SF Book Review, Part 3

I probably should have written this about half a year ago, but better late that never, I suppose (check out Part 1 and Part 2 for more SF). No real theme to the list of books, but a couple were recommended by readers (and both were quite good).
  • Downtiming the Night Side by Jack Chalker: Recommended as an "offbeat suggestion" by Steven in a previous post, this is a rather strange time travel tale. I'm a fan of time travel stories and one of the interesting things about them is how they seek to get around the messy paradoxes that are inherent in such stories. In this book, Chalker gets around paradox by pretty much embracing it. Time travel is possible, but when you travel back in time you "leap" (Sam Beckett style) into another person who is native to the time period in question. The catch is that your personality is mixed with the native personality, and if you stay in the past too long, you'll "trip" and become that person. Furthermore, while in the past, you can change the course of history (Back to the Future style) and in the course of this story, history certainly changes. A lot. At first, I was put off by this time travel theory, but by the end, things had worked out well enough. The rules Chalker set up for himself seemed arbitrary at first, but once things got going, I began to see what he was doing a little better. Quite frankly, I'm not sure I followed every twist and turn, but it sure was an entertaining ride and towards the end, Chalker drops a couple of serious bombshells (said bombshells are no doubt controversial, but I don't want to ruin it for any readers - suffice to say, they are quite unexpected). It's Chalker's willingness to embrace the time travel rules he set up and drag his characters, kicking and screaming, through to logical extremes that makes this book work.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: I read this at the recommendation of long-time Kaedrin reader and friend Sovawanea (who has been very patient!) and enjoyed it quite a bit. The story centers around a single human envoy named Genly Ai who visits an alien planet in an attempt to get the planet to join a coalition of worlds called the Ekumen. The planet is called Gethen and it is similar to earth except that it has a particularly cold climate, often leading people to call the planet "Winter." Genly visits the planet and both of the major nation states, Karhide and Orgoreyn. The planet seems to have technology roughly equivalent with 20th century earth, except that their focus seems to be on other things (i.e. survival gear seems more advanced, while transportation doesn't - which makes sense on such a "cold" planet) and the natives are androgynous for most of their lives, except during a period called Kemmer, when they can become male or female and mate (as such, any person could choose to become pregnant or to be the male). One of the seemingly unique things about the planet is that they haven't ever had a war. Genly speculates this may be because of the hostile environment or their sexuality, or both. In any case, it seems that tensions have been mounting between the two nations, and Genly may be caught in the middle. I got a very distinct Communism vs Capitalism vibe from the two nations, though it isn't an exact comparison. It is an interesting setting and it seems like it would be a fertile ground for a much more in-depth exploration than I'm giving it. One other thing to note is that Le Guin has a much better way with words than most of her contemporaries. I think folks like Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov are better storytellers, but they do so with straightforward prose. Le Guin has more of a flourish to her language, which I appreciated. Also, I don't mean to belittle the story here - it's quite good and it even has a few action set pieces (I particularly enjoyed the long trek two characters make from one nation back to the other). So I enjoyed this enough to put Le Guin's The Dispossessed in the book queue (though I'm not sure when I'll get to it).
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman: This is one of a few important milestones in the military SF subgenre. In many ways it is a response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers (and you'd be much better off reading this than watching Paul Verhoeven's atrocious criticism as adaptation of Starship Troopers), yet it stands on it's own as a superb SF novel. It shares many similarities with Heinlein's earlier work, but Haldeman takes things in a different direction. Both novels follow a young recruit (in Starship - a volunteer, in Forever an educated student drafted into compulsory service) as they make their way through the military ranks in a war against aliens. Both feature powered armor suits, but in Forever the suits are almost as dangerous to you as they are to your enemy. The endings diverge more significantly. Haldeman's novel seems to have more of a plot than Heinlein's, and he also seems more interested in relationships. Both novels feature an integrated military, with both men and women serving side by side. I think the biggest issue with Haldeman's novel is the way he treats sexuality - in this novel, the military doesn't just tolerate fraternization, it encourages and forces it. Besides this compulsory heterosexual coupling in the military, Haldeman later puts his characters back on Earth at a time when nearly everyone is a homosexual. From a thematic standpoint, it sorta makes sense - it's a way to emphasise the isolation the protagonist feels - but from nearly every other standpoint, it doesn't work. This book was written not too long after Le Guin's aforementioned Left Hand of Darkness, which had a very sophisticated understanding of sexuality, and several of Haldeman's contemporaries were also breaking new ground, so Haldeman's attempts seem somewhat paltry or naive by comparison (much to his credit, this is something he has apparently acknowledged himself). But the novel also features a nice enough love story between the two main characters, and the SF is top notch and quite thrilling at times. The effects of time dilation (where our main character ends up hundreds of years in the future while he has only lived 30 or so years himself) caused by long range space travel are particularly thought provoking. The battle at the end of the novel is very effective and the tactics of the characters are sound, making for a solidly entertaining set piece. The ultimate ending can be a bit of a downer as you find out how misguided things got on the strategic level of the war, but the ending remains satisfying because the two main characters are fulfilled. The differences between this novel and Heinlein's novel are most likely due to the respective backgrounds of the authors - Heinlein was a WWII vet, while Haldeman was a Vietnam vet. When viewed from that context, the novels differences make a lot of sense, and reading both is a must for anyone interested in this subgenre (then, when you're done with these, move on to Old Man's War).
  • The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn: I first became aware of Zahn when he wrote the first modern Star Wars books (early 90s Thrawn Trilogy), and this novel seems to bear a superficial resemblance to a Star Wars type space opera. It's about a smuggler and his alien partner who troll around space ports (he doesn't use the phrase "wretched hive of scum and villainy" but he might as well have), take a job transporting cargo, and get caught up in a galactic conspiracy, etc... This isn't actually a bad thing, but the book is much more of a page turner than anything else, and it works very well. There are perhaps a few too many scenes where the main character attempts to reason out what is going on with the story by reviewing what's happened so far, but the various plot points are well laid out and interesting enough. The characters are likeable, the story is entertaining, and the conclusion is appropriately tense. Of the books listed in this entry, this was probably the most fun to read and I probably read it the quickest (despite it being longer than some of the others).
  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: Have you ever seen that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is dating the woman who never laughs? Whenever Jerry tells a joke, she smiles and says "That's funny," but she doesn't laugh. Well that's how I felt reading this book. I would often find myself reading something and thinking to myself "That's clever and funny," but I don't think I laughed out loud once. Maybe I cracked a smile a few times. On paper, this book sounds quite interesting. The one line pitch might be that it's a snarky parody of The Omen, where a series of accidents and incompetant evil deeds prevent the anti-christ from being able to or even wanting to fulfill his role in the apocalypse. Irony is abound throughout the story - demons from hell want to avoid the apocalypse because they like screwing around on Earth, while Angels from heaven are fine with the apocolypse because they know they'll win. And so on. I appear to be in the minority on this though, as I have read countless professions of love for this book all over the internet. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for British humour or something, but this book never really clicked with me.
That's all for now. Given what I'm currently reading, I probably won't get around to most of the SF books that are in my queue for a while, but when I do, I'll post about them here...