Reviews #5 - The Story Continues

I have found that reviewing sequels or books in a series is seldom very rewarding. Essentially they are continuation of what has gone before - therefore, what was said about the earlier volumes usually suffices. What more can you really say about a sequel except "it continued on". The plot and characters are established and the quality and style of writing do not usually change much - except that it is my observation that the second book in a trilogy is normally the weakest.

I make the preceding observation because I seem to have read a larger than usual number of sequels and series books recently. This is hardly surprising given how much SF is published in trilogy or series form. This has a lot more to do with commerce than craft unfortunately but that is the reality of the modern SF publishing scene.

Joan D Vinge wrote The Snow Queen in 1980. She write a sequel (of sorts) called Worlds End a little later, but has spent much of the years since then wasting her considerable talent writing media tie-in novels. A proper sequel to the events of The Snow Queen did not appear until 1991. It has taken me until recently to get around to reading The Summer Queen. I thought that its 900+ pages of small type would prove suitable for the long plane trips I undertook recently. In fact the book went all the way to London and back with me and I only got about half way through. This does not mean that it is hard to read - I didn’t have as much time to read as I expected, and this is a big book. We all have got used to books with a lot of pages but rarely do we encounter a book with as much content as this one. It demands full attention as the complex story and the equally complex characters unfold.

The Summer Queen picks up from the end of The Snow Queen as the new queen takes up her reign on the isolated planet Tiamat. In the meantime other forces are racing to develop a faster than light drive to return to Tiamat. The events of World’s End are incorporated in a review form. As I noted above, this is a big book - do not attempt to read this on the bus - devote a whole weekend to it. Even better, take a week off work and read all the series properly. Go on, think of it as a present to yourself.

If you are a masochist then Brightness Reef by David Brin might be a suitable present for yourself. Sadists may wish to give it to somebody else. The book is part of the Uplift series set in a universe where intelligent species are plentiful but all have been engineered from lower species - except for humanity of course. This time, there are six species trying to hide themselves away from the rest of the galaxy on a world left fallow. Their existence is interrupted by the arrival of a spacecraft with unknown motivations. The first problem I had with this book was that I couldn’t tell the different species apart. Brin has come up with some very interesting descriptions of them, but his attempts to give them different racial characteristics and personalities falls flat. The second problem is that nothing really happens for the 700 page length of this book - the plot just meanders along without doing much. The third and greatest annoyance and the one to please S & M types is that when the action does heat up, we are left with a cliffhanger ending. I am not impressed - this book does nothing to fulfil the promise of Startide Rising and other books in the Uplift Saga.

Ring by Stephen Baxter is part of his Xeelee Sequence. Chronologically it is the last - well it should be, given that it deals with the end of the universe. The thing I like about Baxter is that he really pushes the envelope of the physical universe. His is the hardest of hard science and is right on the cutting edge of quantum and cosmological theory. This time we follow a band of humans who take a voyage through time to the end of the universe to encounter a structure light years across in size and capable of warping and breaking the structure of space. Along the way we follow the demolition of a star and an artificial intelligence designed to live inside the hot bits of that star. There are people in this story but do not expect the characterisation to be too deep - after all they are only there to provide a structure for the picture of the universe that unfolds. Do not be mislead by this, the book works well as a tale of people - its just that they are not the really important thing in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I include the warning that you should read up on current cosmology and quantum theory first - there are plenty of good pop science books out there which explain without going into the difficult maths. You should also read Timelike Infinity which sets much of the scene and introduces many of the characters for Ring.

I have remarked before on the dilemma of Orson Scott Card. On the one hand he was a very skilful and entertaining writer, but on the other the message and morals of his work can make you queasy. With the fourth and fifth books in his Homecoming series that dilemma is gone. Earthfall and Earthborn are not really worth the effort. Card still has the ability to make you turn the pages but there is no substance any more. The moral position still makes me feel queasy though.

Some of the histories of the second world war run to dozens of volumes. I have the feeling that Harry Turtledove could make his World War series stretch just as far. He seems determined to provide an alternative, alien invasion, scene for every facet of the actual war. But he does it very well and I am enjoying the series - even if I find it hard to remember which book is which - the titles certainly do not help. The third and most recent is Upsetting the Balance - as noted at the beginning of this article, sometime there is nothing else to say but "more of the same".