The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko (Translated by Liv Bliss)

Never got around to posting my last review for Skiffy & Fanty, on Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome, as translated by Liv Bliss. Well-known for his series of fantasy/horror novels that start with Night Watch, his entry into science fiction parody is world’s apart.

“…If given a more serious tone, a science fiction set-up like this plot could be used to explore such concepts as individuality, free-will, class relations, racism, and colonialism within the murder mystery context. In its parody (or perhaps pastiche – it is never quite clear if Lukyanenko mocks or celebrates space operas of bygone years), The Genome doesn’t put much energy into these kinds of explorations. Instead, its focus is on making the characters and their behaviors fit into science fiction (or mystery) novel stereotypes, thereby coming off a lot like a space opera mashup in the style of the 1976 film Murder By Death written by Neil Simon that did similar things with the mystery genre and its iconic characters….”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!

The Forever Watch, by David B. Ramirez

The Forever Watch, by David B. Ramirez
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The Forever Watch” is an exceptional science fiction novel, a complex and perfectly crafted vision of the ‘generation ship’ interstellar travel archetype story. Ramirez’s writing is crisp and fluid. Dialogue and thoughts ring true, information is given to the reader unobtrusively; the pacing is spot on, mixing slower descriptive passages with minimalistic action, slowing time down to extend important moments while sweeping across a month in a few pages with equal grace.

Most strikingly, this novel is not predictable, yet by the end makes perfect logical and emotional sense, leaving you to ponder the power and dangers of freedom and truth, of sacrifice and devotion. It is neither predictable in plot nor genre style (or tone). The earlier parts of the book felt strongly like a crime or mystery novel, just in a science fiction setting. But then about halfway through a shift occurs and the narrative steps out from a close focus on the main characters alone in their secretive investigations and sweeps out in scope and feel to become something far larger and unique. At first this sort of disappointed me, because I was getting used to the familiarity of common ‘mystery story’ styles and themes, and that comfort was then shattered and my eyes, in perfect parallel to those of the characters, suddenly became open to much more.

The breadth of science covered in “The Forever Watch” is also quite broad, including elements of biology/genetics, computer science, psychology, and engineering. Within the realms of this finely crafted universe even elements such as mind-reading and psychokinesis come across as closer to science than to fantasy. While not as detailed-laden as a hard sci-fi book may take things, these various pieces are ‘explained’ well, to a suitable depth for the tone of the story as a whole.

Often novels I enjoy reading as much as this give me a certain disappointment at how they manage to tie everything together at the end, and for a moment I thought this would be similar. However, the novel ended in fantastic fashion, leaving just satisfaction. I hope this is a start to a really prosperous career for Ramirez.

Five Stars out of Five

Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire’s Club, by Ben Bova

Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire’s Club,
by Ben Bova
Publisher: Baen Books
368 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
Source: NetGalley

The genre denoted SF is most commonly called science fiction, but some prefer speculative fiction instead. Either way, a precise definition of what constitutes science fiction can be as elusive as defining what constitutes life. As a scientist, I’ve always wanted more fiction that simply took place in the world of science, with scientist characters and problems – nothing far-reaching in speculation, nothing out-of-this world. Not even focused on astronomical issues per se, as a lot of sci fi is, causing some, like Margaret Atwood, to eschew the genre term merely due to this connotation of spaceships and intergalactic exploits.

Mars Inc. comes close to being a science fiction book about getting the process of science done; it may be more accurate to say that Bova’s new novel is about technology more than science. Sadly, the cover as I see it here (the electronic edition has no cover) brings to mind far more clichéd science fiction space-faring than is in this novel. Instead the action is all on Earth. it is about getting to space again, about finding a way to move human enterprise and human exploration in the universe forward in a society that is increasingly hostile (at least politically) to doing this through public means, ie the government.

Bova’s protagonist is a wealthy businessman with a soft spot and dream for increased space exploration, and he is committed to getting private sources (other rich men) to get it done, rather than the ‘damned government.’ This set up is intriguing and Bova uses it to explore all the difficulties his character has in getting this dream to come to fruition amid hostile and greedy business that is not out for the benefit of humanity. Despite the character’s hatred of government and belief that private capital can do better, in the end success is more due to his own tenaciousness against adversity and one gets the sense that if he were more open about governmental public works, and a little more familiar with that system as he is for private enterprise, he could have fought just as hard in that sector and gotten similar results.

The novel therefore is not about the triumph of private income over public works, but rather the triumph of this particular character in using his own unique position and talents to get a job done and realize his dreams of scientific/technological possibilities – getting human beings to Mars. In these general respects Bova succeeds really well, and the novel’s plot is both captivating and believable.

However, on the negative side, the novel suffers from being a bit too simplistic in the non-scientific or business aspects of the plot, it fits assuredly into the ‘genre’ mold. The character’s are primarily all male, one major female character is a secretary, the other is a scientist. Both are primarily used as predictable love interests, and in the case of the scientist, that is pretty much her only role. The novel doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is however, and what Bova is setting out to do here, he manages to accomplish well.

If you like SF heavy on the process of getting science and technology to move forward or have an interest in the space program then this is assuredly a novel you’d want to check out. If you are looking for action on an alien world or something more complex than simple genre fare that emphasizes technology over other matters social, then it’s best to look elsewhere.

Three Stars out of Five