J’s Take on Deepwater Black by Ken Catran

Deepwater Black cover imageI read this book slowly over the course of what was probably months. It turned out to be the perfect book for picking up and putting down. The plot wasn’t hard to follow and the characters weren’t so numerous or complex that it really mattered whether I remembered them or not. And I also didn’t care. I didn’t feel a compelling need to keep reading to figure out what was going on.

Which is perhaps a damning criticism because the book was just one giant mystery made up of little mysteries. And I just didn’t care.

The main character is either a kid in the contemporary real world who goes to school, etc, or he’s a kid with a bunch of other kids flying a spaceship in the future. He’s ‘prexing’, a word which I never did figure out, and just falling into this hallucinatory state where he believes he’s living out the life of a 20th-21st century Earth kid. Or he’s actually that kid.

On the ship, it’s a group of I dunno maybe half a dozen kids, who don’t really know what they’re doing or where they’re going. And there’s like creatures and jel and dangerous random things they have to fight off, and I don’t even know why. And two of the kids are plotting, but not secretively or very well, to get voice control over the computer. But whatever.

So the mysteries are, like, what’s this prexing thing about, why are these kids on the ship, because they don’t really know themselves, what is this ship and why was it built, where are they going, etc, etc. And why is it called Deepwater anyway?

Well, you won’t get answers to all of those questions by reading the book. (And darned if I’m going to read any more in the series to try to find them either.) And the answers that are provided are full of crap science that I’d love to pick apart, but would be major spoilers. Because what’s the point at all of reading this book if I tell you what’s going on in it? None. But it fails biology and it fails astronomy. It probably also fails physics generally. Maybe ecology.

There certainly is potential in the overarching idea, and enough hand-waving would’ve made me fine with the poor science. However, it would’ve had to have done a lot more with the characters. I couldn’t see most of them even 2-dimensionally, let alone 3. One of them had the annoying tendency to learn things and then not want to tell anyone else. And she was pretty much the most developed of all the characters.

My recommendation has to be to give this one a pass. If you want kids alone on a spaceship, try Marion Zimmer Bradley or Dom Testa.


Nebula Project: Man Plus

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Man Plus by Frederik Pohl. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

Man Plus book cover

Facing mutual self-destruction, the major governmental powers on Earth race into space. One solution: to create a cyborg capable of living and working on Mars without a suit. When the first test subject dies, Roger Torraway becomes the man of the hour. Or the man plus of the hour. As his body is gradually converted into a “Martian”, his mind has to cope with no longer being human while he angsts about his love for his cheating wife.

J: So.. Man Plus wasn’t a promising title. I didn’t know what to expect going into it. Except that you started it first and said it was horrible. And you were right. And not only did it not get better, it GOT WORSE. But, at least it was short.

K: Man Plus is a very ambiguous title, though it becomes clear enough as soon as you begin reading: Man+, new and improved man, etc. It’s certainly not double-plus good. I can’t, however, agree with you that it got worse: the first part of the book was definitely the lowest point for me. It didn’t improve, really, but the parts where Pohl abandoned his efforts at characterization and concentrated just on his science fiction were considerably better.

J: The first chapter was a straight infodump. So it’s true that it improved on hitting the second chapter, with actual action and dialog. And yes, it did get more interesting. But the treatment of the female characters got increasingly worse. With a little rise and sharp dip at the end. So it was just painful all the way through.

K: Maybe I just got numb to it. I don’t know. So, let’s first take a look at the basic premise: Earth is an environmental and political disaster area, and rather than figure out a way to fix this, instead, based on opinion polling, the Americans have decided to adapt a human so that he can live on Mars without a space suit. Which is sadly, totally believable.

J: Except I didn’t quite understand the point of it. Because it turns out they were going to send astronauts in suits along as well. And they haven’t built in any way for this man+ to reproduce once he’s on Mars. So if Earth continues to go to crap, there aren’t going to be any more Man Martians.

K: Exactly. It made no sense at all. But no doubt it made everyone feel good, even if it solved nothing at all and left them with pretty much the exact same problems as they had before, just less time to solve them in.

K: Considering they obviously had a way to create livable areas on the surface (the traditional ‘domes’), and the Man+ required considerable computer support and was able to be felled just by not buttoning closed a flap, it didn’t seem to me like this was a viable or reasonable long term OR short term solution.

J: Add to that that at least one other astronaut was there almost solely as tech support for him and you’ve wasted two slots you could’ve used for engineers or Mars experts. Or was it three? What was the priest there for?

K: He was an ‘aerologist’ or something like that. I wasn’t entirely sure what that was. It sounded like he was hoping to be an exobiologist if any exobioorganisms could be found. And then they needed an actual pilot who seemingly needed no additional skills, since he wasn’t going to be able to land regardless. But the strangest part was that the addition of ‘Brad’ to the team was apparently as last minute decision made practically on a whim! Considering how very many issues they had with Man+ just lauching into space what would they have done if they hadn’t sent him along?

J: He wasn’t the only whim they had either. But let me back up to explain the plot a bit more. However well I might manage it. Our main character is Roger Torraway and he’s an astronaut, though it’s been years since he was in space. He now works on a project to produce this Mars-adapted man. A friend and former colleague is the guinea pig. But things go horribly wrong and he dies. As guinea pigs are wont to do. And Torraway’s the new man for the job. And so we get to go through all these procedures and surgeries and tests with him, while he angsts about his wife having an affair. And, spoilers, they eventually do get to Mars.

K: It does seem to me to be the worst sort of stupidity to have put all your eggs in one basket. Why on Earth would they only have one prototype Marsman? Even though they act like it’s not a big deal that they must essentially start from scratch building Roger, it surely has to have delayed everything at least a bit!

J: And neither of them seems very keen on doing it either. Which has to make me wonder why they agreed! Surely ‘duty’ only goes so far. When they signed up to be astronauts, they didn’t sign up to be surgical modification guinea pigs. It’s not something I would want to do, or most people would want to do, but surely someone out there would be willing and eager. Since even the prior astronaut training seemed to be not essential. And yea, why wouldn’t you test these individual things on other people before slapping them into your one prototype? And to have your head eye guy NOT THERE when you’re installing the key piece of eye thing seems reckless. I have to say the humans in this story don’t come off looking good at all. Any of them.

K: The decisionmaking process of all of these people seemed extremely random and without any thought to potential consequences. Or at least, if they were aware of consequences, they didn’t take any steps to minimize risk. BUT it’s not just the humans who come off as idiots in the end, in my opinion.

J: I cannot disagree with that. And this is a major spoiler, I suppose. But we do warn about spoilers! Was the ‘twist’ ending any sort of surprise to you? I have to say I noticed the ‘we’ pretty early on and that was one of my guesses as to who ‘we’ was. Very high on the list.

K: It wasn’t a surprise exactly. I didn’t get the impression that the ‘we’ was intended to be subtle or easily missed, and it was very clear that the ‘we’ weren’t humans. I can’t say I guessed what the ‘we’ would be but then I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it either.

J: To me it read like a shift from third person omniscient to first person plural that was supposed to start out subtle. I don’t think you were supposed to notice right away. But it was easy to doubt it was an AI because the computers were so big and clunky and seemingly stupid. You know, early 1970s computers. I think punch cards are even referenced. At times, aliens seemed more likely.

K: I don’t remember the reference to punch cards. But it was interesting to me to see what Pohl felt would be the limitations of the computer intelligence. I’m not sure it was well thought out. For instance: the computers have been manipulating the US Government into doing this Mars mission and, more importantly, putting a big computer into orbit around Mars with a nice generator. But they simultaneously concluded that it would be impossible for them to get someone to build an end-of-the-world bunker on some isolated island somewhere. To me, these seem like they require similar levels of manipulation. Surely the computers could easily pretend to be a corporation and trick some humans into doing the work for them. It doesn’t seem especially far-fetched given the set of parameters we have.

J: Or send robots to Mars rather than a cyborg. Just seems so much easier. Or a number of other scenarios. I mean, they don’t even need to be on Mars. Just a bunch of computerized spaceships would be good for a start. What bothered me was the machine intelligence was sexist too! Why are they all ‘brothers’? They don’t have a sex, why should they need a gender? What was so wrong with the word ‘sibling’ or ‘cousin’ or something? Siiigh.

K: Yeah, that was odd. I guess on that note we may as well talk about the issues with the female characters in this book. Of which there were many — issues, not female characters. Starting with Roger’s wife, Dorrie. Who apparently has her own thoughts and needs (good), and works because she wants to (good), but is running a store with no actual effort made to be profitable (bad), because her husband wants to support her ‘hobby’ (bad). And she’s kind of a bitch (neutral).

J: The first time we see a female character, she’s being patronized by the President of the United States. How the pretty little things had to put up with having their nails soaked to remove poisons, lest they scratch him. Actually reading those security measures was interesting, because they weren’t much more, to see the President, than they would be today to, go to Ohio.

K: And his interaction is given as evidence of how personable he is. It struck me more as something straight out of Mad Men, and certainly not something for the mid-70s, when feminism as a movement was really quite far underway. Except Pohl then later proceeds to treat us to a weird scene where Dorrie, now famous as Roger’s spouse, is interviewed by a feminist magazine. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to make the feminists look ridiculous by portraying them as fringe, or being inclusive and just kind of clueless about how to do it.

J: Yea, the feminist character was even worse than his portrayal of the other women. She resents having to do the interview at all, because the magazine isn’t interested in Dorrie for Dorrie’s sake, but just because she’s this famous astronaut’s wife. So right from the start she has this bad rapport with the person she’s supposed to be interviewing. Not that she cares. And says some pretty horrible things to her that aren’t feminist at all. ‘What sort of example are you going to set young womanhood? Turning yourself into a dried-up old maid?’ Calling marriage a ‘ridiculous farce’. Though I liked that her interview crew seemed to be all women. Though I don’t know whether the ‘prop boys’ were or not. It was interesting he said ‘lightperson’, ‘soundperson’, ‘cameraperson’, because those terms were so fine I didn’t even notice they were gender neutral. Until he surprised me by making them women. Up to now the only women had been wives and nurses. So I was definitely assuming anyone else was a man.

K: It was wiser to make that assumption, though we did find that one of the ‘nurses’ was actually a psychologist in disguise, and there did seem to be a woman involved in the testing phase of Roger’s abilities who didn’t seem to be a nurse? I don’t quite remember what her actual position was, though.

J: It wasn’t clear if he was trying to realistically portray a feminist and doing it badly, or making fun of them. But yea, not only is she a psychologist, but a major and an astronaut. At least by training even if she hadn’t gotten into space before. But even she doesn’t get off lightly. Because for some reason it’s thought if she pretends to be a nurse and looks like his wife, that this’ll help him adapt to his wife not being there for him. Or something? So she’s a surrogate love interest first, and psychologist only second.

K: Yeah, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on there. Certainly Roger’s stalkery obsession with his wife should have caused him to fail some kind of psychological tests required to become an astronaut, let alone their prize cyborg?

J: You’d think. What was even more strange was that they apparently had an open marriage anyway. So it wasn’t that she was having sex with this other guy, or even that it was another guy he knew, but that it was happening while they were living together, rather than in different parts of the world? Or something? She wasn’t doing it in the right way, basically. Oh and they built in his fail-safe warning procedure to hallucinate her. Whose brilliant idea was that?

K: The priest even admits later he realizes now that was a huge mistake. But apparently the 12-year-old boy ethos continues to reign supreme even at future NASA. I bet they digitally enhanced her boobs too.

J: *laugh* Yea, I don’t know why they didn’t change it when they realized it would be a problem. Women are definitely sex objects in this book. As in, objects to have sex with. The psychologist astronaut? She goes up in space in a different ship, with one guy. And they have sex. Even though the all-male crew of the other ship seemed to be fine with spending months not getting any. The wife of the first guinea pig, she comes down to have a look at what he looks like now. Then she expresses concern that he’s not getting any, and offers. Only to be told he doesn’t have the equipment. So.. she leaves. Without talking to him or seeing him, or kissing him or touching him or anything. Like, well, if I can’t have sex, then my role as wife is moot. Even the nun the priest is dating could have sex if they filled out the right paperwork!

K: The part with the first man’s wife was very odd. The whole book was definitely written from a male perspective, and was weirdly progressive in certain places and weirdly regressive in others. In that sense, it made me think of Forever War and its odd treatment of the female soldiers.

J: A male perspective is extra odd considering the narrator is this machine intelligence. Oh, and seemingly out of nowhere, near the end of the book, the psychologist/astronaut is called a ‘girl’. Just, for no reason, and it wasn’t something I’d seen used earlier. Though it might’ve been and I just didn’t notice then.

K: I don’t know. The reference didn’t spring out at me, so it must not have been that egregious. The male characters (aside from Roger, who as I mentioned before I felt was rather unstable) seemed all right. No super deep characterizations, but they were all types that have shown up in other books and didn’t really strain credulity there.

J: Yea, they were okay. I didn’t like any of them particularly, but they didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

K: And the cyborg idea was pretty interesting. I just wish it felt more logical in the end to have even done it. The whole musing on how it would be necessary to cut down on the inputs because his brain just couldn’t handle the information overload struck me as a fresh idea.

J: Although the example that young adults who’d been blind all their lives and were given sight then killed themselves because their brains couldn’t adapt? Was that a real thing that happened?

K: Extensive research in wikipedia suggests… sort of. Though I didn’t get the impression that in the book he was talking about real cases, but about the use of artificial eyes a la Geordi La Forge.

J: I got the impression he was referring to a real thing, or what seemed to be a real thing. But maybe, yea. Anyway, the whole cyborg thing. Well, it’s odd to even think of him as a cyborg, because it.. well, maybe it’s just what I’ve seen in sf/f lately. Steampunk often delves into biomedical stuff. All Men of Genius with surgeries and Westerfeld’s Leviathan series with genetic manipulation. So it was just I guess hard for me to think of it as a cyborg, even though yea, it was all machine and electronic bits and not organic bits. So even though it was a cyborg and I can’t argue with that, it still felt to me like ‘old-school’ steampunk or Cold War surgeries. Like, hey, let’s give him two heads. Even though that wasn’t it. And apparently cyborgs are awesome guitar players. That was random.

K: That was very random. I wasn’t sure if it was trying to restore his manliness after he was castrated or what. But anyway, not being a connoisseur of steampunk or clockwork or anything, what it reminded me of the most was the Borg (the original Borg, not how they ended up). Except the Borg started their adaptations as babies — perhaps to overcome the sensory overload issues. And of course this predates almost all of that.

J: Does it predate cybermen?

K: Inasmuch as the Cybermen appeared in 1966, no.

J: But they didn’t have wings.

J: One other thing I wanted to be sure to mention is his term ‘sinonaut’. Presumably this is referring to the Asian astronauts. Asia seems to be this large.. faction, coalition? It seemed an odd term, so I Googled it. It literally means something like ‘traveler to China’. So it makes absolutely no sense to use it, and is possibly not very PC either. Since astro- and cosmo- refer to you know, space. And cosmonaut is just an Englished-up version of the Russian word. Wikipedia is helpful again here. The proper term to use for Chinese astronauts, if you’re not going to just call them astronauts, and aren’t very good with Chinese, is taikonauts. Which is taking part of a term used in Chinese and referring to, you know, space, and not traveling to China, and then slapping the -naut on there. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronaut Although it seems some people do use ‘sinonaut’. I wonder if Pohl invented it, or if other science fiction writers did. I’m not sure when the Chinese space program really started.Or if people sort of re-invent it. And it’s just wrong every time.

K: Interesting. But yes, it does seem a bit odd — like Frenchonaut or something. The only other thing which I felt I must mention is how much it weirded me out to have a Dorrie in this book. I wasn’t expecting it, and it just took me by surprise.

J: It was odd to me too. Though I’m sure odder for you. I was hoping she wouldn’t do anything too cringe-worthy! Like, I didn’t want to hate the character. Fortunately she came off fairly well.

K: I suspect only because she had so little screentime, but yeah, she didn’t do anything very objectionable at all.

J: So that’s Man Plus. I hope he didn’t do a sequel Man++ that we have to read later. Although we do have to read another Pohl next, because he won two years in a row. Lesigh.

K: There is a sequel, but it was apparently written with someone else, 20 years later, and it has very bad reviews on amazon. I think I’ll pass.


Nebula Project: Forever War, part 2

In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

This is part two of our discussion on the Nebula Award winner Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. In the first part, we took a look at the version of the book which was published in the 70s and went on to win the Nebula Award. In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

K: So let’s go back to Forever War. As we mentioned in our first discussion, there are several versions of this book around, and initially we sought out the version which had actually been presented to the Nebula voters. More recent editions have included a significantly different ‘middle’ section, which was apparently the original (or a revision of the original) intention, but were altered before it was first published as a novel.

K: The ‘middle’ section in question is the portion of the novel taking place just after the first battle with the Taurans, up to and including the time when our main character, William Mandella, returns to Earth after being released from the military.

J: At first I noticed just little changes. Like suddenly he wasn’t getting ‘soya’ from the machine, but ‘coffee’. And I also thought his birthdate had changed, but no, it was always March 1975. Which was not the year I was born, like I said in our last discussion. I think I must’ve done the math from another date in the book and come up with 1974. But once they get to the orientation before going back to Earth, and then Earth, it’s all a lot different.

K: Yes, it is. Since it’s a bit confusing which was ‘original’, I’m going to refer to the first version we read as the Nebula version and the other one as the modern version. The Nebula version was more vague, definitely. William and Marygay arrive back on Earth, William meets his mom and his brother, he and Marygay go on a vacation, and then — spoilers — William’s mom randomly dies because she was not considered important enough to be guaranteed healthcare past the age of 70. Somehow all of this is so awful they leave the planet in disgust and re-enlist. Compared to the modern version, which I’ll let you describe, I have to say I liked this dystopic Earth better. It was more reasonable. The lack of detail and the seeming smallness of the changes made it far more believable to me. If I squint hard enough I could maybe see how we could end up like that. The modern version, on the other hand, had too many details; too many huge changes. It was over the top and didn’t work for me. But it was certainly worse which made their decision to quit Earth a lot less confusing.

J: I agree on the details front. I don’t know if I’d say it was too many, but it was definitely better thought-out. There is, for instance, a thriving black market, which you in particular bemoaned the lack of in the Nebula version. So in this modern version, they go back to Earth and it really sucks. Everyone goes outside armed or with a bodyguard. Money is in kilocalories, which are kinda sorta confusingly tied with food rationing. Marygay’s parents fled prison to work on a farm commune. His mother has a subcontracted black market job. He visits her, then he and Marygay go on a tour of the world, starting with London, via dirigible. They have a violent encounter when he breaks up a gangrape and they cut the trip short. He goes home, his Mom is apparently a lesbian now. Which freaks him out enough to go live with Marygay’s family on the commune. Which goes well for a few days, until they’re killed in a big gunfight or something. Then back to his Mom dying because she’s sick and old and so they re-enlist.

K: So which version did you like better? Since you say it’s ‘better thought-out’, I’m going to guess the modern? As I said, for me, it was just too much. There were lots of details, but since we didn’t really get to see much more than this bullet list of facts (oh hai we changed all world currency to one currency and named it kilocalories because that wasn’t at all confusing and I don’t quite understand it myself but yeah.) I think I needed either more background on the Earth changes, or less revolution to try and get my head around. And– yes, I was very pleased to see some sort of black market. But it still didn’t go far enough. It seems strictly confined to jobs? I was pretty confused about that. There was no medical black market mentioned, was there? We did see a grey-ish market for food.

J: There was blackmarket antibiotics mentioned. But that was actually in both versions, now that I look. I think I prefer the Nebula version, for two reasons. One, I think the modern version felt grafted in. We were rather abruptly jolted back to the part that was identical in the Nebula version. That he has a brother shows up out of nowhere. His mother was mentioned as being 60 (Rhonda said so) and then is 84 the next time he’s home. And they did not go farm for 20 years. And currency is suddenly in dollars again. And my second reason is the modern version has more drugs, more violence, more sex, and more rape! It was just too much. I can see how an editor told him it was all a downer. It definitely was that. Oh, and I guess I had a third reason. All 3 parents dying in the short span of time the two of them are home? When they managed to survive quite fine for 20+ years before that? Fft.

K: The timeline issues were something I caught, too. Perhaps you knew I would, because those are one of my pet peeves. (Not to venture off too far, but later in the book someone mentions the last time he was on earth was ‘2007’ and he agrees! Except it totally was not 2007. I could almost buy it as him just brushing off an error in his records if Marygay hadn’t said exactly the same thing in the short story that was written from her perspective.) But I think you’ve put your finger on something else that was bugging me, even though I couldn’t quite figure it out — the parents all dying in such short succession was silly. Especially since we spent so much relative time building up to and foreshadowing the death of the Potters, Ma Mandella’s death was way too abrupt.

J: The short story is “A Separate War”. I caught it too! It’s like he looked back at the novel, saw the date on the section, and.. forgot he should’ve been looking at the second date. I didn’t catch it in the book itself. Oh, and where did Rhonda go?! Her roommate and sometime lover is dying, and then is dead, and she’s not in that chapter at all. She disappeared, the brother showed up. Very bad graft, I have to say.

K: Yes, it could have used some better editing. Rhonda is mentioned as being visiting her kids, but surely someone ought to have called her! Instead all they call is his brother, which is exactly the same as the Nebula version, except that in the modern version his brother has not been mentioned at all prior to his abrupt appearance on the phone.

J: Actually, I think the reference is that Rhonda is the disease vector, having picked up the bug from a previous visit to her kids and passed it to Mandella’s mom. *checks* Yea, no mention of where she actually is now. And yes, exactly. So all in all, I have to say I’m glad we read the Nebula version. This one would’ve confused me too much! And also annoyed the heck out of me with all the violence and random deaths. Oh, yea, one thing I noted down. Well, two things. This guy comes to brief them all on the changes before they go to Earth. He’s wearing makeup and fancy nails and everything, and he uses weird pronouns instead of ‘he’. I say weird, because they’re not third gender or gender neutral pronouns I’m used to — tha, ther, thim. Haldeman uses it exactly once. It never appears again. In fact there’s a glaring case in the phone call to the hospital where it would’ve been appropriate, but instead it’s ‘he’. And it’s a ‘he’ that stands out to modern readers because it should’ve been ‘they’ or ‘he or she’. “[…] how important a person is and what level of treatment he’s allowed”. And the other thing is the makeup. I didn’t see one other reference to anyone wearing makeup. It was supposed to be in fashion, so.. where did it go?

K: Very good points, all, and I have no answers for you. So not only was the flow interrupted by the herky jerky plot, there were a whole bunch of points raised and then randomly discarded (apparently) with no further exploration. I confess I’m pretty baffled as to why this section was (re)inserted with no better effort made to better integrate it and also make sure it was at least internally consistent to itself, let alone the rest of the story.

J: Beta readers! Beta readers! If we caught these things, a couple beta readers would’ve! I understand maybe the author and his editor(s) were too close to the story to look at it with fresh eyes (maybe?). But still.. So I had another question. Which is just to wonder how a third of the population is now gay after only 20-25 years. Because I believe this is before they had the technology to switch people’s orientations around. Just.. one generation? Most of the population that was straight when he left should’ve been just older and straight when he came back. Which means the younger people are like 3/4ths gay or something so the average of the entire population evens out to 1/3rd? (The book erases bisexuality by never mentioning it.) So did his Mom discover she was a lesbian? Take it up because that’s just what you do now? I just.. I don’t know.

K: Well… both this book and “A Separate War” treat women (assuming we can have Marygay and apparently Ma Mandella stand in for all women) as more open to experimentation and/or more fluid in who they’re sexually attracted to. This may be a stereotype, it may be a result of socialization, or it may be something inherent, but I’m sort of inclined to give the idea a pass. I do wonder at the idea that everyone becoming homosexual would solve the population problem, because clearly that is ridiculous, as we mentioned before. I guess I kind of feel like — if you were going to go all George Lucas on the book and restore your ‘original vision’, it might have been wise to also clean it up a bit. But maybe that would have been too hard, since the homosexual thing was such a big thread through the second half of the book.

J: He could’ve at least made part of it in 3D.

K: Hahahaha.

K: This new section did mention slightly more about the ‘Elite Conscription Act’ which is the draft law which basically requires all smart people to enter the service. I still don’t quite understand the logic of the law, especially since I felt like the modern version was hinting that it was a deliberate conspiracy to remove all these clever people from the world. To what end? To hold back the human race?

J: Yea, I don’t get it. First of all, all the smart people aren’t going to be physically and psychologically fit for the job of soldier. Was the military using them for desk jobs, R&D, stuff like that? And with the technological advances to fight the war, some of that is going to bleed into advances at home. Like how NASA has helped everyone in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is a pen that writes upside down. And if you can breed for gay-ness, you can breed for smartness. They should have all the brains they want.

K: I certainly don’t think Forever War is alone in that it starts to look like a flimsy premise if you pick at it enough. Lord knows almost every book has that sort of flaw(s). But I do think the modern version almost… highlights them, by drawing our attention too sharply by half to the mess on Earth.

J: I agree. It drew attention away from the main point of the story, which is that things changed while the war was going on. Say that, show that, and get out. Before you start listing all these details that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

K: Exactly. I did, however, find it interesting that the revolution on Earth appears to have been fomented by a feeling of severe economic inequality. (In this case shown by people appearing well-fed versus not.) Look out, one-percenters!

J: Heh. I read it as look out, fat people. But fair enough!

K: Yeah, it could definitely be read that way too.

J: So the short story takes place after this section, and after they’ve had limbs severed and regrown, etc. It’s from Marygay’s POV and she tells what happened to her while her and Mandella were separated. And, to me, if I were reading that by itself, I’d be like.. why does she love this guy, because he doesn’t even get a line, I don’t think. He’s very much at a distance and just a prop. But probably the reader is supposed to have read FW and already know him as a character. Anyway, she gets into one of those acceleration shell things again, and I find it odd that there was no mention at all of her previous experience in one. You ask me she should’ve had some PTSD or at least been a little squeamish about getting into this thing that very nearly killed her once.

K: I was about to say he’s not even in the story as a character, but it does briefly cover their R&R time on Heaven so that’s not true. So yeah — this story is definitely not meant to stand on its own in the least, but it does make an interesting counterpoint.

K: I’d assume she had some kind of therapy, though we’re never told about it. But maybe she doesn’t have PTSD because you can’t remember really being in the shell? At least, she can’t remember being injured in it beyond having been told that it happened?

J: I dunno.. she was conscious while they were working on her. Kept asking for water. But even if it didn’t bother her, I think it still deserved a mention. If for no other reason than why it didn’t bother her. The other thing about the short story was, it named the uh.. prototype for Man, all those cloned gestalt whatever. Was he named before? Because the name really struck me this time! Khan! Or rather, Khaaaaaaan!

K: Yeah, he was named before. Because he specifically mentions he had a relative in Mandella’s strike force and I had to go back and look at the list and make sure he really was there. (He was.)

J: Well, I have to say after reading this revised, or unrevised, section that I feel less good about this book as a whole. And not looking forward to reading any more Forever X by Haldeman. But the short story made me feel a little better about it. So I’ll probably be ready for Forever Peace when we get to it.

K: It clearly demonstrates how valuable a practiced editorial eye can be to a story! The Nebula version is much more coherent in spite of the possible weaknesses of the toned-down Earth section.

J: So, yay, done with this book finally! Next up is Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, I believe. A book which I know nothing about.


J’s Take on The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner

The Tomorrow Code Cover
I’m going to venture into spoilers for The Tomorrow Code, but I’ll try to do this chronologically, so the big spoilers won’t come until near the middle or end of this review. I’ll warn you when we get there.

The story is essentially about three kids in New Zealand. Tane, his best friend since forever, Rebecca, and his older brother, called Fatboy. Tane and Rebecca are chatting about time travel and hit on the idea that all you really need is a receiver and you could get any messages that people from the future were sending back. So as you may guess, it doesn’t take them long to find these messages. Takes them a little longer to decode them.

At this point in the story, it’s okay. I like time travel stories and who doesn’t like a book with some good codes and cryptic messages in them? The style of the writing was what I’d characterize as very YA-y. By that I mean it tries to be a little clever, while treating the reader as a bit of an idiot. It’s hard to pick out a specific example, but this sort of captures it:

That may not have sounded like much, but it wasn’t very often that Rebecca thought that Tane had an interesting idea, so it was kind of an important day, if only for that reason.

Although, in hindsight, it was actually an important day for much bigger reasons than that.

I like my foreshadowing to be more subtle than that, but actually this quote illustrates another thing that started to bug me pretty quickly. Tane is a spineless, weak-willed jellyfish. (Which is ironic, considering what they end up fighting later.) ((See what I did there?)) Rebecca is super-smart when it comes to science and technical things. Supposedly. So when they start talking about time travel, she says things he doesn’t understand. He pretends he does. Not to boost his own ego or save face, but just so he doesn’t disrupt her flow of conversation and thought processes.

Apparently Rebecca is also a bit of an activist and goes on protest marches a lot. Tane goes with her. Not because he cares two whits about the protest. He doesn’t even take the time to learn what they’re protesting about. Just because she wants him to go. Look, there’s being supportive of a friend and doing things because they like to do them, and then there’s… being a spineless jellyfish. It’s not that he’s a martyr, because he doesn’t mope about saying how he doesn’t want to be there. He pretends he does. So that’s two cases of him lying to her and deceiving her just to… be friends with her? How has this friendship lasted since birth?

When his older brother asks her out and the two start dating, you can only cheer for them. It’s not like she should be going out with Tane! How much worse would he get about this all if he were actually her boyfriend? Ugh.

I thought, maybe, maybe, the author is just being a bit heavyhanded and this is a lesson Tane is supposed to learn by the end of the book. He’s supposed to grow and change and turn into his own person and not be pushed around by Rebecca (who doesn’t even realize she’s pushing him around, since he goes along with it so easily). This does not happen. Tane does get less annoying, but mostly because the story stops focusing so much on their relationship, not because he’s actually grown into a less annoying person.

So I’m digging on the codes for a little while. Rebecca whips up this program to analyze signals and whatnot. It’s reminding me a bit of that series of choose your own adventure type books that were all about programming in BASIC. It had the programs and you had to put them into your computer, and usually debug them or alter them in some way to fit the story. You were a secret agent who was also a kid and a computer whiz. Anyway, they were awesome. So a book that reminds me of those in some small way gets a little boost to my opinion of it.

That didn’t last long. Most of the codes are cryptic in a way the reader couldn’t ever figure out. Heck, most of them are cryptic in a way the characters couldn’t figure out. Which is just bad cryptozizing skills! These messages are meant for Tane and Rebecca, so they ought to be written so they can figure them out. Of course it doesn’t help that they are idiots.

What do you think this means?,GUEST,COMPTON1.

Yea, she’s writing a program in one chapter and completely stumped by this a little later. It’s Tane who eventually (eventually) figures it out, by harkening back to something they learned in school. LEARNED IN SCHOOL!!

This book was written in 2008, btw.

And that’s the most legible of messages, to the reader. The rest you can only figure out as the story progresses. Because they’re crap. If you’re going to shorten the word ‘bitmap’, why would you not use BMP? Why would you use BTMP? The theory in this book is that the messages have to be written to save as much bandwidth as possible. (They don’t call it bandwidth, but yea, essentially.) Why add a letter there? And not add a letter where it would make more sense to? On top of that, yea, there’s an actual bitmap sent through. If you’ve got the space to be sending an image, you’ve got the space to write a few complete words. Kthnx.

So now that the book has annoyed me on several fronts, and I was seriously thinking Forever War a more interesting read (until that ticked me off so so hard, but more on that in a later Nebula Project discussion), the book takes a 90-degree turn.

‘Book 2’ of the book, which is to say the next section of the book, shifted in tone. Suddenly things weren’t about time travel and codes and Tane being jealous of Fatboy without ever telling anyone, but about this bioterror threat and almost-dead 4-year olds. It got pretty serious and rather dark awfully fast.

There’s more action in the back half of the book. Boring action. I was skimming it, because I hate action scenes without any character or emotion really pushing it and backing it. It also wasn’t written very well, but that was par for the book. Not that it was bad writing. It was competent writing. It just didn’t read easily to me. It didn’t flow.

The action also stops centering around the three kids. There are suddenly a lot of scenes with adults as POV characters. Adults who weren’t even in the first part. Until the end we’re jumping between all sorts of different people, fighting battles, and just.. blah. I was glad when I finally finished it.

Not that the end didn’t suck.

Okay, now I need to talk about the spoilery bit. It’s two paragraphs in white font below. Highlight it to read it, if you don’t mind me ruining the Big Surprise. Otherwise skip down to the second set of –‘s.

So there’s this Chimaera Project, which is playing with viruses and trying to cure the common cold, essentially. But things go wrong. Very very wrong. It’s not a mutant virus getting out and killing everyone though, oh no. It’s the planet taking the opportunity to create ginormous antibodies and macrophages to seek out humans and destroy them. Oh, and they look like jellyfish and snowman. Because, of course they would. This is the perfect opportunity for a Maori lesson on treating the Earth respectfully and whatnot. And the soldiers get all upset at being told this, because they’re offended at being considered germs. Oookay.

Yea, no. Been there, read that. It wasn’t very well-executed in the book I read it in either. (I resist naming names, because it might be a spoiler for that book.) Plus however many movies and TV episodes involve being shrunk and injected into somebody’s body.

Now for some final, non-spoilery thoughts.

Tane was remarkably self-aware and sensitive to other people’s thoughts and emotions. Granted, mostly Rebecca’s. It struck me as ungenuine for a 14-year old boy. However, the author is male, so I’m not sure if I have a better grasp on what teen boys are capable of than he does. It’s like.. he knows he’s jealous and why. And even he even knows that his brother knows that he’s jealous. He knows all these things, he’s aware of all these things, and he still doesn’t say anything or act on them at all!! In contrast, Rebecca must be mostly oblivious, since she doesn’t seem to know (or perhaps to care?) that he’s not into protesting or that he doesn’t like her dating his brother.

In another situation, I might like Tane for that and think the book is a breath of fresh air. But Tane was that spineless jellyfish, so his insight just made that trait all the worse.

Some of the chapters have song snippets at the head of them, and near the end, the soldiers start singing a song. I felt like all the songs were ridiculous and out of place. Yellow submarine? Really? I feel like if you’re going to use quotes like this, they should be there for a good reason. Not because the song popped into your head while you were writing that chapter.

So, yea, redeeming qualities of the book are a smart girl character, the unusual (to me) setting of New Zealand, and the glimpses of Maori culture. If that’s a combination you’re looking for, go for it.


J’s Take on Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Tomorrow When the War Began CoverLet me start with a description of the book, for some context.

Ellie and her friends live in a smallish town with a large rural area, so that she and a lot of her friends are ranchers. At least I think they’re ranchers. They’re on holiday, so they organize a camping trip into the bush. This being Australia. Seven of them, roughly evenly divided by gender. They’re missing Commemoration Day (also called Commem Day by the narrator) and the local Show (which sounds like the equivalent of a county fair around here). On that day, while they’re out camping, they hear and see lots of jets flying overhead. Weird, right? They linger a few more days, then head back. To find everyone gone. Utoh. From the title of the book, you might guess a war of some sort has ‘began’, huh?

I was going to start this review by saying it was fitting to be reading it in February, since most of the action takes place then. Only when I tried to look up the exact date for Commemoration Day, I got stumped! Thwarted! The closest I came to any such holiday was one celebrated by the University of Sydney. According to Wikipedia, Australia Day has a lot of different names, and would fit the timeframe (the narrator says at one point that it’s several weeks past Christmas), but Commem or Commemoration Day isn’t one of them! Have I come up with an anachronism? This book was written in 1993. Well, that’s not that old… older than Wikipedia, sure, but..

The author’s note at the end equates some of the settings to real world locations, but the author is generally making up the location itself. Did he also invent a holiday? Weird. Sure, this is science fiction, in that there was no such war in Australia, but otherwise it reads like a contemporary novel. Why invent a holiday? This reviewer is also puzzled by it.

But moving on…

The group discovers that their town has been invaded. Though I thought it funny they came to that conclusion. If I saw a bunch of soldiers who’d set up camp and were holding prisoners, foreign soldiers would not be my first thought. Could I tell American ones from non-American ones, at a distance? There are so many different types of American military uniform, that I don’t think I could. Not unless I could see a US flag patch on them. Or more likely, a US flag flying nearby. But this group assumes they’re foreign before they ever hear them speak. Which is another puzzlement, because the girl who knows six languages can’t identify it. What? You mean, not at all? I can take a good guess at most languages. A general guess, I mean. And we never hear what the soldiers look like. We hear they’re young, and middle-aged, and male and female. But not if they look Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese. How many nearby countries don’t speak English and yet look enough like Australians that it doesn’t merit a mention?

I admit, before we learned they don’t speak English, I thought America had invaded Australia. It’s just.. something we’d be likely to do.

One of the kids even identifies some jets as Australian and some as not. Boy, for me to recognize jets, they’d have to be flying really low. And, again, have a US flag on them. Southwest jets, sure, I can identify those!

So anyway, the kids try to find out what’s up with their families, and try not to get killed or captured along the way. And guerrilla hijinks ensue. So that by the end it was reminding me of Hogan’s Heroes or other shows and movies I’ve seen that featured The Resistance.

I liked that the group was roughly evenly distributed, and eventually does end up 4 girls and 4 guys, and that the narrator was a girl. She also does a lot of the action and dirty work. She’s their best driver, especially when it comes to driving bulldozers and trucks. Which is why I was particularly dismayed when one of the girls has some sort of seizure brought on by trauma. Followed by another girl just fainting, for no particular reason. And then the narrator herself has a nervous breakdown or goes into catatonia or something I’m not qualified to medically diagnose. Though considering she’d been bleeding copiously from a head wound just a few pages ago, you’d think people would’ve been worried about a head injury and not assuming it was all psychological! None of the boys goes through any of this. Grr.

Then they all start flinging around the L word (love, not lesbian) like it’s going out of fashion.

In general, though, I liked the book okay. It was interesting to see Australia, even if it’s a fictional bit of it, and to learn a few new words. I’d had no clue what a chook was until it was mentioned that they lay eggs. At that point, I gave up and Googled it. No such luck they’re ostriches or emus or some weird Australian bird. Chooks are just chickens.

Tomorrow When the War Began Old CoverThe cover art on the copy I read makes no sense until you’ve read nearly the whole book. I think I would’ve gone for some shot of the Australian terrain with some jets flying overhead. The cover we had up here on Triple Take in our Upcoming section does make more sense, with the jets flying over the ferris wheel at the Show.

Read it if you’d like to read some Australian sf, but don’t read it if you’re looking for answers to mysteries. We never do learn who invaded Australia or why.

Except when I was adding the cover images just now, I saw that the newer cover mentions this is part 1 of a series. The book itself felt complete enough, in a ‘this is our life now’ sort of way, that it never occurred to me there could be more books which might explain what this war is all about. Now, do I read the sequel? Do I watch the movie? Do I watch the movie sequel which is apparently coming out this year? Decisions, decisions.