Book review: Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

79) Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Short fix-up novel about a genetically engineered cat whose creation is commissioned by the security chief of a large space station. The chief wants an undercover agent who’ll be overlooked by criminals who might be suspicious of humanoids. A Maine Coon who’s been genetically engineered to have human level intelligence, opposable thumbs, and a tongue that can wrap itself around human language is a useful thing to have loitering around fast food outlets and in cargo holds, picking up the gossip. An ordinary-looking cat won’t be suspected because the high cost of gengineered animals means they’re still rare — but it’s a price that’s worth it for someone who wants to bust a drug-smuggling ring.

The book is structured as a series of short stories covering the first year or so of Leon’s life, a first person retrospective from the day the Chief collects a know-all kitten from the labs to a year or so later, when Leon’s experienced enough to understand how very inexperienced and naive he was that day. The general tone is that of a hard-boiled detective story, only here the hard-boiled tone is distinctly feline-flavoured and the setting is futuristic.

It’s a lot of fun following Leon’s emotional and intellectual development alongside his cases, and the cases themselves mostly make good stories. There are some good observations of feline behaviour worked into this. Leon’s mostly plausible as a portrait of a cat with boosted intelligence, and his relationship with his human partner Devin, a mix of self-centredness and genuine affection after a rocky start, works well. However, there are two flaws which badly broke suspension of disbelief for me.

The first is that Leon is not just super intelligent, at 4 weeks old he speaks fluent English and he’s already showing a better grasp of human culture than a human ten year old. Yes, cats develop much faster, but there hasn’t been time for him to physically assimilate that amount of information, even if he does spend all day in front of the tv.

The second is that Leon speaks to other, unenhanced animals, who appear to be also human level intelligence in their conversation, even if they’re speaking in cat rather than English, which rather undermines the point of him being genetically engineered for human level intelligence. There also appears to be a single human-level language across at least three species who are not regarded as fully sentient by the humans and other sentient species on the station. It felt as if the author was trying to appeal to readers who like to think of their cats as being just little humans in fur coats.

One of the things I did like about the book is that it touches on the ethics of uplifted animals. It’s a very light touch, and anything stronger would have unbalanced the book, but it’s made clear that Leon is under an indentured contract and is required to pay off the costs of his creation by working for whoever owns the contract. He’s effectively the property of Gamma Station Security for several years, and he’s unimpressed by this.

Overall, something of a mixed bag. It’s a fun light read, and has some laugh out loud moments, but there are some niggles which mean I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. A free sample consisting of the prologue and first chapter are available for download at Book View Cafe, which will give you a reasonable idea of the style.

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book log: 76) Colin Kapp — Patterns of Chaos

76) Colin Kapp — Patterns of Chaos

Another of the books that I greatly enjoyed as a teenager but haven’t read for some years. Fortunately it turns out that this is one I still enjoy. A man wakes in the middle of a vicious attack upon a city by a starship, dragged from unconsciousness by a voice inside his head. He has no memory of who he is and what he’s doing there, but the voice in his head is no hallucination. The first priority is to get him up and moving to where he’s supposed to be — because Bron is a deepcover agent with a telepathic link back to his base, and being amnesiac doesn’t excuse him from the job he was sent to do. Within a few hours, the planet he’s on will be destroyed by hellburners, deadly missiles that can tear a planet apart. And in those hours, the Destroyer fleet will raid, taking slaves and goods, and most particularly anyone with expertise in chaos theory — the concept that the patterns of chaos can be read to predict the future. One of the first things Bron learns about himself is that he has a synthetic personality embedded to allow him to pass as one of those experts, making him a target for the raiders – and a Trojan horse.

Which would be an interesting story in its own right, and the initial phase of the book is a very good story of a deepcover agent rediscovering who he is a bit at a time, while in the middle of the most dangerous job he’s ever done. But Kapp takes it to a new level, as Bron comes to understand that the hellburner was aimed at him. Specifically him, personally. And that it’s been on its way for 700 million years…

This is a solid piece of 1970s space opera, with a plot on the grand scale combined with some fascinating details to flesh out the universe, and some well-realised characters. It’s short by modern standards, but that’s all to the good, as it’s a tightly written story. An entertaining way to pass a few hours.

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book log: 63) Gareth Roberts — Doctor Who: Only Human

63) Gareth Roberts — Doctor Who: Only Human

Fifth of the New Who novels, with Nine, Rose, and Captain Jack. A Neanderthal turns up in 21st century Bromley, and the Tardis crew turn up to investigate why someone is using a particularly primitive, and stupid, method of time travel in the area. It transpires that there’s no way to take Das the Neanderthal home without killing him, so Jack gets detailed to teach him how to survive in present-day Bromley, while the Doctor and Rose go back 28,000 years to find the source of the problem. What they find is a historical research project by a group of humans from Rose’s future, and some very nasty things hiding in the project’s storeroom…

It’s an engaging enough story with some good one-off characters, although the Big Bad feels a bit cardboard to me. One of the best bits for me was the sequence of paired diary entries from Das and Jack, showing their very different perspectives on 21st century humans and each other. Often very funny, and occasionally poignant, and while I don’t think they’d have supported a full story in themselves, I would have been glad to see more of them.

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book log: John Carnell, editor — New Writings in SF 20

52) New Writings in SF 20

One of the 1972 editions of the long-running science fiction anthology series. I was always very fond of this series, but I found it hard to connect with some of the stories in #20. In fact, half way through I was thinking that there was no point in keeping it once I’d read it, as even the ones I liked didn’t make me feel inclined to re-read them.

Conversational Mode by Grahame Leman — decidedly grim short which consists of a transcript of a conversation between an involuntarily committed patient in a mental hospital and a psychiatric program running on a computer. The story is really about the potential abuse of psychiatry rather than the mechanics of such a program, but even so I was rather distracted by early 70s mainframe computer output conventions in software that is clearly at least as sophisticated as any of the AIs running in Turing Test competitions in 2010. Not one I feel inclined to re-read.

Which Way Do I Go For Jericho? by Colin Kapp — It’s the middle of a war, and a scientist volunteers for a military intelligence operation in which he will be left behind as an apparent civilian refugee after a military pullout. The aim is to give him a chance to look at a new sonic laser weapon being used by the enemy. The catch is that he will have to be a very convincing refugee, to the point of making him so starved and ill before the pullout that he will barely be able to function. It’s the sort of science/engineering problem in harsh conditions story that Kapp was so good at. I liked it but am not inclined to re-read it.

Microcosm by Robert P Holdstock — an astronaut visits an alien planet and gets caught in two time streams. I didn’t entirely understand it and didn’t like it. A complete waste of time as far as I was concerned.

Cain(n) By HA Hargreaves — long story about the rehabilitation of a young teen who has been caught for some crime which has been wiped from his memory as part of the rehabilitation process. It’s clear from what he does remember that he has been homeless and living on the streets for years, and has no clear idea of what happened to his family. Beautifully and movingly written to show how he is slowly resocialised and comes to recognise that what he initially perceives as punishment genuinely is an attempt to rehabilitate him to the point where he is fit to serve his time.

Canary by Dan Morgan — The canary in question is a human being used the same way that canaries were used in mines — he’s a psychic who’s sensitive enough to the possibility of his own death that he can be used as an early warning of the outbreak of nuclear war. There’s some nice discussion of the problems faced by the sane members of government on both sides of a cold war in trying to stop their hotheads from stirring up trouble.

Oh, Valinda! by Michael G Coney — on an alien planet, icebergs are harvested for fresh water. Since the locals sold the rights to the icecaps to humans long ago before they realised there might be any value to them, it’s the humans who transport the icebergs to the seaboard cities where they’re needed. But the unusual mode of transport requires the help of a hired local — some of the icebergs are inhabited by giant worms who ingest seawater and filter it for food before expelling it. Persuade the worm to point in the right direction and the water jet can propel the berg. But it’s a complicated business finding a worm and keeping it going…

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Book log: 44) Gary Russell — Torchwood: The Twilight Streets

44) Gary Russell — Torchwood: The Twilight Streets

Sixth of the Torchwood tie-in novels, set late in second season and with a lot of canon references. And my most favourite of all the canon references is the return of Idris Hopper, the Mayor’s secretary from the Doctor Who episode Boom Town. :-)

There is a small block of streets in Cardiff, built by a Victorian businessman as model housing for his workforce. And never occupied for more than a few weeks at a time. Things happen to the people who try to live in Tretarri. Jack doesn’t know why, because Jack can’t get in. He gets a three day migraine every time he tries. But now the Council is renovating the block, with full-on gentrification and street parties to show off the results. Not just on the rate-payers’ money, either — private sponsorship is paying for the celebrations. But the block becomes more than a minor mystery for Jack’s off-duty hours when it becomes apparent that Bilis Manger is behind the plans for change. And Bilis is still using visions of the future to prod the team into action.

It seems simple enough. Another round of stop Bilis Manger and save the world. But the old man’s relationship with Good and Evil is rather more complex than that…

Really enjoyed this one. It’s got an interesting plot, some excellent character development, and entertaining interactions between the various characters. All the regular characters get some page space, and there’s some good stuff on the Jack/Ianto, Gwen/Rhys and Tosh-Owen relationships. Also a delightful little scene in which Ianto tells Torchwood’s Little Miss Sensitive (yes, he calls Gwen that) some home truths about what it’s really like to be bisexual. :-> There’s a lot of stuff referring back to canon, but most of it is tied into the story in such a way that it enhances the story for those who’ve seen the episodes without excluding those who haven’t. It also includes a good in-universe explanation for why the Tardis crew didn’t encounter Torchwood during the events of Boom Town (the external reason, of course, being that Torchwood the series was still a twinkle in RTD’s eye at the time). The reason for the AU future’s potential existence got a bit woolly in places, but the story in that timeline is really well done, if possibly over-angsty for some fans. Which is why I liked it, of course. :-)

Oh, and a word of praise for cover artist Lee Binding, who has done a lovely job in depicting some key elements of the story.

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book log: Jacqueline Rayner – Doctor Who: Winner Takes All

40) Jacqueline Rayner – Doctor Who: Winner Takes All

Third in the New Who novel line. Now this was a definite improvement over the previous title in the series. It’s a revisit of the Last Starfighter scenario, but with some nasty twists, and not just the one you find in Ender’s Game. Rose and Nine drop in to the Powell Estate to visit Jackie, and find that there’s a new video game being promoted by people in porcupine costumes, using scratchcards given away with any purchase at local stores, no matter how small. Mickey is one of the people who’s won a console, and as he explains, the console has only one game, but it’s still good value, because it’s so realistic, and complex enough to be a little different every time you play. Of course the Doctor can’t resist showing off and beating Mickey’s score, doing so thoroughly that he becomes number one on the aliens’ list of useful humans to acquire.

The plot’s interesting and the characterisations for Nine and Rose are good. But where the story really shines for me is in one of the one-off characters. Robert is a young teenager, complete with young teenage boy anxieties and fantasies, and his interior monologue is wince-inducingly realistic. He’s someone a lot of fans will be able to identify with.

Enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. This one I’ll probably re-read.

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Book review: Vonda N McIntyre — The Starfarers Quartet

Note: I received this as a review copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Omnibus edition of the Starfarers Quartet, published as an ebook reprint edition. The basic concept is a near-future setting where a space habitat is being built and fitted out for the first attempt at an interstellar voyage, using a recently discovered piece of cosmic string in the Solar System as a means of accessing almost instantaneous travel to another solar system. The habitat is set up as a university campus under international control.

In the first book, the station’s purpose is being politicised, with an attempt by the US government to commandeer the habitat and re-purpose it as a military station for use in a peacekeeping mission on Earth, nominally under international control but in reality completely controlled by the US.  The university faculty vote to continue their mission as planned, even if it means making an emergency run to the string and out of the solar system.

The second book begins with the Starfarer’s arrival in the Tau Ceti system, accompanied by a parting shot from the military cruiser which had been sent to stop them. The alien contact team who were the main focus of the narrative in the first book now get to do their job for the first time. The third and fourth books continue the story of the Starfarer crew’s attempts to interact with Civilisation

I found the first book somewhat frustrating to begin with, as I found the writing style a little hard to get on with, particularly the way a lot of point of view characters were simply dropped into the narrative with their own chapter and then abandoned for a while. It made the book feel very bitty to begin with. But once I had a handle on who all these people were and how their individual stories started to weave together, I found it fascinating.

The first book ends on something that is both a bit of a cliffhanger and resolution of the main plot. It could be read as a standalone. The next three books each end with resolution of that book’s piece of the story arc, but leave the reader expecting to see more arc — and unfortunately that includes the last one. It felt to me as if the author had left too many loose ends dangling at the end of the quartet, even though we do see the resolution to the main question of whether they will both make it safely back to Earth, and whether they will be able to leave the Solar System again once they have returned.

Some of those loose ends *really* needed tying up, to the point where I found it seriously irritating that they weren’t. It’s not billed as a mystery, but one of the plot threads certainly came over to me as being a mystery, with clues being dropped that the Starfarer crew had got something wrong — and it was never resolved as to whether they had or not. It may be just that I was misreading the author’s intentions and she *had* intended for the wrap-up somewhere in book 2 or 3 to be the Final Wrap-up of that thread, but if that was the case she should have refrained from making suggestions that there was a further secret behind the one unveiled. It left me feeling as if the final bit of that storyline in the last few pages was missing a significant part.

That niggle aside, I found the books very enjoyable to read once I’d picked up enough of the character threads in book 1 to follow what was going on. There is wonderful, wonderful world-building with a description of the maiden voyage of Earth’s interstellar ship, and the things it finds Out There.  And while the number of characters introduced in a very chop and change manner is confusing at first, it makes for a great depth to the characterisation over the course of the four books.

Some particular points of note — this series has both good science and good emotional development. And on the latter front, the people side of it includes the three members of a poly partnership amongst the lead characters – in a world where legally binding romantic partnerships of any sort are mildly unusual. This isn’t thrown in for titillation, but forms part of the world-building. And while we’re on the subject of diversity, the lead characters aren’t non-stop Default White American.

While I’ve rated this 3 stars overall, that’s partly a reflection of my disappointment with the ending. I’d happily recommend that people download the first book, available as a free sample from BookViewCafe, and try it to see if they like it enough to buy the full quartet.