2012 Sci-Fi Challenge

The first book in the Thursday Next series set in an alternate universe.

Publication year: 2001
Page count: 373
Format: print
Publisher: Hodder

The book is set in an alternate 1985 Great Britain where the Crimean war with the Russians is still going on. Goliath Corporation is the biggest company in Britain and pretty much runs the country. The people are very enthusiastic about art, especially literature, to the point that people change their names to classical poets and instead of door-to-door missionaries, they have the Baconists who go door-to-door and try to convince people that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Also, Welsh is an independent country and since the war is with Russians, it seems that the Soviet Union never existed.

Thursday Next is a veteran of the Crimean war and now a LitraTec, a literature detective, stationed in London with her pet dodo. The original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is robbed in broad daylight and nobody saw anything. Thursday investigates the scene but doesn’t find any clues. Then SO-5 operative contacts her and drafts her into finding the fiendish villain who has stole the manuscript, Acheron Hades. Hades is a psychotic master villain with powers nobody else has and he can even hear it when someone says his name so its use is avoided.

Thursday and two other operatives stake out Hades’ brother’s place and soon Hades shows up. The operatives attack but things go sadly wrong. Thursday is the only operative left alive and Hades escapes again. However, Hades’ getaway car crashes and he’s believed to be dead.

When Thursday is recovering in hospital, she sees a brightly colored sports car appear in the middle of the hospital room and a familiar looking woman shouts to her to take a job in Swindon. Then the car vanished and it takes a few moments for Thursday to realize that the woman was… herself.

Swindon is Thursday’s home town and she’s reluctant to return there. However, she thinks that she should listen to herself and returns.

I really enjoyed the setting of the book; it’s full of little scenes that make me laugh. For example, Thursday goes to see a Richard III play where members of the audience are also the actors and the rest of the audience joins in the performance. Also, Thursday goes to Swindon to replace a LitraTec operative who was “shot to death during a bookbuy that went wrong”. The Swindon office has two officers who specialize on Shakespeare related crimes: “They keep an eye on forgery, illegal dealing and overtly free thespian interpretations. The actor with them was Graham Huxtable. He was putting on a felonious one-man performance of Twelfth Night.” I was laughing out loud, in a bus.

However, Acheron Hades was a bit too much a mustache-twirling bad guy who was doing evil because he liked doing evil. Each chapter of the book starts with a quote from another in-world book or a news article, and in one quote, from Hades’ book (Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit), he even admits that “the best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and lets face it, I am considered something of an expert in this field – is purely for their own sake.” He has some pretty strange assistants, though.

Thursday has a lot of emotional baggage. She fought in the Crimean war ten years ago and her brother was there, too. Thursday survived but her brother didn’t. Also, one of Thursday’s fellow officers said that her brother was steering the attack to the wrong place and her brother got a bad reputation because of that. That fellow officer was Landen Parke-Laine, Thursday’s fiancee. Thursday broke the engagement after that. Landen lives in Swindon so Thursday knows that she has to meet again the man she still loves.

I thoroughly enjoyed Thursday’s uncle Mycroft. He’s an inventor and brought to my mind Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies. However, Mycroft’s inventions involve, of course, literature. He invented the Prose Portal though which a real person can get into a book and a book’s character can go to the real world. The bookworms were also very entertaining.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast weren’t really memorable to me. Despite that, I enjoyed the book and I’m likely going to read the next one, Lost in a Good Book, which to my surprise is in the library.

The third book about the immortal cyborgs who live through human history.

Publication year: 2000
Page count: 332
Format: print
Publisher: Tor

The Spanish Inquisition destroyed Mendoza’s family in the sixteenth century. Then employees of Dr. Zeus Incorporated, from the 24th century, made the child an offer to become part of something larger and wonderful. Mendoza didn’t really have a choice and so she was turned into an immortal cyborg who would live through human history and gather various items and see momentous moments. Mendoza is a botanist and she doesn’t really care for the company of people. She loathes mortal men and can barely tolerate fellow cyborgs. She fell in love with one mortal man when she doing her first mission as a cyborg. It was 1555 in England and Mendoza was very young. The man was Nicholas Harpole, a devoted Protestant, and things didn’t go well. Nicholas was burned at the stake and Mendoza is still haunted by his memory.

The book starts with a brief overview of Dr. Zeus and how the time traveling cyborgs can’t change known history but they can apparently interfere with the lives of unknown people and events. The story is told by Mendoza; it’s her statement to three people.

Mendoza has been living away from people for the past 150 years doing her botanical research. It seems that she’s been happy. However, now she’s been assigned to a more populated area: the outskirts of Los Angeles in 1862. She’s staying at a stage couch inn with five other immortals: the Facilitator Porfirio, Anthropologist Oscar, Zoologist Einar, Ornithologist Juan Bautista, and the Anthropologist Imarte. They’re a very entertaining group. Imarte works as a prostitute because that’s a good way to get men talking about their lives. Mendoza met Imarte before and they don’t like each other. Juan Bautista collects animals before he sends them on to Dr. Zeus and he also rescues a baby condor who then refuses to leave him, ever. Juan Bautista is also still a teenager and he loves his animals very much. Oscar is a traveling salesman and he strikes up a bet with Porfirio that he will be able to sell a very expensive pie cabinet. Unfortunately, the people living in the area are too poor to buy it.

In addition to being a zoologist, Einar is a film buff. The movie industry hasn’t yet started so Einar shows Mendoza the places where all sorts of things will happen in the future. He also arranges viewings for various old films. We also get to know how the others became immortal. Oscar even has a mortal family, his baby brother’s family, and he’s trying to keep them safe.

The first two thirds of the book is about Mendoza getting to know these people and getting comfortable with them. She gets nightmares about Nicholas and she’s producing “crome radiation” during them. The plot doesn’t really kick in until late in the book even though there are a few mysterious events before that. These are probably part of the longer storyline.

The book has a lot of showing rather than telling but that didn’t really bother me, except when Mendoza describes nine hours long movie and her companions’ reactions to it. I was seriously thinking of just skipping it. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it when Oscar told us about his family and Einar told about a strange bar in LA. Maybe it’s because I used to be a Wild West fan in my teens and I’m still somewhat of a history buff.

Mendoza in Hollywood is similar to the previous book, the Sky Coyote, in that there doesn’t seem to be a plot as such, but more like a character study of the various immortals. Luckily, I found that fascinating. In fact, I’ve ordered the rest of the series since the Finnish library system doesn’t have any of Baker’s books.

A stand-alone SF book which was the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner.

Publication year: 1968
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1989
Format: print
Finnish translator: Kari Nenonen
Page count: 169
Finnish Publisher: Jalava

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter working for the San Francisco police. His job is to hunt down and kill any androids who have fled from their owners and come to the SF area. He considers himself a poorly paid civil servant who has to hunt the “andys” to get the bonus money. He’s married but apparently his wife is a housewife. Even though money is tight, neither of them even considers that the wife, Iran, could get a job. The other POV character is J. R. Isidore, a special, a human whose brain functions have been damaged by radioactive dust. He ends up living in the same building as one of the androids.

In this world, Earth has been devastated by a nuclear World War and the nuclear dust has contaminated pretty much everything. Everyone is encourage to emigrate to other planets and everyone who moves away from Earth gets a personal android. Rick hunts down these androids who have escaped from their owners and come to Earth.

Rick hears that his superior, Dave Holden, is in hospital because an escaped andy has shot him. Dave was able to get two of the escaped androids but six more are in SF, pretending to be humans. The androids are of new design, Nexus-6, who are reputed to be hard to find out even with the sophisticated Voight-Kamff empathy test. Rick agrees to retire the androids.

However, first he’s sent to Rosen Industries where he’s supposed to test some suspected androids. Instead he ends up testing Rachael Rosen who is introduced as the director’s niece. Rachael fails the test and the Rosens try to bribe Rick that he would be silent about it. However, it turns out that Rachael is an android after all. Then a Russian agent arrive to SF and wants to hunt the androids with Rick but the Russian turns out to be a android himself. After a brief struggle, Rick kills the android and starts to hunt down the others.

Meanwhile, Isidor works as a driver to a “veterinarian” who repairs artificial animals. However, a new client gives Isidor his pet and Isidor doesn’t realize that the cat is a real animal. It dies on the way to the clinic. The clinic’s owner is livid with Isidor and forces him to call to the client. Isidor knows that his mental abilities are impaired and he’s dreading the call. The client’s wife answers and Isidor is able to deal with her.

When Isidor notices that someone has moved in to the otherwise empty building, he has the confidence to talk with the new person. The new renter, or squatter rather, calls herself first Rachael Rosen and then Pris Sutton. Despite her forbidding attitude, Isidor realizes that he would like to be around other people and strikes up a sort of friendship with her. Mostly, Isidor does think for her, unasked, and she tries to keep him away from her.

The world is pretty depressing. The people who still are on Earth know that they’re stupid to still be there and are pretty hopeless. The people use empathy boxes which link them into other people using the boxes and to Wilbur Mercer whose suffering the people witness when they use the boxes. They also share each others’ emotions, joy and depressions. Mercer and the boxes have even become a religion, Mercerism, where everyone is connected and one with each other. People also use technology to alter their own moods using the Penfield wave transmitter. They also watch TV a lot. Buster Friendly’s show runs 23 hours a day and everyone is watching it.

The radioactive dust has killed off wild animals. Now, it’s every person’s social duty to own an animal and take care of it publicly. The animals are quite expensive so the poorest people have synthetic animals who are so well built that it’s almost impossible to know that it’s fake. Rick has an artificial lamb and he keeps it on the roof of his building, together with his neighbor’s horse. He marvels at Rosen Industries’ animals which even includes an owl which are officially extinct. The Rosen try to bribe him with the owl.

I’ve watched Blade Runner a few times and I’m surprised by how different the movie and the book are. For example, in the book the androids seem to have been built for working in environments where humans can’t work. So there are no battle or pleasure models in the book; in fact sex with androids is illegal.

Rick grows more introspective during the story. At the beginning, he has no problems “retiring” androids but he starts to wonder about the reality of things and people around him. He claims that he can sense when a person is an android because he or she is emotionally cold. However, he meets another bounty hunter who is as cold as the androids. He’s also not really invested in Mercerism and wonders if that makes him emotionally cold. The caring of animals is supposed to make people more empathetic but seems more like a status symbol to me. Isidore’s client’s wife says that her husbands loved the cat so much that he can’t bare to hear that it’s dead; yet the wife is the one who takes care of the cat.

In the middle of the story, there are scenes that invite the reader to wonder if Rick is an android with artificial history and feelings. I wondered about it but Rick never did. He was sure that he’s a real human.

A stand-alone SF book.

Publication year: 1994
Format: print
Page count: 311
Publisher: Puffin Books

Tendai, Rita, and Kuda are General Matsika’s children. They live in Zimbabwe in 2194. Because the General fears that the children will be kidnapped, they have lived their whole lives inside their father’s mansion. The martial arts instructor visits them every week and other teachers teach them through a holophone. Yet, the children are often bored. One day, they scheme to get outside the house. They want to just go to the nearest city, Harare, to explore a little, and get back before the parents even noticed they’re gone. And they would get the Explorer scout merit badges. With the help of their friend the Mellower, they manage to get out. Unfortunately, their father was right; soon they are kidnapped.

The General has a lot of resources but they aren’t suitable for such small targets as the kids. So, Mrs. Matsika decides to hire the only private detectives left in the country: Ear, Eye, and Arm. The three men are friends and they were born with special abilities because of toxic waste near their village. Ear has enormous ears and can hear accurately from long distances away. Eye has extraordinarily sensitive eyes and Arm has very long and strong arms and legs and he can also sense others’ feelings. They are poor and live in the Cow’s Guts district in Harare. The trio is delighted to finally get some work.

There are three point-of-view characters: Tendai, the oldest of the kids is the main pov character. Arm is another pov character and the kid’s mother is also briefly a pov character. Tendai and the other kids have various adventures and they become rather knowledgeable about the city’s underworld. General Matsika, who is also the country’s leader and chief of police, led a war against the gangs. The gangs have been demolished except for the Masks which is widely feared. However, there seems to be a network of child kidnappers operating in Harare even though they aren’t part of a known gang.

The children see how different their rich upbringing is in comparison to the poor who have almost nothing. We also get a glimpse of Resthaven which is a walled village where the inhabitants live their lives as Africans have lived for millenia. Apparently, some think that this is like living in a paradise, unpolluted by modern things. I guess it can be, as long as you’re a man. For the villages’ girls and women who have to do all the boring and nasty work, are married off too young, and die in childbirth, it looks like a very different world. It seems that the girls are also given deliberately less food that boys. And on top of everything, they are constantly told that they are worthless.

The science fiction elements are rather sparse. The rich have robot servants and use holophones and most people use Nirvana guns which put people to sleep instead of killing them, but otherwise the book could have been set into an alternate now. In fact, the book has more elements from myths than SF. Tendai prays to his ancestors and interprets events as answers to his prayers. Some of the ancient beliefs which are still alive in Resthaven seem to be true. The Mellower has the strange ability to hypnotize others with his voice. Spirit medium is a respected profession and it’s a commonly accepted fact that spirits can and do possess people. Most of the time these spirits are benevolent and can give the possessed valuable skills. This mix was unusual and unexpected in an SF book.

The plot was somewhat repetitive with several escapes and kidnappings but I guess that’s usual for YA. Tendai is easily the most complex of the kids. He’s thirteen and he wants to be a warrior, like his father, but when he tries to even practice violence, he always thinks how his victim would feel. This almost paralyzes him and he’s convinced that he’s a coward. Like all the other kids, he’s spoilt and rather self-centered. Yet, he tries to protect his siblings. Rita is the most short-tempered of the three and is quick to irritate even adults. Kuda is a bit too young to have much personality beyond wanting food and entertainment.

A stand-alone alternate history book.

Publication year: 1991
Format: print
Page count: 429
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

The Difference Engine is set in 1885 London in a world were Charles Babbage invented a working difference engine; a computer. The Industrial Radical Party has come to power, led by Lord Byron who has become the Prime Minister. They’ve set up Lordships my merit instead of inheritance.

By 1885 steam engines are everywhere and London’s environment is starting to suffer from the many coal engines. The summer is uncommonly hot and that makes tempers short. Most of the wealthy have fled London but the poor have no other place to go to. People wear face masks to ward off the horrible smell (called the Stink) and the vapors which rise from the Thames. Meanwhile, the land which is USA in our time, is here divided between the Republic of Texas, French Mexico, Republic of California, Russian Alaska, USA, Confederate States of America, and the unorganized territories. Canada is called British North America here.

The book has three different parts. The first follows Sybil Gerard, a daughter of a Luddite leader. After her father’s execution, she’s had to earn her living any way she can. She lives under a false name and is currently a prostitute, although a gentlemens’ escort rather than a street walker. But then one of her customers reveals that he knows her real name and wants her to become his apprentice; an apprentice adventuress. Sybil agrees almost without thinking. This decision leads her into danger. The last 70 or so pages are from the point-of-view of Laurence Oliphant, a journalist and the Queen’s spymaster.

Unfortunately, most of the book is from the pov of Edward Mallory who is an explorer and has a doctorate in Paleontology. His section actually starts deceptively interestingly with a steam gurney race during which Mallory mixes up with shady dealings. But after he comes to London, nothing much happens. He goes around meeting boring people and having boring conversations with them, which are only tangentially related to the plot. The section also contains one of the least appealing sex scenes I’ve ever read. The other time Mallory has sex is mercifully described only briefly. Mallory has a scholarly rivalry with one his collages about whether the huge dinosaurs lived on land or water. That was probably the most entertaining part.

London and it’s people are described wonderfully. There are long descriptions of various places and engines. The desperation and unhappiness that the poor have to suffer comes through wonderfully. It’s just that nothing much happens. For the whole time I had the frustrating feeling that something very interesting is happening in the world, but outside this book. For example, I would have loved to know how Lord Byron managed to overcome his sordid reputation and managed to become the Prime Minister. At the start of his section, Mallory has just returned from an exploration trip from the USA. He’s been digging up dinosaur bones and running guns to the Native Americans. Much more interesting that what happened in the book! Some of my questions were answered during the last 30 pages which were fragments from books, interviews, articles, journals, etc. Sadly even this part succumbs to boredom before long.

The writers have several historical people in the book: John Keats is a kinotropist and is seen only briefly, Texas’ president Sam Houston is in exile in London, Lord Byron’s daughter Lady Ada, the Queen of Engines, is also seen only briefly, and Benjamin Disraeli has a conversation with Mallory. Babbage and Lord Byron are referenced but not seen directly.

The second book in a duology of dark SF books. The first is Darkland.

Publication year: 2007
Format: print
Page count: 292
Publisher: TOR

Bloodmind has four point-of-view characters who are all written in the first person. They are all women and on different planets. I think Vali is in her thirties but the other two are much older. So, I’d call this book quite a rarity among SF.

Vali Hallsdottir is on her home planet Muspell and her story starts right after Darkland ended. She’s just returned to the headquarters of Skald, the intelligence organization she works for. She’s a assassin for Skald. Someone has just brutally killed Idhunn, Vali’s closest friend and the leader of Skald. Then a Darkland organization called the Morrighanu conquers the Skald’s headquarters. Along with everyone else, Vali is taken prisoner. The Morrighanu probe her mind, essentially mind torturing her. With the help of the selk, Vali escapes. The selk take her to Darkland where the selk want Vali to team up with another Darklander whom we saw in the previous book. The Darklander has his own reasons for helping Vali but doesn’t tell them just yet. Vali agrees, reluctantly.

On Mondhile, an old warrior woman feels that she’s near death and so she leaves her clan for the wilderness. She’s hoping that she will find her long lost sister before she dies and she’s also visiting the Moon Moor. When she was young, she went to the Moon Moor and found a strange, high-tech cave underneath it. The Mondhile clans don’t know much technology and the clans ofter fight each other.

One point-of-view characters simply refers to herself as “I” and the chapter headings don’t give any clue to her identity. She thinks herself as a weapon.

On Nhem, men have genetically engineered their women to not be sentient. However, some women manage to awaken and escape their brutal live. They live away from the male dominated cities, in a small colony called the Edge and from time to time, other women manage to escape and travel there. Sedra is the oldest woman living there and the others treat her as their unofficial leader. She’s starting to feel her age because she can’t do anymore some of the things she used to do.

About four hundred women live in the old city. They don’t know who built it or why the builders left but the city is full of images which might depict tall women, and the current settlers call them the goddesses. They don’t have much technology or medicines and the land isn’t fertile, so living is hard.

The Nhemish women are all short, dark haired and dark eyed. One day, a woman with fair skin and hair comes to them. She has made the same dangerous trek as all the others. Sedra briefly fears that she might be a spy but she is still welcomed to the community.

The conditions that the women used to live in are horrific. Perhaps it’s just good that they can’t remember most of their lives before they became sentient and were able to escape. One woman tells that she remembers that the man of the house (called a House Father) killed his slave woman (you can hardly call her a wife) over a broken cup and the woman’s sons dragged her body out laughing. Some years back it was forbidden by law to give girl children names; now they are named for example Boy-Next-Time and Luck-To-Come. Frankly, if the whole book had been about Nhem I don’t think I could have finished it.

On the other hand, I was fascinated by the concept of people who are sentient only part of the time. With the women in Nhem, some of them can become sentient at some point but were apparently born without it. We get a couple of descriptions of awakening sentience and it doesn’t seem to be something the women themselves do. The women are illiterate and also don’t understand language that the men speak.

On Mondhile, things are somewhat similar. Children are born without sentiense and they are left in the wilderness to fend for themselves at six months old. Around 14, they become sentient by coming near a village and the village’s technological defences somehow trigger it. Also, the Mondhile people have an ability called the bloodmind during which they lose their sentience again for a brief time. This can happen in battle but happens also during a yearly event called the masque. Most of the people don’t have any control over it.

The third example is on planet Muspell. The selk, a sea dwelling people/animals, are sentient only part of the year.

I’m not sure I buy sentience being just an ability that can be turned on and off but it’s a fascinating thought. I’m also not sure that I buy that the women of Nhem can do household chores well without self-awareness. Cooking, for example, would have to be pretty basic and mending clothing would also require knowing what you’re doing. To be fair, what we see women doing is scrubbing floors, serving food, carrying things, and being prostituted.

The atmosphere of the book is somewhat different from the previous book, Darkland, which was a more intimate story of Vali confronting her past and Ruen confronting his present. In Bloodmind, on the other hand, the focus is on the future of several groups of peoples.

The pacing is quick, as is usual with Williams, with chapters alternating between pov characters. But Vali still has time to wonder about the motives of the other characters, not to mention her ancient ancestors who started this genetic experimentation.

The ending is somewhat depressing, for me at least.

A stand-alone SF book which is part of the Alliance-Union universe.

Publication year: 1981
Format: print
Page count: 477
Publisher: Daw

Downbelow Station focuses on political machinations and the misery it brings to people. It has over ten point-of-view characters and unfortunately that makes it somewhat chaotic and fragmented. Several different sides are actively scheming and there are also several people who are just caught up in the changing times. Most of the book is set on Pell Station with quick scenes on Downbelow and various ships.

Pell station orbits the planet Downbelow. The planet has an advanced ecosystem and an intelligent native species, the hisa, also called the Downers. The hisa are a peaceful race but sometimes difficult to understand. The planet has several stations which the humans have built to grow crops and work. The humans have also recruited the hisa to work for them.

Pell belongs to Earth Company but it’s a long way from Earth so in reality it operates independently. Now, Union, which is in war with Earth, has taken over Mariner station and Russell’s Star which are stations very close to Pell, and so war has come to Pell. Mazian Fleet is bringing thousands of refugees to Pell from Mariner and Russell’s. Because of humanitarian reasons, Pell has to take them on but in order to do that, several sections of Pell has to be evacuated and turned into Quarantine zone. Most of the refugees have come without papers and are desperate, so the situation is chaotic. Angelo Konstantin and his sons Damon and Emilio are in effect running Pell, and they try to minimize the chaos.

Meanwhile, Angelo’s rival and brother-in-law Jon Lukas has been running the Downbelow dome for four years. Now, he’s unceremoniously called back and Emilio is sent down. Jon is convinced that this is yet another way to undermine his accomplishments. When he hears about the situation on Pell, he tries to take advantage of it.

Norway is the first warship out of the Mazian Fleet to arrive to Pell. In addition to the refugees, Captain Signy Mallory leaves a prisoner of war to Pell. Josh Talley is a Union operative who was caught in Russell’s and Mallory rescued him, sort of. Josh had been tortured by Russell’s security and then been at the mercy of the disciplined but cruel Norway crew and her captain. He doesn’t remember much of his past and requests Adjustment which would wipe his memory but allow him to continue with his life.

One of the point-of-view characters is Kressich who was a councilor at Mariner before Union invaded it. He’s lost his wife and child. A gang of thugs recruits him as their front man. On the face of it, they keep order on the Quarantine Zone, called Q, but also blackmail people and set up a black market. Kressich justifies this to himself that things would be worse without the gang.

These are about half of the point-of-view characters. Then we have a delegation from Earth who has arrived at a very unfortunate time to Pell and some people who deal with the Union side. I’m not entirely convinced all of these POVs were needed. In fact, until near the end I had no idea what Josh was supposed to do. He didn’t remember much of his past so he was a poor choice if the reason would have been giving the Union a human face.

The writing style is somewhat choppy with short sentences and sometimes a little hard to follow. For once, I would have wanted more details and more descriptions.

There’s an interesting difference in culture between the stationers and the merchanters. The merchanters identify themselves with their family name and the ship. When the ship comes to a station the crew can sleep with whomever they want without jealousy but the stationers don’t understand that. The merchanter ships seem to be somewhat reluctant to abandon Pell when the war escalates but they will do it, if needed. The stationers seem to want to grow roots to one place, a station, while the merchanters are happy to fly from one place to another. Damon Konstantin’s wife Elene is a merchanter who is trying out a life on a station. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how it would have worked because of the constant crisis situation.

Then there are the Mazianni, as the people in Mazian’s Fleet are called. The fleet doesn’t have much support from Earth anymore so it seems that they’ve started to raid the merchanters to get supplies. They forcibly take on people, too, whom they think are useful, much like Admiral Cain in the new Galactica (it would be interesting to know if the Galactica writers have read this). The warships are named after Earth countires and continents: Europe, Atlantic, Norway, Africa, Australia… The warships also have four raiders which aren’t capable of FTL jumps (again, like Raptors in Galactica). The warships are used to operating independently from each other, too.

The hisa are an interesting alien species. Apparently, they don’t have the concept of violence until humans came to their planet. They still don’t use violence themselves. We are told that they have strange religious practices but aren’t shown them. They don’t really have technology and they seem to worship the Sun. One of the hisa, Satin, is a point-of-view character but we don’t see much of their culture through her, either. They also don’t speak English very well. In fact, it’s very hard to understand them sometimes. I’m also rather surprised that they don’t have the concept of wife (and presumably husband) but they seem to be pair-bonders. (At least there’s no indication that Satin has more than one mate and there’s even non-violent rivalry between two males over her.)

The mood of the book is quite somber. It’s not a light read. Still, I think that the people trying to take advantage of the situation are very realistic. That’s what you do, when your whole life is threatened.

It was interesting to read Downbelow Station after reading Cyteen because here the Union is seen as the bogeyman who must be fought at any cost. Or if you deal with the Union, it’s the deal with the devil.

French original: De la Terre à la Lune
Finnish translation: Maasta kuuhun
Publication year of the original: 1865
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1958
Finnish translator: Edwin Hagfors
Format: print
Page count: 197

My deep dark secret on the SF front: I haven’t read Verne before. Ever since I saw Back to the Future III I’ve wanted to but never had the real urge until now. Sadly, I was somewhat disappointed.

First off, this isn’t an adventure story. The book tells, in a humorous tone, about a bunch of men who build a really big gun with the intent of shooting it to the Moon. The book is also very much “tell not show”. When there’s a chance of doing an info dump, Verne does it all the way. There’s a chapter devoted to info dump about the Moon and the various superstitions about it, another chapter devoted the how much money each country sent to the endeavor, and even a chapter about the geographical differences between Texas and Florida. When characters are introduced, Verne tells about each of them at length down to their cranial dimensions instead of showing their behavior. The characters, all male, are larger than life and inspire action and confidence in their fellow males.

The Gun Club consists mostly of men who had lost a limb or two to the great war machines but they still want to improve the guns. However, to their disappointment, the world has come to a peaceful period without much of a chance of a major war. During this bleak time the Club’s president, Imprey Barbicane, thinks up the idea to shoot at the moon. This idea energizes not only the members of the Club the whole America, and shortly the whole world. Barbicane himself designs the enormous cannon and equally huge projectile. The whole America follows the undertaking.

In addition to the brilliant and charismatic scientist Barbicane, the book has few other characters: T. J. Maston is the Club’s secretary and Barbicane’s loyal follower, Captain Nicholls is Barbicane’s bitter rival (being a metal armor designer while Barbicane designs guns), and the French Michel Ardan who is the first to want to fly to the Moon.

After halfway through the novel, the idea is introduced that people might want to ride in the projectile. First the idea is jeered as impossible but in the end three men, and two dogs, climb into the projectile.

Some of the dialog in the book, if not most of it, is lecturing rather than actually dialog. People lecture to each other about the Moon and even deduce that there must be air on it. The three astronauts even bring seeds and saplings with them to plant them on the Moon.

The book also ends in a cliffhanger.

Sadly, to me this book hadn’t aged well but it could also be Verne’s style which seems to pay meticulous attention to details. I’ve read a bunch of books from H. G. Wells which felt much more modern. Dracula and Frankenstein from the same era were also more enjoyable.

The upcoming movie made me read this one.

Publication year: 2008
Format: print
Finnish translator: Helene Butzow
Page count: 335
Publisher of the Finnish translation: WSOY

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 where the main industry is coal production. Like all the other men, her father worked in the coal mines but he was also a great singer and a woodsman who could hunt and knew all the edible plants. Unfortunately, he died in a mining accident years ago and it fell on young Katniss to support her mother and younger sister. Now 16 year old Katniss hunts in the nearby forest and is in danger of being killed if the local authorities decide to interfere. So far, they’ve liked the rabbit meat and strawberries too much to care. She hunts with his best friend Gale whose father has also died and who supports several younger siblings. Life is tough but somehow manageable.

It’s time for the Harvest, when two kids between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen to journey into the Capitol and take part in the Hunger game. The game has two participants, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 Districts and only one of them will survive the brutal game which will be performed in front of cameras for all to see. The wealthier Districts train their candidates, call tributes, to survive the game but District 12 is too poor for that. Only once has candidate from District 12 won.

During the lottery, the unthinkable happens: Katniss’ younger sister is chosen and Katniss volunteers so that Prim doesn’t have to die. She barely knows the other District 12 tribute who is the baker’s son Peeta. They have no choice but to step into the train which will take them to Capitol. Peeta and Katniss have two helpers: Haymitch who is the only tribute from District 12 to win and Effie Trinket from Capital who will teach the two youngsters to perform in front of cameras. Unfortunately, Haymitch is a drunk and Effie seems to be pretty ineffective.

A big part, perhaps the biggest part, of the game isn’t surviving on the arena itself. Before the teenagers are put on the arena to kill each other for viewers’ pleasure, they have to perform for the audience. They have to try to interest rich people enough that they will aid the tributes during the game. This means short interviews and a parade in various costumes. For the viewers, it’s very much a game and nobody seems to care that the contestants are actually dying. The arena is an artificial construct and the game admins control every aspect of it.

The book has excellent pacing; I was barely able to put it down during a stressful work week. The characters are engaging. Katniss might seem brutal at times but she has to be in order to survive. She has to take advantage of every opportunity, every slight edge. Yet, she’s human and can’t help but to be moved by others’ struggles. She has an edge because she’s already an excellent hunter and is used to supporting herself in the wild. She has a temper which she’s learned to keep in check but it also drives her forward in a situation where others might break down. She’s a fighter and she’s learned not to trust anyone. In contrast it was interesting to see that Peeta isn’t a fighter, really. He’s baker’s son and his strengths lie elsewhere.

I was a bit surprised when it turned out that the part set in the arena wasn’t just brutal fighting all the time. There’s that, too, characters dying and killing, but mostly it’s focused on survival: hiding and finding food and water. This was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the things near ending were very convenient, even a cop-out. But I’ve heard enough about the series that I guessed something like that was coming. However, there’s also no hard choices for Katniss during the game and that was a bigger disappointment.

The book has a lot of social commentary. The Hunger game is, of course, a critique of the current day reality TV and also a commentary on the way that the viewers distance themselves from what they see on TV, no matter if they’re watching fiction or a report from real war. There’s also a deep divide between the rich people in Capitol and the District people who die of hunger if they are hurt or too old to work. The District people are forbidden to hunt or forage in the woods around them. (Frankly, I found it unlikely that only two people would be illegal hunters; surely there must have been many more doing it.) Even in the Districts there’s a divide between the merchants who are seen as well off and the poor laborers. This all shows how corrupt the people in power are.

The book ends with an uncertain future for our heroes but not really in a cliffhanger unless you’re a romance reader.

A stand-alone scifi book which is a re-imagining of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. I haven’t read Little Fuzzy but it’s part of the audio book so I will listend it soon.

Publication year: 2011
Format: Audio
Publisher: Audible
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Running Time: 7 hrs and 19 minutes

Jack Holloway is an independent contractor for ZaraCorps. He and Carl are looking for valuable minerals to mine from a planet without natural intelligent life. The planet does, however, have a lot of various animals, some of them quite dangerous. Jack is a disbarred lawyer who enjoys working all by himself, with Carl. He tends to speak before thinking so he doesn’t really have any friends and has pretty much alienated everyone at ZaraCorps’ local base, even his ex-girlfriend.

Jack has trained Carl, his dog, to set off explosives against ZaraCorps’s regulations and when Carl blows up yet another site, the whole cliff wall collapses. This is against all environmental regulations which ZaraCorps has to follow. Chad Borne, a ZaraCorps’s representative, is furious and fires Jack. However, the collapsed cliff wall has a big stash of sunstones, one of the most highly prized luxury items in the universe. They come from fossilized jellyfish. Because Jack isn’t working for ZaraCorps anymore, technically he owns the find. Borne agrees to give Jack 0,4% of the profits instead of usual 0,05% as a contract prospector.

When Jack returns to his house, which is outside the base, he realizes that a cat like creature has somehow gotten into his house. Except that the cat thing walks on two legs. Jack dubs the creature a fuzzy. Soon, the fuzzy brings more of its kind with it to Jack’s house and Jack decides that they are a family and names them accordingly. The fuzzies seem to be very intelligent. Jack talks about them to his ex-girlfriend Isabelle who is a biologist for the company. She thinks that the fuzzies could be intelligent. If they are, they would be a huge problem for the company because it can mine the planet only so long as there’s no native intelligent life forms on it.

The story is written in a very humorous way in tight third POV. Jack is a witty main character which is a good thing because he isn’t very likable. He seems to enjoy irritating other people, he lies when it suits him, he has no problem undermining his ex’s career, and he’s greedy (well, okay, who wouldn’t be?). Yet because of the humor, this isn’t obvious.

Sometimes he does inexplicable acts of kindness such as feeding the first fuzzy and saving it from Carl. He himself doesn’t know why he did it. Later, we see that he has some morals and lines he doesn’t cross which makes him a bit more palatable.

Most of the secondary characters are corporate employers who want to protect their job or who bully other people because they can. Most of them are quite unlikable. Isabelle is a notable exception to this with her idealistic views of environment and treatment of other people. And Carl is of course a great character, loyal to his master and friendly with others.

Near the start of the book there are a few infodumps. However, they are entertaining to listen to, so they didn’t slow the book down much. We’re told about the human workers on the planet and about the various laws ZaraCorps has to obey. For example, ZaraCorps doesn’t do science as such, just exploitation of the various planets because scientific research doesn’t produce money.

We are told the humans have encountered a few alien species but only two of them have been proven to be intelligent. With both of them the key was that they could talk. I find this fascinating and possibly very human-centric because it’s possible for species to communicate in other ways than speech. Of course, it’s a completely different issue if humans want to give intelligent status to species which doesn’t communicate via speech or how effective such communication would be when building an (advanced) society.

One of the book’s themes is how humans would treat other planets (strip mining) or other species (badly). Then again, people also treat each other miserably. There are glimmers of hope but as a whole it give rather a pessimistic view of the human race as focused on themselves only and on the individual level, getting as much money as they can and the rest of the universe can go to hell.

I enjoyed Wheaton’s narration. He reads quicker than many of the other narrators I’ve listened to so far and sounds very enthusiastic. However, at time it was a bit surreal because I was reading Star Trek books at the same time. 🙂

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