2013 Science Fiction Experience

The fourth book in the series.

Publication year: 2001
Page count: 298
Format: print
Publisher: TOR

Lots of spoilers for the previous book, Mendoza in Hollywood!

At the end of the previous book the Botanist Mendoza was sent far away. Two other immoral cyborgs, Joseph and Lewis, are searching for her. Joseph recruited Mendoza from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition and Lewis has apparently fallen in love with her. In addition to having some fatherly feelings toward Mendoza, Joseph is driven by guilt. For a long time, he has known that something is wrong. The cyborg who recruited him, one of the really old ones named Budu, has also disappeared but Budu gave Joseph a file first. Joseph has been too afraid to access it but now he’s forced to do so and he’s afraid of the information he finds there.

The story starts in Hollywood 1996. In the previous book Mendoza and another cyborg, Einar, were thrown forward in time from 1863 to 1996. This should be impossible but it turns out that Mendoza produces Crome particles which enable time travel. But she can’t control it.

Lewis witnesses Mendoza and Einar being sent back to 1863 where they are suppose to be. The Company doesn’t tell Lewis much about it but he investigates on his own. This is dangerous because he’s defying Company’s orders not to do so and the Company can and does monitor the cyborgs all the time: they have been engineered to send a continuous data stream to the Company. Lewis contacts Joseph who has accidentally gotten on his hands a device that can short circuit the data stream for a day. Joseph and Lewis question the last immortal who saw Mendoza. Later, Joseph questions another of the group who was stationed with Mendoza.

However, it takes a long to find out any clues about where Mendoza is and what else the Company is hiding, especially because it has to be in secret. The story takes place in 2025, 2142, 2225, and 2275. Lewis and Joseph meet and compare notes. We also find out a lot about the changes in the world. By the way, while the story jumps forward in time, the characters live through the years normally (if that’s the word for immortal cyborgs).

Between each jump forward in time, there’s an interlude called “Joseph in Darkness” where he talks about the search, about his motives and feelings and about the changes in the world. To other people they probably feel like infodumps but I was fascinated. We don’t, of course, know the details about how most of the world became vegetarian, for example, but I enjoyed the broad strokes, too.

Lewis is a Literature Specialist, not a secret agent. He becomes fascinated with the mortal man, Edward, who looks just like Mendoza’s first (and only) mortal love. Who was burned at the stake in 1554. In 1863 Mendoza left her post and killed mortals because of Edward. Lewis becomes convinced that Edward is some sort of Company tool, somehow living for centuries even though he’s suppose to just a mortal. Eventually, Lewis starts to write a book where Edward is one of the central characters. We also get to know his back story.

Joseph is a more serious character. He doesn’t actually want to be in danger but in the end, he feels too guilty about not find Mendoza and Budu earlier. He’s lived a long time and he doesn’t have a high opinion on humans.

The book has quite a lot of humor. In the future alcohol, tobacco, chocolate, and animal products have been made illegal and so the cyborgs do their best to indulge while they can. They can’t actually get drunk but chocolate produces the same kind of effect. So, there’s a scene where Lewis and Joseph are in a chocolate bar, drinking hot chocolate and eating chocolate, and the waiters wonder why they behave like they’re drunk. Lewis even snorts chocolate powder up his nose.

The previous books have hinted that the Company is doing pretty awful things but here we witness some of them first hand. Apparently, they’ve even taken a hand in human evolution. When humans still lived in caves, there was a large cult who killed anyone who tried to invent anything new. The Company decided that the cult should be exterminated and created a race of huge, aggressive cyborgs to essentially kill other people. Unfortunately, after a while they became too inconspicuous and the Company couldn’t have that. Unfortunately for the Company, the cyborgs can’t be killed so the Company had to something else with them. It seems that the Company don’t value the cyborgs as individuals but just for the work they do.

And then there’s the ominous year of 2355 when the silence starts.

The Graveyard Game advances the big plot a lot which was great. Mendoza isn’t seen in the book at all.

The second book in the Vorkosigan series, in the internal chronological order when Falling Free is considered a prequel novel. Part of Cordelia’s Honor omnibus.

Publication year: 1991
Format: Audio
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Running Time: 11 hours 40 minutes

The Vorkosigan series is one of my favorite series ever and Barryar is one of my favorites in the series. I strongly recommend reading “Shards of Honor” first where Aral and Cordelia meet, and their worlds are introduced.

Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is a former exploration ship captain from Beta Colony but is now married to Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan who has been appointed the Regent of planet Barrayar. Cordelia comes from a very different culture and she’s still trying to navigate the strange Barrayaran culture. She’s especially lost among the high military caste Vor who have some pretty strange attitudes and customs, from Cordelia’s point-of-view.

She’s pregnant with their first child. Aral is attacked with a soltoxin in their bedroom and Cordelia is exposed to the gas, too. Unfortunately, the toxin deforms the unborn child and Aral’s father wants them to abort the child and try again. However, Cordelia doesn’t give up. Over her father-in-law’s loud objections, but backed by her husband, she has the fetus transferred to a uterine replicator, an artificial womb. In the UR, the doctors can try to correct the damage done to the fetus. At the same time, a civil war breaks out on the planet and the UR becomes one of the hostages.

The start of the book is pretty leisurely with Cordelia trying to figure out Barrayaran culture and getting to know the dowager Empress Kareen and her five-year-old son Gregor. The poor boy is already a pawn in political games but he isn’t spoiled or coddled. Kareen is also a pawn, but she knows it and she’s determined to protect her son and herself. Some of the recurring characters in the series are introduced here: Cordelia’s bodyguard and a very good friend Droushnakovi and Lady Alys Vorpatril who is Cordelia’s guide in the Barrayarn culture and etiquette. It was also a bit strange to see how Aral’s father Count Piotr treated Cordelia before the soltoxin attack. He was one of her guides to the Barrayaran mindset and very kind towards her. Then, after the attack his attitude changes completely, which is sad.

I’m an unabashed fan of Cordelia: her anthropological attitude towards the Barrayarans, her wry humor, and her fierce loyalty to her family. She’s also ruthless when she has to be, to protect her unborn son in any way she can. She’s very resourceful but that could be because she’s grown up in a society where she could be whatever she wanted to be. She doesn’t know that on Barrayar she should be constrained by her gender, and so she isn’t. Of course, being the wife of the most powerful man on the planet helps, too.

Aral is also one of my favorite characters ever. He’s an honorable man who was put into a very dishonorable situation in “Shards of Honor”. Here, he’s still loyally serving his Emperor as a Regent to a five-year-old Emperor. He has every intention of serving well and giving the empire back to Gregor when the time comes, but his enemies are convinced that Aral will take over. So, they launch an attack first.

Both Cordelia and Aral are good people, trying to do the right thing with circumstances and culture which is making it very hard.

I also adore the secondary characters. Count Piotr has lived a turbulent life, earning his Generalship during the fight (with horse cavalry!) against the Cetagandan invaders, making the transition to space flight, and seeing Mad Emperor Yuri kill his wife and eldest son. He surely knows how bloody Barrayaran wars can be. Lieutenant Kou who was wounded during the previous war and has to walk with a cane for the rest of his life in a society where cripples are expected to kill themselves. Cordelia’s bodyguard Drou who would have made an excellent officer, but who lives on planet with males only military. She always thinks that she isn’t as good as the “real officers” because of her gender. And tortured Sergeant Bothari who was used and abused by men with the power to do so.

The book has lots and lots of lovely passages:
“You should have fallen in love with a happy man, if you wanted happiness. But no, you had to fall for the breathtaking beauty of pain”
“Check your assumptions. In fact, check your assumptions at the door.”
“What a strange mix Barryar was: at one moment homey and familiar, the next terrifying and alien.”
“Suicidal glory is the luxury of the irresponsible. We’re not giving up. We’re waiting for a better opportunity to win.”
“I don’t want power. I just object to idiots having power over me.”
“Betan experience [with URs] suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.”

French original: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers
Finnish translation: Kapteeni Nemo merten syvyyksissä
Publication year of the original: 1870
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2011
Finnish translator: Kristina Haataja
Format: print
Page count: 287

In 1866 many people on sailing ships have seen a mysterious sea monster and it has even damaged some ships. People in many countries are speculating what the strange, gigantic creature could be. Soon, the US sends a ship to end the creature’s threat to the ship lines. The ship’s captain invites professor Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and a famous Canadian harpooner Ned Land.

The ship Abraham Lincoln searches the seas for months until it finds the monster. At first the creature astonishes the men with its speed, because no matter how fast the ships goes, it can’t reach the monster. However, when the ship’s captain fires on the beast, it turns out to be bulletproof, too.

During the battle professor, his servant, and Ned Land are washed over board. After drifting for a night, they end up on the beast’s back and realize that it’s not an animal but a man made submarine. They are taken prisoner and taken into the gigantic submarine. They are locked into a small room, but given a good meal. After a day and night, they meet the ship’s captain: Captain Nemo is handsome, tall fellow and he allows the professor to have full access to his wondrous ship, the Nautilus. Aronnax is a scientist and he’s immediately fascinated by the many exploration opportunities Nautilus represents. He’s also curious about Nemo but the captain doesn’t answer any questions about himself. He just says that he has abandoned humanity and that the three men will be his guests for as long as they shall live.

Nautilus begins a long voyage under the seas of all the Earth’s oceans and Aronnax witnesses eagerly all of the wonders Nemo shows to him. They range from fish to underwater ruins and wrecks.

The characters have more personalities than in “From Earth to the Moon” or “Around the Moon”. They aren’t complete archetypes but I still feel that they are quite detached from the reader and they are still more a vehicle for moving the story along than real characters. Aronnax is happy to study everything outside the Nautilus but he doesn’t think even once about the people who might be missing him nor about the world and career he has left behind. He’s not even dismayed at the thought of being cut off from the rest of the humanity. Instead, when Ned Land comes up with escape plans, Aronnax is dismayed at the thought of leaving Nautilus. Conseil is even more of an archetype: he seems to have no life or thought beyond serving his master or cataloging animals. Ned Land seems to me to be the most human of the trio. Right when we meet him, he’s described as hot-blooded and indeed he yells and bellows and demands to be let out. He’s also very interested in hunting and is constantly trying to escape the submarine. Yet, even he doesn’t mention a family or friends in the outside world.

Captain Nemo seems to be a very cold and rational man, except for this hatred of mankind. However, right at the start he says that he’s no longer part of mankind and has no interest in them. Then, he does little things that show the reader that he isn’t an uncaring man. However, in the end we don’t find out his real name, just a hint of the great tragedy which shadows his life.

Like the previous two books I’ve read from Verne, this isn’t a modern adventure tale. It’s more like a travel book where the professor gapes at the fish and the undersea beauties of corals rather than the strange customs of other cultures.

The first book in the SF trilogy set in the year 2062.

Publication year: 2005
Page count: 324 + a preview of Scardown
Format: print
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Genevieve, Jenny, Casey is a veteran of the Canadian Army. Twenty-five years ago she was in a helicopter accident which should have killed her. Instead, the army replaced her left arm with a metal arm, replaced her left eye with a targeting scope, and put first generation cybernetics into her. She still has flashbacks and nightmares about the accident.

Now, she lives in Hartford, runs a small mechanics shop, and goes by the name Maker. The local gangster boss, Razorface, is a good friend and when he brings in one of his boys who has taken tainted drugs, Jenny realizes that the drugs come from the Canadian Army and shouldn’t be on the streets in the first place. She starts to look into who had brought the drug to US and why. Also, her implants are starting to break down. She’s in constant pain and her neurologist is saying that she might have only five years left to live. However, what she finds out is that her former boss, Valens, wants her back, doing something that’s more dangerous than anything else she’s ever done. It might have something to do with a spaceship that the Canadians found on Mars ten years ago.

The plot follows a lot of other people and a bit fragmentary at first. Doctor Elspeth Dunsany has just been released from jail where she has been for the past 16 years because of her work with artificial intelligences. One of the AIs has become independent and is roaming the net, looking for information.
The AI has been modeled after the physicist Richard Feynman. Elspeth is also pressured into working for Valens on a top-secret project.

A 12-year old kid is playing a virtual reality game in the hopes of getting the grand prize: a full paid scholarship. The object of the game is to become a pilot.

Casey’s other friend is a cop who whose girlfriend has just been murdered and he’s looking into it even though it might cost him his badge.

Unfortunately, many of the characters start as clichés, especially the gangster boss who just wants what’s best for the people in his neighborhood. However, most of them evolve into more than a bag of clichés and become characters who the reader might care about. Unfortunately, the cop and the gangster boss never engaged me but apparently other readers liked them. However, for me Jenny and Elspeth are the most interesting characters.

Jenny is almost fifty and she feels that she has no business still being alive. People she cares about are dead and she isn’t really interested in living anymore. She thinks of herself as a cripple and when her old boss gives her a chance to upgrade the failing implants, she doesn’t want to do that. She’s trying to help Razorface and his boys, and is mostly interested in finding dirt about her former boss so that he can be brought to justice.

Elspeth is a scientist who is more interested in science than morals, mostly. She made several AIs based on famous scientists (one of the others was Nikola Tesla) but she was then a bit dismayed when she found out that one of them has grown to independence. She had a lot of time to think about in jail and now she’s working for the same people again.

The writing style is a bit choppy. The book doesn’t have chapters, just POV changes which are prefaced by time and date. Each POV is usually just a couple of pages long, resulting in really short scenes and then going to the next one. Jenny’s POV is in first person, present tense and the rest are in third person, past tense which didn’t really work for me because they drew too much attention to the tense and first/third person shifts and made the complex plot seem a little bit more convoluted.

Still, the pace is quick and we soon find out that the VR game is something more and that everyone is connected to each other. I liked figuring out the SF references and influences. The world feels very similar to BladeRunner and Casey lives in Sigourney Street and Canada has Clarke Station in orbit.

The world seems to be a dystopia. The weather patterns have changed and so the world has changed, too. US is no longer a world power but more isolationist. Canada has been more or less taken over by a big corporation which runs the country. Canada is in a space race with the Chinese who are presented as a threat.

Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the cyperpunk style: a setting were everything is miserable and you’re going to die young, anyway. I was actually more interested in the side plot of the spaceship than the scheming. It seems like the sequel will have far more space travel.

French original: Autour de la lune
Finnish translation: Maasta kuuhun
Publication year of the original: 1870
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1977
Finnish translator: Edwin Hagfors
Format: print
Page count: 179 (in an omnibus of From Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon), illustrated

I didn’t much care for “From Earth to the Moon” but it ended in a cliffhanger so after I fortified myself with various comics and tie-in books, I finally picked up the sequel. Happily, it ended up being more to my taste.

In the previous book a huge projectile was launched towards the Moon with the intention of hitting the Moon. In the end, three men decided to get into the projectile: the Gun Club’s president Barbicane, his enemy Captain Nicholls, and an adventurous Frenchman Michel Ardan. They want to be the first Earth men on the Moon and establish contact with any humans living on the Moon. They bring with them food, two dogs, and various seeds to plant on the Moon. They are supposed to make the trip in five days.

During the voyage, they actively talk about what they are likely to find on the Moon and make observations. They even encounter a comet. However, they soon find out that something has gone wrong with their projected path and instead of landing on the Moon, they are going to just go around it, perhaps infinitely. Even so, they are determined to make observations and calculations rather than succumb to despair.

I felt that the book was less technical than the previous book which had a lot of details about building the huge gun, where the put it, who would finance it etc. The book still has a couple of chapters devoted to maths and the history of Moon knowledge. Still, I thought the pace was far faster than in the previous book and there was a lot of actual interaction between the characters. Of course, the cast of characters is pretty limited.

The book was written in 1870 so many of the details of space travel are wrong. For example, at one point the characters open one of their windows and are not blown into space or significantly chilled. In a less science oriented book this would have been less noticeable but here the “errors” (this is fiction after all) jump out.

The three men are archtypical of the time: adventurous, bold, rarely even nervous. They are more interested in scientific study than if they will survive the trip. Arden is more talkative and less knowledgeable than the others and I had a feeling that he’s there because it’s a convenient way to explain things to the readers, when Barbicane and Nicholls explain things to Arden. In fact, the Moon and the voyage itself are the main features of the book, not the characters.

The first B5 book which is set during the second season of the science fiction show Babylon 5, before Bester’s second appearance (A Race Through Dark Places).

Publication year: 1995 (during season 2)
Page count: 246
Format: print
Publisher: Boxtree

The Psi Corps are going to have a convention. At first, it was going to be held on Mars, in a luxury hotel but a new group of Martian terrorists blow it up. So, military liaison and telepath Harriman Gray (last seen in the episode “Eyes”) gets the bright idea to change it to Babylon 5. Captain Sheridan thinks it’s a fine idea and a chance to brighten the station’s rather mixed public image. Commander Ivanova and Security Chief Garibaldi can’t stop it, so 400 telepaths are going to come to Babylon 5, including mister Bester and Harriman Gray. Joy! Not.

Most of the telepaths coming to B5 are working in the commercial sector but about 100 Psi Cops and some military telepaths are coming, too. Harriman seems to have a huge crush on Ivanova and he almost stalks her. Talia Winters is happy to see other telepaths and she even gets a job offer which would take her away from B5.

I started giggling aloud when I realized what the premise was: it’s such a juicy idea. Of course, they couldn’t actually change anything so a fistfight between Ivanova and Bester was out but otherwise I expected to be very entertained. And mostly I was. I was a bit disappointed that when G’Kar had a fistfight with one of the telepaths in a bar, we saw only the aftermath but that was entertaining, too. Garibaldi giving a tour of the Down Below to the sheltered telepaths, and Talia, was great.

Harriman, Garibaldi, and Talia are the main POV characters. I was very interested to see more of Talia who I think was underused in the show.

The first half of the book is entertaining and the character interactions seem ok to me, except that a couple of time they changed their minds pretty quickly. However, the second half of the book isn’t set on B5 and we meet new characters. The characters’ moods and motivations change quickly and I was baffled by some of the choices they made. One group of people seemed pretty out of place to me.

Unfortunately, I was a bit distracted by Vornholt’s writing style. For some reason he tends to avoid using characters’ names and instead uses brief descriptions like “the young telepath” or “the statuesque woman”. Also, even I know that Mars isn’t a hot planet (and I was 100% Arts student). Vornholt also uses pretty juvenile humor.

Sadly, the book started promisingly but couldn’t live up to B5 standards I’m used to.

The Science Fiction Experience is here again!

And so I officially welcome you to The 2013 Science Fiction Experience, which runs from January 1st, 2013 through February 28th, 2013.

The “rules” of the experience are simple: there are none. Remember, this isn’t a challenge. If you would like to join us in discussing any science fiction reading or television viewing or movie watching you do over the time period, please do. Although signing up isn’t required, nor is posting your reviews, I do like to be able to keep up with folks who are participating, so there will be a Mr. Linky at the end of this post and there is a Sci-Fi Experience Review Site for you to link any SF-related posts of any kind that you would like the other participants to check out. Again, this doesn’t have to be entirely book related. It really is about experiencing science fiction (and even non-fiction having to do with space or technology) of all kinds.

I’ll be reading and reviewing a bunch of SF books during the next two months.
1, John Vornholt: Babylon 5: Voices
2, Jules Verne: Around the Moon
3, Elizabeth Bear: Hammered
4, Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas
5, Lois McMaster Bujold: Barrayar
6, Kage Baker: The Graveyard Game

Reading Pool:
Elizabeth Bear: Hammered, Worldwired Scardown
Kage Baker: The Graveyard Game
Timothy Zahn: Cobra
Jules Verne
and lots of others