Category Archives: Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” by Robert Heinlein (1985)

Just a little capsule here, not my full length review, mostly ‘cuz I can’t bring myself to waste too much time on this one. Yes, there are a lot of entertaining ways to say “This is a bad book,” but this book is *SO* bad that even making fun of it isn’t fun.

PLAY BY PLAY:
A heterosexual veteran living on a space colony in L5 gets embroiled in an entirely-adventure-free adventure in which some people are trying to kill him, and there’s a hot chick around. They go to the moon, which sounds cool and all, but this is offset somewhat by them going to Sears, both told with about the same amount of interest. (No, really: they go to Sears!) The vet has some guilt over resorting to cannibalism in some random backstory war years before. Any adventure that may have arisen along the course of this adventure is completely squelched by talking. Seriously: they talk way too much. They talk and they talk and they talk and they even talk about talking, and none, none, none of it comes to anything, it’s all just blowhard stuff.

Upon reading this, I honestly thought Heinlein must have thought himself the New Mark Twain (Both being from Missouri and all). Twain was somewhat famous for holding forth on any subject that crossed his path, and he could talk about anything humorously and charmingly. Heinlein *thinks* he’s doing that here, but he completely lacks either quality. Worse yet for an SF novel, nothing the protagonists yammer about is in the least bit interesting.

Twain was effortlessly interesting, but in this book Heinlein is effortlessly tedious. Or is he putting effort into it? I’ve often said that his peers – Clarke and Asimov – were about as interesting to read as an instruction manual on how to eat crackers. Maybe Bob always felt a bit outclassed by them? Maybe he felt his superior prose was no match for their inferior storytelling abilities? Perhaps he felt he needed to live down to their potential, and stop showing off? I’m being facetious, of course, but if that *was* the case, he blows it. Isaac and Sir Arthur would both probably be embarrassed to have written this tripe.

Then, abruptly, for no reason whatsoever, a bit over two thirds of the way through the novel, it all changes. Our entirely unimpressive protagonists falls through to a parallel universe, where he meets up with characters from Heinlen’s other books. They talk and talk and talk and talk, then have an orgy, during which said protagonist decides to give homosexuality a fling, which he decides is ok ‘cuz he was once raped by a scoutmaster when he was a kid. No, I am not making any of this up.

The folks in the new universe decide to travel back in time and give our protagonist some food in the war, so he doesn’t have to resort to cannibalism. How does this make sense? His guilt is one of his defining characteristics, which leads him to this place. Taking it away means he would’t have made it to this point in the novel. Furthermore, why does he remember it if it didn’t happen to him? Just an example of the slapdash quality of this thing.

The thrown-together plot of the final third of the book – in between the entirely unsexy sex and endless talk about sex, and obligatory incest crap – involves our hero traveling back in time to rescue Mycrolft Holmes from his coma at the end of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” as part of a larger war against a group called “The Time Lords” (Presumably not the Whovian ones, but who knows? Bob’s clearly pretty out of it here). They go back in time, and abruptly we’re told they failed. We don’t *see* it, we just jumpcut to our protagonist dying on the floor.

The end.

OBSERVATIONS

I read this book a week or two after it came out in paperback in the mid-80s, and it’s one of a very short list of novels by favorite authors that enraged me so much I hurled it across the room several times before I could force myself to finish it. (The only other book on that list is “Valis” by Philip K. Dick.) As has been said elsewhere, the story lacks veracity, peril, and focus, and while it’s nice to see old friends again, they aren’t our old friends, are they? To put it in movie terms, they’ve been re-cast by people who maybe look similar, but act and sound completely different.

Case in point, we meet Hazel Stone from “The Rolling Stones,” a great character in a great Juvie novel. she’s then retroactively introduced in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” as a kid, prior to her “Stones” adventures, in a slightly creepy fashion (Owing to the sexual politics of that novel.) Here we meet her again as an immortal over-sexed blowhard talking about huge penises, and how much she likes ’em, ‘cepting this one time when one huge penis was, in fact, maybe a bit too huge. Yeah, I’m not making this up. We meet up with some old friends in this book, but Heinlein entirely trashes them.

What really bothers me about this book, in fact, is how Heinlein seems to feel the need to dig up the corpses of his characters and defecate on ’em.

Added to which, the protagonist of the novel is clearly just kind of a placeholder to get the story rolling, and not someone Heinlein is terribly interested in. He endlessly prattles on in what I take to be the absolute WORST example of Heinlein’s “Everyone’s An Idiot Except Me” school of thought, and then, after all the laborious setup, he’s killed off summarily at the end with barely a subsequent mention elsewhere. Once the “Big Reveal” of the book comes, and we meet the Heinleinian Archons (For lack of a better term) in their bland orgytastic utopia, it pretty much reders everything that happened previously completely irrelevant, and of course the abrupt conclusion of the book itself renders the entire novel irrelevant.

Just a massive, sad, possibly insulting waste of time, a once-great author who’s lapsed into dottage, and is wasting his autum years talking to his own navel. Or worse – he could have just been cranking out this kind of mercinary crap to make balloon payments on his mortgage. I don’t pretend to know.
Any way you slice it, however, it’s pretty sad. I swore off Bob after this for a very long time, I didn’t start re-reading him again until the early 90s, but eventually the spectre of the “World as Myth” novels just swallowed everything up again, and honestly, as much as I love Bob, as much as his writing was a huge formative influence on me, as many happy memories as I have as a kid reading his books and stories, I just can’t touch him anymore. It’s sad when you loose a favorite author, sadder still when he, himself, goes out of his way to take himself away from you.

Am I being too harsh? Some have said so. Heinlein suffered a bloodclot in his brain in ’77, and nearly died. I sympathize, I really do. Brain damage is no laughing matter. But as much as I feel sorry for the guy, it in no way changes the fact that *everything* he wrote from that point on was crap. And this book is the crappiest thing on the dung heap. No amount of sympathy for the old man should be taken to mean I need to write a lenient review on something that’s just awful.

I guess the cardinal lesson here is: know when to stop.

Oh, yes, and the titular “Cat who Walks through Walls?” Yeah. He’s a kitten. He walks through walls. That’s it. It’s of no significance to the plot whatsoever.

This book is so bad it argues *against* the preservation of art. This one should just go out of print and be allowed to fade from existence.

BOOK REVIEW: “Betrayer of Worlds” by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner (2010)

Seeing as I’m poor, I only buy new books in paperback, which involves some waiting. This book came out in 2010, I couldn’t afford it until 2011, and you’re finally getting my review in late 2012. I’m backlogged. Sorry.

Anyway, so I got in the routine of going to Books-a-Million (“Your Home For Scented Candles, Calendars, Book Lights, Magazines, Comics, and Craft Supplies, but no books!”) with my kids and perusing the SF aisle on my knees (Because “N” is very close to the middle of the alphabet, hence low on the shelves), sighing heavily, lumbering up off my knees, and leaving. Around trip number twenty or so, I got on my knees while looking at Republiboy and not at the shelves, and I sighed, and I said, “You know, I think I’m getting a little burned out on Known Space.”

“Who are you, and what have you done with my father.”

“Killed him and ate him. Bwa-ha-ha-ah-ha! But seriously, I still like it and all, but, I dunno, I just think I’ve done it too much.”

“First Doctor Who, now this.”

“I know, right? It’s weird. It’s like I’m dying or something. I sorta’ find myself wishing that the book would come out so I could get it, review it, and then be done with it for a few years, until I start to feel nostalgic for it. I need some time off.” After a good Kif-from-Futurama sigh, I turned to look at the shelves, and coincidentally – I’m not making this up – right in front of me was the paperback. It had just come out that week, to my surprise. I laughed.

“What?” Republiboy said. I showed him the book.

“Speak of the apathetic devil,” he said. He’s clever, that one.

Anyway: I mention all this by way of introducing the concept that I may be the wrong guy at the wrong time to review this book.

This is the fourth and final book in the “Fleet of Worlds” series. The first book, “Fleet of Worlds,” I loved http://www.republibot.com/content/science-fiction-book-review-2-%E2%80%9…
The second book I pretty much couldn’t care less about
http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cjuggler-worlds%E2…
The third book was better than the second, but nowhere as good as the first
http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cdestroyer-worlds%…

Well, if you want the quick-and-efficient review, here it is: This book is exactly as good as the third book in the series. It’s not as good as the first, not as bad as the second.

In more detail:

The story starts out with Luis Wu, hero of the “Ringworld” novels, living on Wunderland, involved in a civil war, and addicted to drugs. Nessus shows up, kidnaps him, and agrees to pay him handsomely and cure his addictions *if* Luis will lead him to Beowulf Schaefer. Not only does Luis not know where his family is, he doesn’t even know his real name. He’d grown up on the planet “Home” undercover. Eventually it starts coming back to him. Nessus basically takes Luis along because he’s got 384 pages to kill, and what else is he going to do? Maybe he’ll turn out to be useful.

On New Terra, Luis falls in love with Alice, the somewhat randomly introduced female character from the previous book. She was in the “Protector” novel in 1973 and….yeah. Now might be a good time to mention that these “Of Worlds” books are not *at all* standalones. They’re self-contained, but you really need a working knowledge of Known Space, or some really good Cliff Notes to follow a lot of this. And since they don’t make Cliff Notes for KS, that means you’ve got a lot of reading to do, my friend.

Anyway, “Alice” and Luis fall in love while embroiled in an ongoing power struggle between Baedecker, Nessus, and the always-tedious Achilles. On top of this we’ve got another power struggle between the traditional Gw’oth in their home system, and the radical rebel Gw’oth who’ve formed a breakaway colony. Seeing as the Gw’oth home system is behind the Fleet of Worlds, and the rebel Gw’oth are ahead of it, the very real possibility of being caught in the crossfire should a war erupt. Of course a war is erupting. War is always erupting. The naturally panicky Puppeteers are panicking. Naturally.

I can’t tell you how this all comes out, of course, but it’s fairly clever and fairly entertaining and the book is worth a read, even if it never really blew the doors off me.

OBSERVATIONS

Ostensibly, this is the last book in the “Fleet Of Worlds” series, and it feels slightly detached from them. Some have complained that it feels more like a prolog to the “Ringworld” series, but I think it feels a bit too detached from that. It’s definitely an intermezzo, half-way between both series. To be honest, the fleet story was kind of a trilogy, even if it was a raggedy-ended one. Though this installment picks up some of the threads and runs with them, it still mostly stands apart from the series tonally.

The Pak character from the previous book was last seen drifting through space in stasis, full of knowledge that would be very, very dangerous if he ever made it back to his own people. We get no payoff for that cliffhanger here. Though Achilles has some dangerous interactions with the Pak in the first part of the novel, the Pak War is over, and that has no real repercussions here.

At one point, Luis is introduced to Twing, the Ringworld hull metal. He gets all excited because “Something strong and lightweight enough for a tether stretching to Geosynch was the roadblock to building space elevators.” But wait: in “Fly by Night,” in which Beyowulf and Luis come to planet “Home,” we’re told they use a space elevator to get up and down from the surface. That story takes place *before* this one.

The Gw’oth were set up as a major – and dangerous – player in the galaxy at the end of the last book. Smart as – potentially smarter than – the Pak, a new force to be reckoned with, and it’s not entirely clear if they’re good guys or bad. In “Betrayer,” here we are about a century later, and they’ve only got *one* dinky little colony? And apart from some trade, they really haven’t played any part in Fleet or New Terran life. This seems odd.

The romance between Luis and Alice is both forced and padded. There’s an entire chapter in which Luis simply gets out of bed, stares at her for a bit, and then gets back into bed. I can forgive the fact that there’s no Teela Brown sizzle here, no whiplash of the heart, but he’s allegedly really madly truly deeply in love with this girl, and I never really buy it.

As with the previous books in the series, the protagonist is different from the previous book, , and the protagonist of the previous book merely makes supporting appearances.

Luis’ memory wipe at the end is just frustrating. There’s no getting around that. Even though they tell you at the start of the book “We’re going to cheat” that in no way lessens the nature of the cheat when it finally happens.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS?

So what happened to Beyowulf and Carlos and their bride and Luis’ Sister?

What about the Pak from the previous book?

What about Alice and Luis’ kid?

In this, his “First” appearance, have we seen the last of Luis Wu? Sequentially, after this comes one short story and the four “Ringworld” novels. Will there be something set after that? Will he get his memory back? Find his lost lady love (Now several hundred years old?), or meet his kid? Will any of the events from this book pay off in the future?

Now that Revolution, The Pak War, and Near-Speciecide are out of the way, what’s next for New Terra? Does the rest of humanity ever find out about them? Is all this stuff resolved prior to “The Thousand Worlds” period?

The stuff with the polyandrous Wu/Schaefer family is a bit icky as always, but it’s mostly offscreen. Apart from that, there’s really nothing here anyone would have a problem with.

And that’s about it, folks. This is not a bad book. It is precisely as good as the previous one, which is worth reading even if it doesn’t sing and dance. I know this isn’t my most entertaining or insightful review. I’m sorry not to be more engaged and engaging. Though it’s not the fault of either author, I find myself strangely burned out on Known Space, and I’m not sure why. I think I’ll take a few years off.

BOOK REVIEW: “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (2004)

I love Dave Barry. I didn’t love this book.

Barry was a humor columnist for the Miami Herald who won a Pulitzer prize in the ‘80s for (As he put it) “Writing about boogers.” He also cranked out some fairly awful books of the sort you could only find in “Spencers Gifts” next to the incense and dirty postcards: “Dave Barry’s Guide to Sex,” and “Claw your waty to the top: How to become the head of a major corporation in about a week” and I’m pretty sure there was a “Fart Book” in there, too. If not, written by him, it had the same artists and publishers. They weren’t great, but I’m here to tell you it’s hard to get paid writing. After he won his Pulitzer, they started cranking out compilations of his columns, which is when I discovered him.

Man, he was funny. “Bad Habits” is still about the funniest collection of random reportage and gibberish I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. “Greatest Hits” was…ehm…perhaps half as good. Still worth a read, but, y’know, not magical. “Dave Barry Talks Back” was perhaps 50% as good as “Greatest Hits” and about a quarter as good as “Bad Habits.” By the time we get down to “Dave Barry is NOT Making This Up,” it’s about half as good as “Talks Back” and about 1/8th as good as “Bad Habits.” By the time his next book of columns came out, well, I was riding another train by then.

Because, you see, comedy has a halflife. The endlessly brilliant Steve Martin (“The World’s Funniest White Man”) from thirty years ago has, alas, turned into the comedic equivalent of Carbon 14. There’s not much use for the stuff, apart from knowing just how far you’ve fallen.

Barry seemed to realize this, and eventually quit his column (more or less) and went into writing books. He had the chops for it. On such rare occasions as he was serious in the paper, he was a strong writer. His piece about saying goodbye to his dad moved me 25 years ago, and it moves me even more now, having lost so many people in the last year. He jumped to writing some above median novels, and I get around to reading ‘em eventually. I never feel cheated, though he’s no Nabokov. When I heard he (co)wrote a fantasy novel, I was intrigued, but obviously I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

It was co-written with Ridley Pearson, about whom I know nothing. Mr. Pearson, if you’re reading this, I apologize. This is every bit as much your book as it is Mr. Barry’s, and I’m giving you not nearly enough attention. However, since this is an ever-so-slightly negative review, Mr. Barry gets to take the lion’s share of the blame as well as the attention. Sorry.

Anyway:

The book is a prequel to “Peter Pan.” It tells the story of who Peter was, how he came to Neverland, the origins of Captain Hook, and a buncha’ stuff about where Pixie Dust comes from. The Pixie Dust stuff is kind of interesting, the rest of it…meh.

Basically, there are two boats headed for a kingdom far away: a British warship and a civilian ship, traveling separately. The civilian ship has some orphans (Including a kid named Peter) who are going to be sold into slavery. It’s also got the daughter of a guy on the warship. The warship gets attacked by a pirate called “Black Stache” who’s ship is (Occasionally) driven by sails made in the form of a huge bra. Yeah, there’s no real reason for it, it’s not particularly funny, but there it is. There they are, actually. There are several instances of this “Look at me! Now I’m being zany!” stuff. None of it really works. Again: Comedy has a halflife, I guess.

Black (Mu)Stache attacks the ship because it’s got pixie dust on it. This turns out to be a false lead, and in fact the pixie dust is on the other ship (“The Never Land”), so he goes to attack that as well. Peter and the girl and other orphans and a crate full of pixie dust end up on a random island, where the locals worship a giant crocodile and have some issues with colonialism. They attempt to feed everyone to the crock, but the girl teaches Peter to fly with the pixie dust, and there’s some yelling and shouting and chasing about with Stache, and then it sorta’ ends, and everyone lives happily ever after, until the (four and counting) sequels start rolling out. Then end. For a few months.

Understand I’m not *slamming* the book. It’s perfectly acceptable, it’s not offensive, it’s not poorly written, it’s not disrespectful of the original material, it’s not a *bad* book. It is pretty ‘whatevery,’ though. I found myself not really giving a crap about the characters, nor really having much fun with their adventures, even in really well-written fun bits like when Peter is being taught to fly by a dolphin. Even if we factor in my notorious indifference to fantasy, it still didn’t grab me much. I don’t feel cheated by the book, but I don’t feel particularly well served, either. There’s a lack of inspiration here.

Basically it suffers from the same problem as the Star Wars prequels: Why bother? I mean, we already *knew* the important bits of the story from five or six lines of dialog in the original three movies. Did we really need seven and a half hours to expand on that? Furthermore, did we really need all that screen time to be slavishly dedicated to stuff we already knew or suspected, told completely to the exclusion of anything new or interesting? I mean, ok, we get it: Anikin falls. That sucks. Was that really *ALL* that was going on for like 15 years as the republic was falling? Honestly? And that whole Clone Wars thing? Honestly, you have limitless money and time and resources, and that’s the best you could do? Sad.

Likewise, the stuff in this book is stuff that anyone could have come up with if they said “Say, how did he get there?” There are no surprises, it’s all pretty much ‘start the ball rolling, and we already know where it’s going to end up.’ Predictable. Plodding. Uninspired. The story feels constrained by the point where it must end up, and that’s a shame because, despite being a common problem of prequels, it really doesn’t *have* to be that way. Maybe we should talk about that at some point? Maybe. Anyway:

My copy is 451 pages long, and it really doesn’t start to get interesting until about page 199. It doesn’t stay particularly interesting because it’s got places to go and people to meet, and it can’t really dawdle around trying to entertain me. That’s a strike against it. On the plus side, the whole “Pixiedust” thing is more interesting than you’d expect:

It comes from space.

Yeah, it comes from space, it crashes to earth, and it causes things to change. This is inconsistent, and basically Pixiedust is MacGuffinite (“MacGuffinium?”) in that it does whatever the plot requires of it at that moment, and does another thing the next. Still, the idea that it isn’t magical, simply preternatural is interesting. Likewise, the idea that there are two covert groups that have been fighting each other for millenia, trying to secure the stuff for their own purposes is pretty neat. It’s hinted briefly that the stuff is the result of some kind of conflict in space, falling to earth as a kind of unexploded bomb or shrapnel or whatever, but frustratingly this isn’t expanded on. The idea that monsters in legend are the result of pixie dust that didn’t get collected in time, and that most of the stuff falls in the oceans, SERIOUSLY inconveniencing Dolphins is likewise neat, but not particularly well developed.

Of course they knew they had sequels in the works, so there was no particular impetus, I suppose, to really drive these points home in the first book. It’s frustrating, though. We get evidence that there’s a larger universe at play here, but we don’t really get to do more than be told “There’s a larger universe at play here. Now go home!” And as a result, nothing I read here was really interesting enough to make me want to read the rest of the series.

“Ah, but it’s a kid’s book! You’re being too hard on it! And you don’t like fantasy!”

Well, true, I’m not a fantasy buff, but let’s recall that this book actually secretly is Science Fiction, what with the whole “It comes from space” thing, and yet it still didn’t engage me. Also, let’s not forget that I’ve got kids who *DO* like fantasy, which means I have to read a lot of Rick Riordan to ‘em at bedtime. His books – intended for the same audience – are far more engaging and fun, and unlike this “Peter” series, the end is not carved in stone from before the beginning.

BOOK REVIEW: “Shroud of the Thwacker” by Chris Elliot (2005)

I’m a big fan of Chris Elliot. I think. I generally *say* that I am, and more than that I generally *think* that I am, and I’m *pretty* sure that I am, but occasionally – through no fault of his own – I can’t remember why. Then I doubt. Then time passes, workaday life makes my doubts fade, and I’m a fan again, until something causes me to dwell on it, then the doubts remain. The thing that (mostly) convinces me I’m a fan despite my vacillation is that I’ve never said, “Oh, I hate him!”

Christ Elliot is *probably* a comedy genius. I say “Probably” because it’s sort of trendy at the moment to say “It’s a shame the peak years of the man’s career were spent largely out of the public eye, his talents moldering on a shelf while Jim Belushi manages to be a star.” This is entirely true, of course, but since I didn’t *SEE* anything he did during his years on the shelf, I honestly don’t know. The people who make these kinds of claims are particularly unreliable. The kinds of guys who tried to justify liking the Tim Burton “Batman” by pretending to see allusions to Wagnerian opera in it, and who insist Tiny Toons is funny, and who pretend to like Andy Kaufman. Y’know: Jerks.

Kaufman is probably the nearest, neatest comparison: a character/performance comic who immerses himself in generally unlikable characters, and who gets uncomfortable laughs at our unease. The difference, of course, is that I never found Andy the least bit funny, not even in concept. Conversely, Chris can rattle off lines like “Phhht. I need another dictionary the way the Iliad need about a hundred more pages about Agamemnon,” and it’s just endlessly hysterical. Not because it’s so smart, but just because it’s so chaotic and out of place. So, yeah, I think Elliot is funnier than Kaufman, but that’s a low bar. Bottom line: I’m 90% sure I like Elliot, but I’m never quite sure why, and I’ve decided that’s part of the gag.

I was feeling pretty burned out on SF recently, looking for something ’Dane to read, and I stumbled across this novel for 50 cents at my local Salvation Army thrift shop. I stared at it in confusion for a few moment. Was it *that* Chris Elliot? Sure enough…fifty cents? A bargain! Wait, do I like him again? Hm….fifty *whole* cents? I dunno…. Ultimate, however, I decided to take the four-bit plunge based on the pleasant prospect of reading something that wasn’t SF, and which promised to be funny, by someone I was reasonably sure I liked, and whom I hadn’t realized was a writer.

Typically, half way through the thing turns into a science fiction novel.

The protagonist is Chris himself, writing in first person. Ostensibly the book is a memoir of his experiences, starting off in the present day, it follows him around some typical episodes of his life: his best friend is a carnie who blows himself up for a living, he auditions for a play, and he continually argues with Yoko Ono, who lives next door in The Dakota. Presently, out of boredom, he gets involved in trying to solve a more-than-a-century-old series of gruesome murders by someone called “The Thwacker” who terrorized Manhattan in the gilded age.

The book jumps back and forth between the present, and his third-person “Reconstructions” of the 19th Victorian events. Presently in the present, Chris realizes someone is following him, and the case isn’t as cold as he’d thought. He begins to fear for his life, and eventually he ends up traveling back in time, where he ends up taking part in the whole mystery.

I don’t really want to tell much more than that. Really, I didn’t even want to tell that it was time travel involved, since that doesn’t show up until half way through the novel, and it’s clearly supposed to be a surprise and a shock when it happens, but some bags must have their cats extracted in order to justify reviewing stuff on a Science Fiction Website. Sorry.

So how is the book?

It’s not bad. It’s not great, mind you, but it’s not bad. It doesn’t conclusively prove that I like Elliot, but it doesn’t argue against it either. One thing I really, really give him mad props for is that he didn’t fall into the “Douglas Adams Science Fiction Comedy Trap.” It seems like everyone who tries to do comedic SF immediately cops from Adams (Excepting, curiously, Eoin Colfer. Good for him!) and it’s just hopelessly derivative and tedious to see people try. And let’s face it, Adams himself wrote nine books, and he could only really pull that crap off about two and a half times. Seeing less imaginative people try to out-master the master is just embarrassing. Elliot doesn’t try. He maintains his own voice, which is a good thing if it’s a voice you enjoy. I’m pretty sure I do.

A running gag in the book are the deliberate anachronisms. The idea seems to be that Elliot is an idiot (itself a running gag) who really did no research at all for his ‘reconstructed flashbacks,’ and thus he keeps making references to buildings, people, movements, and places that didn’t exist at the time. In particular, he’s got a lot of gags involving a kerosene-powered cellphone. In a probable nod to “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Teddy Roosevelt keeps referring to famous things he hasn’t done yet, and when he’s called on it by the other characters, he just ignores them or waves them off, or flatulates. He flatulates a lot, it seems, mostly to break the tension. My personal favorite portion involves an extended description of the 151-foot tall statue of Nathan Bedford Forest in full Klu Klux Klan regalia, which was presented to the people of New York as a gesture of surrender by the defeated Confederacy in 1866. It stood there until it was rammed in the crotch by a zeppelin – gah! I just broke out laughing! Honestly, I can’t say this without breaking up – it was rammed in the crotch by a zeppelin, which brought the whole thing down. Eventually the Statue of Liberty was built on the now-unused 150-foot-tall stand, and New Yorkers have debated which sculpture was better until this very day.

If he’d managed to keep up that level of lunacy, this would instantly be one of my favorite books of all time, but alas, while it’s pretty engagingly amusing, it’s not exactly a yuck-a-minute. Most of the best gags are utter throwaway descriptions like that, or the “Mince-about-hall” where many of the 19th Century’s greatest entertainers were discovered, or the “Last untamed Indian” that Teddy Roosevelt keeps in a large birdcage in his house. As with most of Get A Life, the story hovers somewhere between absurdism and surrealism, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not for everyone. Several scenes feel like they’re out of a sitcom, though that’s not entirely a bad thing, and I do believe it’s part of the gag. My personal favorite of these: Chris repeatedly informs us that whatever else he may be, he’s first-and-foremost a dancer. At one point towards the end of the story he ends up in a room with another version of himself (Time travel, remember), and the two of him more-or-less unconsciously start tap-dancing in unison, more and more elaborately as the conversation continues, without realizing it. On the other hand, scenes like his audition for a play just don’t really work, and are kinda’ tedious. The plot, when it’s ultimately revealed, is needlessly complex and never entirely makes sense. Again, this is part of the gag. At 368 pages, it feels a bit padded out. It could easily have lost 75 and benefited. Just the same, when the ultimate puppet master behind all the evil goings on is revealed, I laughed uncontrollably for about fifteen minutes or so.

So: not a bad book, but not a classic. It’s got a few belly-laughs, but mostly it’s just modestly amusing. A newish author learning his skills, I guess. It did make me interested enough to read his other books, now that I realize he has other books.

BOOK REVIEW: “The Last Colony” by John Scalzi (2007)

I’ve read five of John Scalzi’s novels now, and there hasn’t been a one of ’em I didn’t like. Granted the previous book in this series – “The Ghost Bigades,” reviewed herehttp://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9C-ghost-brigades%E…
– was probably the weakest of the bunch, but he’s still batting above .750, and he hasn’t struck out yet. He’s earned my faith.

He didn’t blow it, either. My faith was well-placed. I was cautioned about this book. Evidently a lot of people feel it’s the weakest of the series, but I’m here to tell you: those people are wrong. In fact, this is my favorite of the bunch so far, and by a good margin.

This is the third novel in the “Old Man’s War” series. The eponymous first book told the first-person story of John Perry as he became embroiled in a Fightin’ Space Marine kinda’ war, and found true love with a woman named Jane Sagan. The second book told us what Jane Sagan was up to after the first book ended, and culminated with she and John adopting a daughter. It’s in third person, and Jane’s just not as compelling as John, so those are both strikes against it, though I reiterate: not at all a bad book. This new one tells us what happened after that.

Basically John and Jane have married and settled down on a planet called “Huckleberry” with their daughter Zoe, and have lived a quiet, boring, mundane existence in a rural farming village. They’re happy. One day the Army shows up on their doorstep and asks them to head up a new colony world, an experimental one: the first ever to take people from already-settled colony worlds, rather than directly from Earth. They agree, and from then on out are lied to, abused, manipulated, attacked, used, threatened, spared, attacked again, betrayed, and accused (Repeatedly) of treason by the very people who’ve sold them out. It’s a good romp which, alas, I can’t really tell you about for fear of blowing all the good bits.

Suffice to say that their new colony (Called “Roanoke”) is both more and less than what it seems. They went into it assuming it was some kind of a political bargaining chip among the human government, but it also ends up being a bargaining chip for nearly everyone else. It’s alternately funny and exciting and suitably exotic. Best of all: It’s once again in first-person narrative, as told by John Perry.

Perry is, as usual, an amiable wiseass. He’s smart and fast-witted, but by no means the fastest, nor does he pretend to be. He’s not trying to impress anyone, he’s just built that way. He finds himself in a situation far, far more dire than anyone anticipated, with enemies both inside and out and….again I find I can’t tell you much about it for fear of spoiling the plot. Dangit.

What I *can* say is that this book is better than “Old Man’s War” itself. Despite all the giddy Lilliputian-stomping fun of that novel, it *is* just a Fightin’ Space Marine story. Granted, it’s better than really any previous example of that subgenre, but it’s still something we’ve seen a lot. Conversely, “Colony” is more complex, more ambitious, and I think ultimately more rewarding. The first book was introducing us to the crappy-but-acceptable Status Quo. The second book was about an attempt to prevent the status quo from getting much, much worse. This time out we blow the doors of the status quo, and nothing is ever the same again. For good or for ill? We actually don’t know. The book doesn’t say. We’re left to believe it’s probably a good thing, but there are so many ways to screw the pooch.

That makes it sound like a cliffhanger ending. It’s not. There’s a very solid, very satisfying conclusion that resolves all the substantial threads from this book and the previous two. It concludes the John and Jane story in good fashion. A new world is being born, though we don’t really get to see the aftermath.

Style is brisk and breezy and entertaining, and the strange *sweetness* of the previous installments is still here, and odd and loveable gracious quality that offsets all the death and murder and mayhem. Well, it doesn’t really offset them, just places them in relief, I guess. Neat trick, though. He does it a good bit, and I never see it coming.

We’re introduced to some interesting new characters, most notably “Hickory” and “Dickory,” two aliens (Obin, actually) who live in John’s household, both of whom are a hoot. More remarkable to me, though, was Hiram Yoder, from a Mennonite colony world, who ends up saving Roanoke when they lose the use of nearly all electronics. He and his people teach the rest how to farm oldschool.

Knowing a few Mennonites in real life, I was impressed with the way they were depicted here. It’s rare to see a *real* religious group turn up in SF, and rarer still to see it depicted more-or-less accurately, and practically unheard of to have said group come out without being made to look like chumps. Scalzi again plays to his strengths, and gives them a quiet, not-at-all-preachy dignity. They’re good, simple people who live the life they believe God wants of them, and the world is a better place for it.

For me, personally, as a Christian, the most striking and awesome moment in the novel is when Hiram is brutally attacked, and just stands there, perfectly still, not fighting back, not running away, just taking it. The attackers grievously wound him, ripping up one whole side of his face, and knocking him down in great pain. He gets up, and knowing full well it’s the last thing he’s ever going to do, Hiram *literally* turns the other cheek. I tell you, I was on the edge of tears. It was a beautiful – and horrible – moment, made better by the author playing it without getting all cloying.

That said, there *were* a couple parts I really didn’t like. There “Werewolf” subplot is never resolved, it just ends abruptly. It was genuinely interesting, but leaving it without a conclusion makes it play like filler, even though it’s not. Furthermore, Zoe has an adventure that materially affects the outcome of the book, and yet we don’t get to see it. She’s just sent off on her own, then shows up again a chapter later, having done whatever she’s done. The conclusion of the book couldn’t take place without this, so it feels a bit of a cheat. It’s not like having the climax take place offscreen, or something stupid like that, but it does detract from it.

Apart from those two caveats, however, I love “The Lost Colony.” Definitely my favorite in the series thus far.