Friday, August 31, 2007

Ex Libris: July Books

We want to eat you whole

Neal Asher has always been a quick read for me. Like another SF contemporary comparable to him (Richard Morgan), Asher's books are filled with cool characters with big guns that put out bigger explosions. This is alright since the Asher's aliens are bigger than thou. However, unlike Morgan, Asher stints on the characterization and the big questions and goes for the jugular of the story.

The Skinner is no exception. A bit of a standalone novel from his super-agent Ian Cormac books (until this book's sequel, The Voyage of Sable Keech, came out, that is), Asher's book tells of a deadly world of Spatterjay that is the epitome of the food chain: everything here wants to eat you. Ranging from the leech-filled seas and the nautical predators that prey on them, to the jungles that are filled with toothy unmentionables including a legendary barely-human monster, the planet of Spatterjay holds a kind of immortality virus that makes its long-lived inhabitants nearly indestructible.

To this planet comes three characters, all with their own secret quests, even as various groups, intelligences and alien races have their own agenda about Spatterjay. And the planet has its own priorities and atrocities, secrets undiscovered since the centuries-old Prador War that will certainly make themselves felt to all concerned.

This book, in essence, is a popcorn-movie: chockload of SF pulpish fun ranging from alien slavers, insect hive minds, sailing ships on strange seas, and snarky AIs and robots bearing weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, Asher's planet generated that fun, scary feeling reminiscent of those stories of the danger of dipping your hand in the Amazon river when you were a kid.

You won't get the depressing feeling here like reading Morgan's SF books but hey, that doesn't mean that the future is bright in Asher's universe. Like the Aliens movie franchise, there are still things out in space with predatorish imperatives willing to kill us just for the meal of it.

For King and Kingdom

I've always been fascinated with the collision course of technology with ignorance, which is my only recuse against those who favor the engineer-flavored science fiction. Harry Harrison's The Hammer and The Cross, the first book in a trilogy, is one example.

In any alternate history, there's always the insertion of a historical element that diverts the book's timeline from ours. In this alternate 9th-century England, Shef, a half-breed slave of an English lord, discovers a growing sect called the Way, a group of Vikings who fervently believe in the Norse gods and who are fighting a rear-guard action against the encroaching Christian religion. Fortunately, Shef is the trope's favored form (i.e. 'destined one') in that he's an engineering genius, managing to invent weapons and tactics to kick ass during the numerous battles throughout the book.

Despite the somewhat prosaic text, Harrison makes this book an easy read-- especially if one doesn't expect much from characterization or plot. One can almost see the connect-the-dots as Shef manages to manuever himself from slave to king with the advance of his Roman war-machines. Sometimes Shef and his allies falter or face odds that'd engender despair; but the story won't allow them to be defeated.

This ain't epic fantasy and Harrison-- who's written a number of classic SF stories and has been around SF circles for quite some time-- isn't George R.R. Martin or Steve Erikson in terms of world-building and character-forming. But then again, Harrison really doesn't want much from the reader: just the knowledge that he's writing a good story about a history that never was. And if one keeps that mind, I think you'll get a lot of mileage out of this book.

Which, as guilty pleasures go, is as good as it gets.

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