crap i have read recently #16

space nazisFor a bit over three years now the folks at Humble Bundle, Inc. have been bundling  up video games of all genres and making them available for basically whatever price people want to pay for them.  The money, in quite substantial amounts, gets distributed to the artists and developers, Humble Bundle, and various charities (EFF and Child’s Play among them), at proportions determined by the buyer.   To date they’ve raised over $50 million dollars for charity and are well on their way to changing how people buy and play games.   Just about a year ago they branched out into other sorts of things, occasionally offering music bundles, comedy bundles, and e-book bundles.  While I’ve never bought any of the game bundles (I spend too much time playing video games as it, thanks Fallout) I bought both of the e-book bundles and so far the $25 a pop I spent has been more than worth it.  For basically the price of two new hardbacks I got 21 books downloaded to the Nook.   Authors include Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, the folks over at Penny Arcade, Randall Munroe (xkcd), Joe Scalzi, Peter Beagle, Paolo Bacigalupi, Mercedes Lackey, and Wil Wheaton.

Many of the offerings are older novels, first books in a series, or collections of comics or stories that first made their appearance on the internet.   Sometimes they are early works of now established authors.   Most of the books are fantasy and/or science fiction; the others tend to be comic collections.   The quality is generally good but can be variable.  All the regular books I’ve read have worked fine on the Nook.  The comic books, which are downloadable as PDFs, work better on computers than they do on the small screen readers and I have never been able to get the Gaiman book to work on any platform (which is too bad because it looks gorgeous).   As far as content goes, that’s variable as well.  Much like buying a box of mystery books at a yard sale you may end up with a few things you love, a few things that do nothing for you, and a pile of books that are sort of in between.  All in all though it’s a great deal for some great causes and it’s exposed me both to earlier works of people I’m already familiar with and to some authors I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting before.   I haven’t read them all yet but of the ones I have read there have been few disappointments and some of them have been really entertaining.

Without further ado…some Humble SPOILERS below!

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Old Man’s War (John Scalzi, 2007):  In this future universe, Earth is fighting a multitude of alien races both to defend itself and to claim its stake to galactic real estate.  Unlike in our own day, the military doesn’t want young people, it wants older people, along with all the experience, skills, and knowledge they posses, and so they make the elderly a deal.  They can join the Colonial Defense Forces after they retire and serve two years on the front and in return they are given a free homestead on a colony planet.  They can never return to Earth but as part of the deal they are given a young, new, and better body upon enlisting so they can look forward to a long, new life.  If they survive the war, that is.   John Perry takes the deal.  He’s 75, newly retired, and his beloved wife is dead.  He has nothing to keep him on Earth and although not overtly suicidal, one suspects he wouldn’t be too unhappy to die in service to his home world.  Once in the CDF he’s transported off-world and meets his fellow recruits.   During the process of getting their new bodies and completing their basic training, a group of them begin hanging around together and start calling themselves the Old Farts.  In time, they go their separate ways to different battles but they keep in touch and one by one they start falling.  Although Perry himself comes to question the value of never-ending war and the lengths the CDF goes to in order to win he proves to be an excellent soldier and is instrumental in several key battles.

The book is generally a good read, if sometimes a little facile.  It gets compared to Heinlein a lot but it’s been so long since I’ve read any Heinlein I can’t really speak to that.  It moves at a pretty good pace, the Old Farts and other characters are well drawn, and the battles are hectic and suspenseful with outcomes both bittersweet and gruesome.  The tech is interesting and the aliens are suitably alien.  The only doubtful plot development is a glaring and almost entirely unbelievable coincidental meeting between John and someone from his past, but I will say no more on that since it is a pretty major story event.  I sometimes had the same problem with this book that I have when authors get into the heads of the very young.  It doesn’t always ring true.  There is nothing uniquely “elderly” about John Perry and perhaps that is the point.  Even as our bodies age the people we feel ourselves to be inside aren’t necessarily getting older.  (I personally am always surprised not to see a 25 year old in the mirror.)    John’s mind and experiences are those of an old man but his body is young and strong again and he has a home and friends to defend.   And that’s exactly what he does.  It’s not philosophically complicated but it IS a good old-fashioned space yarn.

Score:  Meh.

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Secret World Chronicle:  Invasion/Children of the Night (Mercedes Lackey, 2006/1990):  If I counted properly Mercedes Lackey has written 123 books in the last 26 years.  That’s an average of almost 5 books a year and doesn’t count the short stories, collaborations, and anthologies.  In my experience, quantity in such epic amounts almost always precludes quality, at least on any reliable basis.  Good thing I didn’t know that when I started reading SWC: Invasion.  The first of this oddly paired set of books is a straight-up superhero romp in an alternate Nazi-infested timeline.  During  World War II humans began manifesting the first signs of super powers; utilizing these powers allowed the Allies to defeat the Nazis.  After the war a nephew of Nikola Tesla formed Echo, a group of superheroes dedicated to battling super villains.   They are, to say the least, a varied bunch, with quirks and personality defects, and perhaps a few secrets.  There is some concern that Echo is losing its purpose, since the world is mostly at peace and its soldiers spend their time thwarting petty crime.   Then, in the present day (early 21st century), a young man shows up at Echo claiming to be a Nazi agent who everyone believed died back during the war.   He has, he says, come to warn them of an impending invasion force.   In due time, that invasion force (space Nazis!) lands simultaneously all over the world and devastates most major cities, especially those with Echo facilities.  Superheroes everywhere join the battle and many of them die.  After the initial invasion is repelled the survivors congregate in Atlanta, home to Echo’s main campus, to plot their strategy.

This is where for me at least the book got interesting.  The invasion stuff was exciting and tragic but once the heroes assemble in Atlanta we begin to get to know them a bit better and come to find the “human” is as important to them as the “meta”.   There is the mage, scarred inside and out, who cannot leave her house because of panic attacks.  There is the touch healer who loses a bit of herself every time she saves a life.  There is the human detective (no powers) who works for Echo as support staff.  There’s the drifter with a power he can barely control and a secret he doesn’t dwell on too much.  There’s the decidedly communist superhero banished from Russia because superheroes were blamed for the invasion.  There’s the two superheroes in love, the stone giant living under Stone Mountain, the Chinese girl who channels a long dead general, the man whose power is good looks and luck.  And there is the Angel who can see all possible futures and who can intervene in fate only when it advances the correct one.   Together these people try to put a shattered city back together, prevent paralegal security forces from terrorizing the population, and prepare for the second invasion they know is coming.  Not all of them survive.

As it turns out the book is based on the late and very much lamented online game City of Heroes (yes, I played it) and was written in collaboration with Dennis Lee and Cody Martin.  Do video game adventures make for good fiction on the written page?  Well, I liked it overall but your mileage certainly may vary.  I’d be willing to give the next books in the series a chance.  One of the things I liked about the book is its unusual unscripted feel, like an adventure with an outcome that has not yet been determined.  It gave me the same sort of edge-of-the-seat feeling I used to get every time I had to make a saving throw.  The metahumans do have the distinct feel of hero class character generation but I think this is a strength.  If you’ve ever seriously played the RP part of MMORPG you will understand how the characters you live take on personalities, quirks, and habits, how in some way they come to exist as more than pixels.  Their stories become their own, you just move the mouse. (I accept that this may be inexplicable to many readers.)  I assume that each of the authors wrote the chapters dealing with their own characters and this has the effect of giving those characters distinct and individual voices, even if some of them stray dangerously near cliche territory.  It also makes the story somewhat disjointed on occasion and better editorial oversight might have avoided that.  Space Nazis (Thulians, they are called) are not entirely novel but their faceless, machine-like nature keeps their motives obscure and makes them seem relentlessly evil.  Also, they clearly have advanced tech so it appears that something out there has taken an unhealthy interest in Earth.  Who are they and why?   Well, if this game..er, book, has a good GM the continuing campaign will lead us to the answer.  Hopefully our heroes can live long enough to find it.

So, yeah, I’d say “eminently readable, if this is your cup of tea.”  It is primarily concerned with scene setting and character development and is clearly a set-up for future installments, or if you will, continuing adventures.  Unfortunately, after an excellent cliffhanger (so good it would have been a bit of a triumph to leave it there and let us wonder…) SWC: Invasion segues abruptly into Children of the Night.  About all I can say about this is that it one of those books that dwells overlong on sexy romantic vampires.  They don’t sparkle but they might as well.  It has a  handful of intriguing ideas but they totally get lost in the boring, predictable, fanfic level plot development.  The story concerns a witch and part-time romantic fiction writer named Diana Tregarde who is also Guardian entrusted with protecting the people of New York from malevolent magics.  Some nasties move into her neighborhood and start feeding and she springs into psychic action to stop them.  I spent the first half of the book wondering what the hell this story had to do with space Nazis and hoping beyond hope they’d invade New York and put an end to this tepid vampire shit.  It took me awhile to realize it was not Part 2 of Secret World Chronicle and a bit of research informed me that Lackey primarily writes fantasy stuff, in copious quantities, and science fiction is a sidetrack for her.  So it’s entirely possible that all the good and interesting stuff in SWC:Invasion was due to her collaborators and her source material.  Even the title is cliche.  You’ve been warned.

Score:  Invasion:  Meh; Children of the Night: Fail

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To be continued…

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~ by gun street girl on September 11, 2013.

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