14 November 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Invincible by Stanisław Lem

The InvincibleThe Invincible by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The interstellar cruiser Invincible lands on Regis III, which seems bleakly uninhabited, to investigate the loss of sister ship, Condor. The crew discovers a form of quasi-life born through evolution of autonomous, self-replicating machines. Individually or in small groups they are harmless and capable of only simple behavior. When bothered they form huge swarms displaying complex behavior arising from self-organization and are able to defeat an intruder by a powerful surge of EMI. Some members of the crew suffer complete memory erasure as a consequence. Big clouds are also capable of high speed travel to the troposphere. The angered crew attempts to fight the enemy, but eventually recognize the meaninglessness of their efforts in the most direct sense of the word.
The novel turns into an analysis of the relationship between different life domains and their place in the cosmos - a thought experiment demonstrating that evolution may not necessarily lead to dominance by intellectually superior life forms. The plot also involves a Conrad-like dilemma, juxtaposing human values and the efficiency of mechanical insects.

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An interesting albeit dated hard sci-fi tale of a starship sent to a planet in search of a missing vessel and crew sent there previously. It's an easy read and relatively short, with a simple yet complex (if that makes sense) story of discovery and realization that "life" in the universe can come in unexpected forms and along varied evolutionary paths. I liked the sense of wonder of the the journey of discovery through the story. As a negative, I found the characters a bit boring and uninteresting for the most part. I just never got to know them, so to speak, and had this aspect been a little more engaging, then I feel the story would have been taken another level. This is how I often feel about older science fiction books from authors such as Arthur C Clarke, great story ideas but minimal and often lackluster characterization, to my more modern tastes, anyway. Overall it was enjoyable, but definitely more of a seasoned sci-fi fan book than one for the "uninitiated". I just found out that the edition that I read was translated from the original Polish via German into English, so maybe this could account for some of the one dimensional characters and their portrayals? I'm going to assume so, and give Mr. Lem the benefit of the doubt.

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13 November 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers #2) by Peter F. Hamilton

A Night Without StarsA Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The planet of Bienvenido is on its own, isolated from the rest of the universe. And it’s waging war against the ruthless Fallers, aliens which have evolved to conquer whole worlds. Kysandra is leading an underground resistance, aided by biological enhancements that give her a crucial edge. But she fears she’s fighting a losing battle. This is especially as the government hampers her efforts at every turn, blinded by crippling technophobia and prejudices against enhanced 'Eliter' humans. However, if the resistance and government can’t work together, humanity on this planet will face extinction – for the Fallers are organizing a final, decisive invasion. Bienvenido badly needs outside help. But the Commonwealth, with all its technological expertise, has been lost to them for generations. Desperate times will call for desperate measures, or humanity on Bienvenido will not survive.

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This was everything that I'd hoped it would be, an epic and satisfying conclusion to this pair of books set in PFH's truly awesome Commonwealth universe. Set a number of years after the events of the preceding Abyss Beyond Dreams, the pace never really lets up and there's action aplenty, including a very cool battle at the beginning where an old foe from the past makes another appearance. We're also given snippets of information about what has come before, background information that helps to flesh put the vast plot lines that Hamilton weaves.
As usual, there are cops and detectives as a key characters, all part of the mission to rid the isolated world of Bienvenido from the relentless and ruthless Fallers. Things have changed quite a lot for the planet since it's expulsion from the Void which was depicted in the previous book. Now we're beginning to see the use of modern Commonwealth tech and devices, and society is divided into factions that either have the use of this tech, welcome it and want more, as well as those who yearn for the old simple times prior to the expulsion (or Great Transition as they call it). This creates paranoid society that the Fallers take advantage of. There are even 20th century style rocket missions into orbit to nuke the Faller trees which ring the planet. Very cool.
The story ramps up very quickly as a new player is deposited on Bienvenido in an attempt to enact a final blow to the Fallers. As well as events on the planet itself, we learn of the other planets in the group that are also marooned in starless intergalactic space, light years from anything else.
Without going into more detail of the various plot elements which you will be generally familiar with if you've read the previous book, I'll summarize in saying that this book is classic PFH. It's excellent modern space opera and is huge fun to read. It's typically (for Hamilton) quite long, but it's by no means arduous. It's the best sci-fi that I've read this year, and it was well worth the wait.

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