Nostalgia post #6: Ad Astra Per Aspera

Star Trek (1966-?)

Star Trek Space

The other science fiction franchise. Or the science fiction franchise, if we christen Star Wars science fantasy. Where George Lucas took Campbell’s ideas and put the eternal myths into a space adventure story, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a better future for spacefaring humankind. He created a vision of an utopia, in which more enterprising, unruly individuals join the Starfleet in order to find adventure, because in the post-scarcity Earth society there’s not much of that. In Starfleet, they travel across the universe, to meet exciting new people and… not shoot them, unless absolutely necessary.

Piotrek: I’ve always been more of a Babylon 5 guy, but I appreciate Star Trek more and more. As a kid, I’ve seen a random selection of mainly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, and there was not enough large-scale conflict for my taste. I generally liked it, but John Sheridan was my space captain. So, my introduction into the world of Star Trek was pretty chaotic… but I always liked the idea of trekking through galaxies in a big spaceship, and in time I came to also appreciate stories about (relatively) peaceful exploration.

Enterprise

Ola: My own acquaintance with Star Trek was no less chaotic, I must admit. I watched nearly all episodes of The Next Generation as a pre-teen kid, and for years Picard was the only true captain of the Enterprise 😉 I waited with bated breath for each episode, and while some of them were rather convoluted for a six- to eight-year-old, it was still a great adventure. Fantasy worlds, various races with distinct cultures, drama on the ship, imminent danger… What I liked about Star Trek then and value even more now was the nearly non-violent approach, so rare in modern pop-culture. Differences were abundant, conflicting interests as well, but more often than not a peaceful resolution could have been – and heroically was – achieved. Exploration and understanding were the key values of the Star Trek universe, and inspired countless SF visions since. As for the liberal vision of future military, with its weirdly relaxed and convoluted structure, the red- and mustard-colored uniforms and the variety of ranks coupled with a nearly total lack of discipline, back then I didn’t even bat an eye 😉

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Neal Asher, Brass Man (2005)

Asher Brass Man

Author: Neal Asher

Title: Brass Man

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 3

With my current rate of reading I’m suffering from overabundance of books to be reviewed. This apparent luxury becomes something of a curse instead of blessing, a bit like Midas’ touch, for I’m torn between different genres, authors, series and books every time I sit down to write a review. This particular review comes a surprise even to me, as I haven’t reviewed yet the second part of the series, The Line of Polity. However, as Brass Man has as much in common with Gridlinked as it has with its direct predecessor, and I’m careful to avoid spoilers, I hope I will be forgiven this slight desynchronization.

The reason for such a jump will soon become obvious, as it has more to do with my reflection on the underlying philosophy, or worldview, of Asher’s work, than with the story itself. But before I focus on this aspect of Brass Man, an introduction to the plot is required.

Following the discovery of active alien technology (alien in the meaning ascribed to something from beyond known universe, which in the world of Polity has become quite substantial, and active in the meaning that its remains, once thought long – some 5 million years – dead, suddenly appear quite aggressively lively) in The Line of Polity, Agent Cormac must once again pursue his once-human nemesis, Skellor, now a terrifying hybrid of AI, human, and the alien Jain, and, not coincidentally, his other nemesis – the Dragon. The whole crew from Gridlinked comes back together for this adventure: the nearly indestructible Sparkind Golems: Gant and Cento, his Sparkind human companion Thorn, Life-coven biophysicist Mika, and of course, Horace Blegg, still as infuriatingly mysterious as ever. They are accompanied by AIs of different levels of sophistication, some of which – such as the infamous warship Jack Ketch and his unruly offspring, as well as Jerusalem, capable of bending the laws of physics –  become fully fledged protagonists in their own right.

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Mark Lawrence, One Word Kill (2019)

One Word Kill

Author: Mark Lawrence

Title: One Word Kill

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 204

One Word Kill, the first installment in the Impossible Times sequence and Lawrence’s first foray into a SF territory, came on the heels of his success with Book of Ancestor trilogy.  The book met with enthusiastic reviews and has been recommended by many fellow bloggers – Mogsy, Aaron and Drew, to name just a few. As I haven’t read anything by Lawrence, One Word Kill was suggested to me as a good entry point – and by now I can firmly attest to the popular conviction that Lawrence knows how to write. His writing skills are a thing to behold, especially in such a short novel as One Word Kill, where every word counts. It’s a mark of professionalism to spin an intriguing story, build a convincing world and create compelling characters within a couple hundred pages. As much as I would love to wholeheartedly recommend the book, however, I can’t. To borrow Bookstooge’s latest food metaphor, One Word Kill reminded me mostly of a solid fast food meal: it had all the necessary ingredients, maybe even chosen with care for their environmental impact and health benefits, it was very professionally made and quite substantial, but by no means was it a masterpiece or a sensory delight.

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Neal Asher, Gridlinked (2001)

Gridlinked_cover

Author: Neal Asher

Title: Gridlinked

Format: Paperback

Pages: 522

Having followed advice of the inestimable Bookstooge, I decided to embark on another bloody literary journey, but this time a decidedly hi-tech and futuristic one. Neal Asher’s Polity novels had been described as ‘a more action-packed Culture’, and it’s a description I find at once very apt and quite misleading ;). The world of Polity is indeed similar to Banks’s Culture in that it is an ever-expanding and galaxy-spanning political entity of humans inhabiting planets and space stations, all governed and kept together by extremely sophisticated AIs. The AIs have distinct personalities which are, as expected, highly logical and possessed of a worldview undoubtedly more affected by their computing skills than by any emotions, though they seem to feel them too – especially curiosity. In short, however you would slice it, they are not human. Their ascendance to the position of power in the human Polity has apparently been bloodless and quite benevolent, humans having realized that it’s ultimately for their own betterment – and that the other choice they have is definitely worse. The AIs act more like managers than dictators, quite content to improve the lives of Polity citizens and repel any possible threats. And there are threats aplenty, as on many worlds human populations hadn’t joined the Polity, mostly due to political differences (especially autocratic and religious regimes seemingly disapproving of the entire concept of Polity or even the existence of AIs). The major one is posed by Separatists, a loose coalition of terrorists, interest groups, or even governments happy to use Polity’s technology to bring about Polity’s demise, and they are a constant source of interest to ECS – the Earth Central Security agency, consisting mostly of human agents dealing with out-Polity threats.

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Roger Zelazny, Doorways in the Sand (1976)

Doorways in the Sand

A fantastic romp through absurdity, surrealism, and wonder of a world where the galactic society is so much larger than just a bunch of ex-apes ready to leave the Earth, Doorways in the Sand remains one of lighter and funnier Zelazny’s works, nominated to Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards. It was also one of his five personal favorites, along with A Night in the Lonesome October, This Immortal, Lord of Light (one of my favorite SF novels) and Eye of Cat.

It’s an incredibly optimistic, fun, short novel, full of poetic remarks, absurd puns, Lewis Carroll allusions and crazy tidbits of information from almost every sphere of science: sociology, anthropology, geology, plant biology, architecture, chemistry, psychology, parapsychology, physics… the list goes on and on, and the best part is that the presence of every bit in the text is fully justified: plot-wise and otherwise.

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Justin Cronin, The Passage (2010)

passage-300-450-1

It seems that I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic, anti-utopian stuff with young female leads ;). The Passage reminds me in many ways of The Girl With All The Gifts or McCarthy’s The Road, although the popular comparisons to The Stand are also pretty well-founded.

The Passage received a lot of buzz back in 2010 – compared to work of Michael Crichton and praised by King himself, Cronin’s book quickly wound up on bestsellers’ lists. The filming rights to this book – and two next as well, as The Passage is the first installment in a trilogy – were apparently secured by Scott Free Productions even before the book was finished.

Is the book worth the praise? The answer to this, as usual, is complicated ;). I must confess, my initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the fact that I have already read the second installment. Oh boy, that’s something I will fully review in my next entry, but for now let’s concentrate on the first book, as if it were still the only one, fresh and full of promises.

Because The Passage in itself is actually a good book. It’s a mash-up of genres, a post-apocalyptic horror/sf road novel with vampires, elements of anti-utopia and chunks of a military thriller, and it all works surprisingly well, even dunked in the heavy philosophical/theological sauce Cronin is so fond of.

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Ursula Le Guin, The Found and the Lost (2016)

The Found and the Lost

The Found and the Lost is a collection of novellas by Ursula Le Guin, the founding mother of fantasy and SF as we know today. It’s a perfect book for both die-hard fans and for those who have never had the pleasure of reading anything by Le Guin before. A doorstop of a book at 600 pages in my digital copy and 816 pages in hardcover, it contains 13 novellas written in the period between 1971 (Vaster Than Empires and More Slow) to 2002 (Paradises Lost). The collection is presented mostly in a chronological order, but another categorization rule readily comes to mind while reading as the novellas can be divided into three main groups: Earthsea, Hainish cycle and “other”.

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