The Games by Ted Kosmatka (book review)

Lately I read a book (or more correctly, a book on CD) called The Games by Ted Kosmatka

Short version: Jurassic Park meets The Hunger Games.  In a dystopic future where advanced in genetic manipulation have been reached, the various countries of the world have added a new event to the Olympics–a gladiator death match featured engineered creatures whose only rule is “no human DNA.”  Facing their first loss since the beginning of the games, the Olympic Committee of the US decides to forego its usual practice of designing custom DNA and instead ask the greatest supercomputer in existence (built and controlled by an autistic savant) to create the DNA code instead.  The creature, superior to any previous design and part of a greater secretive plan by the computer and its creator, of course escapes and wrecks havoc.

So, what are the plot holes of this book?

  1. Why would the ability to create whole new cross-phylum species of creatures (and the millions of dollars necessary to do it) we wasted on a creature that would die for little purpose in a deathmatch?
  2. Are we to believe that American culture, which has little stomach for cockfighting or dogfighting, would overwhelmingly support an Olympic match involving creatures killing each other?
  3. Or that such an event would feature no sensible security measures in the case of a creature getting loose?  Even zoos have guards.
  4. And how on earth can Olympic testers be able to detect “human DNA”?  Primate DNA is overwhelmingly similar to our own, and primate hybrids are shown in the games)
  5. After a big buildup about how bizarre the US gladiator is, how people are horrified and entranced by it, in its actual description its a jet-black humanoid with bat wings on its back, bat-like ears, and large, gray eyes.  It’s only halfway through the book that a truly minor character notes to himself that the creature looks like the devil.  But honestly, that’s what’s so scary?  There are croco-tigers and kangaroos with six inch claws in the games, but a big black creature looking like the monster from “Fantasia” is supposed to take the cake.
Because this guy is the terror of DC Comics.

Plot–predictable and almost dripping with foreshadowing (Hey, the main character likes archery!  Think that’ll matter later?)  The main characters come across as people that most individuals, if they met them in real life, wouldn’t really like very much.

And the ending?  Oy.  Pointless swerve, followed by underwhelming climax.  Even my son, when he heard about how the monster was eventually dealt with, said, “that’s it?”

What’s funny is that one of the dust jacket blurbs said, “it’s obviously destined for the big screen,” which is funny, because it is likely true.  Not because it is all that great, but because it is so painfully derivative and filled with low-brow pseudo-science that some producer will think it’s a winner.

Book Review: Woken Furies

Woken Furies is the third (and I believe last) book by Richard Morgan featuring the body-jumping Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs, back from his misadventures in Broken Angels, has returned to his home planet of Harlan’s World, the mostly ocean-covered world featuring the bizarre Martial “orbitals” that blast anything out of the sky.

In Woken Furies, Kovacs ends up hooking with a bunch of “decom” mercenaries whose job it is to wipe out a region on Harlan’s World that is under the control of robotic drones. The leader of the merc unit he joins turns out to have a bit of a weird glitch in her digital personality–a second persona claiming to be a notorious rebel leader. Kovacs is then swept up in the political and military intrigue of the planet as powerful forces attempt to recover her, even employing a bootleg version of his own personality from his youth in the Envoy corps.

In addition to a solid sci-fi romp, Morgan gets some of his magic back from Altered Carbon by focusing a lot on Kovacs’ personality and the conflict between his hard-earned cynicism and the various possible motivations available to him: revenge, duty, friendship, political revolution, and even love. Religion is thrown in as well, not as a viable option but to contrast the other forces at work in Kovacs and the other people around him. It’s a good reminder that what makes science fiction great isn’t blast guns or cyberware or strange alien ruins, it’s the opportunity to take a human being someplace away from what’s normal for us and see what continues to make him human. Kovacs is a conflicted, emotionally wounded figure for most of the book, and it works out very, very well.

A Simple Murder [Book Review]

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns

The story.  William Rees is a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a grieving widower, and an itinerant weaver.  When his son runs away from his sister’s care to join a community of Shakers near Durham, North Carolina, Rees leaves his wandering to attempt to reconcile with his son but becomes entangled in the murder of a young Shaker woman.

What I liked.  I like historical mysteries where the emphasis in on human psychology and old-fashioned sleuthing.  The Shaker community, called Zion, appears to be a collection of simple, God-fearing souls but of course in no time is revealed to be a complicated mess of human frailties and of course murder.  Kuhn clearly knows the period and frequently puts in as much color as she can to help bring the period to live.

What I didn’t like.  This is Kuhn’s first novel, but Rees seems to have just a bit too much backstory, with constant references to previous murders that he’s solved, including one where he was the prime suspect, old partners in solving crime, etc.  I don’t know if Kuhn has these other stories in the form of unpublished manuscripts or is laying the groundwork for a future prequel, but it felt forced in the story.  It did have the effect of explaining why a traveling weaver would be called on to solve a murder when there is a sheriff in the area whose job it would be in the first place.

In addition there’s a romantic subplot involving proto-feminist Lydia Ferrell whose relationship with Rees seems rushed somehow, as does Rees’ conversion from basically telling her to not speak in his presence to missing her presence every time they are apart.

Then there’s the murder itself.  It is not a complicated affair and I think most readers will at least pick up on the primary culprit without too much difficulty.  I actually talked myself out of believing who it was based on the clues because I expected some clever twist, some missed detail, that would point to someone else.

My takeaway.  I’m always looking for things to use in my own storytelling, and the notion of a bucolic, even boring community holding dark secrets is one that I did like about this book.  Kuhn treads into the water of having religious people revealed as hypocrites, but there are enough genuine, kind people (usually those on the fringe of the Shaker community) to make it not too blatant.

Buy, library, or skip?  I probably won’t be re-reading this book, but it wasn’t bad, so I’m  calling it a library check-out option.

[books for gamers] All the Gold of Ophir

All the Gold of Ophir, written by David Drury, is half pulp detective, part hard-sci fiction story.  Private investigator Michael Flynn has been hired to look into the “accidental” death of a young man on a Jupiter space station.  The victim worked for the mega-corporation that not only owns the station and employs three-quarters of its thousands of inhabitants, but also has its own lethally-armed security force.  Flynn is assisted by corporate attorney Wendy Chadwick and opposed by Silvanus Drake, so improbably named that J.K. Rowling would even blanche.

Drury is a professor of engineering and uses his knowledge to tell the story, one laden with stereotypical characters: the Irish hard-drinking PI, the incompetent and belligerent head of the police force, even the psycho ex-girlfriend (whom I kept calling “Ira” after Spade’s ex in The Maltese Falcon).  The mystery was interesting and the action moved along well (although I had a pretty good idea of what happened fairly early on).

My only complaint, because I can let hackneyed, two-dimensional characters slide in a story like this one, is that in science fiction you have to give the reader certain boundaries of genre.  Faster-than-light travel?  Aliens?  Artificial intelligence?  You have to let the reader know what exists and what doesn’t, especially when you’re doing a mystery.  It isn’t fair to say, allow teleportation to exist in the last chapter if it is instrumental to the plot.  And Drury succumbs to this–after establishing the boundaries throughout the book he breaks one (as the underwhelming “shocker”) to tie up one of the loose ends.  Or in other words, you can get most of the mystery on your own, but you’ll never get the last ten percent because Drury breaks his own rules.  It is a frustrating end note to an otherwise fun weekend read.

From a gaming perspective, All the Gold of Ophir reminds RPG fans of how depending the gaming industry is on pulp-ish stories.  The Jupiter space station would make a fine sci-fi environs, big enough to introduce new elements but contained enough to keep players from running far off the beaten track (my biggest gripe with sci-fi RPG’s).

[books for gamers] Aftermath by Ben Bova

Terrible.  Just terrible.

I could leave it at those three words, if I wished.  Rarely have I found myself literally skimming the final chapters to see if anyone important dies or if possibly, possibly the plot moves in any real direction.  But no, this book may in fact be the weakest of the “Asteroid Wars” series, and that is saying a lot.

In the third book Bova introduces an alien artifact and its impact on Dorin, the psychotic mercenary and war criminal from the earlier books.  Dorin and his companion, an elderly artist who has found a new lease on life thanks to her exposure to the artifact, are on a strange mission to provide proper burials for all who died in the Asteroid Wars.  “Proper burial” meaning being crammed in an industrial incinerator aboard their ship, by the way.

The second plot involves a family separated by Dorin’s attack on the space station Chrysalis.  The father is back at the station, his family is adrift in a space literally years away from home.  Much of that plot revolves around the teenage son concocting ways to trying to get home safely while the dad tries talking someone into giving him a ship to go scour all of the solar system for his family.

Pancho Lane?  Gone.  Humphries?  Only a token presence as the mastermind being the forces hounding Dorin.  Ambrose?  More antagonist than charming side character.

Any purpose, history, or any plot movement on the whole alien artifact thing?  Nope.

In fact really it feels a lot like a non-finish, with the exception of resolving the whole family being separated thing.  I would expect the artifact to show up in other novels.  What also showed up in spades was something I had read about in other reviews, namely Bova’s latent misogyny.  All of his women characters are either mentally weak (like the mother and daughter or the family) or possessing what used to be called weak moral fiber.  For example most of the women who are not dim bulbs (Pancho Lane, Humphries rotating  cast of assistants, the captain of the ship the father ends up aboard) use their sexuality to advance themselves professionally.  In addition, there is the egregious example which follows below:

Spoilers Ahead

The worst example of this comes when the mother of the family is raped by a pirate captain in order to shield her daughter from the crew.  Having been away from her husband for several years, the wife is surprised to find herself “liking it,” and later the event is equated by her and her husband to his infidelity while aboard the space station.

Liking being raped?  Equated with the husband’s years-long marital infidelity?  Okay Bova, I’m sticking a fork in your backside–you’re done.

As I said: terrible, just terrible.

The Silent War by Ben Bova

Sigh.

On more than one occasion I’ve started an RPG campaign which I thought was the cat’s pajamas and then, after a few months said, “forget this, it isn’t working,” and went onto something else.  (My Star Wars campaign is a good example of this.)

The Silent War, the third book in the “Asteroid Wars” series by Ben Bova feels a lot like this.  After a pretty good set-up novel and a solid second one, the third book feels a lot like Bova said “enh, I dunno where this is going,” wrapped it up with a whimper and quickly moved onto a totally unrelated plot point.

What’s more, he begins the novel with a cutscene from several years after the events depicted in the book, revealing several major plot points in the novel that occur later in a way that just seems unnecessary.  But the point of the “sneak peek” is to have the author say to the reader, “Look!  Alien artifacts!  Get yourself through this novel and you’ll get alien artifacts in the fourth one!  Just bear with me while I tie a bow on this other stuff I spent two other novels laying out for you, and then I’ll get around that what I really want to write about!”

Because honestly, alien artifacts have nothing to do with the plot of the first three books of the Asteroid Wars.  It’s a sharp right turn that seems to be motivated only by Bova’s realization that he’s told this story before, and perhaps better, elsewhere.  To give credit where it is due, there’s some interesting utilization of technology in the realm of inter-space ship battles, like coating the ships with asteroidal rock as armor.  There’s also an extended scene where my favorite PC-as-book character Pancho Lane escapes the clutches of the bad guys using gear that looks like it was cribbed from the Stainless Steel Rat, but I like that kind of silliness so it is all good.

On the “books for gamers” note, as I said before I’m reminded of what happens when a GM/DM/judge runs out of juice on a storyline.  There’s lot of reasons why this happens–a better idea comes along, players don’t quite gel with what the GM thought it would be like, or it just doesn’t turn out to be as interesting in practice as in theory.  How a GM responds has a lot to do with his or her own skill and the group, but taking a storyline that the players are invested in, but the GM isn’t, and just letting it wither out doesn’t seem to be the answer.