June 2011

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Ragamuffin by Tobias BuckellAs I mentioned in my review of Crystal Rain, I enjoyed reading Tobias Buckell’s debut novel, but I enjoyed reading the sequel, Ragamuffin (Tor, 2008), even more. This may be because Buckell has grown as a writer or it may be because Ragamuffin is more a traditional galaxy-spanning space opera, one of my favorite subgenres. But another reason is that there are more prominent libertarian themes in Ragamuffin than there were in Crystal Rain, enough that it was a finalist for the 2008 Prometheus Award.

Where Crystal Rain was set on a lost colony planet mostly devoid of advanced technology, Ragamuffin opens on an advanced planet ruled by an alien race called the Gahe, who are themselves a client race under the rule of the secretive Satraps. Human beings are officially “free” in the “benevolent” Satrapy, but in fact are forced to live on the margins of society — on space stations in the middle of nowhere, on interdicted planets cut off from the rest of the galaxy by collapsed wormholes (including Earth itself), or on reservations. On the Gahe planet, Astragalai, humans who don’t want to serve in the role of intelligent pet for a Gahe master must live on a reservation, which they can only leave when granted a temperary “human safety” pass. Woe to the human who does not return to his reservation before his temporary pass expires: the penalty is death or enslavement.

We are first introduced to the protagonist of the novel, Nashara, on one such reservation called Pitt’s Cross. Fans of Pepper and John from Crystal Rain will be increasingly disappointed not to see them at the outset, so I think it is best to go into this novel with the foreknowledge that characters from Crystal Rain do not make an appearance until about halfway through. Still, Nashara does quickly grow on you and you will get to see Pepper open a big ol’ can o’ whoop ass eventually, so hang in there. And if it’s Pepper-style whoop ass you’re after, Nashara will not disappoint.

So, anyway, Nashara escapes Pitt’s Cross and rides on an orbital skyhook and transport pod up to a space station to meet up with a group, the revolutionary League of Human Affairs, for whom she had just completed a dangerous job. The League wants to overthrow the Satrapy and achieve real freedom for humanity. But Nashara’s loyalties lie elsewhere and she has a greater mission to accomplish. Things don’t go as planned, but Nashara manages to hitch a ride on a spaceship and proceeds to be hunted in a race across the galaxy by agents of the Satrapy.

[Keep reading…]

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons

I found Hyperion to be the kind of book I hope every book will be when I first crack it open. This came as a mild surprise, given that it is modeled after The Canterbury Tales, in which a group of pilgrims take turns telling their stories of how they came to the pilgrimage. It is not a structure that thrills me, but the book is so well written, the world so well-conceived, and the stakes so unique and important that I found myself agreeing with the general critical acclaim that has been heaped upon it through the years. It is unquestionably one of the best scifi novels I have ever read.

In the world of the story, Earth has long since been destroyed and humans have colonized much of the galaxy. Most worlds are connected by worm holes, though a few exist outside this system; one such world is Hyperion. On Hyperion lives the Shrike, a mysterious creature that lives to kill. It is customary for some to make a pilgrimage to where the Shrike wanders, and when the Shrike finds a group of pilgrims it kills all but one member who may then petition it. This custom, at the time of the story, has almost been abandoned, but a group is put together for one last pilgrimage as a hoard of Ousters — nomadic humans who have taken to living in zero gravity and evolved into a different species — nears the planet and prepares to attack.

The setting for the story is richly imagined, on a level with Dune, Middle Earth and other such classics. The tales of the various pilgrims take us to many different worlds, and each becomes, as it is presented to us, distinct through the grand conception and the fine details. The planet of Hyperion is especially well conceived, with enough variety, plausibility, history and ingenuity to make us wonder if it might not actually exist somewhere. It holds the Time Tombs, grand and enigmatic structures that are moving backwards in time. There is a sea of tall grass that resembles a proper sea from afar, but none may cross it on foot because of the serpents that inhabit it. There is the abandoned Poets’ City, whose inhabitants were slaughtered by the Shrike. The other worlds are also differentiated. That old cliché in scifi in which each planet has one defining characteristic — and probably one culture, one language, one government — has given way to something more realistic in recent decades, and Hyperion is a prime example of this welcome trend.

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