Eastern European Science Fiction has not been on my RADAR for decades. Of course, it would be easy to blame the Anglo-American dominance in the genre for this, but another reason might have been the ill-timing of my first touchpoints with SF from what was then still (even though barely) the Soviet Union. As a kid, I got a box of books from the German Democratic Republic with Soviet and other Eastern Bloc Science Fiction stories (Utopian Novels they were called to avoid the Anglicism). I read one of them and browsed a few others. Suffice to say, that I was not impressed. Blame my immature literary taste buds, but to me, they seemed overly intellectual, a bit cumbersome, boring. After that I hardly touched any book that came from beyond the Iron Curtain, with few exceptions. What an idiot I had been! A recent trip to Moscow sparked my interest in Russian culture, so I thought, what the heck. Gimme some of those Strugatsky brothers that everyone is going on about. Luckily, there has been a fairly recent re-release of the brothers’ Arkady and Boris Strugatsky most famous work Roadside Picnic. Published in 2012, it not only has been newly translated but it is also based on a restored version of the text prepared by Boris Strugatsky (Arkady having passed away in 1991) to repair the damage that was done to the book by Soviet censorship, including all of the filthy language. It is a testament to the brilliance of the novel that even in its crippled version it was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award in 1978 and came second, a rare occurrence for a foreign-language book.
What’s it about then? It’s a First Contact story, with a clever twist. It’s about alien contact alright, but without the aliens. At some point in time, Earth was visited by alien beings, who settled at six different locations around the globe. The result was disastrous with weird phenomena wreaking havoc among the human settlements that were affected. However, this was no attack, no attempt at invading Earth. In fact, no one ever got to see the aliens. There was no attempt at communication and no intention to stay by the visitors. After a while they just left, leaving behind so-called “zones”, in which marvelous artefacts could be found; some completely baffling, others very useful and thus quickly becoming coveted contraband. The problem is that getting these artefacts is highly dangerous. The laws of physics as we know them do not seem to apply in the zones and there is a plethora of hidden traps for unwary explorers. Because of the dangers and study the valuable artefacts (which stubbornly defy any attempt to fully comprehend them), an international research institute has been created which cordons off the zones and occasionally sends in expeditions to collect specimens for examination. Apart from the sanctioned officials there are illegal treasure hunters, called Stalkers, who risk their lives for the high profits the items from the zone yield on the black market.
The story is based around one of the visitation zones, near a small town in Canada and is mainly told from the point of view of Redrick “Red” Schuhart. Red is a stalker, who at the beginning of the novel is employed by the Institute where is experience in the zone is needed when he accompanies a researcher into the zone. The expedition ends badly, Kirill, the Russian scientist has an accident and dies shortly after his return from the zone. This doesn’t stop Red from being a Stalker, and the further the novel progresses it becomes clear that although he doesn’t mind the money it is not his only reason to risk his live. The zone has become an obsession for Schuhard and nothing can keep him out. The novel follows Schuhart for eight years, in episodic chapters with a few changes in points of view but always coming back to him. He has good times and not-so-good, going in and out of jail, sometimes living the good life from the profits and sometimes worrying what will happen to his wife and kid when he’s in prison. In the meantime, life around the zone is changing, security is getting tighter, the government wants to re-settle all of the remaining population. No wonder considering that the dead are returning from their graves and reclaim their lives among their families and the children of frequent visitors to the zone are showing strange mutations. Life is getting harder for Stalkers, as not only does it get more and more difficult to get into the zone, but the amount of artefacts dwindles until only one big prize seems to be left. A golden orb that can grant its owner any wish – unless it really does come from the heart. This is what Redrick Schuhart is going for in the final chapter of the novel. But – what to wish for?
Schuhart reminds one of the tough, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking and chain-smoking protagonists of a Hard Boiled detective novel and to no small degree is it exactly that language and approach to the narrative that makes it so accessible. Yes, this book touches on some pretty philosophical topics – this is Literature with a capital L – but in the best tradition of the Science Fiction genre, it does so in wrapped in a damn good story. What can human being ultimately know? Could we really ever hope to communicate with an alien species or are we just like some frightened small animals coming out of hiding only after the picnic party has left and all that remains to do is to fight for the scraps they left behind? The narrator, Robert Forster, does a fine job indeed, breathing life to Redrick Schuhart, both when he’s being a cynical bastard and when he’s ridden by doubt and despair. One could not have wished for a better narrator for the audio book.
The recording concludes with a very interesting afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the long and complicated history of getting the book through the Kafkaesque maze of censorship and bureaucracy that was the Soviet publishing industry. The foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin that is included in print version is missing from the audio but that’s about the only desideratum of an otherwise brilliant production. Highly recommended!
Posted by Carsten Schmitt
By Michael Crichton; Read by Scott Brick
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 13 hours
Themes: / aliens / ocean / thriller /
The gripping story of a group of American scientists sent to the ocean floor to investigate an alien ship, only to confront a terrifying discovery that defies imagination.
Executive Summary: A strong start and a pretty strong finish, but I found a lot of the last quarter or so on the slow side. This is a pretty solid 3.5 stars that could be rounded up or down depending on my mood at the time.
Audiobook: This book had been released in audio before, but for some reason Brilliance Audio seems to be (re)releasing a bunch of his books recently. Scott Brick does his usual quality job. Whenever you see Mr. Brick’s name on an audiobook, you know you’re going to get a good reading.
I came into this book thinking it was a reread. I did a handful of books by Mr. Crichton when I was in high school, and I thought this was among them. As I got further into the book, I became convinced otherwise.
I found the beginning very interesting. A psychologist is brought in to help with a crash that turns out to be a spaceship on the bottom of the ocean. I liked the mystery and investigation aspect of the story, more than the viewpoint of the main character itself though.
As the plot develops and we learn more about not only the ship, but the sphere it contains, I found my mind starting to wander. I didn’t get attached to any of the characters. I found myself annoyed by most of the scientists. Several of them seemed to be more concerned about being published and/or their place in history than the actual investigation itself. I’ve always been more of an engineer than a scientist, but I don’t know why anyone would want to deal with that.
As with the other Michael Crichton books I’ve read, this one takes science and posits some plausible seeming possibilities. He always seemed to have a knack for the techno-thriller in a way that doesn’t feel cheesy and over the top.
I’m not sure if I was disappointed with the truth of the Sphere, or if my detachment from the characters just got to me, but by about the 50% mark, I found my mind starting to wander a bit. The ending was pretty strong though, and probably saved it from me rounding down to a three.
I’ve been wanting to take a break from SFF this year, and while this is definitely still in the Sci-Fi wheelhouse, it’s more of a thriller with a sci-fi premise than a pure science fiction book. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Timeline or Jurassic Park, but I’m glad I finally read it.
Review by Rob Zak.
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (review is of the print)
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: November 2015
Themes: / space opera / military sci-fi / alien artifacts / science fiction /
You can’t militarize space. This one rule has led to decades of peaceful development of space programs worldwide. However, increasing resource scarcity and a changing climate on Earth’s surface is causing some interested parties to militarize, namely India, the North American Union, and the Sinese Federation.
The discovery of a strange artifact by Dr. Alayna Wong precipitates a crisis. What appears to be a hitherto undiscovered comet is soon revealed to be an alien structure on a cometary trajectory toward the sun. Now there is a race between countries to see who can study and control the artifact dubbed the “Solar Express” before it perhaps destroys itself.
Leading the way for the North American Union is Alayna’s friend, Captain Christopher Tavoian, one of the first shuttle pilots to be trained for combat in space. But, as the alien craft gets closer to its destination, it begins to alter the surface of the sun in strange new ways, ways that could lead Alayna to revolutionary discoveries-provided Chris can prevent war from breaking out as he navigates among the escalating tensions between nations.
This is an unusual book to review, since it feels unstuck in time. On the one hand, it reads like a mid-20th-century science fiction adventure, with heroic pilot and astronomer successfully solving space problems. On the other hand, it earnestly points a century ahead, to a world built from concerns very prominent in 2015.
Solar Express is about an object hurtling across the solar system during the year 2114. Two main characters engage with it, and with each other. The astronomer, Alayna Wong-Grant, works in a lunar observatory by herself, and discovers what seems like a comet. The pilot, Chris Tavoian, is tasked with exploring it. Much of the novel’s dramatic power comes from the interaction of these three, who nearly never touch each other.
The setting looms large. The world of 2114 is dominated by an East Asian polity, the Sinese republic (I think), in competition with a rising India and a sidelined North American entity (the US plus Canada, maybe including Mexico). The 21st century saw climate change occur, along with several bad wars, so there’s a touch of post-catastrophe in the staging. 2114 also sees Sinese-Indian competition rise to the brink of war, which should have added more dramatic punch to the novel than it actually did.
I began these notes by mentioning older sf, because my reading was haunted by many ghosts. Arthur C. Clarke’s great Rendezvous with Rama hovered over every page, as a humans try in vain to make sense of a cryptic alien artifact headed towards the sun. The super-competent pilot felt like a time traveler from the 1940s or 50s, as he successfully lands a plumb assignment, conducts geopolitical analysis, pilots expertly, investigates an alien machine, deals with foreign forces, deals with them again, and survives physical extremity.
That competence actually dragged down the middle third of Solar Express for me. It seemed like Tavoian’s explorations occurred at a snail’s pace, with a lot of repetition (performing similar tasks, writing to people in order to describe what we’ve just seen) and very slow progress.
The world-building wasn’t as successful as it could have been, as I noted above. For one we get too many historical observations from main characters discussing the present. People have a fondness for early 21st century history, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in that world – i.e., there’s no sense that people are history obsessives personally (as in many Poul Anderson stories) or culturally (check Harrison’s Centauri Device for an example) (57, 67, 130, 156, 232). Example: “Or [a person] believes that God in on their side. Like the Taliban in Pakistan seventy years ago.” (130) That’s an awkward reach to the reader. Imagine if a novel taking place in the present had characters in daily life – not historians – constantly referencing the War of 1812. Some of the non-narrative documents do a better job, including a kind of news + scandal sheet and selected articles.
Speaking of history, the world’s rush to war was a powerful context for the alien express, again reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke (2010 this time), but it played out oddly. The great powers confrontation is set up nicely about a 100 pages in, then ratchets up too slowly, with too much repetition (India threatens to use killer missiles, the North American president advises calm). We don’t get much insight into the crisis and its logic, perhaps because of our two-character focus.
The romance was gently handled, as each character has a lot on their plate. Besides their major work, each faces a family crisis at a distance. Astronomer and pilot have a geeky correspondence habit of exchanging political quotes with each other, the tenor of which reveal a grumpy, rather conservative outlook, which just lightly interacts with the rest of the plot.
And yet I enjoyed myself. I love stories of space adventure, and was fascinated by how this one played out. I wanted to see the alien artifact, to learn how the Sinese were responding, and what the heck was going on with the sun. Again, like a mid-20th-century sf novel, I was engaged.
As a work of hard science fiction, Solar Express is unapologetic. Like The Martian this novel zeroes in on science and technology challenges, from air filtration to spectroscopy to cleaning up lunar dust to the details of orbital mechanics. Check the jaw-dropping opening paragraph, which is a kind of dare or gauntlet hurled at the reader, starting off with a nearly 300-word first line about the physical and administrative (!) details of the moon base. Or read how the title first appears:
But by the time this object nears Mercury, it will be traveling at somewhere in the range of sixty lays per second, accelerating to as high as 250 by the time it reaches perihelion… a real solar express. (142)
Modessit does well pedagogically on this front, giving us detailed information, incremental developments, discussions, and solutions, while not stooping so low as to introduce many concepts.
So…. recommended as a fun read for people interested in hard sf and/or with a love of mid-20th-century space adventure stories. Not recommended for people who don’t read science fiction.
Posted by Bryan A.
By John Sandford and Ctein; Narrated by Eric Conger
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 6 October 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 16 hours, 35 minutes
Themes: / spaceship / aliens / first contact / thriller /
For fans of The Martian, an extraordinary new thriller of the future from number-one New York Times best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Sandford and internationally known photo-artist and science fiction aficionado Ctein.
Over the course of 37 books, John Sandford has proven time and again his unmatchable talents for electrifying plots, rich characters, sly wit, and razor-sharp dialogue. Now, in collaboration with Ctein, he proves it all once more in a stunning new thriller, a story as audacious as it is deeply satisfying.
The year is 2066. A Caltech intern inadvertently notices an anomaly from a space telescope – something is approaching Saturn and decelerating. Space objects don’t decelerate. Spaceships do.
A flurry of top-level government meetings produces the inescapable conclusion: Whatever built that ship is at least 100 years ahead in hard and soft technology, and whoever can get their hands on it exclusively and bring it back will have an advantage so large, no other nation can compete. A conclusion the Chinese definitely agree with when they find out.
The race is on, and a remarkable adventure begins – an epic tale of courage, treachery, resourcefulness, secrets, surprises, and astonishing human and technological discovery, as the members of a hastily thrown-together crew find their strength and wits tested against adversaries both of this Earth and beyond. What happens is nothing like you expect – and everything you could want from one of the world’s greatest masters of suspense.
You will want to love this book. And it’s easy to understand why. There’s a space race to Saturn, the promise of cool alien tech, and a whole mess of us versus them as China and America reach for the stars (sorry, but the pun had to be). The writing and story are solid. They don’t break new ground, but the read is fun, and if you experience disappointment, it’ll be due to what isn’t here rather than what is here. This is to say, you will look up after reading/listening and want more as opposed to wanting less. You will, in the end, like this book.
I wanted more character development. This could have occurred in a longer story, but as it is, the narrative feels too hurried. Yes, pacing in thrillers is essential, but this story would have benefited with more attention to character and less use of political stereotypes.
If you’re in the market for a fun and fast-paced space thriller that teases you with alien technology, I’m pretty confident you’ll enjoy what Saturn Run offers. In the author’s note, it calls attention to the desire to stay as near to science as possible while projecting technology into the year 2066. And so for those of you who enjoy hard science with respect to velocity and gravity, I think you might appreciate the science presented. I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know if the technical specs discussed for one of the spaceship’s engines are accurate, but they are intriguing.
Eric Conger narrates the audiobook. Conger does a fantastic job at reading and staying out of story’s way. I highly recommend the audiobook.
The first half of this book promises more than the second half delivers. And since the fun factor is slightly more than the disappointment factor, I leave feeling mildly amused and entertained.
Posted by Casey Hampton.
Aftermath: Star Wars (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
By Chuck Wendig; Narrated by Marc Thompson
Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: September 04, 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 12 Hours and 16 Minutes
Themes: / Star Wars / rebels / empire /
The second Death Star has been destroyed, the emperor killed, and Darth Vader struck down. Devastating blows against the Empire and major victories for the Rebel Alliance. But the battle for freedom is far from over.
As the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance – now a fledgling New Republic – presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial star destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.
Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former Rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world – war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’ urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is – or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.
Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit – to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies – her technical genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector – who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.
Star Wars Aftermath is the first book of the newly renovated Star Wars timeline to take place after the original movies and it doesn’t live up to the hype that surrounded it. We were enticed by the potential for details of what happens after Return of the Jedi but details of the main heroes are doled out sparingly while the main part of the story involves mostly new characters. This isn’t quite the journey to the Force Awakens I was hoping for.
The main plot follows those new characters, Wedge gets some screen time in there, and we get small glances of the rest of the universe through small little interlude chapters – which are the most interesting parts of the book. We get to find out some hints of interesting things going on elsewhere in the universe and it’s the unclear nature of those hints that make them so interesting.
So what about the main story? It’s fairly standard pulpy Star Wars action that I honestly can’t really remember a whole lot of because nothing particularly stood out. Some of the remnant of the Empire decide to hold a secret meeting somewhere they don’t have firm control (or also not somewhere in deep space) so that Rebels (or New Republic people) could stumble upon them and we could have some nice “stuck on a planet” moments. I’ve seen some criticism of the writing style but I think the main problem this book has is that the plot doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I don’t look for fine writing in a Star Wars book anyway – I look for fun and action.
As for the audio side of things, Marc Thompson and the sound engineers did a great job as per usual. Thompson does a great range of voices and impressions even though he didn’t really get to use many of those impressions in this book. His Wedge sounds a lot more like Luke but Wedge doesn’t really have as much of persona from the movies anyway. The music and sound effects were great as they usually are in Star Wars productions.
Posted by Tom Schreck
Locke and Key
By Joe Hill; adapted by Elaine Lee and Frederick Greenhalgh
Performed by a Full Cast
13.5 Hours – [AUDIO DRAMA]
Produced by: AudioComics for Audible Studios
Themes: / Horror / Magic / Demons / Magic Places /
I was thrilled when I heard that the team at AudioComics was adapting Joe Hill (writer) and Gabriel Rodriguez’ (artist) series of Locke and Key graphic novels as audio drama. I’m even happier now that I’ve heard it – this is high quality stuff. I love audio drama! Time to add Locke and Key to the list of reasons why.
Locke and Key tells the story of the Locke family, who moved into the family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts after a tragedy. Teenagers Tyler Locke (played by Brennan Lee Mulligan) and Kinsey Locke (Jaime Alyse Andrews), younger brother Bode (Betsey Kenney), and their troubled mother Nina (Lisa Stathoplos) live in the house, which has a name: Keyhouse. Once there, the young Bode starts to find keys, each one of which has a special magical power. As the story progresses, the Lockes find themselves protecting the keys from the likes of a killer named Sam Lesser (Haley Joel Osment) and the terrifying demon Dodge, chillingly portrayed by Tatiana Maslany and Ian Alan Carlsen.
The story is both fascinating and horrifying, combining familiar haunted house elements with the surprising magic of the keys. Friendship, betrayal, good and evil, excellent writing, deep characters… it’s a great story as a graphic novel, and this production successfully captures it, the flawless cast and rich sound adding a new and welcome dimension to the whole.
Like I always do with good audio drama, I listened to this with good headphones. There’s a striking depth to the sound in this production. You don’t get the feeling that the actors are standing around in a room reading a script. It’s easy to believe a scene is happening in a cave, or in a house, or outside at night, or wherever. The harder you listen to the background, the more detail you hear. This was achieved by recording the actors on location, as if they were filming a movie. Check out the Featurette at the bottom of the review to see Bill Dufris (director) and Frederick Greenhalgh record groups of actors. The result is so natural. It’s marvelous.
Sound effects are used as well, but don’t dominate the production. I particularly liked the sounds used to convey the use of various keys, and the enhancement of actor’s voices, which was genuinely chilling! The score (by Peter Van Riet) is also well done. I found myself looking forward to the theme.
I had high hopes for this production and they were all met and often exceeded. I would love to hear more of this kind of thing! In the meantime, I’ll be listening to this one again.
This production contains dramatizations of all six Locke and Key graphic novels:
Book 1: Welcome to Lovecraft
Book 2: Head Games
Book 3: Crown of Shadows
Book 4: Keys to the Kingdom
Book 5: Clockworks
Book 6: Alpha and Omega
It’s available FREE from Audible until November. | GET YOUR COPY HERE |
And the Featurette I mentioned above:
Posted by Scott D. Danielson