Irontown Blues by John Varley

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Irontown Blues by John Varley, which will publish August 28, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4 World Building: 4.5

A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery, in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley.

Chris Bach is a PI wannabe offering his services on Luna many years after the alien invasion of Earth (which basically depopulated the planet — see previous books in the Eight Worlds Universe for more details on this, but it’s not important for this story). He sets off to solve the case of a woman who has been given leprosy against her will (hard to believe anyone would willingly contract leprosy but in this world of acceptable and reversible extreme body modifications, disfiguring diseases can be a source of amusement for some — hmmm). “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown” — trust me when I tell you that the case does not go where you think it will.

Chris is aided by his sidekick, Sherlock. Sherlock is a CEC — a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine. The tale is told through their alternating voices — Sherlock’s via the aid of a canine interpreter named Penelope Cornflower (β-Penny in Sherlock parlance). The book is worth reading for Sherlock’s story alone — if you’re at all a dog person you’ll enjoy (and crack up at) his interpretation of the world and events. Other cool characters include Chris’ not-very-maternal mother (retired police chief and now prehistoric-reptile rancher), and some pretty nasty soldiers from Charon, a once prison-planet turned … not-so-nice but now fully acceptable part of the Eight Worlds.

Great world building and descriptions of future life, both technologically and culturally enhanced. Surprising plot and interesting characters. Plenty of fun references to our favorite detectives both current and past (Elvis Cole and Marlowe are mentioned a lot as is Hildy Johnson. Heinlein gets a whole subculture.) Threads on libertarian ideals, body modification, creative habitats, and slightly insane AIs, run liberally through the story.

Hugo-and-Nebula-Award-Winner John Varley has been writing since shortly after I began reading, and I’ve read most of his work. His short story collection, The Persistence of Vision, is possibly my number one favorite SF short story collection (which is saying quite a lot). I confess I had lost track of him for the past few years and haven’t read his last couple of novels — but I’ll remedy that shortly.

Head On by John Scalzi

Writing: 5 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 4.5

Classic Scalzi — a cool, well-explored, futuristic world with non-stop and non-predictable action and funny banter. This is the second book in his “Lock In” series. It can be read on its own, but “Lock In” was great, too, so why not read it first?

Both books are mysteries in a sci-fi setting. In this world, 1% of the global population has Haden’s syndrome — a condition where the person is “locked in” to his/her own body. A number of technologies have been developed to support this population — implantable neural networks that link their brains directly to the outside world to humanoid personal transport units (called “threeps” after C-3PO) and an online universe called “The Agora.”

In this installment, FBI Agents Chris Shane (himself a Haden) and Leslie Vann (a female version of the crotchety senior detective persona) tackle a difficult case: the physical death of a Hilketa player during a game in which the play is all via threeps and should be no danger whatsoever to the human player. Hilketa is a (very weird to me) game played by decapitating a targeted player and carrying his / her head across the goal line.

I’m happy to say that Scalzi is back in top form. This is only the second book published after he signed a huge multi-million dollar, multi-year, multi-book deal with Tor. The first book published after the contract was Collapsing Empire — the only Scalzi book I have ever disliked (and I’ve read them all) — so I’m quite relieved that he is back on track.

Great writing and pacing, plenty of plot twists, and generally difficult to put down. I started in the morning and finished as I went to bed (only put it down briefly when I was grudgingly dragged outside to help shovel dirt into the new tomato planter). This is accessible to all readers — similar to Andy Weir’s books (The Martian; Artemis) but funnier, more inventive, and offers more exploration of the cultural and political impact of the technologies in addition to the scientific-technical angles.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

I can definitely see why this book won the Hugo Award.  I had never read anything by N. K. Jamison before, but she is clearly a major talent. The craft and thought embedded in the pages are inspiring.

We are thrust into a catastrophic event in the first pages that is likely to launch the next Fifth Season. Fifth Seasons are Father Earth’s revenge for what humanity has done to the planet in this post-apocalyptic world.  These disastrous “seasons,” lasting for months, years, or centuries,  go by names like “Choking Season”, “Shattering Season”, “Acid Season”, and “Madness Season.”  The theme of this dark, intense, and utterly compelling novel is survival and control. The players: Orogenes have evolved to be able to control the massive powers of the Earth; Guardians have evolved to be able to control the Orogenes; Stills do neither.  And then there are the mysterious Stone Eaters who are just odd and not very human, who clearly have their own, hard to decipher, agenda.

The action filled and psychologically oriented plot begins with three distinct story lines that slowly evolve into one, explaining how we got to the current state described in the prologue.  It is a fantastically well developed world, with coherent themes, nomenclature, and social customs. It’s clearly a post-apocalyptic Earth and its fascinating to see how the author extrapolated from our present to this environment clearly millennia in our future. While this book doesn’t quite end with a cliff hanger, there is plenty left to reveal in the next two books (luckily, the third and final book will be available in less than a month).

My Real Children – Jo Walton

I’ve seen Jo Walton books – mostly in the sci-fi sections – a lot and never before went to pick them up.  Seeing her speak on the Literary Tastes panel at ALA encouraged me to read the giveaway book – My Real Children.  MyRealChildrenThis book won the RUSA Reading List genre award for Women’s Fiction. Jo seemed a little surprised to be winning in that particular category but took it well.  She talked about doing a lot of crossover fiction – fiction that crosses genres – in this case an alternative history that focuses on women and issues of interest to women (which is different than Women’s Issues with capital letters). This book was interesting to read – I like her clean narrative style.  It didn’t have the emotional depth that I look for in fiction.  It read like a wikipedia entry – many things to interest the brain but nothing that evokes feeling.  I’m OK with this, but I miss the empathy. The plot revolves a woman sliding into dementia who remembers living two distinctly different lives that forked from a single decision about whether or not to marry a specific man.  Jo handles this cleanly and does a great job of portraying these different worlds.  There is a little bit of discussion as to how this one decision of one woman could have had such an impact on world events, but frankly I found that a bit hand-wavy and disappointing. Still, a good, imaginative exploration of some possible results of the decisions we make every day.