SF Book Review, Part 20

I've reviewed a bunch of individual books recently, but I am still way behind, so here's the first of several attempts to catch up. With some reservations, I've enjoyed following along with the Hugos the past few years, but I've also noticed that I really enjoy delving into the back catalog, and I'm hoping to do more of this in the near future (rather than desperately reading new releases in the hope that they'd be Hugo-worthy - that was not really that productive for me last year). Today, we'll cover a few books ranging from 10 to 50 or so years old...
  • Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962) - Frontier man Jack Holloway comes home from prospecting for sunstones one day to discover a, well, little fuzzy animal hanging around his house. As he gets to know the fuzzy (and his extended family, who also come to stay at "Pappy Jack's" house), he begins to suspect that these aren't just cute little animals, but actual sapient beings. Naturally, this spells trouble for the corporation who thinks they own the planet... if the fuzzies are people, that means the company loses out on property rights and the like. First published in 1962, this makes for a great introduction into the SF genre, tackling difficult questions like how to define sapience without getting too esoteric. I don't think you'd call this a novel of deep characterization, but it's short and sweet, with excellent pacing and plotting for a thoughtful exploration of consciousness. Plus, the fuzzies feel like the cutest race ever devised. The only flaw is that there are many subsequent works that build on this, and thus it might seem like it's treading familiar ground... My understanding is that Piper never quite got the respect he deserved in his lifetime, but he's certainly gained in that respect in recent years (despite some small outdated technological references to things like "tape", this seems like an example of the classics that would still be relevant to youngsters today). It helps that his works have lapsed into the public domain (this book is available for free on Project Gutenberg) A few years ago, John Scalzi wrote a snappy "reimagining" of this book with his Fuzzy Nation, which has a lot of the same beats, with some added complexity and slightly shifted priorities. It's also worth checking out, but I wish I had read the original first.
  • Quarantine by Greg Egan (1992) - In Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, there is a planetary system that is surrounded by an impenetrable barrier, and humans go to investigate. In Quarantine, humans are the ones inside the barrier. At first, this just seems like a way to set up a backdrop of riots and weird religious cults for this neo-noir detective story, but it later becomes clear that Egan had a much deeper reason for use of that trope (one that is a lot more convincing and interesting than Hamilton's eventual explanation for his take - note also that Egan's novel predates Hamiltons by many moons). Egan is known for diamond-hard SF, but this is the most approachable novel of his that I've read, and he eases you into the mind-blowing stuff with a deft touch. Make no mistake, he gets into true sensawunda territory and this novel contains one of the better explorations of quantum mechanics, observer effects, collapsing wave functions, etc... that I've seen in fiction. It's a well balanced blend of trashy detective tropes and hard SF. The ending might leave some with lingering doubts, but I was so elated by the way Egan tied together the various oddities of setting and plot midway through the book that I didn't mind at all. Probably my favorite book of the year (blows anything nominated for a Hugo in the past few years out of the water, in my opinion), and highly recommended!
  • Sundiver by David Brin - I only really tackled this because I want to read the second novel in the series, Startide Rising, and wasn't sure if the first one was necessary or not (it is apparently not, but we'll see soon enough). In this series, humanity has met up with lots of other alien races, most of which were "Uplifted" by "patron" races. Humanity baffles everyone though, because there doesn't appear to be a patron race for us, and we've made our way to the starts by working through first principles (rather than being taught by someone else). Go Earthican exceptionalism! An expedition into the Sun is mounted to see if the mysterious creatures living there could provide an answer, but various mishaps along the way are cause for hijinks. This novel does a decent job setting up the idea of Uplift and how unbearably patronizing and frustrating the superior alien races can be, but I also found it a bit bloated and overlong. It eventually settles into a better groove later in the story, but it took a little too long to get going. The idea of luminous beings living in the sun is an interesting one that evokes Hal Clement's first published short story, Proof (which is excellent). This book doesn't quite approach Clement's level, but it's decent enough. I'm hoping for much better things from the sequel, which I hope to get to sometime early next year...
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke - This novel of two magicians, friends and later rivals, bringing magic back to England is an interesting one. Clocking in at over a thousand pages, it might seem forbidding, but it's not a difficult read at all. I certainly don't know that it needed to take quite so long, but it never feels like it stalled either, a neat little trick and a testament to the craft Clarke used in writing this book. On the other hand, it does end up feeling more episodic as an overall story (I have not seen the recent BBC series, but I can imagine it working well in that respect), which is not usually my favorite approach. It doesn't help that our main characters are, while not quite unlikable, they aren't really the most compelling people either. Mr Norrell is mildly competent, but also a complete turd about it. Jonathan Strange fares better, but is also fairly obtuse as a character. None of this prevents the story from being enjoyable and each "episode" is compelling in its own right. There are a lot of traditional English magic tropes, mischievous fairies and the like, and the novel hangs together well. I can see why it garnered the Hugo award about a decade ago, even if it probably wouldn't have been my favorite. In the end, I'm really glad I read this, even if it's also not really my type of book. Often in these situations, I think such an approach is valid but extremely difficult to pull off. I feel like a lot of people give works too much credit for ambition in works that don't fully realize the ambition. Not so here. Clarke accomplished exactly what she wanted with this, and it's worth reading because of that.
  • Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller - I read this almost a year ago, so details are getting a little fuzzy (pun intended?) for me, but this is the first in a long-running series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. This one covers the meeting of Val Con and Miri Robertson, thrust together by circumstances, but clearly having some form of attraction. It starts out as an action-adventure chase novel of sorts, and our two protagonists spar with each other while fending off throngs of enemy redshirts in an attempt to escape. Things slow down in the middle, and even though we meet a very fun race of alien Turtles, the story never quite resolves itself, ending on a sort of cliffhanger. I generally enjoyed this, though I also think it says something that I have not revisited the series. However, it's something I could definitely see myself doing in the nearish future. (Every time I start a series like this, I'm hoping to spark some sort of Bujoldesque Vorkosigan Series flame, but so far, I've not managed to get there... but then, it took a few books for the Vorkosiverse to really heat up for me too, so there's that.)
And that's all for now. Next time around, we'll tackle some newer releases...