Jumpdrives & Cantrips

More Book Sale Madness

I love book sales. I love being able to search through piles of books and pick out the treasures, and sometimes find treasures for other people.

This past weekend I managed to hit part of the Children’s Hospital Book Sale–which is a bonus, because all profits go to a good cause as well. And you know something? As much as I like reading classic SF, I can’t always bring myself to shell out the $11 per book that it costs. I am a cheap person, and looking back at some of these book prices… I mean, for god’s sake not much more than twenty years ago, paperback books were still under three dollars! Talk about craziness, eh?

Of course, I managed to pull out some treasures this time around: two novels by James Tiptree, Jr. which I am sure are out of print, a pile of Leigh Brackett, a not-quite-so-battered copy of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Clarke’s Childhood’s End since I have always managed to miss it, the second and third books following Kate Elliott’s Jaran, an omnibus of the first three books in Diane Duane’s Wizard series, and a copy of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself for $4 in trade paperback. I suppose given that I now have Abercrombie’s first book, I’ll be able to find out what all the fuss and bother is about.

One of the other things I love about book sales is looking at all the different covers over time for certain books. Stranger in a Strange Land is particularly good for this, but it’s neat to see how design ideas change (or don’t) over time. And sometimes finding odd notes in the books used as bookmarks. I once found a letter apologizing to a lover after an argument; but I commonly find more prosaic things like grocery lists, or classified clippings from the automotive section. I always wonder about the people who read the books. Did they ever finish, or did they just stop?

And just a reminder: if your book smells like vomit, please don’t give it to a book sale. I don’t care if it’s immaculate and has never been touched by projectile body fluids. If it smells like someone puked on it, I will not buy it. Not even if it was a first edition of some extremely famous literature. Not even if I could auction it off for a small fortune (a large fortune I may consider in special cases, and while using a hazmat suit).

Anyhow, largely I enjoy the smell of books. But, you know… there are limits.

If you’re wondering what’s up next, I’m currently reading Sandra McDonald’s The Outback Stars and Grimspace by Ann Aguirre.

Law of Survival

Law of SurvivalTime for another dose of Kristine Smith‘s Jani Kilian! As you may recall, I recently reviewed the first and second books in this science fiction/mystery hybrid series. Law of Survival is the third book revolving around documents examiner and newly-made civilian Jani Kilian. My favourite part-human part-alien (idomeni) heroine moves on from the same conspiracy she’s been dealing with for the previous two books to new territory.

Jani has taken up residence in a posh condo and is taking commissions as a diplomatic advisor and a documents examiner. And of course, if all went well it wouldn’t make for a very good plot, would it? So Jani’s patchy and questionable history has been put into report form and distributed to upper level government officials, idomeni and colonial contracts cause much conflict, her idomeni mentor Nema/Tsecha gets strong-armed out of his ambassador position, Jani’s parents arrive in town, and Jani gets a botched assassination attempt. If that’s not enough Jani starts to suspect that intelligence agent Lucien, her lover, has been playing more people than she thought–perhaps even her.

Law of Survival bears out the transitioning in the second book nicely, and we’re treated to a whole host of new characters, as well as revisiting older ones in new ways. Because of this, one could read Law of Survival as a starting point in the series, but some of the encore appearances don’t receive much backstory. I found it was a little harder to keep track of all the characters and they became vaguely confusing and occasionally interchangeable (frequent thoughts while reading: “Who the–oh yeah, one of the hoity-toity officers…”). Having viewpoints limited to Jani and Tsecha/Nema also flowed together better than having more POVs as in previous books, which helped to mitigate some of the confusion, and also improved pacing.

Rules of SurvivalIn this particular book we get to see more of Jani’s emotional range, which is always welcome. What with reuniting her with her family, dealing with more guilt (from actions in this book and not nearly two decades ago), and the potential betrayal of her lover, we get to see more of Jani’s “feeling” headspace than before. Jani also must deal with her feelings about her hybridization and how she accepts herself–and sometimes doesn’t. In fact, if the last book was about accepting her past, this book started to look at Jani’s future and her lack of acceptance of it. Smith really does some great character development within these first three books of the series, and I hope it continues on.

As a side note: while I’m glad Jani is no longer throwing up and having stomach cramps all the time as part of the hybridization, this seemed to get replaced with knee pain of all things. This was odd considering Jani regenerated miraculously from near-death at full tilt in the previous book. With all of the advanced healing technology, no one can do anything about a piddly little sore knee? OK, I’m done being nit-picky now.

This book takes some of the colonial vs. Earth and human vs. idomeni politics that were always present and brings them more into the forefront. Specific events are given situating contexts, and the flow of plot between all three books gets tied in together. Smith also frames her world better than it has been before; places from the previous books get put into better context. The idomeni Haárin caste–those who lose their souls through profane human contact, but provide profit and information–also takes more overt political steps in this book. The situation between all the vying parties promises much future story fodder.

While idomeni and human for the most part remain distinct, I was impressed with Smith’s demonstration of each of the cultural groups learning from one another. The physical hybridization taking place through Jani also points to a social hybridization occurring despite the wishes of either group. Far more realistic than many writers’ takes on human/alien relations, and also thought provoking that such ideas are not as common as they might otherwise be in a genre fraught with representations of “the other.”

The Jani Kilian books consistently get better. I think I’m stuck: I’m a Kristine Smith fan.

Smith, Kristine. Law of Survival. Rules of Survival Omnibus Edition. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007. Pp. 629-980. $18.99 (Canadian) via SFBC.

March 24, 2008, 1843
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

ReBodyCitiria Publishing contacted me to review Clive Warner’s ReBody and it wasn’t what I would personally pick up off the shelf. I figured maybe I would find some hidden merit. I was wrong. I barely finished ReBody. It has a convoluted plot, unlikable characters, inane logic, trivial quotations for every chapter, and prose dotted with errors that should have been caught long before publication.

Hugh Toffle is an English professor (or a history professor as per the last part of the book) whose head gets cryogenically preserved, only to be thawed and stuck onto a glorified cleaning machine in 2373. The story includes cats and dogs represent opposing political philosophies, with some rats and primates along for the ride. Hugh’s head gets grafted onto an orangutan body, and later his consciousness gets transferred to a robot. The story perseverates with the conflict between animals and with robots, AKA the destroyers of mankind. It culminates in Hugh leading a gloriously useless onslaught against the robots.

Now, Hugh (as in, Hugh-man, get it? Get it?!) is a character I just can’t find it in me to care about. It doesn’t help that Warner tells the story in first person present tense, but that isn’t what really irks me. For some reason, random things segue into Hugh’s penis. He spends the majority of the book thinking with his genitals, or just not thinking and letting every other entity around solve his problems.

I was uncomfortable to find all the women in ReBody were sex objects. There’s a lot of ogling and explicit daydreaming involving pert breasts and see-through clothing without any purpose in the story that I can delineate. Warner also mistakes having a potty mouth as being humourous. A sample: “A powerful smell of ripe poo overlays the ammoniacal pee, and I hear the growling, snarling, snapping, chomping, sound of the dogs, not far behind.” (p. 138). I’m not sure if Mr.Warner is writing this particular oeuvre for 5-year-olds, but the language fits.

I get the sense that this work was supposed to be a satire of the science fiction genre. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Good/Bad Continuum, satire must be crafted skillfully and if the subject matter is bad, then it must be so bad that it cycles through to good again. ReBody lacks the skill needed for satire, and the subject matter never becomes campy, ironic, or witty enough to qualify. If there’s an ideological point to be had, it’s stuck in an inconsistent and boring story.

Warner describes ReBody as a combination of I, Robot, Animal Farm, and Planet of the Apes. Those three works do not combine well, and ReBody never manages to enter that level of literature. You can always go try out the first chapter and see for yourself.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for SF satire with preserved heads, pick up Futurama instead.

Warner, Clive. ReBody. Monterrey, Mexico: Citiria Publishing, 2007. 269 pages. $19.02 (Canadian).

Rules of Conflict

Rules of ConflictIt wasn’t all that long ago that I reviewed Kristine Smith‘s first book in the Jani Kilian series, Code of Conduct (read it here). Rules of Survival is a similar style of story–science fiction with an investigative focus via the all-important people in any bureaucracy: the paper pushers. These folks control reality in retrospect, and have the know-how to get to the core of power in a media-driven politically-unstable society. Rules of Conflict ties up many of the dangling threads left from Code of Conduct and explores the intrigues of a document-driven conspiracy.

Jani Kilian is a document examiner whose body, experimentally reconstructed using the alien idomeni as genetic fodder, is failing. Fresh from being exposed anew after hiding from her government nigh on 18 years, she tries to fade into nonexistence again–only her body requires emergency medical treatment that identifies her. Instead of disappearing, the military reclaims her as someone with expertise in the now rapidly destabilizing human-idomeni interactions, but classifies her as mentally unstable. We soon discover Jani ia a pawn in a larger political machination that goes all the way back to her early service days and the idomeni civil war.

While Jani does even less travelling than in the first book, her increased personal freedoms make for a less claustrophobic experience in reading. She has her faults (survivor guilt, a stubborn nature, and a certain amount of disregard for others top the list), but these function to make her depth as a character fascinating and lends more credibility than other cardboard heroines. Smith’s portrayal of Jani’s illness/transformation is a major portion of the book, though Jani’s coping  in this book is limited to the physical realm. Thankfully the book’s science makes sense in a peripheral way and refrains from unneeded medical commentary.

In total this volume probably has less action in terms of “fight scenes” than its predecessor, but the suspense is better constructed and has more even pacing. The exception is the sequence of chapters focusing on Evan, who is under house arrest and in the midst of legal proceedings continuing from the first book. While Evan’s intermittent revelations have importance in the broad political forum eventually, I found he had little relevance as a character other than to sum up data presented elsewhere in a more digestible format. His scenes generally slowed the pace for me, but on the other hand, this functioned as a way to organise the political motivations of others in a less confusing manner than in Code of Conduct.

One of the real gems in Rules of Conflict are Jani’s hallucinations of Neumann, the commanding officer she killed eighteen years ago. He provides some delectably dark humour during Jani’s moments of stress and turmoil as he torments her (or as she torments herself, depending on one’s perspective). Unfortunately, I suspect Jani’s compatriot Lieutenant Pascal is supposed to provide some comic relief in obvious flirtation, but I found his antics as a character to be tiring and not edgy enough to provide enough surprise to function in a similar manner.

Overall, Kristine Smith writes of the need for closure with past trauma, and the need to acknowledge and incorporate changes in the self to an individual. For Jani the past is not left behind her, and is something she must deal with rather than escape from, as she had hoped to do. Smith further opens this up from the individual level to a societal level with the idomeni-human dialogue that takes place in the book, and the tangential mention of reparation. It is a testament to her skill as a writer that the idomeni fully enmesh in the world and retain their alien sense of being “other”. I feel that the idomeni are probably one of the better constructed alien races in military sci-fi and space opera, and will happily read more.

The book itself focuses more on character and suspense in this volume, but forgoes plot to an extent. It feels as though Rules of Conflict functions as an addendum to Code of Conflict–which had enough of an info-dump to require more unpacking. In that sense, it is a transitional novel in the series but succeeded in keeping my attention for the duration of the shift.

Kristine Smith did not drop the ball in her second novel, and I felt she improved on what made Code of Conduct appealing. The flaws in Rules of Conflict are negligible viewed in context of the series itself, and I can see how an omibus edition has definite advantages compared to single volumes in this particular storyline.

Smith, Kristine. Rules of Conflict. Rules of Survival Omnibus Edition. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007. Pp. 307-628. $18.99 (Canadian) via SFBC.

Code of Conduct

Code of ConductI didn’t manage to catch the Jani Kilian books when they first came out in paperback. Instead, I’ve been reading Rules of Survival, the SFBC omnibus edition of the series’ first 3 books, the first of which is Code of Conduct. Author Kristine Smith began her writing career with this series, which has been described as mystery or even “noir” science fiction. It’s a fair way to sum up the gist of the book, certainly.

Code of Conduct starts with Jani Kilian concealing her past by working as a paper pusher on one of Earth’s colonial planets. We soon find out that she was a captain in Earth’s diplomatic corps, and survived a bloody civil war amongst the alien idomeni only due to a medically questionable patch-job using alien genetic materials. Unfortunately for Jani, two things change her situation. The first kicks off the action: the government finds her as her cover is blown, and when on the verge of escape the Interior Minister–and her former lover–leverages Jani into solving the mysteries surrounding his wife’s death. The second is a slow and occasional theme, following the beginning of Jani’s body’s failure/transformation to a blending of idomeni and human.

Jani is a fascinating woman, and it’s her along with the well-characterized secondary characters that really carry the novel through. She’s cynical, tough, and has the savvy to cross the boundaries of clashing societies–human and idomeni, as well as the varying class stratification within human social groups. She serves as a patchwork human: Frankenstein made alien and genetic. Her past gives her an air of mystery, which isn’t fully unravelled by the end of the book.

The plot starts off with a bang, then slows with the journey to Earth and Jani’s investigation. For having a protagonist who is a diplomatic expert and a world where Earth controls numerous space colonies, the story is almost claustrophobic. This adds to the tension, but be aware that the action comes in short bursts at the beginning and end of the story, with a lot more talking and investigating in the middle portion. This book is not designed as an action-packed suspense novel; the majority of it meanders along with an exploratory bent.

Rules of SurvivalIn fact, I very much enjoyed Kristine Smith’s writing despite a couple of problems that took away from the story. The plot itself is confusing to an extent and leaves a lot of ambiguity. At points Jani hallucinates dead colleagues, and occasionally this back history felt like it was dumped on without any context, and sometimes questionable significance. I didn’t get the sense that all of these ambiguities were red herrings (though some likely were), but rather that some plot points were a little sloppy or not fully planned out. I also wasn’t clear on what motivated certain characters–sometimes a good thing in a mystery, but when it’s most of the big players (not including Jani, who is always well put together, even if her body isn’t), it gets a little tiresome.

However, the most disappointing part of this book was the worldbuilding. I felt like we didn’t really get to go anywhere of note because Smith wasn’t really sure where to take us, and hadn’t really fleshed out the idomeni and human history beyond the bare, bare essentials. I wasn’t convinced of the need for document readers and couldn’t figure what the mess of various governmental agencies seemed to actually do, though granted that’s a question I have in real life regardless. The cultural milieu didn’t fully jive for me in the human end of things, even though the idomeni worked exceptionally well. I also got the sense that Kristine Smith did a lot of background work, but that it didn’t necessarily find its way into the novel in quite the right places.

Kristine Smith’s Code of Conduct is a very well done first novel in a series, and I’m looking forward to the next few books, though hoping to get a little more of the world-mystery solved. I’m very interested to see where Smith’s writing has gone in the next few books, and certainly hope that the human-idomeni aspect of Jani’s body gets fleshed out more in successive books.

Smith, Kristine. Code of Conduct. Rules of Survival Omnibus Edition. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007. Pp. 1-306. $18.99 (Canadian) via SFBC.

A Small and Remarkable Life

A Small and Remarkable LifeI usually don’t like human meets alien or alien meets human stories. Why? Because first contact novels tend to be repetitive: there are only so many ultimate outcomes from someone meeting a different species. So it is all the more impressive that A Small and Remarkable Life puts a different perspective on this type of story. Nick DiChario works more with the emotional context of the characters and provokes a sense of alienation, rather than dwelling on differences alone.

DiChario has a literary tang to his mellow writing, which is rich with allusion and symbolism despite its simple prose. Themes of faith and belief weave together throughout the book, and being that the story is set in mid-nineteenth century America, this means Christianity figures heavily in it. Time-wise, it’s around the time of the American Civil War, a time when racial issues were prime concern. This serves to highlight some of the self vs. other conflict that surrounds what we categorise as alien.

The story switches between two main characters, Tink Puddah and Jacob Piersol, jumping between different points in time. The book’s structure tends toward the non-linear–Tink’s birth and funeral are both at the beginning of the book, and what may seem to be spoilers in the following paragraphs are not. Tink is born malformed and early after the brutal death of his parents, newly arrived and adapted to life on Earth. His blue skin, fragility, and odd looks set him apart, though less so than his aversion to violence and disbelief in God. This disbelief is the root of conflict between him and the preacher from the valley he later settles in, Jacob, who is so determined to serve his congregation that it segregates him from them.

The story of A Small and Remarkable Life really comes from the characters, more so than anything else. Their lives and beliefs form a dialogue, leading them both eventually towards death and resurrection. Tink and Jacob serve to contrast beliefs about God and mercy, as well as what constitutes an act of good (or an act of God, in some cases). They also serve to show two different manners of alienation–particularly that of the outsider looking in, but also the estrangement one can feel in divisive social situations. DiChario uses the story as a lens to question the construction of what is alien, and acceptance of it, or lack thereof. The sense of alienation cultivated throughout also serves to distance the reader from the story itself–I personally found this fascinating, but other readers may feel, er, alienated by it.

DiChario manages to compress a large amount of information into this novel, which deserves unpacking of a literary sort. However, I suspect that some parts could have stood to fleshed out, most notably the revelation of Tink’s murderer. This moment didn’t feel right to me–not who it was, but rather the “final reveal” portrayed it almost as a deus ex machina, though it wasn’t. This particular moment in the book also happened to stretch out over three chapters–a massive variation in pace to the rest of the book, making it feel forced to an extent.

Regardless, Nick DiChario certainly impressed me with the deft portrayals and layered meaning in Tink’s story. A Small and Remarkable Life is the kind of book that stays with you for a while, and makes you think about things. That’s an impressive feat that leaves me looking forward to DiChario’s next release, upcoming this May.

DiChario, Nick. A Small and Remarkable Life. Calgary: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 238 pages. $19.95 (Canadian).

The Coelura
February 18, 2008, 1245
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

The CoeluraI seem to remember reading The Coelura ages and ages ago, only to be disappointed that it was mainly a romance. This was way back before junior high, back in the days when I had recently discovered Anne McCaffrey (and with her, most of the SF/Fantasy genre) and expected a little more in the way of dragons. Romance showed up firmly in the category of “ick.” In any case, my tolerance for romance has grown and when I happened upon this slim volume at a book sale, I was curious to go back and revisit it.

Anne McCaffrey uses sparse language to tell the story of Caissa, the body-heir of the ambassador to Demeathorn. Caissa knows her father has an ulterior motive when he asks her to enter into an heir-contract, a legally binding temporary marriage to produce a child, with a man she despises. What she doesn’t know is that Murrell, the man she rescues from a prohibited area when fleeing her suitor, holds the key to the political machinations of her father and the survival of the alien species Coelura, which her off-world mother would do anything to possess. The coelura acts as living clothing, but also produces highly prized housing and other prestige items at the expense of its life force. Caissa first encounters the coelura as friendly, rainbow-like musical beings, but soon realises the innocent creatures must be protected from human exploitation as items of fashion.

The Coelura does not have enough description to fully flesh out the story, making it a little confusing at times for such a simple plot. There are portions that could be better explained, and inexplicably Caissa’s mother gets simplified from a politician with specific motivations to an evil step-mother out of a fairy tale by the end of the book. As a reader I would have been more interested in the coelura’s past history on the planet, and exploring human-coelura interactions. I seem to recall that changeable technologically-rendered fashion (biological or otherwise) comes up in other McCaffrey short works, and has always intrigued me.

First published in 1983, this book can be read as an early criticism of the ego-centric, prestige-focused, wealth-preoccupied attitude of the eighties. Caissa’s mother and father are prime examples of ambitious, politically influential people who lack emotional substance. Caissa herself takes the part of an agent of change, along with her love interest, Murrell. There is certainly an emphasis on renewable resources, both with the coelura and with small mentions of things like solar-powered vehicles. While the environment itself doesn’t figure largely into the story, the idea of a need to protect endangered species weighs in heavily.

Hands down, The Coelura‘s high point lies in the illustrations, done by famed artist Ned Dameron for the 1987 edition. The art consists of full-page line drawings in black & white, similar to comic book style art, and at times does better than McCaffrey’s text in conveying emotions or logistics of actions. Dameron is best known for his covers for Stephen King and illustrations for TSR, now bought out by the Wizards of the Coast gaming conglomerate. The images lend a welcome romanticism to a high-tech world.

The Coelura certainly doesn’t touch Anne McCaffrey’s usual body of work in terms of enjoyability and scope, but is a decent read. This novel is better suited for a young adult audience, or possibly someone looking for a very short read, as the page count includes the illustrations and the print in my edition is quite large. I recommend picking it up used or borrowing from the library unless you are a die-hard fan.

McCaffrey, Anne. The Coelura. New York: Tor, 1989. 156 pages. $1.65 (Canadian), bought used.