Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Yay. A new AICN SF BOOKS column for you guys. I’ve read some interesting stuff over the summer myself (I highly recommend both of the DEATH'S HEAD books so far in the series by David Gunn... pulp done right, big time) and I’m always eager to see what Adam Balm recommends from his own stacks:
So....I'm not sure exactly at what point adolescent girls invaded the world of hard SF, but I first began to notice this summer, right around the time when two out of every three galleys arriving in my mailbox seemed to be aimed at someone ten years younger and with two fewer testicles. Apparently this is yet another trend I only begin to notice long after it becomes obvious to everyone else. Not that I'm trying to complain. Obviously it makes business sense. Teenage girls are buying many times over what your average white middle aged male reads (who 90% of the genre is usually written for) and when you got guys like Scott Westerfeld saying they have to take a pay cut whenever they don't write YA SF, I guess it's inevitable. Last decade hard SF writers had to pay the bills by disguising their stuff as technothrillers, now they have to disguise it as shojo. So on one hand, good for teenage girls to finally be represented in the genre. But on the other hand...I dunno, to me it raises red flags any time one single type of story starts to dominate an entire genre. Anyway.... THE LAST THEOREM by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl Del Rey There's a line in an essay from GREETINGS CARBON-BASED BIPEDS! about how Lester del Rey---who could churn out a full short story in a couple of hours---had one time started a novelette after breakfast and was able to finish it before he went to bed. Del Rey thought it would have been even better if he had waited and finished it the next day. Clarke replied “...but would it have been MUCH better?” He added “You can go on tinkering and revising and polishing forever; sometimes it is as hard to stop work on a piece as it was to start it in the first place.” I guess no one can fault Clarke for breaking his own advice. Once heralded as his first solo work in a decade (before he picked up a co-author) THE LAST THEOREM would eventually find itself on at least one list of the most anticipated long-delayed SF books of all time. It finally took on a whole new weight when he passed away in March. In the end, his tinkering and polishing hand was forced. What we're left with is something very hard to sum up, mostly because it's hard to tell what the original intention was. Is it about the strangeness and beauty of math? Is it a tribute to his home, Sri Lanka, after it was devastated by the Tsunami? Is it about war and conflict, or the insignificance of it in the grand scheme of things? I honestly don't know. And because I don't know how to tell if this novel succeeded at what it was trying to do, this will probably sound more critical than I mean it to. Regardless of the nitpicking below, I'd absolutely recommend this to anyone who considers themselves an SF reader. I'm not going to restate the obits that were posted on this site, I'll just say that Clarke was the last of the old masters. And because of that, THE LAST THEOREM marks the end of an era in the genre. Ranjit Subramanian is the son of a Hindu priest living in Sri Lanka. The long story short is that for his thirteenth birthday, his father gives him a copy of G.H. Hardy's A MATHEMATICIAN'S APOLOGY, which leads him to the story of the famous story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. He then goes on to discover number theory and proofs and the determination to become a kind of Sri Lankan Ramanujan. All of which leads him finally to an obsession to proving Fermat's Last Theorem. Er, that is to say proving it without cheating, i.e., resorting to computer code and modern math as was done in '93. So over the years Ranjit picks it up off and on. (Ranjit also couldn't stop tinkering and polishing either.) He grows up, goes off to college, puts away childish things and all that but can never let go of Fermat. It's a familiar story, virtually every major mathematician in the last couple of centuries has tried to crack Fermat at one time or another, before throwing their hands up in defeat. Trying to pick up where any one of them left off is impossible. He has his breakthrough when someone suggests to Ranjit that he only look at the math that existed at the time (Because fuck you Andrew Wiles.). And everything seems to crystallize when he stumbles across the Germaine theorem that "if x, y, and z are all integers, and if x^5 + y^5 = z^5 then x, y, or z must be divisible by 5." You see, Fermat's Theorem basically says that the equality “x^5 + y^5 = z^5” is pretty much impossible. So has Ranjit found a proof by contradiction? Here Clarke and Pohl don't get too specific since obviously if they had an actual proof for Fermat, they could just send it off to Nature as Ranjit does and they wouldn't bother writing a novel about it. In any event, overnight Ranjit becomes an instant celebrity and everyone wants a piece of his genius. But, kind of weirdly that's pretty much the last time Fermat's Last Theorem plays a part in the book. I don't think I'm spoiling that since this is only in the first hundred or so pages. The rest of the book involves the construction of an orbital tether and the coming attack by an all powerful alien race called the Grand Galactics. Not to sound snarky, but for a book called the Last Theorem, it really doesn't seem all that interested in math. Granted, there's some pretty nifty stuff sprinkled around, like how to count up to over a thousand in binary on your fingers. But when you think about it, Ranjit's proof for the theorem is almost incidental to the plot. I'm guessing this wasn't always the case, but might have changed with each draft over the years. Unless I'm remembering it wrong, I think at one point a couple years ago the book description had Ranjit developing a new form of fusion drive or something to that effect. But here nothing much comes from it other than he gets his fifteen minutes. Kind of like the whole aspect of the main character being gay or bisexual disappears after a few pages and without explanation he's completely straight after that. There's a moment where you think the theorem's going to pay off with a job doing code breaking work for the US government, but he turns that down. In fact, it wasn't even his proof that led him to the job with the mysterious “Pax Per Fidem”, it was the whole being kidnapped by pirates thing. Yes, for some reason he's kidnapped by pirates at one point. If you took out everything about Fermat, and called the book 'Farmer Bill of The Grand Galactics' it would read exactly the same. Is that pointless bitching on my part? Most definitely. Does it affect your enjoyment of the story? Not really. Unless you buy the book hoping for a novel about math. (If so, you might be better off pre-ordering Neal Stephenson's ANATHEM.) But if you buy it wanting to own the last hurrah by the last of the old masters, and want a kind of In Memorium "Best of Clarke" highlight reel, then you won't be disappointed. Because here we have, in no particular order: a skyhook built in Sri Lanka, we have one character go through a Dave Bowmanesque resurrection, we have godlike aliens with incomprehensible motivations, bent on cultivating primitive races for advancement. Hell, one of these is even demonic looking ala the Overlords. And no, I'm not complaining about anyone “going back to the well”. Because at times comes close to reminding you exactly why you read Clarke. Other times it comes across as a little too safe, about like you'd expect from two titans at that stage in their life, not having anything to prove anymore. It lacks some of the energy that Stephen Baxter brought to the table in the Time's Odyssey books. (Which, now that I think about it, also kind of played like a Clarke highlight reel, but with a verve you'd get from co-authors where one had grown up worshiping the other.) So here we are. An epoch ended. And we're left unsure how to feel. Scalzi wrote that pretty much all the reviews of this so far come down to “it's the last thing Clarke wrote and probably the last thing Pohl will have published, and I would rather eat a live toad than say anything bad about it.” Which is pretty much where I'm at. In an author's last work, you either want to laud it or thrash it. To laud it as a final crowning achievement so it will make up for the gap that he left by being an asshole enough to die. Or to hate it for not living up to those impossible demands for it to do so. Clarke said that science fiction's greatest virtue was "to make the reader appreciate, once he's stopped foaming at the mouth, that the external world need not always conform to his hopes and expectations. It forces one to think---which is why so many dislike it." At least some of his own advice he followed. THE LAST THEOREM was released on August 5th. ZOË'S TALE by John Scalzi Tor Some authors always have a persona that overshadows their work and the internet has only magnified this. John Scalzi is without a doubt the prime example. To me he was always "Scalzi the king of the SF blogosphere who occasionally tapes bacon to his cat". I always used to think he was a bit of a better blogger than an author. Apparently that opinion was reflected a bit at the Hugos this year. But I wasn't blown away by OLD MAN'S WAR, and THE GHOST BRIGADES kind of had its heart surgically removed by not featuring John Perry. It's a little embarrassing to admit that I honestly didn't even start to think of the guy as "Scalzi the writer" until after putting down THE LAST COLONY, which even if you're not a fan gives you a hell of a lot of grudging respect. That's when I first thought “man, this guy really knows what he's doing...” Like the best SF that starts out as a seemingly right-of-center military power fantasy before shifting into reverse and revealing the cost of perpetual warfare (Ender, Dune, etc.), it was more mature and more relevant than I expected. Had it won the Hugo, it would have been well deserved. Anyway, it was going to be a tough act to follow. The next act actually turns out to be a bit of the same act, as ZOË'S TALE takes place almost entirely during the events of THE LAST COLONY, in kind of an ENDER'S SHADOW type way. Devised as a stand alone of the OLD MAN'S WAR universe as seen through the coming of age of Zoe Boutin, you're mostly reading COLONY all over again, but with more teenage sarcasm and hormonal angst. Whatever you call them, 'orthagonoquels', 'equels', carry the danger of dragging on since you spend so much time waiting for characters to figure out what you learned a book ago. But if they're done right, the new perspective makes it worth it, and the overall story is deepened. Scalzi doesn't have to be told this, and he avoids most of the obvious pitfalls. Some of the new plot threads worked in this time out is Zoe's budding romance with Enzo (who seems slightly less douchey this time out) and her training by the Obin as an OMG XXXtreme killer badass. At that point Scalzi reads even more like Heinlein-by-way-of-Joss-Whedon than usual as Zoe is schooled in the ancient art of killing pretty much every fucking alien in existence while letting loose spunky one liners. Barring a few revelations toward the end, there's no real surprises. Scratch that, there is one huge surprise which is to find out that of all the characters John Scalzi has written, the one that talks the most like the author in real life is a fifteen year old girl. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But in any event, nothing really earth shattering, and things pretty much end where they ended last time. So the question that comes to mind is do we have enough new story to justify a new book basically retelling the same plot? Well, yes and no. It does fill a little gap in story/logic at the end of COLONY. It was funny to read in the afterword that Scalzi was actually surprised to find out that people were unsatisfied with Zoe just showing up at the end of COLONY and saying “Hey dad, in between saving the head of the Conclave from assassination and ending a civil war I swung by and picked up this piece of super-technology from the most advanced and secretive race in existence. So where do I put it?” So we get an explanation for that, and we also finally come to understand the origin of the Obin (along with more of the Consu's master plan for the younger races). So for me, on the whole it was worth it. Not that it matters once you get a fanbase as big as Scalzi's. Once a fictional universe gets to be a certain size and popularity, people stop reading expecting to get a good story anymore, instead they read to spend more time in that universe. Hence why a quarter of the SF&F section is media tie-ins. So while it was alright, I'm actually glad to hear that (besides the odd short story here and there) he'll be stepping away from the OLD MAN'S WAR universe for a while. Or at least that was what I had heard a while back. It's not exactly going out on top (That would have been with THE LAST COLONY), but when he comes back he'll be coming back to an audience wanting more, which is what 90% of series authors forget. ZOË'S TALE was released August 19th. AFTER THE COUP, a short story set before the events of ZOË'S TALE is also now available at Tor.com. MARSBOUND by Joe Haldeman Ace MARSBOUND is opened with a thanks to Geoffrey A. Landis, who Haldeman declares "my favorite Martian" which was kind of fitting. For a while there, around maybe the late nineties, I remember thinking that Landis was looking alot like the next Joe Haldeman. They both had the nuts and bolts technical side of SF writing down but knew how to get at the emotional core of a character. Landis published one novel but never really broke out beyond that. He never had his "Forever War". I guess in the end, some people actually should quit their day job. Another reason I bring Landis up is that his wife Mary Turzillo serialized an eerily similar novel to this one in Analog called "An Old Fashioned Martian Girl". So MARSBOUND is mostly a welcome nostalgia trip for me, back to a time just after the Sojourner rover when everybody in the genre and their mother had to publish their own hard SF Mars story. Kind of like how now everyone and their mother has to write their own juvenile, I guess. The reviewer in me wants to bitch and moan that Haldeman has abandoned social commentary in favor of fairly forgettable romps. But probably the most useless thing a critic can do is review the book they wanted instead of the book they got. MARSBOUND pretty much does what it wants to do, as bildungsroman and science pedagogy, I can't say that it ever stumbles. Carmen Dula is selected by lottery to board the John Carter of Mars and journey to earth's nearest neighbor where she'll be lucky enough to lose five years of her life being locked up inside a lava tube habitat doing forced labor, homework, and being under constant surveillance. On the way there she ends up boinking the ship's pilot and earns the wrath of Dargo Solingen, the wicked witch of the red planet and general administrator of Mars Base One. Dargo is evil evil evil because seems to think that children just get in the way on Mars and shouldn't be screwing the pilots of interplanetary missions because...well, anyway. So Dula gets to Mars and it's basically shit until one day when she goes out on the Martian surface and nearly dies, saved only by a four legged angel in a red tunic. So it looks like she's made first contact with Martians only 1) No one believes her and 2) Martians couldn't have evolved there seeing how the planet couldn't have supported an ecosystem for a few billion years. So if these Martians are real, then they aren't exactly Martians anymore than Carmen is a Martian. Their origin and purpose seem to involve some higher power placing them there with the specific purpose of making contact with humanity once we've reached a certain point in our evolution. (For some reason, coming out the same month as the last Arthur C. Clarke book, that last bit put a smile on my face.) So it's a wide eyed look at the universe in a way that it seems like somewhere along the line SF forgot how to do, after trying to be experimental (the 60s), relevant (the 70s), cool (the 80s) and accurate (the 90s) maybe SF has now decided to go back to the future the way it used to be. The juvenile will never leave the genre. Although if I hear another commentator say “the golden age of SF is thirteen” I think I'm going to eat Draino. Especially since I've probably said it more than once here and it was even more retarded when I say it. It's not Haldeman's best work, but it's not trying to be. MARSBOUND was released August 5th. THE H-BOMB GIRL by Stephen Baxter Faber & Faber (UK)/Night Shade (US) When I heard the news way back that Neil Gaiman might be writing a Doctor Who episode, I remember going through my own little wish list in my head of what Brit SF authors should be tapped next. (Other than Adam Roberts, who has already written one of the best Who stories ever.) It seems that a fanboy's greatest pastime, besides bitching, is match-making. In the end there was only one real name on my list. Stephen Baxter owns the time travel genre, and H-Bomb Girl would make a damn fine Dr. Who episode. Baxter's without a doubt the right honorable heir of H.G. Wells. It wasn't just that he was the only one (to my knowledge) to write a sequel to the Time Machine that was in fact authorized by Wells' estate. And it's not just that he has the physics background to be able to talk about time with authority. It's hard to put a finger on it. Maybe it's the extreme skepticism, the inability to buy wholesale into the “future as the present on steroids”. Because the laws of physics and human nature don't change, the future for Baxter isn't much different from the past, just with a bigger canvas and longer time scales to work with. H-Bomb Girl opens in Liverpool, 1962. The Beatles are just another local band, James Bond has just made his leap to the silver screen, and Khrushchev has just got caught parking nuclear missiles on Cuba. It's also Laura Mann's first day of school in the new city. She wakes up and there's an American Air Force officer in her bathroom, at school she meets a new teacher that looks exactly like her in about thirty years, and her RAF dad who works at Strike Command gives her a key to a Vulcan nuclear bomber, with instructions and a number to call in the event of an emergency. Suddenly people are searching her desk and her room at home. Suddenly she's finding technology that shouldn't exist yet. Usually the problem with doing thrillers set against the backdrop of a real event, as you see in Thirteen Days, is that there's not a whole lot of suspense going on when everyone knows how it turns out. Strangely enough, that's never a problem here. It's either a testament to Baxter's ability to pull you in or my own sad lack of knowledge of history, but I actually believed everything had actually happened up until the moment when the first bomb fell. So something history has changed and there are several factions who are fighting for control of the future, with Laura and her key at the center of it. You of course assume that one of these sides must be trying to stop the war and that the other is there to start it, or that one came back in time to change history and another to save it. Baxter's never had the stomach for formula, and so I'm not too shocked that neither of the time traveling factions offers a very appealing future. There's no clear choice for Laura to make. The solution in the end...well, it reminds me of what Baxter once said about the greatest thing missing in most American SF is that yanks don't do irony. Thank God Baxter does. This is probably in my top three books of the year. If like me you're at least a little disappointed in this year's Who, then pick yourself up a copy and remember why people tell these stories to begin with. THE H-BOMB GIRL was released last year in the UK. It will be out in November in the US. There's been a lot that's come out this summer that I've received but for one reason or another just haven't been able to review, so if you get a chance you could do a lot worse than check out the following: THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVIES NEVER MADE by David Hughes (And not just because Harry wrote the afterword and Moriarty's blurbed on the cover and I'm a complete shill. Oh, and it's pretty much a movie history geek bible for science fiction fans.), SEEDS OF CHANGE edited by John Joseph Adams (One of the best anthologies of the year. Buy it because I want to see more like it some day.), SATURN'S CHILDREN by Charles Stross (Asimov meets Battlestar Galactica. God I really should've reviewed this thing...), INCANDESCENCE by Greg Egan, SHADOW OF THE SCORPION by Neal Asher, VICTORY OF EAGLES by Naomi Novik, and most of all THE WORD OF GOD by Thomas Disch. Got Something I Should Be Reading? E-Mail Adam Balm right here!