Sick Time Reading: Alloy of Law, God Engines, Hull Zero Three

December 14th, 2011 by Potato

I’ve taken a few days off here with a nasty sore throat that seems to just start to get better, only to remiss as soon as I spend a day back at work. I think I’m finally over it, but maybe I’ll say that only to be bedridden again tomorrow :( Anyway, this has given me an opportunity to so some reading, so here are a few short book reviews for you:

The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson.

This is a follow-up book to his Mistborn series, and I have to say that I loved the Mistborn Trilogy. Uncharacteristically for Brandon Sanderson, the Alloy of Law is actually fairly short, which I think was good because it was just as hard to put down as his other ones, and I needed my sleep. The original Mistborn trilogy took place in a quasi-medieval setting with a particular brand of magic (allomancy) included. That world was facing some cataclysmic events, which naturally, were resolved by the end of the trilogy. The Allow of Law now brings us a few hundred years into the future of that world, now populated with guns and railroads. Part detective novel, part western, and part action-packed fantasy thriller, I was well-pleased. It’s a totally different tone, with a totally different set of characters, yet it all fit nicely into the Mistborn universe. I think he could build a lucrative career just writing allomancy books, but of course Brandon Sanderson is too damned prolific to be tied down like that. Ah, well. I await the next entry!

The God Engines, John Scalzi

This one is even shorter, I think qualifying as a novella. Part sci-fi, part fantasy, this story tells the tale of warring gods, who are made stronger by the faith their followers have. So far, the storyline of Populous. Anyway, instead of trying to flatten all the things to help organically grow their followers, these gods have wars to convert or exterminate those of their enemies. When we enter the story, one god in particular seems to have largely taken over the known universe, and has enslaved the lesser gods to use their god-like powers to run the ships (hence the title). It’s a neat take on the technobabble behind FTL travel, using tangible yet still metaphysical gods to bend space-time to their will while chained in the bowels of a ship. Anyway, I don’t want to say much more than that because it’s already such a short book it’s hard not to release spoilers. I will say that the characters are well-fleshed out, and it’s another solid piece of Scalzi writing. Though I did include a link above to Amazon with my affiliate code, I think $20 is a bit steep for a novella; you may be better-served by the $5 Kindle version.

Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear

I find myself torn on this one: on the one hand, I did not enjoy the book, on the other, of the three it was the one I spent the most time thinking about the themes and meaning. Before I get to that and have to get to spoilers though, I’ll just say that though I liked the concepts Greg Bear was writing about, I did not care for how the story played out. For a short book, it took way too long to get going, which was compounded by the fact that most of the first third of the book might be considered non-stop action scenes. There was zero character building until about the half-way point, which I think is why all the action-y stuff at the beginning fell so flat. The main character comes out of some kind of pod in a freezing cold space ship, not sure if he’s been in suspended animation or what has happened. He’s badly lacking in memory and ability to think clearly, which leads to a really broken first-person narrative. I find that kind of amnesiac story annoying at the best of times, and this one is not well-executed. From there, mysterious monsters chase him through the ship, which is in obvious peril. Sounds like Pandorum, the book. Now, on to the meat, right after a:

Spoiler warning!

The big concept here is a “generation ship” launched from a dying earth to the unknown void to carry on for humanity. The reason I threw generation ship in scare quotes there is because the ship is not your typical generation ship: though it’s moving at barely relativistic speeds on a journey that will take centuries, it is not carrying an awake human crew that will reproduce on the journey, nor is it carrying colonists frozen in suspended-animation. Instead — and this is where the concept gets cool — it’s carrying some really powerful genetic engineering technology combined with in-vitro memory implantation, so that it can grow colonists to spec, and have them emerge as fully-developed adults complete with skills and implanted memories. Then the concept gets even better because the ship’s designers tried to account for all possibilities, including in the genetic library the ability to not only make humans as we know them, but to modify them to suit other environments, and to create lesser organisms to build up a biosphere if the planet they find is lifeless. And more: a whole library of killer creatures, designed to wipe out any indigenous life if the distant target colony is inhabited. There are all kinds of ethical questions to mine in those scenarios: do you try to make peace and co-exist if you’re approaching a system with intelligent indigenous life, or do you strike first to ensure that you complete your mission to preserve Earth-based life?

Rather than directly explore these questions and possibilities, the story instead spends the vast majority of its time mucking about on a broken space ship — far too much time on the issues of dealing with the cold and changing gravity as the cylinders spin up and down. Far too much time snapping out of the amnesic brain fog of being born/thawed out. Far too much time running away from barely-glimpsed impossible monsters. Yes, we learn at the end (I warned you there would be spoilers) that the whole point was that the ship went to war with itself after selecting a destination with indigenous life: the bioreactors started getting programmed for eliminators (hence all the monsters that have been spawned on board), but a small faction was having an ethical dilemma and tried to create something closer to a set of stock humans to take over and change course. But then recreating those same few individuals hundreds of times over, only to have them die in confusion… I just didn’t like it, and I don’t think much came of that. It didn’t even really seem to shake the main character when he found the freezer full of hundreds of copies of himself.

One interesting throw-away twist was the question of what if the indigenous life was other humans? That’s another theme sometimes explored in sci-fi with generation or sleeper ships moving out under conventional drive: after centuries in space, they arrive at their colony only to find that Earth managed to recover from its near-catastrophe, develop faster-than-light travel, and beat them to it. So what if your ship is busy breeding the best killers genetic engineering can imagine, and is setting up for an unannounced first strike on your own great great grand-nephews, who leap-frogged past you after developing warp drive?

Anyway, I didn’t think it worked very well as an amnesiac-finding-himself story, nor as a romp-in-the-monster-ridden-ship-with-variable-gravity-and-heat story, and the cool concept/big idea part just got relegated to a few pages at the end. A story I might like to see is with basically this ship (or I guess more properly, the gene library and bioreactor) that Greg Bear has come up with, but from the point of view of the indigenous population, or the crew when it’s not hundreds of years into a feud that no one remembers. How would the little ship-board war have played out if a conclusion was reached within a single generation, while people still knew what they were fighting over and had their brains and weren’t taking time to marvel at words like umbrella as their memory defrosted? What would it be like if such a ship appeared in our skies?

Maybe they’d realize they could hang out in lunar orbit, and it would take us a few years to build any kind of rocket to hurt them. Then the crunch is on to explore those ethical issues: can a peace be brokered between such different species? Can they trust us, can we trust them? Do we share the Earth, or let them have Mars? What is the interaction of their own hawks and doves? What if they realize their ship isn’t big enough to totally take on a planet the size of Earth?

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