23 January 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Promise of the Child is a stunning feat of imagination set against an epic backdrop ranging from 14th-century Prague, to a lonely cove near the Mediterranean Sea, to the 147th-century Amaranthine Firmament. Toner has crafted an intelligent space opera filled with gripping action and an emotional scale that is wonderfully intimate, a smart and compelling debut that calls to mind the best of Kim Stanley Robinson or M. John Harrison.

Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.

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DISCLAIMER: I received my copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

When I was first shown this book, I was impressed with the level of interest and praise that it has received, and by some recognizable names in the industry too. This made me keen to delve into it myself. Even though it's classified as space opera, the synopsis sounded to me very much like what I call "science-fantasy", a universe where things appear more mystical and magical than technological and where hard sci-fi is quite scarce. The closest thing to this description that I've read would probably be Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, a universe that I enjoyed a lot.

Set thousands of years in the future, this story takes the idea that humanity has continued to evolve, and has also produced a number of sub-species. At the top of the heap are a section of humanity called the Amaranthine, a very long-lived group who have created a huge interstellar empire in which Earth (known as The Old World) is still central. The rest of the "human" species comes in the shape of the Prism, who have a number of forms, are more primitive than the Amaranthine.

I won't begin an analysis of the plot or the characters, partly because there are many other reviews that have done this, and also partly because it came as a bit of blur to me. I found myself skimming portions of the text for a considerable amount of the book. It's written with an elegant artistic style, and while I don't know much about the technicalities of the English language, I can recognize the skill of the author here. The only problem is that I'm not turned on by that sort of thing, I like it simpler, less "flowery" as it were. I'm technical-thinking and matter-of-fact which means that I found this book to be not all that entertaining. Intellectually stimulating for some I have no doubt, but I tired of the embellished prose.

However, what I do see, as many other readers also do, is a new author on the scene who will probably fit in nicely with the likes of Reynolds, Banks, Hamilton and others of the genre. I'm sure he'll be around for some time.

Overall, I'd call this book a technically skillful execution of a complex story, within a fantastic universe. It just lacks enough entertainment value for my tastes, which unfortunately meant that it didn't do it for me.

4/5 for concept
5/5 for delivery
2/5 for entertainment
= 3.7 out of 5

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18 January 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Alliance (The Evox Chronicles #1) by Chris G. Wright

The Alliance (The Evox Chronicles #1)The Alliance (The Evox Chronicles #1) by Chris G. Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Human extinction has been decided and the alien invasion shows no signs of abating. City ruins will be the only proof that Humans ever existed. For the survivors, hope dies along with the mounting casualties. Do the few remaining pockets of resistance stand a chance against the Milky Way's most dangerous civilization? The answer is in the stars.

To find salvation, the Humans must learn to coexist and collaborate with an ambiguous ally who has a plan to save Earth from a conflict that knows no boundaries. Their salvation is the Alliance.

But Humans were designed with flaws, and Ethan Alexander Colt and Donovan Ford are no different. Will they be able to see beyond their own aspirations and fight for the greater good? Or will they jeopardize it all? In possession of alien weapons of seemingly infinite energy, the survival of two species depends on them. One will need to make the ultimate sacrifice and carry out a plan that takes away everything he holds dear. The other must conquer his ghosts and embrace his destiny as a soldier.

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A story about human origins and destiny, painted upon a vast and wonderful canvas.

This is a big story, the first of a six-volume series that looks like it's going to be quite an epic. The author has combined many tried and true tropes of the genre creating a blend of space opera and sci-fi action adventure, with melodramatic conflict between opponents who have advanced abilities, weapons, and other technologies. There are battles and skirmishes in quantity and lots of explosions. Quite dynamic in theme, it starts as a dystopian drama, moving into human-alien first contact and growing into the large scale space opera that it really is.

Things kick off here on Earth, which has been invaded and overrun by hordes of alien raiders, who destroy anything and everything in their path. At first the invaders' motivations aren't clear and we soon learn that there is more than one extraterrestrial species taking an interest in Earth. It appears that there are things here that galactic factions greatly desire, devices that can give those who posses them an upper hand in their conflict. Underlying this is the mystery of the originators of the devices, and we catch a glimpse of them at the beginning in the Prologue. Somebody or something is manipulating events through these devices. The author draws a faint outline of the overarching story and gives clues to more detail as the story unfolds. I'm guessing that some incredible things are going to be revealed as the saga evolves.

Pockets of humans survive in communities which are fiercely defensive and insular, a typical post-apocalyptic scenario. It is from within these groups that we get our human protagonists, who are destined to become part of a grand plan to overcome the invaders. They will also hopefully aid in the restoration of a Galactic Alliance, once-powerful but now in disarray. What follows is a rapid progression of events. Mysterious forces cause the human race semi-willingly into a pivotal role, caught between evil forces bent on conquest and other benevolent species who will help them in return for service and allegiance to their Alliance. As the story gets into full swing, there are hints of conspiracy among the factions, subtle hints of another level to the drama.

I absolutely loved the mother ship! A massive city ship, in the form of an inverted pyramid over forty thousand feet in height. A technological marvel unlike anything mankind has seen before. That's what is shown hovering above the hill on the book cover. Things like this are one of the reasons why I love sci-fi, they fill me with a sense of wonder which leaves me in awe. This book is full of impressive techno stuff.

The book is written in an easy chronological style, but it gains complexity from the scenes jumping dramatically from one to another. I got a little lost at times and found myself having to pause and take stock of events at various points along the way. The speed of the story is the cause of this, but it wasn't difficult to catch back up again. The author keeps his foot on the pedal, and the prose and dialogue is quite raw which makes for an engaging read.

There is a large cast of characters with many different titles and roles, and the story is driven evenly by characters and events, and it's just as much about the action as the players themselves. I found the characters to be believable and their dialogue is suitably unpolished (but without unnecessary profanity) which made it easy for me to relate to them. They have reasonable depth and you learn enough about who they are, the key figures being examined to a moderate extent in this early stage of the saga.

In summary, this is an excellent addition to the massive array of indie science fiction books, one that thoroughly deserves every bit of praise it gets. I've been left breathless by the sheer scale of the story. I give it a solid 4.5 stars, only losing that last little half for slightly jumbled arrangement. I'll be watching this series and this author, he's a refreshing and exciting prospect.

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31 December 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The True Story of Guns N' Roses: The Last of the Giants by Mick Wall

The True Story of Guns N' Roses: The Last of the GiantsThe True Story of Guns N' Roses: The Last of the Giants by Mick Wall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many millions of words have already been written about Guns N' Roses, the old line-up, the new line-up. But none of them have ever really gotten to the truth. Guns N' Roses has always been a band out of time, the Last of the Giants. They are what every rock band since the Rolling Stones has tried and nearly always failed to be: dangerous. At a time when smiling, MTV-friendly, safe-sex, just-say-no Bon Jovi was the biggest band in the world, here was a band that seemed to have leapt straight out of the coke-smothered pages of the original, golden-age, late-sixties rock scene.

'Live like a suicide', the band used to say when they all lived together in the Hell House, their notorious LA home. And this is where Mick Wall first met them, and became part of their inner circle, before famously being denounced by name by Axl Rose in the song 'Get in the Ring'.

But this book isn't about settling old scores. Written with the clear head that 25 years later brings you, this is a celebration of Guns N' Roses the band, and of Axl Rose the frontman who really is that thing we so desperately want him to be: the last of the truly extraordinary, all-time great, no apologies, no explanations, no giving-a-shit rock stars. The last of his kind.

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Wo, what a ride! This book is a crazy and excellent historical exposé of one of the biggest and best rock bands the world has ever seen. A weird and sometimes frustrating story, written in an easy and informal style by a top respected music journalist, I enjoyed this from the first word to the last. While the GN'R saga is generally well known these days, this book seems to offer the story in a fresh and exciting new way which makes it so much fun to read. It's current too (published late 2016) so there is plenty of gen on the "reunion" and the pleasantly surprising Axl/DC shows. I loved it. I recommend it for any fan of Guns N' Roses and/or rock music in general, and it rates for me as the second best music bio that I've read to date after Slash's own autobiography.

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Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God

from The Wall Street Journal

In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.

Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life. [see the Drake Equation - LS]

With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researchers have discovered precisely bubkis - 0 followed by nothing.

SETI radio telescope array

What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.

Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest... We should quietly admit that the early estimates...may no longer be tenable.”

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life - every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

Jupiter - our stalwart protector

Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?

There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces - gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces - were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off  by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction - by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 - then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.

Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?

Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator...gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”

The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something - or Someone - beyond itself.

Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” (Dutton Adult, 2014).

28 December 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Miracle of Rare Design by Mike Resnick

A Miracle of Rare Design (Birthright #21)A Miracle of Rare Design by Mike Resnick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

How far would you go to unlock the mysteries of an alien culture? Journalist and adventurer Xavier William Lennox becomes obsessed with the rituals of the Fireflies, an alien culture of gold-skinned inhabitants living on the planet Medina. When he gets too close to their mysterious society, he's captured, tortured, and banished for defying their laws, but vows to learn what the aliens are so desperate to hide, even if it means becoming one of them. His curiosity doesn't end there. As opportunities arise to study more alien races, Lennox takes cultural immersion to the breaking point. He not only buries himself in the language and customs of the aliens, but also undergoes severe surgeries to become one of them. Each time his humanity is stretched until he faces his biggest challenge-trying to return to the ordinary life of a man who has experienced the universe in ways he was never meant to.

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This Birthright story has left me feeling a little flat, dissatisfied that the big reveal I was anticipating never eventuated. Thankfully it's a short book. I love Resnick's style and he's been one of my favorite authors of any genre so I guess, for this reason, I feel a bit disappointed.

The first phase of the story where the main character "becomes" a Firefly alien to assimilate with them seemed to promise me a grand finale, that I would learn a great secret that these highly spiritual creatures were hiding. But did that happen? Nope. The story then goes on to show him being altered surgically a few more times to be able to manipulate a new alien species to Man's desires each time. It does provoke thought in that his character grows increasingly distant from his human origins each time he's changed, and he can see the limitations and folly of the human species because of his alien perspectives.

Overall it's typically Resnick in that it's easy to read and flows nicely and doesn't waste time with superfluous words, almost pulp-style, which I like. However, the lack of a gritty story or twist means that the entertainment value to me is seriously diminished.

I see that some people have rated this very highly due to the philosophical theme, which is fine, but I was hoping for a little more entertainment and fun.

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24 December 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed

Rogue One - A Star Wars StoryRogue One - A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the shadows of the Empire loom ever larger across the galaxy, so do deeply troubling rumors. The Rebellion has learned of a sinister Imperial plot to bring entire worlds to their knees. Deep in Empire-dominated space, a machine of unimaginable destructive power is nearing completion. A weapon too terrifying to contemplate . . . and a threat that may be too great to overcome.

If the worlds at the Empire s mercy stand any chance, it lies with an unlikely band of allies: Jyn Erso, a resourceful young woman seeking vengeance; Cassian Andor, a war-weary rebel commander; Bodhi Rook, a defector from the Empire s military; Chirrut Imwe, a blind holy man and his crack-shot companion, Baze Malbus; and K-2SO, a deadly Imperial droid turned against its former masters. In their hands rests the new hope that could turn the tide toward a crucial Rebellion victory if only they can capture the plans to the Empire s new weapon. 

But even as they race toward their dangerous goal, the specter of their ultimate enemy a monstrous world unto itself darkens the skies. Waiting to herald the Empire s brutal reign with a burst of annihilation worthy of its dreaded name: Death Star.

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For the combined reasons of not being able to wait to see the movie and being stuck in bed running a temperature with 'flu, I read this novelization with interest and enthusiasm over the course of a couple of days. I'd seen the Rogue One movie trailers, of course, and some amazing concept artwork, which meant that I found myself with some comprehensive imagery for my mind's eye to make use of. This definitely helped me speed through the story with no effort. With no detailed plot points or spoilers from the screen version to influence my thoughts, I was hitting to story with minimal preconception.

To the book itself: I have to be honest and say, the first half of the book was very good and had me hooked from the kick off, but it just seemed to fall a little flat for the third quarter. This was taken up largely with the epic battle where Jyn Erso and her rebel comrades attempt to secure the plans for the Death Star. It just seemed to go on and on without really accomplishing much in terms of the story line. But, if action is your thing, you're going to love it. Right near the end it came good again and I thought the end chapter (and particularly the Epilogue) was great, a fitting end to this story which is a stand alone but which also has hints of coming events in A New HopeWe catch a glimpse of a few characters that we've seen and known before plus see others who are more prominent players like Tarkin and Vader.

Overall it's fine and I give it an actual 3.5 stars, but it's not one of the best Star Wars novels that I've read. It's a solid tale that fits nicely beside the main Star Wars story arc and fleshes out the universe with some good characters and other elements. I just felt that the story got bogged down a bit during that big battle phase. I'm still as eager as ever to see the movie, possibly even more so, and am equally as eager to see the what other projects that come out of the new and revitalized (a matter of some debate in fandom it would seem...) Star Wars franchise.

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08 December 2016

How Will Our Religions Handle the Discovery of Alien Life?

@ Nautilus

What would your priest, rabbi, or imam say if we discovered alien life?

For the religious, knowing that life on Earth is not unique may demand radical new ways of thinking about ourselves: How special and sacred are we? Is Earth a privileged place? Do we have an obligation to care for beings on other planets?  Should we convert ET to “my” religion? These questions point to a deeper issue about whether our religions can adapt to the idea that humans are not the only sentient beings in the universe capable of worshiping God.

Some faiths might unearth new meanings in ancient texts and develop ways of incorporating alien life into their world-views. Other religions that are less flexible in their interpretations of scripture or that claim humans are the only intelligent beings in the universe might struggle to adapt.

Whether we are believers or not, none of us can fully escape the influence of religion in our culture. Religion is one of the oldest parts of our social fabric, and is one way—perhaps the main way—that society will process first contact. Here is a brief list of how some religions think about aliens, whether they will try to proselytize them, and which religions are likely to remain intact in the wake of the potential discovery of alien life.

Read more HERE.