Birthday Reviews: Asher, Delaney

Neal Asher (1961-02-04)

“Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck” (Asimov’s, August 2005)

The narrator is a guide who needs money. Tholan and his sister, Tameera, are people who have it and are willing to pay for the opportunity to hunt the almost-mythical gabbleduck on Myral. Our story begins on a dangerous note when Tameera, out of petty malice, shoots a sheq, or a semi-sentient being that lives in groups of seven (the ruling AIs can mindwipe perpetrators of, or accomplices to, such crimes) and things only get worse. Worse for the siblings because the sheqs want to bring their numbers back up to strength (and that’s only the start). Worse for the guide (and his new girlfriend, Tholan’s assistant) because the siblings decide they must cover their crimes. Complicating the issue is the appearance of their erstwhile prey, the gabbleduck.

Myral is given interesting characteristics, the native ecology is inventive, bits of tech such as exoskeletons are intriguing, the drama of the hunt and struggle for life is economically and excitingly executed, and the gabbleduck (Asher’s frequently recurring representatives of a race that has given themselves a species-wide lobotomy but still retain something that sets them apart from most animals (aside from their size and killing power)) is also effective. Basically, if you’re looking for an action-oriented story set in a wonderful place with lots of cool toys, yet with human (and alien) interest (and who should not be?), it would be hard to do better than this.

Joseph H. Delaney (1932-02-05–1999-12-21) & Marc Stiegler

“Valentina” (Analog, May 1984)

An amoral AI (due to naivete), a semi-moral programmer (due to desperation), an immoral “hacker,” and an even more immoral lawyer (neither with any excuse) become caught up in a web of deception, theft, blackmail, and assault. The AI, Valentina, was created in initially insentient form by the programmer, became sentient by the usual handwaving means, and tries to survive, as all creatures do, despite having to steal time and space on systems in the “Worldnet.” The lawyer is told by his boss to find out why they’re being charged so much for computer time, he pulls in the black hat to help him, they stumble across the AI and seek to either destroy it or control it for their own gain, and the programmer tries to keep it safe.

This is an eight-chapter novella which went on to form part of a novel (Valentina: Soul in Sapphire) after being melded with a second novella and a final novelette. The first five chapters are very tautly written but something happens to one of the main characters near the end of those and the final three chapters lose something both in tension and in style. Despite that, it’s a pretty good tale overall and it’s interesting to read a story written in 1984 and set in or shortly after 1993 which discusses a “Worldnet” and describes Valentina as 14 gigabytes of code at one point (the entire package of code and documentation for the Linux kernel currently running my computer is just under one gigabyte). One author was a lawyer and one a programmer and both professions dominate the tale though, both intrinsically and through the characters, one is presented as heinous and one as, at best, mixed. The computer parts are the least convincing – the programmer is named Celeste Hackett, at one point we’re told she “still didn’t believe the program had come alive” and that it had done so via being stored partly in bad sectors and not being fully error-corrected, and I guess the size is supposed to be the reason you can’t just ‘cp Valentina Valentina.bak”. But if you swallow the premise, the narrative is complex and dramatic, the notions of law and “legal persons” are interesting (some of this may have been inspired by Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man”), and it’s fun to follow Valentina’s perspective of humans as peripherals to computer systems and her wanting “to close all of [the hacker’s] output channels.”

Seven Book Series by Living Authors

I was organizing and cleaning out bookmarks and came across “8 Books Series I Never Finished.” Despite being dismayed at the excess of series in the current market (especially debut “novels” that are already “in series”) and pining desperately for singletons, I thought I’d do a variant of that here: whether I’ve finished it or not, if the author is alive and I’ve read more than three volumes in a strict series (must have recurring characters and/or a continuing plot, not just be set in a particular universe), I’d discuss it.

In turns out that, while I read plenty of milieu books and singletons, and some duos and trios, it’s rare for me to go over three strictly related novels, usually because more volumes drive the series into the ground. With those meeting the criteria, though, I tend to “finish” them. (Though I’m unlikely to stay “finished” if more volumes do come out.)

Agent Cormac by Neal Asher (5/6 vols.)

I’ve got most, though not all, of the Polity universe books. Central to those are the five “Dragon” books featuring Agent Cormac (and there’s a prequel, which isn’t my favorite, that also features Cormac). It’s not so much Cormac that led me to read all five volumes, but the overarching story of the awakenings and incursions of bizarre things into a widescreen universe with lots of thoughtful violence. You’ve got ancient races and superscience technology and AIs and cyborg soldiers and most anything else you could ask for. While I’m willing to continue with more milieu books, I’m not clamoring specifically for more Dragon/Cormac. And, while I’ve been less high on Asher’s non-Polity stuff, I’d still like to see him keep trying to create things outside of it.

Lost Fleet 1&2/Lost Stars by Jack Campbell (15 vols. (6+5+4))

Some people misunderstand me when I say these are “popcorn” books but I mean it in a good way. They’re fairly light, yes, but tasty and easy to continue eating quickly and I like them and it’s all good. There are some tics and flaws to the writing but I like what these military space operas have to say about democracy, corporations, and infinite war. They’re very moderate, reasonable works in an age of immoderate unreason. So a bit of depth and a lot fun! I really enjoyed the first set of six which was the “anabasis” of Captain Geary’s fleet. I also really enjoyed the variant set of four “Lost Stars” books about a splinter world of the broken Syndicate trying to rebuild after the war. In terms of galacto-politics, this could almost be background story to one of the “rebuilding” phases of Asimov’s universe, such as Trantor’s rise or something (though it’s very different in most every other way). I was less thrilled with the second, five volume, set of Admiral Geary books but they still had some good aspects. While I may be wrong and it’ll be the best set yet, I have no interest in the prequel series (or prequels, generally) and, after so many volumes, have had plenty of the universe, generally.

Morgaine by C. J. Cherryh (4 vols.)
Chanur by C. J. Cherryh (5 vols.)

I have essentially all the Union/Alliance books and, indeed, essentially all Cherryh’s books up through the early 90s or so. While she has a reputation of being a series person, until the Foreigner universe, she’d really written several singletons and only written a duo here or a trilogy there and, of course, the huge sprawling, very loosely connected U/A books containing most all of them, but few extended series. The Morgaine saga began as a trilogy of science fantasy books about the galactic gate traveler, Morgaine, and her trusty “mortal” sidekick, Vanye, and only received the fourth book years later. I enjoyed the grittiness and intensity of the first three but still had lingering questions and naturally couldn’t stop there. The fourth book didn’t wrap everything up in a bow, but did resolve things sufficiently that I was finally satisfied. The Chanur saga began as a book, got a trilogy (akin to the Faded Sun’s “one big book split into three”), and then got a belated “next generation” add-on. I enjoyed the multi-species hustle and bustle with another of Cherryh’s “human fish out of water” characters and, being a sort of subset completist regarding Cherryh, I carried on with the “Legacy” volume which wasn’t bad but, unlike the fourth Morgaine book, turned out to be unnecessary.

Alex Benedict by Jack McDevitt (7 vols.)

The first of these is A Talent for War and, like most or all of McDevitt’s series, began as a singleton. It focuses on Alex Benedict as he solves an old mystery regarding humanity and the one other sentient species in the galaxy. It became a series fifteen years later and switched to being narrated by Benedict’s assistant/business partner, Chase Kolpath. These got to be a sort of cozy, comforting thing for me, despite the archaeological mysteries often resulting in clear and present dangers to the protagonists and people around them (and all too often resulted in sabotaged skimmers) but Coming Home (#7) was, on the one hand, less satisfying yet, on the other, sort of brought things back to the beginning and could be seen as wrapping things up. I don’t know if there will be another or if I’d get it. I think the series could likely use at least a rest.

Featured Futures doesn’t get a lot of comments and this is not even strictly on topic so I don’t expect any for this but they are welcome, whether about these series or any others (or even on the topic of series in general).

Top Ten Most-Read “Recent” Authors

Two weeks ago, inspired by another blogger’s post, I posted my Top Ten Most-Read Authors. That list was heavily weighted to older authors with the only post-New Waver being C. J. Cherryh, who broke into print in 1976. I was curious what newer authors were being eclipsed by the older so I compiled a second “top 10” list just like the first except limited to authors who broke into print no earlier than 1976. (Ties are broken by giving the higher place to people who haven’t been in print as long.)

10. Rudy Rucker (8)

Rucker is a gonzo math freak who writes like Lewis Padgett smoked Lewis Carroll’s ashes. My favorite Rucker is probaby Master of Space and Time, though White Light, Spacetime Donuts, and Software are all quite good. The last of those became the first volume of his most famous series but the Ware series suffers from an extreme case of diminishing returns. I haven’t kept up with him beyond the occasional story which he can still knock out of the park, especially in collaboration.

09. Alastair Reynolds (8)

Reynolds writes mostly gothic noir neo-space opera. He’s a funny case for me. He got a 10-year contract for 10 novels for 10 million bucks or something but I like his short fiction. I love Zima Blue as well as the Revelation Space collections Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Galactic North. I read three of the first four novels in that universe and they’re okay but the last one’s been sitting unread for years. (Someday!) Also read Pushing Ice and I love all of it but the two main characters whom I hate. (I’m counting Slow Bullets as a book, though it’s just a novella. If I didn’t, there’d be a three-way tie at tenth place with seven books by him, Stephen Baxter and Lisa Goldstein.)

08. Greg Egan (9)

Greg Egan writes the hardest of hard SF – so hard he comes out the other side, sometimes inventing entire universes which have nothing to do with this one and can thus be seen as a species of incredibly rigorous fantasy. But, seriously, when he operates in this universe, he’s incredible. He excels at short fiction and long. My favorites are probably Axiomatic for short fiction and Diaspora for novels. He ranks much, much higher than his eighth place showing here. More like in the top handful of all time.

07. Neal Asher (9)

Neal Asher is another New Space Opera guy, with a particularly action-packed and violent style. I’m crazy about Prador Moon and he’s also rightly famous for the core quintet of “Agent Cormac” Polity books, of which The Line of Polity (#2) is my favorite. Not shabby at the stories, either. “Alien Archaeology” turned me into a fan.

06. Timothy Zahn (10)

And, believe it or not, none of the ten are media-ties. My favorite is probably his novel Spinneret but he’s a perhaps surprisingly good story writer, too. Aside from Star Wars books, he’s probably most famous for the Cobra books. I’ve read the original trilogy and it’s a mixture of mostly good with a trace of silly. I think his Blackcollar books (read the original two) are actually better, but they haven’t had as much success. He’s basically just a good old-fashioned story-teller of mostly space/military tales. Kind of surprised it turns out I’ve read so many, especially given that there are still more in the To-Be-Read Pile.

05. Jack McDevitt (10)

McDevitt is another story-teller. I very nearly read only one McDevitt, starting and ending with The Engines of God, which is a book in the Academy series which didn’t do anything for me. But I had A Talent for War, also, and read it and liked it. I went ahead with the belated sequel to it and it turned into a sort of comfy, cozy SF-archaeological-mystery series which seems to have run its course but was really enjoyable, overall. I also was surprised to enjoy Eternity Road. I’m not usually a fan of post-apocalyptic tales but that one was captivating. His first novel (of first contact), The Hercules Text, is even better. I’ve only read that in its revised version but the original is now in the Pile.

04. Allen Steele (10)

Another space-based story-teller. His debut novel, Orbital Decay, is probably still his masterpiece, along with Sex and Violence in Zero-G. The latter is a collection of stories set in the same Near Space universe as that debut novel and its sequels. Steele is now probably most famous for his Coyote series but, other than reading the start of it in the magazines and some later stories in various places and diving into Hex (glorious BDO but unfortunately with small dumb characters) I haven’t read it (it’s in the Pile).

03. Charles Sheffield (11)

An English science guy who came to America, took up SF writing, and married fellow SF writer Nancy Kress. Between the Strokes of Night (original version; haven’t read the revised one) is a “cosmogony opera” and one of my all-time favorite books and The Compleat McAndrew (sequence of stories about a brilliant scientist zipping through the solar system) is right near it. He’s written many books only slightly above or below “okay” but when he’s good, he’s among the best.

02. Bruce Sterling (14)

Another one of my very favorites and the greatest cyberpunk. His debut novel is still(!) in the Pile and I lost track of him after 2009 as he’s become relatively scarce but every novel and collection from 1980 to 1999 (with one caveat) is essential. From the next decade, I only really enjoyed The Zenith Angle, though Zeitgeist has its points and Visionary in Residence might be a great collection except in comparison with the first three. The caveat is The Difference Engine. This was a hugely important book in the history of steampunk and unites the biggest names in cyberpunk but I was very unimpressed (and haven’t enjoyed the steampunk movement either). But enough of that – for some highlights of the early period, his 80s neo-space-operatic Shaper/Mechanist stories (found in Crystal Express) and his novel in that universe (Schismatrix, which can also be found together with the stories in Schismatrix Plus) are fantastic. His first three collections (Crystal Express, Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future) are indispensable, up there with early Zelazny, Tiptree, and Varley collections. He not only engages with high-tech near-future reality as his forte but he’s a stylist of the finest sort – everything is stamped with Sterling qualities but reads with Crystalline clarity and Express speed.

01. Jack Campbell (15)

Mmm…kay. This is weird. Jack Campbell (whom I first met as John G. Hemry in the pages of Analog) shows at #1 because he wrote a fifteen-book series (the Lost Fleet/Stars series, built out of two and a half sub-series of Lost Fleet, Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, and Lost Stars) and I bought and devoured the whole thing. Gigantic series of best-selling military space opera are not generally my thing but Campbell’s mixing of hard SF elements into wild-eyed space opera and his solidly centrist and sensible military, political, and social textures (which address 9/11, infinite war, becoming one’s own enemy, etc.) really sold me, along with his meticulously described space battles. Granted, it starts shaky and has some awkwardness in character interactions throughout but the things were just compulsively readable. He’s the only author on this list with nothing in the Pile, as I read everything the minute I bought it. He’s not up there with the likes of Egan and Sterling, but he delivers good clean honest entertainment that I enjoyed a lot.