Friday, April 28, 2006

Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War is a true classic of science fiction literature written in the mid-1970s. The version I read is the recently published version referred to as the ‘author’s preferred version’. It contains a section that has never been included with the complete book, but has been published as a short story elsewhere, about returning to earth after fighting in the war. To say it clearly, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both as a classic sci-fi novel, and as a piece of literature relative to world events today, as they were 30 years ago.

The Forever War follows William Mandella from draft to an end in a centuries long war versus the utterly alien Taurans. In the 1990s, humanity discovers a way to travel instantaneously across distances on a galactic scale. People explore, and soon encounter alien life, and the confrontation leads to war. The governing body (an evolution of the United Nations) creates a draft where the smartest, most physical capable people are drafted, and Mandella, a recent Physics graduate, is called up.

Mandella is among the first fighters training for war and part of the first group to encounter the Taurans in a ground fight. The complexities of traveling on galactic scales and at speeds nearing the speed of light lead to relativistic complications. The plain version is that Mandella ages much slower relatively to Earth. He returns to Earth after 2 years in the army, relative to his timeframe, and over 10 have passed on Earth. The Earth is a different planet and society is alien. His inability to adjust leads him back to the army with the woman he loves. The end of the book is literally thousands of years into Mandella’s future.

Haldeman wrote this book in part as a response to the Vietnam War, which he did fight in. It’s easy for war to be condemned or praised by those of us who actually have no experience with it; The Forever War shows the horror of war from someone who was actually there. This book is about the people fighting the war, and what fighting the war does to them. We don’t get to see anything from the top of the command structure, just the view of the grunts getting killed.

In the world today the connection made is not with the Vietnam War, a war of history books to most of us, but to the current events in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, and all the various battlefronts of these conflicts. These are the Forever War of our world, and its frightening how little has been learned from mistakes in the past.

Another interesting aspect of the book from the view of our times is the treatment of homosexuality. In the world of The Forever War, population pressures on the human species become immense, and the answer is homosexuality. The ‘future’ is a world where heterosexuality becomes rarer and rarer, and eventually becomes a disorder from which people are ‘cured’ – disturbing echoes of the intolerance of our own world.

The review I’ve written above may lead you to believe that The Forever War is a heavy-handed or even didactic work with no appeal to the casual reader. This would be just plain wrong. The Forever War could easily praised in such capsule phrases as a ‘spectacular tail of humanity in the face of war’ or ‘classic sci-fi – humanity at war with aliens, time travel, love; The Forever War has it all’. Another great aspect of this book is that it comes from an age where SF books could be less than 300 pages and still tell a great story, this is all too rare these days.

On my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel, and 10 is unsurpassed, The Forever War rates quite high with an 8.5. This is a novel from earlier times that is about our times, and one that both genre and non-genre fans should read.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Lecture Me Not

I recently bought a collection of short stories that was published by a small, independent outfit. In the back, after the ‘about the author’ entry is a ‘note to the reader’ that gives me a lecture. The tone of this short letter is non-threatening in an effort to not come across too high and mighty, but it failed, leaving me a bit peeved off. This letter reminds me that I should not buy used books, sell my books to used books stores, visit libraries, and it cautions me to not even lend my books to a friend or colleague – unless they would likely buy that book or others.

The intent of this letter is to remind me as a reader that authors don’t get paid unless you are buying a new book. In the chain of money, when a new book is purchased the publisher is getting money, which eventually makes its way to an author. When a book is bought used, that money is not going to the publisher – they’ve already had their cut for that book. And clearly, no profits are made when a book is lent by individuals or libraries.

Authors generally don’t make much money, most need a day job. This letter implies that it is my duty as a reader to buy new books to support authors and publishers. That somehow I have sinned against an author when I buy their books used, or god forbid, check out a copy from the library.

I will admit that I hadn’t previously thought much about buying used books, and how that money is not trickling back to the author. I do see the point in supporting these authors, especially authors who don’t have big contracts, and are not as widely read. And I agree that authors need money to function in society, just as I do (which the letter was kind enough to remind me of). However, the inclusion of this letter leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Who are these people to lecture me on how I should spend my money. They know nothing of my finances, of how much I spend on books, on how often I buy new books versus used books.

The more juvenile side of me wants to boycott this publisher and to never buy a new book again. The realist in me knows I already spend too much on books, and if anything, I should not be buying books at all at the moment. My tax dollars pay for the library, I should use it more. But things are never simple.

The truth is I want to buy new books – hardback books at that. But this is just unrealistic considering my financial place in the world. I’m relatively secure and should appreciate it more, but can I afford to spend $30 for every book I buy? Now consider that I’ll buy about 100 books in an average year; that’s $3000 per year on books (not counting taxes). Sure, I can cut that down a bit by sales and such, but the point remains whether I’m spending $500, $1500, or $5000 on books in a year. That is just a lot of money – especially considering that all too often the quality of the book binding is just not what it once was. I’ve had books fall apart after two reads, and I’m not that hard on books.

Yet another factor is the already rampant consumerism in the western world and how it relates to the production of books. Not enough books are constructed out of recycled materials, most books require the death of trees and all the consequences associated with deforestation and yes, global warming. Right now, reading a used book (or recycled book in this context) is much more environmentally conscious than reading a new book. I suppose I could always read an e-book, but what that does to my eyes and sanity deserves an article in its own right – let’s just leave it at I’m not a fan of e-books.

So, in the end, I’m quite irritated that some small publisher, whom I did buy a new book from, had the audacity to print a lecture telling me that it is unethical to buy used books and that I need to think twice about lending books to friends. Yes, it’s a bit of an overreaction, but then I’ve never been very good with condescending lectures from anyone about anything. I entirely sympathize with authors, especially the majority of whom don’t earn a lot of money. I too have to work for a living and can certainly relate, but I can’t agree that this justifies the printing of this letter in its current form.

So, has this letter from the publisher managed to alter my buying habits? Only in one small way, I am now less likely to buy a book from them in the future – new or used. Not their intent I should think.
EDIT: Due to popular demand, the name of the publisher: Yard Dog Press

Monday, April 24, 2006


One of the many things I enjoy is travel. Sometimes it's for work, more often, for fun. Anyway, I've found that I enjoy blogging about it. It doesn't fit into the 'mission' of this blog, but I don't care, I can post what I want on this blog. So, below are the entries that lend more to travel tales.

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

Black Juice has recently made the leap from Australia to the US and beyond in the guise of young adult fiction. Clearly there is a huge gray area between ‘adult’ and ‘young adult’ fiction, and this collection of 10 short stories is found there. The stories are certainly age-appropriate for young adults, but they do not shy away from series issues and subjects, nor are they written in anyway that should not appeal to adults. This is the long way of saying that Black Juice is fiction for both adults and young adults; neither should be excluded.

One of the first things I noticed in reading these stories is the ‘foreignness’ of the them, at least from my US-centric view of the world. They are decidedly Australian and African in tone and even diction, which is both refreshing and awkward at times, but almost always rewarding. The stories of Black Juice are dark, never really entering a happy place – perfect for young adult fiction. The subjects are weighty – the conflicts of conformity, escape from oppression, death, etc. – and the impact can be powerful. Of the 10 stories, some are a bit less than memorable, while others will haunt.

The collection begins with “Singing My Sister Down”, a tale of a horrific public execution. The horror is not in blood and gore, there is neither of these, or the spectacle nature of the execution, but in the pure inevitability of it, contrasted by the strength and weaknesses of the condemned and her family, as they are with each other until the end.

“Red Nose Day” shows two assassins doing their work, killing clowns. It seems to me that clowns are one of the most horrifying creatures to children, and a story of their near indiscriminate execution from afar is appealing; but this is not that kind of light-hearted story. It is haunting story of inevitability, conformity and tragedy in life and death.

“Earthly Uses” shows us a different side of angels. “Yowlinin” is a darkly wonderful story of horrific monsters and an outcaste child. “House of Many” brings escape from religious conservatism for a young man. “Perpetual Light” is a journey to a funeral in a world that can only be described as reminiscent of the post-apocalypse world of Mad Max.

My favorite of the stories is the touching tale of “Sweet Pippit”, where a group of domesticated elephants search for their handler, who has been taken from them. I’m not sure I can put into words why this is my favorite, but the point of view from intelligent pachyderms was irresistible to me.

Short fiction can be difficult for me to enjoy, and Black Juice does suffer from some of this, but the haunting gems buried within are quality. Rating a collection of different stories causes difficulty – the best stories be will underrated and the lesser, overrated. With that caveat aside, on my 10-point rating scale, where below 5 is not recommended and 10 is unsurpassed, Black Juice rates a 7.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R. Scott Bakker

The Prince of Nothing trilogy stands apart as the single best completed fantasy series that I have read to date. Many will cry foul – “How could you dismiss the Lord of the Rings, the holy trilogy?” And many others will cry – what about Erikson and Martin (or even, what about Jordan and Goodkind *shudders the thought of Goodkind*)? Of course the caveat is the word completed, but all semantics aside; this is a superb work of speculative fiction.

The players of the story are rather familiar – a doubting sorcerer, a great warrior from a warlike people, a trodden-upon woman, and a mysterious, all-powerful, and charismatic leader. The world and its people are also nothing strikingly new – a pre-industrial world with European overtones, pale people of the north, darker skinned of the south, clashes in the desert, religious intolerance and wars. The characters are real, the battles epic, the sorcery powerful; and the beauty is what Bakker does with these elements. He creates a compelling story, that while using familiar pieces, builds into something new, something better.

On the surface, the Prince of Nothing is the history of a vast holy war, a clash of cultures and religions, and the ominous anticipation of a greater conflict, a true apocalypse. However, Bakker uses these as vehicles to do much more than merely entertain with a gripping narrative; he challenges the reader about good, evil, perception, manipulation, culture, gender, equality, and religion.

The heart of the story is a holy war, a crusade, a jihad. The condemnation of religious fanaticism, and perhaps even religion itself, is clear – or is it. Religion is just another tool Bakker uses to show us the true object of his ire: certainty. When people become certain in their actions and beliefs, there is no room for anything, or anyone else. Absolute ideas and beliefs result in absolute decisions, reactions, and solutions. The ultimate result of such certainty is horror – absolute horror. Bakker shows us this lesson through his distinct brand of looking glass.

The weighty themes discussed above may serve to scare off many a reader – don’t let them. The powerful tale is not sacrificed for a message, but enhanced. Certainty is there, in your face, challenging the whole time; but it is not heavy handed. In the end, the message is clear, but never didactic, always an element of the story. The Prince of Nothing is a great work of epic fantasy, of speculative fiction, of literature. A must read for traditional genre fans, but it also will appeal to fans disenfranchised by the genre, and fans from outside of genre.

The conclusion of the trilogy brings us to a horrifically appropriate end, but does not yield ultimate closure. While some may be less than pleased by this, I revel in the knowledge of more to come. We’ve seen the Holy War, next is the Second Apocalypse – The Aspect Emperor, a planned duology. I’ve not rated a series before, but I think it appropriate to do so – on my 10-point scale, where 5 and below are not recommended, and 10 is simply unsurpassed, the Prince of Nothing gets a 9; they don’t get any higher than that.

The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker

The Thousandfold Thought concludes Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy, a must read for serious fans of the genre. This final chapter in the series has left me numb, yet craving more.

The book picks up where The Warrior Prophet leaves off in the city of Caraskand. Anasûrimbor Kellhus has fully assumed the role of the Warrior Prophet and controls the will of the holy war effortlessly. He consolidates his power and marches on Shimeh, the city of destiny for the holy, and for a reunion with his mysterious father.

Cnaiür continues his journey of self realization, battles insanity, and gains the attention of the Consult. After all, the Scylvendi served the No-God in the past – will Cnaiür serve the No-God in the present? Will he fulfill his desire to kill Anasûrimbor Moënghus?

Drusas Achamian lives a tortured life – the prophesized world’s savior has his worship, but stole the love of his life. Further, should he yield the Gnosis to Kellhus, the very power of the Mandate School? Is it betrayal, or destiny? Will the strength of Mandate and within Achamian be realized?

Esmenet assumes the right hand of Kellhus – a woman, a whore. How will she wield the power of the Warrior Prophet, how will she be used by Kellhus? Ever haunted by the betrayal of Achamian, can she bare this torch?

The Consult stirs, and rises to the threat posed by the Dûnyain: of Kellhus and Moënghus.

The Thousandfold Thought is the final argument in Bakker’s condemnation of certainty. The price of absolute religious, cultural, and other beliefs becomes clear as the Holy War reaches Shimeh. Bakker’s challenge to the reader is powerful, yet the story, as always, remains accessible and thrilling, without the heavy hand one might expect given what’s written between the lines.

The conclusion to the Prince of Nothing trilogy is an end; however it doesn’t provide the degree of closure craved by many readers. The Holy War is done; the Second Apocalypse is still to come. This world we be visited again in the planned duology, The Aspect Emperor.

So, on my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel that isn’t really recommended and 10 is unsurpassed, The Thousandfold Thought rates 8-8.5, a very high recommendation. The three books of this trilogy are really three parts of a whole, and each part, while spectacular in its own right, does not stand alone. Their true greatness is in the whole of the story; the sum is even greater than its parts.

Related Reviews: The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Prince of Nothing Trilogy. Interview

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ian Cameron Esslemont Scores one for Malazan

Excellent news for fans of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Tale of the Fallen series, the co-creator, Ian Cameron Esslemont, has just gotten a two book deal from Bantam. The book deal includes a full release for Night of Knives, which has been previously published by PS Publishing, and The Return of the Crimson Guard, which begins shortly after events in The Bonehunters by Erikson.

I enjoyed the short novel, Night of Knives, quite a bit. It takes place in the course of just one night in Malaz City – the night that the Emperor Kellenved and Dancer are assassinated by Surly (or as we now know her, Empress Lasseen). Through flashbacks, we also see the ‘death’ of the Empire’s First Sword, Dassem Ultor. It was a great novel, with the same caliber of characters that Erikson has created for this world (a few cameos are found in The Bonehunters). The convergence that takes place in Night of Knives has yet to be surpassed in the Malazan world. The novel could have benefited from another good round of editing, which it will hopefully get before upcoming publishing runs by PS Publishing and Bantam.

Pat over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist should have a new interview with Esslemont soon – hopefully we’ll get more details.

Friday, April 14, 2006

I am Neth, and this is my space, my realm; I exist in cyber form. While an extension of a truly corporeal being, my outlet is the internet, the blogosphere. Here I am read, here I discuss, here I criticize, here I inform, here I review; here I am.

To borrow from superhero cliché, by day I am a mild-mannered gen-exer, playing catch-up in the fast-paced, techno world; a geologist among engineers and someone who hasn’t had a decent English/literature course since high school some time in the previous century. A busy, social, yet introverted guy, this Ken is rather normal.

Some people are schitzo – sorry, the term is bi-polar now. Some have their alter-egos, doppelgangers, their evil monkeys. Ken-Neth is not this. There is no true separation; no distinct personality difference. They exist as two endpoints on an entirely connected spectrum. Is it Ken who reads in his spare time, or is it Neth? Yes. I am Ken’s inner-geek expressed, his outlet.

The cynical view is that I was created to alleviate tedium when the geologist, Ken, is chained to a computer in the office. Neth is nothing more than a waste of time. The creative bull shit artist would spin Neth into a necessary outlet for creativity that encourages the quick, logical, yet out of the box thinking that makes Ken so good at what he does. Whatever.

Neth is Neth. This is my domain – this is Neth Space.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Review: The Scar by China Miéville

Miéville is one of most important voices in SF – period. His dark, gritty writing captures the reader, sucking them into his imagined world. The writing is intelligent and poignant, without becoming preachy – a fine line Miéville easily negotiates without being obvious to the reader.

The Scar takes places in Bas-Lag, Miéville’s fascinating and macabre world. The first novel set in Bas-Lag is Perdido Street Station, which is set in the massive, alien, yet familiar city of New Crobuzon. The Scar is set shortly after, yet we never see the streets of New Crobuzon. The Scar completely stands on its own, and is only tangentially related to Perdido Street Station. His third Bas-Lag novel, The Iron Council, returns to New Crobuzon some years later, and again stands alone.

The Scar follows Bellis, an intelligent and jaded women forced to flee New Crobuzon due to unfortunate coincidences and a military inquiry. On the journey to a distant colony, her ship is attacked and Bellis and the surviving passengers are forced to become citizens of Armada, a giant floating city of pirates. Fellow passenger Simon Fench has important knowledge that he must get to New Crobuzon, and he enlists Bellis to help. Bellis finds herself in the middle of the secret ambitions of the Armada and their plan to attain unequalled power.

Miéville’s world is a menagerie of personality and species. His world contains countless sentient beings, of which we see mosquito ‘people’, sentient cacti, sentient insects, aquatic species, vampires, and more. The setting is masterfully created, and not overdone in places as it was in Perdido Street Station. The Scar is the story of political ambition, the power of the people, manipulation, illusion, and of scars.

Miéville hits his stride in The Scar. The novel has almost none of the weaknesses of Perdido Street Station (not to imply that PSS is anything less than a superior novel and a classic). While the story is not quite as well constructed, it remains addictive. On my 10-point classification, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it novel and 10 is unsurpassed, The Scar ranks an 8 – Miéville is a must read for serious fans of the genre, and should be read outside of it.

Related Reviews: King Rat

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

I’m a Winner!

I finally won one of these on-line book contests/drawings! Thanks to Pat over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist for setting up the contest and bringing numerous opportunities to get free books. The book I won is His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, previously published in the UK under the name Temeraire – yep, apparently we Americans aren’t good enough for such a complicated title, but I digress. This book has gotten good reviews from Pat over at Fantasy Hotlist, Jay at Fantasy Bookspot, and many others. I'm looking forward to reading this book and its sequels, Throne of Jade (release later this month), and Black Powder War (release end of May), in the near future.

Thanks again, and I look forward to reading and reviewing it here.
Edit: The review is here.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Christopher Moore Book Signing

A couple days ago I went to a book signing at a local indie book store for Christopher Moore. He is touring right now in support of his latest release, A Dirty Job. I haven’t read any of his books, but I heard an interview on NPR and the premise of his book(s) and sense of humor intrigued me. His books include Lamb : The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Paland Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Singsand are of a humorous nature, as you may have guessed from their titles. When he wrote his first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, his goal (not that he necessary believes he achieved it) was “to do for horror what Douglas Adams did for Science Fiction”. I was not disappointed that I chose to spend a Friday evening at this book signing.

I haven’t been to many book signings, but I can say that this was the most entertaining one I’ve attended. It was a mix of a stand-up comedy routine, typical book signing, and his personal lessons on the end of life and hospice care. I did enjoy his sense of humor quite a bit – though not as much as some of his bigger fans who clearly would have laughed if Moore said nothing, committed suicide, or flung excrement at them. Moore himself was very personable, seemed to genuinely enjoy speaking to his fans, encouraged his fans to email him, and seems (to me anyway) to be a victim of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I had signing ticket number 92, and Moore was still in good spirits and engaging when it was finally my turn – and there were still a good 30 people to go.

As I mention above, I haven’t read any of his books, but after attending the signing, I intend to.


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