Worldcon: Day 2 Recap (Part 2)

When last we left our heroes, they were heading back to the Con for the Neil Gaiman signing, tickets to which they had acquired earlier that day.  Arriving at 3:30 PM (for the 4:00 signing), there was already a massive line of ticketholders ahead of us.   So, we had a half hour wait before the doors opened, and then a much longer wait inside.  We were (maybe) the halfway point in the line, and it took us more than an hour to get to the front.  Thankfully, we had each other for company, and we were standing next to some friendly people, one from Australia and one from London, Canada who contributes to Bureau 42.

Anyway, the signing was supposed to be an hour, and it took us that just to get to the front of the line.  There was a videographer filming the event, and when he saw that I had put the note on my book for Gaiman to make it out to “House”, he asked why, giving me the chance to explain on camera that since a friend dared me to ask Bruce Campbell to sign the book to “House”, as nearly all my friends call me, I’ve had every book made out to me as such.

So, my girlfriend was ahead of me, and I took pictures of her and Gaiman while he was signing.  When it was my turn, I handed the camera off to her, and she returned the favour.  Neil was quite gracious and friendly, signing 2 items per person, for the apparently 200 people who were given tickets.  Naturally, he didn’t have time to stop and chat too much, or pose for pictures (though he didn’t mind you taking them), but he still made pleasant smalltalk, cracked a few jokes, and made it a worthwhile experience.  So it was good times.

We finished there at 5:15 PM, and so were a bit late for the panel on “What Fans Don’t Understand About Publishing 2”, which had a focus on distribution and marketing.  It had Beth Meacham (a Tor editor), Eleanor Wood (an agent), Leah Bobet (writer/publisher/bookseller), and a guy who’s name I didn’t catch and can’t deduce from the program.  It was an interesting look at the insides of how publishing works, and was quite illuminating on some subjects (such as why publishers don’t typically offer e-versions of their own catalog, so as to not compete with the bookstores that are their clients).

Then we had pizza for dinner.  It went  alittle long, but was a nice break, and we were back in time for a panel on “Mad Social Scientists”, starting with the premise of how we only see evil physical scientists trying to destroy the world, and how can social science be used that way.  It had a nice mix of people (writers and humanities people, including a social psychologist), so we got to see things from a lot of different angles, and perhaps see that the social scientists already rule the world.

Next was a panel on “Advice for New Writers: The Secrets of Getting Published”.  It was supposed to be a session of what-not-to-do advice, to add a bit of humour to a dry subject.  Unfortunately, a number of the scheduled panelists were unable to make it, and so it was left to the remaining two—Jenny Rappaport and Walter Jon Williams—to go it alone.  They did an admirable job, keeping it going in that vein for a while before opening it up to a more direct Q&A session.

Finally, after that, we went to the already-in-progress screening of Coraline with Gaiman.  Since we arrived an hour after it started, I expected it to be further along, but it was still quite close to the beginning, so I rather suspect Gaiman did his thing before the screening, rather than after (since, well, he didn’t seem to be there after).  I do enjoy Coraline though, so this was hardly a tragedy.

So endeth Day 2 of Worldcon.   I’ll blog Day 3 in the morning.

Worldcon: Day 2 Recap (Part 1)

This was a long day, very full of delightful things.

The morning started early, as we went to line up to get tickets for the Neil Gaiman signing.  We arrived at about 8:30, and (thankfully) the line was still pretty small then.  We got moved around a little bit, but by 9:10 they started handing out the tickets, seeing no reason to keep us all there until 10.

At that point, some food and hydration was the order of the day, and so a visit to Tim Horton’s—where they had the blueberry glazed donut for sale, much to my delight—was in order.  There, in the line, we chatted with another Worldcon attendee, just as we had in the Gaiman lineup and on the way over to the convention centre.

After that, we hit up the dealer’s room, since there were a few things I had hoped to acquire for signings later in the day.  I was disappointed that I couldn’t find Karl Schroeder’s The Sunless Countries, but since he is a Toronto author, I’m certain I’ll have other opportunities to get a copy signed in the coming year.

Next up was a panel on “Relativism and the Superhero” (I don’t remember the panelists names right now, but will look them up later).  They panel was interesting and well-balanced, talking about how heroes and villains have gone from straightfoward all-good or all-evil to more grey and ambiguous states, with a focus on comics.  All the panelists had thoughtful things to say, and shared the stage well with each other, so it was fun.

At noon I got a few other things signed by Schroeder, and then we (being me and the girlfriend, not me and Schroeder) hit up some lunch.  This meant we kind of forgot the panel she wanted to see, on “Legal Systems, Past and Future” was starting at 12:30, and so we arrived a bit late.  The last bit (well, hour, I guess, which was most of it) was sufficiently entertaining though, with the panelists and audience having a good set of questions going back and forth.

After that, despite having a plethora of intriguing options to choose from, we decided to actually go outside, which meant walking back to the hotel, running some errands, and napping.  Then, we had to head back to line up a second time to actually get our stuff signed by Gaiman.

But that is a story for the next post, as is the rest of day 2.

Worldcon: Day 1 Recap

Oi!  It is early on the second day of Worldcon, so I thought I’d post about the first day, as promised.

The first thing I noticed about Worldcon was the scale.  It’s big.  Very big.  I mean, granted, I have little basis for comparison, other than Ad Astra, with was a more local/regional con, but I didn’t realize just how big Worldcon could be.  Thus far, however, everything seems well-organized logistically, since signing in was no problem.  They were also able to give a quick recommendation of a nearby restaurant (Steak Frites) that was quite pleasant.

We arrived rather late in the afternoon, thus the first panel we managed to take in was one on “When is Genocide Justified?”.  (Note: The we refers to me and my girlfriend, who got me this Worldcon membership as a birthday present, because she is awesome.)  It had Neil Rest, Richard Foss, Connie Willis, and Nalo Hopkinson (I think—I missed the intros, and thus this is a guess as to who was actually there).  It was an interesting and entertaining look at how genocide is used in speculative fiction, in all sorts of different ways.

After that, we hit up the Opening Ceremonies, which was a bilingual introduction of the guests and the con.  Well done, and well-produced, with cameras and projection screens for those halfway back in the gigantic “Main Tent”  There was also a performance by a contortionist (Sabrina Aganier?) and a welcome message from Dr. Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space and currently the MP for the site of the Worldcon.  He was a good speaker.  Neil Gaiman (the English-language Guest of Honour) was charming and funny in his brief opening remarks, and all the other guests were quite good as well.  (Oddly enough, David G. Hartwell, the Editor Guest of Honour, may have gotten the most laughs, though.)

After that, we stayed for a conversation between Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman and Hugo-nominee and winner Charlie Stross, on economics and future of SF and society.  It was interesting, and the two of them had a good back-and-forth, and Krugman clearly knew his stuff (both economic and SF), so it was clear he wasn’t an example of “stunt casting”.

I have more to say, but too little time, so this post may be added to later.  But all in all, a most excellent start to the Worldcon.

Hugo Voting Season

So, my previously-mentioned plan to read all my 2008-purchased books in time to make Hugo nominations did not come to fruition.  I got through a few, read parts of a few others, and just guessed on the rest.  The final list came out some time ago, and voting closes July 3rd.  My current plan is to read as many of them as I can.  Thankfully, I already have two of the novels completed, and I have read some of the shorter fiction as well.

For the novels, I will do individual posts to talk about them.  For the shorter categories, I may lump them together in summary posts.  For the non-fiction categories, I may also just have one humongous summative post.

The Aurora Awards (the Canada-only Hugo equivalent) are also open to voting now, but the period is open a few weeks longer and so I’ll see to that reading when the Hugo task is over and done with.

So, the coming month of posts may be literature-heavy, but I still have a bunch of posts about movies and concerts in the works, so I’ll try to push those through as fast as I can.  I hope I can make some headway in this.

The Pulp Show Caper

Saturday, May 9th dawned dark and gloomy, but I didn’t mind.  I was still flying high after a round of heavy Star Trek the night before, and even taking my best gal to the airport in the rain couldn’t get me down.  I knew she’d be back.  She always came back.

But a man can’t live on happy feelings alone, and so after I got back to the dive I call a home, I got some food, and a shower, and waited out the heavier rain.  I had a case on the books, and today I had to do something about it.

See, a Mr. Interweb had been coming by the office more and more often, of late, lamenting that science fiction magazines are dying—maybe even all of science fiction.  Worse, he was afraid it might be his fault, but he couldn’t stop what he was doing, now.  He was too far along, and too heavily invested in being what he was.

This was all well and good, but until someone is actually dead, there’s not much for a private dick to do.  That’s when Mr. Interweb pulled out the show-stopper.

“I know where the bodies are buried,” he said, sinking into the wobbly chair across from my desk with a dejected sigh.  “I… I didn’t kill them.  Not all of them.  Some were killed by cheap books, some by radio, some by television and video games and movies, and some from simple neglect.  Some of them just couldn’t compete.”  He looked me in the eyes, then, and I shivered at the empty loneliness that hung behind his glassy stare.  “But I know where the bodies are.”

And so it was that, after the rain stopped, I found myself trudging toward Toronto’s Lillian H. Smith Library, where the annual Pulp Show and Sale was being held.  I had been to this place a couple of times before, for a panel and a book launch—it maintained its science fiction connection through ownership of The Merril Collection.  I had already missed most of the scheduled activities, but the dealer’s room in the basement was still going strong.

The stench of old paper filled the room like the stink of death.  Bodies were everywhere, some wrapped in plastic, others just crammed into boxes, creases in their covers, rips and tears revealing the yellowing pages within.  There was a bustling trade in these antiquities—issues of The Shadow were priced at several hundred dollars—and there were knock-offs available for considerably less.

What struck me was how many there were—Mr. Interweb hadn’t been kidding.  There were a lot of bodies, many of them from before his time.  Amazing Stories, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Startling Stories were among the many science fiction and fantasy pulps, plus countless others in different genres.  Makes a man envision a time with newstands full of entertainment and fiction, not celebrity gossip and exercise tips.  Makes a man think he’s too old for this game.

A kind dealer pointed me toward his discount bin, where I picked up a copy of Planet Stories from Summer 1955 (featuring stories by Poul Anderson and Leigh Brackett) and an issue of Startling Stories from April 1952 (featuring another Brackett and one by L. Sprague de Camp).  (Must remember to bill Mr. Interweb for expenses.)  What struck me most as I skimmed through them was how little today’s “Big Three”—Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy and Science Fiction—have changed from the style of 50 years past.

Sure, these old magazines were a bit larger, and so the text was in two columns instead of one, but they were still printed on that same newsprint-style paper, with the glossy colour covers and a few black-and-white illustrations inside.  But apart from that, you’d almost think they were published at the same time.  Makes a man wonder if Mr. Interweb is the only problem they face if they’re to survive—I mean, there are not a lot of other magazines looking like that on the shelves today, and the ones you do see are even worse off.

And so I left the show, feeling somewhat pensive.  As Mr. Interweb suggested, there were indeed bodies.  But I was left with more questions than answers.  We knew—or at least suspected—what killed these old pulps, but it was little help in keeping the surviving magazines from suffering the same fate.  The case wasn’t closed, not by a long shot.  But the library soon would be, and so I called it a day.

Ack! Five Weeks Until Hugo Nomination Deadline

So, I woke up this morning to find an e-mail from my wonderful girlfriend, telling me that she had purchased me an attending membership at the Worldcon as my birthday present.  Apart from this being a delightul surprise, it has also introduced a bit of worry into my life.

As an attending member, I get to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards.  Every year, I’m always interested to see the winners, and often check out the winners or finalists after they’ve been announced.  This year, however, I get to come at things from the other direction.

This is a problem because, if you’ve been following my reading summaries, you’ll note that I’ve been looking at a lot of older works.  I can only nominate stuff from 2008.  And while I have a number of books published in 2008, I haven’t read any of them yet.

This brings me to my plan: to read as many of the 2008 science fiction and fantasy books, novellas, short stories, and whatnot that I can in the next five weeks, so as to make informed Hugo nominations.  Once the finalists are announced, I’ll try to read all of them, as well, before final voting.

Don’t be surprised if you get a flurry of reading summaries in the coming weeks.  And if any of you readers have read standout science fiction or fantasy books (or short stories, novelettes, novellas, etc.) published in 2008, let me know about them in the comments, so that I can check them out, too.

Reading Summary: Miles, Mystery & Mayhem

In a previous summary, I mentioned that after finishing Lois McMaster Bujold’s Young Miles, I kept going into the next omnibus, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem.  I finished that one before the holidays, but didn’t get around to writing about it.  That oversight is to be rectified… RIGHT NOW!

Miles, Mystery & Mayhem consists of two novels, Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, and the novella “Labyrinth”.  Cetaganda continues the story of Miles, taking him into the heart of an enemy empire while under cover as a diplomatic aide.  Machinations within the Cetagandan empire try to set Miles up as a patsy, but they hadn’t recokoned on their mark being Miles.  Naturally, wackiness ensues as the inordinately complex plot is unraveled by Miles.  A highly entertaining story is the result.

The next book, Ethan of Athos, did not grab my attention so quickly, as it was not about Miles.  It introdues a world, Athos, populated solely by men, and the problem they face: the ovaries they use to reproduce are running out, and the new batch they ordered is full of duds.  Ethan is volunteered to go personally to find more, and finds himself adrift in a space station amid cultures he is totally unprepared to deal with.  He gets into trouble pretty quickly, only to find himself rescued by Elli Quinn, a Dendarii mercenary on a secret mission from Miles Vorkosigan (in his role of Admiral Naismith).

As I’ve mentioned, it didn’t grab me so quickly as the Miles books, and so I actually stopped a couple of chapters in.  I picked it up again, after a while, and after a few more chapters, when the mysteries became apparent and the plot got rolling, it was nearly as not-put-downable as the Miles novels.  Bujold, apparently, knows how to write.

The novella “Labyrinth” rounds out the book; it once again features Miles getting into trouble, and getting out of it in a most unconventional way.  The premise for this one seems a little silly, but still, Bujold spins an entertaining tale in Vorkosigan’s universe.

Perhaps I should try one of her fantasy novels….

Reading Summaries, Part the Third

This post will, I believe, catch me up on talking about all the novels I’ve read so far this year.  By my count, I’ve read twelve novels so far this year, which meets the goal I set for myself.  Despite my love of books, I’m something of an infrequent reader — once I start reading a book I like, I am generally unable to stop, and that doesn’t work so well with the other responsibilities in my life right now.  Hence the infrequent indulgence.

But I have found I’m buying books far faster than I read them, and realized I had to do something.  This year’s experiment has been successful in carving out chunks of reading time every month or so in which I devour a few novels.  I’m hoping to increase this in the coming year.

Anyway, enough about my reading habits… on to the reviews!

The Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

I picked up this book without having read any reviews or heard any buzz, solely on the basis of the prettiness of the hardcover edition available in Canada and the UK.  I just wanted to… to caress it.

Ahem.

The book — like many of the ones I own — sat on my shelf for a while, unread, until I saw an equally pretty sequel, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, tempting me from the store shelves.  One book I will buy on impulse, but I will not commit to a whole series in hardcover when I haven’t read anything by the author before.  This prompted me to drag The Court of the Air off my shelf and into my reading rotation, and I was quite pleased with the result.

The Court of the Air is a steampunk fantasy novel, by my estimation — though it is not strictly set in some alternate Victorian England, the Kingdom of Jackals retains strong echoes of such a setting, with orphans and workhouses and a criminal underground.  Of course, the Kingdom of Jackals also has steammen (sentient steam-powered automata) and a sort of crab-people among its citizens, is subject to float quakes (where chunks of the earth float away up into the air), and is terrified of the changes wrought on people caught in the fey mists.

The story follows the lives of two orphans.  Molly Templar was abandoned as a baby, and now keeps getting returned to the workhouse.  She soon finds herself the target of assassins, because of a secret carried in her blood.  Oliver Brooks, tainted by the mists as a boy and seemingly unharmed, is still an object of suspicion to his neighbours.  When his uncle is murdered, he has to run for his life.  Both are destined to become key players in the events about to shape the world.

Hunt has created a delightfully rich backdrop — even if some elements seem a bit over-the-top — and takes our two protagonists on independent, meandering journeys to show it off.  This helps develop the depth of the world, and the context of the conflict in which the characters eventually find themselves embroiled.  This tour of wonders is also helpful in priming the reader to accept as reasonable some of the deus ex machina moments that crop up later in the book without any explicit setup — having seen all the peculiar things that go on in the world, these new things suddenly thrown in don’t seem impossible or even improbable.

Somewhat refreshingly, Hunt doesn’t have his protagonists meet up until toward the end of the book, and even then, they don’t stay together long — they are two players in the game, and on the same side, to be sure, but they each have their own story.  The fun comes not in their interactions with each other, so much as their interaction with the quirky and intriguing cast of supporting characters.

The pacing of the novel threw me off somewhat, at first.  As I’m sure I’ve pointed out several times in these review posts, my preferences tend to lie in the “show me your big idea so I’ll care” end of the literary spectrum, so I tend to be a little slow getting into books that do a lot of setup and groundwork.  The Court of the Air didn’t fall prey to this quite so much, though — while the scope wasn’t revealed until later on, the early chapters themselves were quite satisfying due to the revelation of Hunt’s world.  The one caveat to this was, while each early chapter was interesting, it didn’t compel me to keep going.  I mean, I looked forward to seeing what came next, but I felt I could wait until the next night.  In comparison, I stayed up until 6 AM reading the last third of the book in one fell swoop, because by that point I had a sense of scope and arc of the novel, and I needed to see how it turned out.

From that, you might gather I enjoyed this novel, and you’d be right.  While it isn’t perfect — the prose is a bit rough in places, and the pacing kind of off — it has a lot of interesting ideas, a delightful setting, and a lot of fun action and intrigue.  It was entertaining of its own accord, and hopefully indicitive of great things to come from Hunt.

Dauntless and Fearless, by Jack Campbell

Dauntless and Fearless are the first two books in Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series.  (Campbell is the pseudonym for John G. Hemry.)  These are straight up military science fiction, and though I’m not deeply read in the sub-genre, they seem quite excellent.  I discovered them via a post by John Scalzi, and after reading the first chapter online, I knew I wanted more.  Thankfully, there was a 4-for-3 sale on at the time, and so I got all the volumes in the series thus far in one go.

The premise is that John Geary died a hundred years ago, in a last stand born of desperation that made him into the legendary Captain “Black Jack” Geary.  Except that he didn’t die — he managed to escape his ship in a stasis pod, and it kept him alive in suspended animation as a century passed, until he was found once again.  Through some very unfortunate circumstances, he finds himself in command of the remains of the Alliance’s fleet, trapped in enemy space, in a military very different from the one he knew.  His only mission is to get them home.

As you might expect, that is not an easy task.  It will apparently take a full six books (of which there are four currently out).

Dauntless, the first book, has Geary working to overcome his own doubts, and whip the fleet into shape under his command as they try to escape the overwhelming enemy force.  Fearless directly follows this, concentrating on the next big endeavour on their journey home.

I found the pacing slightly odd in these, but I believe that is simply reflective of my inexperience with military SF — I’d read parts of David Weber’s On Basilisk Station in the Baen Free Library and it was paced similarly.  They tend to focus on a few big events or military situations, and cover them in great detail, which — as I said — feels a bit odd to me.  When I do a tally at the end of the book, the list of stuff that happened is typically short, but it was told in such a level of interesting detail that it kept me turning pages nonetheless.

That is, in fact, why there are two books included in this entry, rather than one — I finished the first, and felt the need to plow right into the second.  The plot is compelling, and Campbell is dropping in tantalizing hints of larger mysteries and conspiracies as well as some decent character development, all of which makes me a happy camper.  While my tastes in general do not run to military SF, when it’s this good, I’m happy to include it in my reading pile.

Young Miles, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This omnibus should need no introduction to a seasoned SF reader — it collects the first of Lois McMaster Bujold’s award-winning Miles Vorkosigan novels.  (Note to nit-pickers: I am aware that there are earlier books chronologically in the series, but I’m using “first” in reference to Miles himself, not the whole series.)  I had been hearing about this series for years, but ever time I looked at one of the books, something about them evoked a bit of a “meh”, and so I never read them.  It took years of praise and a four-for-three paperback sale before I actually bought Young Miles, but I am ever so glad that I did.

These books are excellent.  Well, at least, everything I’ve read so far.  Young Miles consists of The Warrior’s Apprentice, the shorter story “Mountains of Mourning”, and The Vor Game.  They follow the title character — Miles Vorkosigan, a crippled genius living the in shadow of his legendary father and grandfather — from the beginning of his career, as he gets himself into and out of trouble through sheer wit and brilliance.  Even these early books, we begin to see that he will become a legend in his own right — so long as he doesn’t get too far in over his head.

Bujold has crafted an incredibly compelling and likeable character in Miles, and that is what drives the story of these books.  The setting is fairly standard for space opera (though with many nice details and inventive ideas), and there’s no big idea or hook — what drew me in was the character of Miles, and how the story just naturally grew out of him.  In fact, when I finished Young Miles, I went straight into the next omnibus, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem, and was only able to stop once we hit a story that did not focus on Miles.  (I read Cetaganda, but once I hit Ethan of Athos, I was finally able to stop.  For a while.)

I have since pushed Young Miles on a reader who does not normally read SF; she loved it.  I think I may have found, in the Vorkosigan novels, another universal recommendation — I think that, like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I could recommend Young Miles to anyone and they would enjoy it.  It’s not overly technical or science-heavy, and the stories are so character-driven that you can’t help but be pulled along to find out what happens next.

I know I’m (very) late to the party on this series, but Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels are fantastic, and worth checking out even if you don’t normally read SF.  Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Reading Summaries Continued

As a break from software debugging, I thought I’d continue my capsule reviews of SF books I’ve read so far this year.  Hold on to your seat for another three reviews!

Bright of the Sky, by Kay Kenyon

Kay Kenyon’s Bright of the Sky is somewhat reminiscent of the sword-and-planet style stories, in which an earthman has strange adventures on another world.  Kenyon’s take on the sub-genre, however, takes a fully modern approach in terms of both style and content.

Bright of the Sky is the first book (of four) in the series The Entire and the Rose, and tells the story of Titus Quinn, a former star pilot who is given a chance to return to the parallel universe where he lost his wife and daughter during a ten-year sojourn that spanned only three months of Earth-time.  The world he encounters once he crosses over is quite unlike anything he’d ever imagined, although his suppressed memories slowly return as he explores once again.

Kenyon builds a unique and interesting world, with a hint of wonder and magic explained by science beyond our comprehension, but focuses on telling a very personal story.  Her narrative thoroughly inhabits Quinn’s head, pulling the reader along with the ebb and flow of his emotions and drive to find his daughter and get his revenge.

All of this made the book a page-turner in the best possible way, providing a wonderful, exciting backdrop with an interesting character and intense, personal motivation to drive the action of the story.  Despite this, it still maintains a grand, epic scope that I hope continues through the subsequent books.  I thoroughly enjoyed this, and its sequel, A World Too Near, is sitting on my shelf already, waiting for its turn.

Eon, by Greg Bear

Greg Bear’s 1985 book Eon is something of a classic already, being rather well-known in SF circles.  I found it a bit heavy for my usual tastes, though, as often seems to be the case, once I got through all the background and setup and into the exploration of the big ideas and mysteries, the pages started to fly past.  It was fairly long, had a large and complexly interwoven cast of characters (both human and post-human), and was rather heavy on politics, but it was a rewarding read.

My only real gripe about Eon comes from its age — the premise springs from an apocalyptic nuclear exchange between the United States and the U.S.S.R., and so reading it after the fall of the Soviet Union makes it seem somewhat anachronistic.  It’s only really noticeable since the novel is heavily political, and so it’s thrust into your consciousness repeatedly, making it hard to gloss over.  As a result, I’m not sure I’d recommend this to a general reader, despite the excellent caliber of Bear’s writing and story.  If the mis-speculation won’t bother you, you won’t go wrong with Eon.

Mainspring, by Jay Lake

Jay Lake’s Mainspring is a steampunk novel — or perhaps, more accurately, clockpunk — that posits an alternate universe where the Earth moves through the heavens on a track, propelled by a gargantuan gear around the equator.  This naturally leads to a few major differences with our world — the existence of God, for example, is no longer simply a matter of faith, as the constructs that drive the universe are visible for all to see.

Lake wastes no time in starting the adventure — the opening scene has Hethor, a clockmaker’s apprentice, visited in his room by the Archangel Gabriel and being tasked to find the Key Perilous to rewind the Earth’s mainspring.  Of course, this first leads to trouble, and then to travel, as we’re taken along with Hethor on something of a tour of Lake’s intriguing clockwork world.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of Mainspring is that there are so many interesting ideas and backdrops that it feels like we’re being rushed through them — as a reader, we start to get comfortable with a particular place and scenario, only to be whisked away into a new and dangerous and unfamiliar situation.  In this respect, the reader’s distress no doubt mirrors that of the protagonist, but at the same time, I would have loved a more thorough exploration of some of the settings provided by Lake.  (There is something to be said for leaving them wanting more, however — the sequel Escapement may well do this.)

My only real criticism — and I use that term lightly, since I thoroughly enjoyed this book — was that the ending felt rather abrupt, and relied (almost literally) on deus ex machina to solve things.  While I didn’t dislike the ending, I’m left feeling there is an ending out there that I could have been happier with.  Nevertheless, I most certainly enjoyed the ride, and am looking forward to reading Escapement.

Summary of My 2008 Reading So Far

As the one year anniversary of this blog creeps closer, I’ve realized I haven’t done many of the things I had planned for it.  While I’ve been moderately good about posting my thoughts on movies and the like, my discussion of written entertainment has been alarmingly lax.  (I attribute this to the desire to be more timely with movie discussions, since they only live in theatres for a short time, but it is also, no doubt, due to my inherent laziness.)

That said, I have (surprisingly) been doing quite a bit of novel reading this year — at least, for me.  Ever since I started university over 10 years ago, my novel reading has dropped off, primarily because if I start reading a good novel, I have real difficulty putting it down, and that doesn’t slot well into a demanding school schedule of assignments and projects and labs and exams.

I never stopped buying the novels, though, and so when I finally did an anlaysis of how fast I was buying books, compared to how fast I was reading them, I decided that I had to start reading a lot more.  Thankfully, this has been a pleasant task.

While I had been intending to do individual posts about each book that I’ve read in 2008, at this point I know that’s never going to happen, so over the next few posts, I’m going to give some brief capsule reviews of those books, and hopefully set the ground for individual discussion of my future readings.

I’ll start with the first three novels I read this year.

Triplanetary, by E.E. “Doc” Smith

Triplanetary is an early pulp space opera, part of the Lensman series that laid the foundation for much of the space opera that came after.  In the series, it is first chronologically, although most people recommend the third chronological book (Galactic Patrol) as the proper starting point, so as not to spoil some of the surprises and mysteries in the later books.

So, the writing quality here was absolutely dismal.  It was incredibly rough, the characters were quite flat, the “science” was preposterous… and yet, I really couldn’t put it down.  As was said in the introduction of the Science Fiction Book Club edition I was reading, the series is driven by “pure story” — for all he lacked in polish and craft, Smith sure as hell came up with interesting ideas, and strung them together so that I needed to see what was going to happen next.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Triplanetary in general, but it’s an interesting early example of the genre, and I do intend to read the rest of the series, to try and learn from Smith’s sense of plot and pacing.  I just don’t think most modern readers would be so forgiving of the flawed prose as I am.

Queen of Candesce, by Karl Schroeder

Queen of Candesce is the sequel to Shroeder’s Sun of Suns, which is a novel I absolutely loved.  It picks up following the fate of one of the first novel’s characters, Venera Fanning, and while it is technically a sequel, it is really a stand-alone novel in the same universe, about a character who lived through the events of that earlier book.  I say this to clarify that it’s not a middle book, or an incomplete story — while reading it with Sun of Suns under your belt will give it a fuller context, it really is a self-contained story about Venera.

These books are both set in a most interesting world — I giant, air-filled sphere floating in space, filled with miniatue fusion reactors that act as tiny suns, with free-floating settlements in rotating cities clustered around them.  Flight and freefall is the natural state of things — there is no up or down, except that created by the rotation of the cities.  This leads to a world quite unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before, and would be worth the read itself.

Thankfully, however, Schroeder gives us plenty of other reasons to read than just his fantastic world-building.  Where E.E. “Doc” Smith was pure story and little craft, I think Schroeder hits an excellent balance between the two — presenting an intriguing page-turner, but with quality writing, compelling characters, and a new and exciting world to explore.

The premise of Queen is that Venera Fanning finds herself stranded in the huge, ancient city of Spyre after the events of the previous novel.  With practically nothing but her wits and will, she has to navigate a confusing world full of new cultures and odd rituals, striving to acquire enough resources to make her way home.  While this made it quite different from Sun of Suns, I did find one compelling parallel between the two books — ultimately, both of them are about the main character letting go of their obsession, their anger, their despair, that thing that was hanging over them and controlling their lives.  I’m curious to see if that’s a thematic element that is continued the the recently released Pirate Sun.

This series is exciting and fun, and these books are certainly among my favourites these days.  If the notion of air pirates, zero-gravity sword fights, ancient mysteries, and a scientifically plausible universe appeal to you, you need to read these books.

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin does not, perhaps, need me to promote it, given that it won the Hugo award for best novel.  It has been widely reviewed and praised, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets.  It’s a fantastic novel — beautifully written, with a scope that is vast and cosmic, but told quietly through the lives of three friends, alternating moments of tension, mystery, revelation, and wonder.

That said, it’s not the style of novel I usually enjoy — in fact, the first hundred pages actually took me quite a while to get through (a lengthy wait in an airport helped with that), as the front of the book follows the main characters from childhood.  While this gives a lot of interesting character background and development, it doesn’t so much deal with the big ideas and concepts, which is what I find most interesting in science fiction.

Once I got through that first patch, however, I couldn’t put the book down as the characters — now grown — started to engage with each other as adults, and with the mystery of the Spin, the event that cut the earth off from the rest of the universe, slowing the passage of time on earth to such an extent that the sun would go nova within the lifetime of everyone alive on earth today.

Anyway, Spin is a beautiful, wonderful, book.  If, like me, you’re a reading that likes getting immediately into the thick of things, I still encourage you to keep pushing with this book, because the payoff is completely worth it.  Highly recommended.