging leviathan in the process.

Obviously a book made with heavy intent towards pulp-like entertainment value, Leviathan Rising takes a while to get the adventure gears turning in the right direction. Jonathan Green has a habit of telling rather than showing in the beginning of the book, which slows the pace. For instance, a dinner party where Ulysses mentally provides a short history on each guest, serving as an info-dump: instead the scene could have yielded great characterization through dinner conversations.

Another problem for me was difficulty “connecting” with Ulysses Quicksilver as a protagonist. As a reader we aren’t given much in the way of back-story, and Ulysses isn’t a terribly sympathetic character. If not for his actions about midway through the book that begin to redeem his earlier snobbery and arrogance, he wouldn’t ever become sympathetic. I suspect having knowledge of his past adventures would make him more multi-dimensional, but I’m not certain since this is the first in the series I’ve read.

Leviathan Rising had a lot of potential to also serve as a back-handed comedy of manners by skewering ideas of class, race, and gender relationships. Instead the novel reinforced the structural differentials present in Victorian British society. I was taken aback at the use of Chinese characters as stereotypical, inscrutable double-crossing agents and frequently described as yellow-skinned or slanty-eyed. While possibly historically relevant in Victorian times, such blatant racial profiling is unacceptable today without further deconstruction (in contrast, Emma Bull’s Territory deals exceptionally well with historical roles of minorities).

Despite its faults, there are some areas where Leviathan Rising excels. Green has a great campy sense about his writing and word choice that is unfortunately inconsistent, but when present, it shines. The adventure parts of the book are well put-together, and keep the pages turning, especially once the writing hits a good rhythm in the second half of the novel. And I think best of all was the setting, in a high-society steampunked Victorian world that nonetheless has genetic engineering, high-tech travel, transmitting Babbage machines, and dinosaur safaris.

Jonathan Green created a fascinating world and a true adventure in Leviathan Rising, despite its inconsistencies. I’d be interested enough to take other books in the series with me for beach reading, but be sure to not expect any surprises or grand literary revelation. This book is clearly made for comforting predictability and mindless enjoyment, despite having minor cautionary themes about humanity playing God. If you’re a fan of pulps, and of tentacles, and of all-out adventure with everything that comes with it, then by all means: take the plunge.

Green, Jonathan. Pax Britannia: Leviathan Rising. Oxford: Abaddon Books, 2008. 328 pages. $7.99 (US), paperback.

See also: review at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review.