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
The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires #1)
By Jim Butcher; Narrated by Euan Morton
Imprint: Penguin Audio
Release Date: September 29, 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 21 Hours and 30 Minutes
Themes: / steampunk / magic / airship / fantasy /
Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.
And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake.
Executive Summary: Fast paced action, interesting world building, memorable characters, cool magic system. In a word: fun!
Audio book: This one was coming in with a high bar to meet. Mr. Butcher’s popular Dresden Files gets amazing performances by James Marsters. Meanwhile his Codex Alera series is done by the excellent Kate Reading.
So how does Euan Morton stack up? I’m happy to report quite well. I’ve had this pre-ordered in hardcover for months, but I think I may stick with audio if he continues as the narrator. Great voices and inflections that adds that little extra something that make an audio a great option for this book.
Jim Butcher is my favorite author. I discovered him about 8 years ago, and quickly devoured his Dresden Files books. Then I moved right into his Codex Alera series. For three blissful years there was a Dresden Files book in April and a Codex Alera book in December.
Upon completing Codex Alera, Mr. Butcher’s pace seemed to slow. I found the books as good as ever, or possibly even better, just far less frequent. At first it may anger fans of the Dresden Files that Mr. Butcher is writing something else. I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t.
This book is excellent. I’d be surprised if any fans of Mr. Butcher don’t also enjoy this. And hey, maybe writing two series at the same time will get us more excellent books to enjoy in a shorter period of time. It seems to have worked well for him in the past.
When I first heard of this series, my initial reaction was, Steampunk? Really? I must admit that I never really saw the appeal. I haven’t read a lot of the genre, but what little I had read until recently didn’t seem to be for me. My second thought was Well, I’d read Jim Butcher Twilight fan fiction if that’s what he wanted to write.
The action starts almost right from the beginning. The pace is furious, with very few points of slowing. There was never a good stopping point in my listening and I always hated to put it down. To me that’s what separates a 5 star rating from a solid 4.
We are quickly introduced to several characters. First we meet Gwen Lancaster, a young noblewoman determined to join the Spire Ark’s guard. I had a bit of a mixed reaction to her. There were times I found her frustrating, but it’s good to have a variety of characters, and Gwen helps to round things out nicely.
Next we meet Grim, the Captain of the airship Predator and various members of his crew. Grim is very much of the vein of Harry Dresden, though I see bit of Bernard from Codex Alera in him as well. He’s easily likeable, but far from the best character in my opinion.
Bridget Targwen and her cat Rawl come next. Both are fantastic, especially Rawl. All of the cats are excellent, but especially Rawl. Mr. Butcher’s cats are a bit reminiscent to me of those in Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man Trilogy. He seems to nail cats exactly. And apparently the internet is crazy for cats, so instant bestseller, right?
Finally we meet Master Etherialist Ferris, and his apprentice Folly. Folly is absolutely my favorite! She reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood. All of her scenes are highly entertaining. She’s probably considered more of a secondary character to the first three, but I hope she continues to play a large role in the future books.
And if that’s not enough there are several other secondary and tertiary characters that are all quite good, such as Gwen’s cousin Benedict, members of the Predator: Creedy, Kettle and Journeyman and the Spire Ark himself: Lord Albion.
The antagonists are a bit cartoonish at times, especially Cavendish, but the two main Auroan soldiers felt more nuanced though.
This story is very character-driven, but Mr. Butcher has created a pretty interesting world for them to inhabit. There is very little steam powered anything though. Instead the main resource of note are Ethereal crystals. They power everything from Airships to hand weapons referred to as gauntlets.
Explanations for the world and magic systems are slowly metered out as the book goes on, but there were thankfully few info dumps. Or if there were, I was too busy enjoying myself to notice.
The book is fairly well self contained. Things end in a pretty good spot, especially considering this is the first book in a series. There are plenty of questions left to be answered, but most of the main conflicts of this book are either resolved, or put on hold nicely.
Overall if you enjoy Mr. Butcher other work, or enjoy character-driven faced paced action packed stories, pick this one up. You won’t regret it.
Now I will once again eagerly have to await the next book in two series by Mr. Butcher, much like when I first discovered him. How lucky for us all!
By Michael Crichton; read by Scott Brick
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] 12 CD’s; 15 hrs. 9 min
Themes: / dinosaurs / adventure / cloning / DNA /
An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now humankind’s most thrilling fantasies have come true. Creatures extinct for eons roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and all the world can visit them—for a price.Until something goes wrong.…
I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this book. I guess I’ve always had my reservations because of what an impact the movie had on me as a kid. I was about 9 or 10 when the movie first came out and it blew my mind. As the book likes to point out, boys love dinosaurs and that was true.
As a side note, I’m loving how much my son (5 y.o.) loves dinosaurs. He knows so much more about them than I do, in fact his favorite is the Giganotosaurus, a dinosaur I learned existed from him.
(the hipster’s T-Rex)
Now, I’ll be the first to admit my memory of of the movie is a tad hazy, but from what I do remember, the movie actually follows the book quite a bit, at least up until about 2/3 of the book where either my memory is bad or the books is completely different (oh and Grant loves kids in the book, which is … opposite). More than I would have guessed, which was not a lot.
There’s a little more detail to the initial attacks we see in the movie and it’s not quite as gruesome in parts (and much more gruesome in others). The girl gets attacked by the Compsognathus (little green dinos), or **”compys” as they’re known. **excuse my spelling, I listened to the audio and like Fox news, I don’t feel the need to fact check.
The park is just about ready to open and it’s time to get all the consultants together to make sure it’s on the right track. Thus, Grant and Sattler, Ian Malcolm, the attorney Jennaro, and a couple others are flown in.
Of course, nefarious doings are going on and a competitor wants in on the dinosaur action. In comes Dennis Nedry, who is pretty much spot on copied in the movie. Excellent job Wayne Knight. He’s pretty much built the entire IT system for the park and thus has quite a bit of control over pretty much everything. I don’t remember his involvement in the park being this extensive, but then again, I was 9. There’s a frikkin’ T-REX!!!
As we all know, everything goes to pot and we all know what goes from here. Even though the movie diverges from the book, we all know what goes on from here.
And it’s awesome. I had a blast listening to this book and Scott Brick is such a talented narrator, you don’t even notice him reading. It’s just pure story.
A couple *important* things I wanted to point out… some spoilers for the book:
1. The lawyer, Jennaro, is not as spineless as in the movie, does not get eaten while he’s sitting on the toilet by a T-Rex (okay, that was an awesome addition), and even saves the day at one point by pointing out law that doesn’t exist. (No, this sudden support for the lawyer has nothing to do with the fact that I have an Esq. on the end of my name … perish the thought)
2. Was Lex Murphy that annoying in the movie? I really don’t remember that. She’s super duper annoying in the book.
3. Ian Malcolm’s Chaos Theory should have been cut down like in the movie. There are a number of times he’s going off about it and you’re literally thinking, aren’t there dinosaurs around the corner about to eat them? Does anyone care about any theory at this time besides the theory of escaping dinosaurs? Still a great character, just weird timing of his rants about corporations and such, which I’m not disagreeing with.
(literally the only image you’re allowed to use when referring to Ian Malcolm)
4. So this book was published in 1990 and this book had maybe a total of 15 to 20 people at risk, not counting the rest of the world that could potentially be at risk by dinosaurs escaping. We’re talking people you’re honestly worried about dying or not throughout the book.
Jump to 2015, Jurassic World, and we’ve got an entire park open with thousands and thousands of people at risk. Does that say something about how our society’s penchant for destruction?
5. But seriously, back to Malcolm, Chaos Theory essentially comes down to – because dinosaurs are an unknown, and much like the weather – unpredictable – you’re all screwed and nothing will work right. And then Malcolm gloats. Even while dinosaurs are stalking him.
Now, the opposing argument in the book is that zoos exist so why can’t dinosaurs be kept in a zoo? My problem is that if everyone gave up because there was an unknown then we’d have just about nothing. People go forward with the unknown all the time. Many fail, but that’s how great success comes as well. I guess I’m saying I needed more to this theory and preferably when I can think about the theory and not when DINOSAURS ARE LITERALLY AROUND THE CORNER TRYING TO EAT YOU.
6. Jurassic Park gets lots of crap for providing false ideas as to what dinosaurs actually looked like (see raptors). While it’s true, if you ignore the story, it is explained. You know that whole science part toward the beginning, well they talk about only finding partial DNA and having to graft in DNA from other animals (which actually becomes a huge problem). This would lend toward dinosaurs that don’t actually look like they’re supposed to and I’m fine with that explanation.
I have to say, after 25 years, Jurassic Park really held up well. Lots of the communication issues would be the same problem nowadays because of the fact that they’re on a remote island that cell phones would be problematic on anyway. It helps that a book doesn’t have to actually reproduce computer screens so you can picture those as high tech as you want as long as you ignore the amounts of memory they mention. At least they’re in the gigabytes still.
And most of this I just point out because of how into the book I was. I really had a blast listening to Jurassic Park and I can highly recommend a reading of this classic. One of the few book/movie combinations where I can honestly say I loved both for their own reasons. Now, I need to go track down a copy of that movie. If only there were some online subscription service like Oyster for movies.
4 out of 5 Stars (highly recommended)
Posted by Bryce L.