Four Book Reviews (2017Jan24)


Monday, January 23, 2017                                                9:36 PM

Of my recent readings, four books have stood out as enjoyable to the point of recognizing their worth and sharing my enjoyment with others:

“Xenophobia” by Peter Cawdron   –   “The Sculpted Ship” by K. M. O’Brien   –   “The Simpleton” by Mark Wayne McGinnis   –   “Feedback” by Peter Cawdron

Below is a re-post of my Amazon reviews for each:

“Xenophobia” by Peter Cawdron

xenophobia

[‘Super 8’ in Africa]

Do not be fooled by the generic title—this book is unique and exciting in many ways. First of all, I love it when a science fiction story starts out as a regular novel, bringing the reader into a real-world scenario both interesting and engaging—meanwhile, very slowly and subtly at first, the introduction of the strange—and the total lack of expectation of anything otherworldly on the part of the characters—adds greatly to the sense of dislocation one would feel, if confronted by, say, an alien—rather than simply reading a story that has an alien in it.

Perhaps I’m over-explaining myself—all I’m saying is that the protagonist, a young doctor working in a war-torn third-world country—and her UN-assigned military team of protectors—have more than their share of drama unfolding throughout this book. The introduction of some kind of First Contact, late in the story, was superfluous in terms of good story-telling. The woman’s struggle is as much about the human condition as anything else—quite gripping, all on its own—and, as I said, the realism of this story only adds to the sense of alienness concerning the visitors from the sky, when they finally appear.

As a child of Clarke, Asimov & Co., I have no set requirement for literary excellence in my science fiction—though when I come across it, as I have done here, I’m very appreciative. What I do demand is that there be, if not originality, at least uniqueness to the concepts or the science—and that is also here, not so much in the ingredients of the story, but in the interactions of the various players and in the frustrating of comfortable assumptions and expectations.

If a combination of the movies “Tears of the Sun”, “Rescue Dawn”, and “Super 8” sounds like something you’d enjoy, then Xenophobia is right up your alley.

 

“The Simpleton” by Mark Wayne McGinnis

simpleton

[Flowers for E.T.]

While the representation of a story through a mélange of movies is not something I’m entirely comfortable with, it sometimes seems quite apropos—and in the case of “The Simpleton” by Mark Wayne McGinnis I’m tempted to say that it is a combination of “The Lawnmower Man”, “Flowers For Algernon”, and “E.T.”—with just a hint of “Ender’s Game” thrown in for good measure, at the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed McGinnis’ take on the familiar ‘enhanced intelligence’ concept—it has always fascinated me. That the alien feels concern for enhancing the intelligence of a living thing without its consent is a great doorway to ruminations about the paradox of life being a violent exercise, yet intelligence urges us to seek peace. I appreciate writers who, like Tolstoy, take side-trips into the philosophical in the course of their story-telling.

On the down side, I’ve never been a big fan of the sci-fi trope in which the aliens are too peaceful to defend themselves and thus require us savage humans to fight their war for them. How is that not just using humans as second-hand weapons? But, whatever—it also allows for alien characters who are more savage than humans, rather than less—so balance is maintained.

Being anti-authoritarian, I’m also a big fan of stories where the security forces and the military are so paranoid and knee-jerk violent that they practically doom the planet in their narrow-minded quest to control a situation they don’t understand—so I enjoyed that aspect of this story as well.

I’m very story-oriented—when I read, it is basically just to enjoy myself. This makes it difficult for me to discuss my impressions of a book without a great deal of ‘spoilers’—but rest assured that “The Simpleton” is far less simple than the little bits I’ve given away in this review—and the whole story is complex and entrancing in the way only good sci-fi can be.

 

“The Sculpted Ship” by K. M. O’Brien

sculptedship

[A Fairy Tale of Space]

Any good adventurer needs a little luck and a few helping hands to make it through the dark forest of inexperience—that is the message of most fairy tales—and it is also the theme of this delightful sci-fi fairy tale.

A young lady who just happens to be a genius at starship engineering just happens across a very special starship that has fallen on hard times. As her quest to get the ship back into the dark parallels her coming of age, she runs into a Star Wars-like collection of good, bad, and just plain odd people—smugglers, bots, royalty, and charm-school matrons, just to name a few.

While there may be little doubt as to what happens next, the reader is diverted by the exhaustive creation of a future society, complete with political intrigue, fashion faux-pas, and space-naval traditions. There is, in some books, such a pleasure in inhabiting the story that the lack of much surprise in the plot is beside the point—we simply enjoy the work of a good story-teller.

I certainly enjoyed “The Sculpted Ship”—I dashed through it, and it ended way before I was ready to let it go. I only hope there will be sequels.

 

“Feedback” by Peter Cawdron

feedback

[Even If You Don’t Care For Time Travel]

Time Travel as premise is not something I care for, most of the time. For one thing, I dislike getting the feeling that I understand the physics better than the author—which has happened to me too many times. For another thing, many authors err either on the side of ‘Time Travel makes everything possible’ or the side of ‘Time Travel can’t change anything’—in such cases, either way, it seems an exercise in futility.

But sometimes, as in “Feedback”, Time Travel is both taken seriously as a physics hypothesis—and is neither let loose to cover everything nor confined to where it hardly matters. In “Feedback” we are treated to a nice demonstration of how a Time-Travel premise can be tweeked into something that both preserves the past and yet allows for human determination to help shape the ultimate future.

This story gives a new level to the term flash-back, as we bounce back and forth from two different story-lines, both equally engaging and both quite distinct until nearly the end, when all things become, at last, not just tied together, but twisted into an infinite loop. And it is a rare book that saves the surprise ending for an extended epilogue—and for that new experience, for this old, old bookworm, I have to thank Mr. Cawdron.

Having just finished reading this enthralling story, I suspect that I could spend a great deal of time poking holes in it—Time-Travel tales are notoriously loose-logical. But this book keeps you moving right along—and it would take a keener mind than mine to have noticed any glaring errors during the course of my reading. And, hey, if it’s good enough to support the willing suspension of disbelief until the last page, it’s hardly fair of the reader to try and tear it apart, after the fact—we’ll leave that to the poor fool who has to write the screenplay adaptation.

I would have to give the author a nod simply for writing a Time-Travel story that I enjoyed. But “Feedback” was more than just acceptable—it was a great sci-fi ride through space, time, and science—and that’s all I ask from any book.

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