Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dune (Frank Herbert)

(The Dune Chronicles, Book 1)
Frank Herbert
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION:  The sandswept world Arrakis, where even the most rarified desert creatures struggle to survive on the storm-swept surface, would be an interstellar backwater save for one thing.  It, alone of all the planets in the Imperium, produces the spice known as melange.  With it, human lives and mental capacities are extended to phenomenal levels.  But gathering spice is no simple feat.  Great sandworms devour the massive harvesting machines.  Rebellious Fremen, humans gone wild in the harsh landscape, harry efforts at expansion.  Standard weaponry and energy shields are useless at best and worm-bait at worst.  Many who come to Arrakis never leave... at least, not in this life.  For years, the brutal House Harroken has ruled with iron fist and bloodied sword, reaping the profits of the spice, but now their archrivals, House Atriedes, have been granted Arrakis.  The gift is a viper in a velvet box, for Arrakis is perhaps the perfect place to do away with a lord grown too ambitious in the eyes of the Emperor.
Paul, fifteen-year-old son of Duke Leto Atriedes, has trained all his life with both sword and mind.  His father sees that he learns the arts of combat from his top assassins, while his mother introduces him to the mental disciplines of the Bene Gesserit, the mystery cult with roots extending back nearly to humanity's Terran origins.  None of his teachers can prepare him for Arrakis.  Here, Paul finds strength, courage, a destiny beyond any he could have dreamt of... and dangerous truths that could rock the Empire to its very foundations.

REVIEW: Another classic sci-fi book I've been meaning to read for ages finally makes it to my reading list.  Herbert creates a memorable future universe in the Imperium and a harsh yet beautiful world in Arrakis.  Some of his ideas - the biochemical life-cycle of the spice, the millenia-long effort to manipulate human DNA, et cetera - grew a bit too big and convoluted to fit into one book.  He adds appendices to deal with these, but I confess I couldn't make it through them.  I generally liked the characters (save the ones I wasn't supposed to like), even if now and again personality developments seemed to jump in from offscreen action.  Once again, most of the women are concubines and arm candy; only the Bene Gesserit seem capable of rising above the status of property, though they often get branded as witches for their temerity.  Still, that bone is more than gets thrown to my gender in many sci-fi stories, so it didn't bother me quite as much as it probably should have.  The plot moves decently, bogging down once in a while with politics and cultural history lessons and such.  For some reason, the ending felt raw-edged to me, as though Herbert had planned for another chapter or two but wound up chopping the story short for unknown reasons.  Whether or not I read further in the series, I'm not sure, but overall I liked what I read here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Animals (Carl Mehling, editor)

Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Animals 
Carl Mehling, editor
Amber Books
Nonfiction, Dinosaurs/Prehistoric Animals
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since its creation from cosmic debris, the Earth has undergone radical changes.  As the planet itself has been transformed, so the life upon it has changed, in manners that the modern mind can scarcely imagine.  Relying on the latest research, theories, and fossil finds, this book outlines various animals that have existed through Earth's long history, from the earliest trilobites to the near-modern woolly mammoths.

REVIEW: I found this at Half Price Books.  I've been looking for an updated dinosaur book to add to my inspiration files, and the price was right, so I gave it a try.  This is probably the most extensive book on prehistoric creatures I have found to date.  An entry-level book, it covers all sorts of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals in a manner that most anyone can understand.  Each animal gets at least one page, including how long ago they lived, what is known or speculated about them, and an illustration of what they might have looked like.  The illustrations vary in quality and accuracy - some directly contradict the written descriptions - but on the whole they add life and color to the book.
I actually came close to a three-star Okay rating.  While the breadth of animals covered his is greater than any other book I own, there were several glaring editing errors. (At least twice, the pronounceation guide cited obsolete names for an animal, rather than the one given.) Some animals got page count that may not have deserved it; the text itself explains that more than one genus is dubious at best, and even outright disproven at worst.  It also would've been nice to see a few more photographs of the fossils themselves.
Those faults aside, this book also has some definite pluses.  It ventures into the "shadow zone," the timeframe between the dinosaurs and modern Earth, which not many other books seem to cover.  It also provides more than one reconstruction of particularly troublesome fossils.
While it doesn't hold a candle to my all-time favorite dinosaur book (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, by Dr. David Norman), I still found much to enjoy.  I have other books that go into more detail on some types of prehistoric animals - the pterosaurs in particular seemed underrepresented - but, all in all, I found Dinosaurs satisfactory.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ringworld (Larry Niven)

Larry Niven
Del Rey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION:  In a future where interstellar travel is commonplace, alien ambassadors dine in Earth restaurants, and instantaneous transport booths have obliterated cultural and national disparities, Louis Wu celebrates his bicentennial birthday... and finds a most unusual, self-invited guest.  Nessus is a puppeteer, a strange two-headed, three-legged alien thought to have mysteriously vanished some years ago.  He claims Louis has been chosen by his people as part of an elite alien team to explore a strange discovery in deep space.  Also chosen are Speaker-To-Animals, a muscular catlike kzin whose people have, until recently, been bent on destroying the human race, and Teela Brown, a naive young human woman with luck in her genes.  What they're expected to do, and where the discovery is, Nessus refuses to say, but the payment is a working hyperdrive ship - plus plans to make more - which may be the salvation of any species who gets hold of it.  Despite his better judgment, Louis joins up, and finds himself facing an enigma beyond anything he has ever encountered in two centuries of life.  An unimaginably advanced culture has built an unimaginably vast ring about a star - a ring full of air, full of oceans, full of life... and full of danger.

REVIEW:  This was another title in my long list of classic books I've meant to read but never got around to buying.  I found this copy for a buck at Half Price Books; for a dollar, I figured it would be worth a try.  Niven crafts a technologically advanced future that – forty years after Ringworld's first publication – still feels like the future.  He also invents a true interstellar wonder in the Ringworld itself.  Most everything in the book, no matter how huge and improbable and mind-boggling, has scientific underpinnings, and the characters go out of their way to explain these underpinnings to the reader.  I, unfortunately, have little more than a high school education in science.  An American high school education, at that, and that was some years ago.  Much of the technobabble and plot-stopping explanations washed over my undereducated little head, unfortunately.  Since most of the story is based on the "strangers visit wondrous place, have adventures, then leave" framework, I could still enjoy the scenery, and the larger-than-life ideas were nice and shiny to look at, even if I didn't understand all the little wires and knobs attached to them.  The plot itself has shades of dating, especially in the way the human Louis so often solves alien problems, not to mention the presence of the often-inept space chick Teela.  Niven eventually explains some of her evident stupidity, and once in a while she comes forward with remarkable insights to add to the technobabble conversations, but I had tired of her long before then.  For much of the book, her main contribution to the mission is providing Louis with a bedmate; the brains she occasionally demonstrates seem secondary to this far more pressing task.  The adventurers bump along through several encounters, some more memorable than others, until they reach a surprisingly abrupt ending.  I know there are more books in the Ringworld universe, but I still found myself thinking there could've been a page or two more of wrapping up to do.  I honestly don't know if I want to read further in this series.  While I found the concept of Nven's Ringworld fascinating, I also found the science of it tedious, and I wasn't so attached to any of the characters that I have to find out where they went after their adventure.  This lack of engagement ultimately made me give Ringworld a mid-grade Okay rating; even though the ideas presented would've merited a fourth star, I just wasn't feeling it when I finished the book.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Among the Imposters (Margaret Peterson Haddix)

Among the Imposters
(The Shadow Children sequence, Book 2)
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Aladdin Fiction
YA Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION:  Luke Garner once thought he was the only illegal third child in the world, until he discovered Jen Talbot, the third child of a "Baron" in a new housing development near his family's farm.  Jen wanted to rally all the thirds to demand freedom from the oppressive Population Laws, but her revolutionary vision led to her death... and Luke's discovery by Jen's heartbroken father, himself an agent in the dreaded Population Police.  Through his contacts, Luke now has a fake ID, a new name - Lee Grant - and a chance at a normal life... or as normal as any third child can hope for in this dystopian future.
Sent to the Hendricks School for Boys, Luke-turned-Lee is both terrified and secretly hopeful.  After all, he's never been to a real school before.  But something's not right about Hendricks, something worse than the school bully who latches onto him from the first day.  Nobody seems to know or care what classes he's supposed to go to.  Half the children are catatonic.  The teachers and staff hardly notice what's going on.  Luke finds himself drawn deeper into the school's peculiar mysteries... and finds himself in greater danger of discovery than ever before.

REVIEW:  Much like the first book, Luke's world is painted in shades of paranoia and oppression, with highlights and shadows in secrets and fear.  There's a certain whiff of plot convenience now and again, both in Luke's discoveries and dangers and in the characters he encounters.  Some elements begin to strech credulity; even the deepest of conspiracies has to start tripping over its own feet eventually, but some impossibly fast action behind the scenes invariably prevents a tumble.  Once again, Haddix uses Luke and his world to debate moral and legal issues, though now Luke is starting to form his own opinions rather than letting others and their propaganda do it for him.  Overall, it's a nice story that reads fast and dark.  I wouldn't mind reading more.