Books in December 2017

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Quite unintentionally, December became a bit of a SF month for me.

Artemis (Andy Weir)

So, the sequel to The Martian, a book (and film) that I enjoyed immensely. I made the mistake of reading the Adam Roberts’ review in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/15/artemis-andy-weir-review-the-martian) before I started this. My initial impression of that was that it felt like sour grapes about the success of the first, self-published novel. But was he right?

On reflection, I do think that some of the criticisms are justified; the novel - stylistically - is not sophisticated. It is more akin to the old juvenile SF that I loved growing up. The style is the same as The Martian, but this time the info-dumps tend to come in the form of letters between the protagonist and a pen-friend, something that actually meshes very tightly to the plot at the end of the novel. Like The Martian, it carries itself along with the energy that the main character has in overcoming the problems that they are faced with. That in itself harkens back to an older form of SF.

I really enjoyed this book, probably because of the nostalgia for a style that it engenders. Traveller is, after all, my favourite SF-RPG and that is grounded in the same roots. It isn’t as good as The Martian, but is definitely worth a look.

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

This one is so grounded in geek culture that sometimes it almost tries too hard. The concept is simple; with climate change and a thirty year recession that shows no sign of going away, the world is a much less pleasant place than it is today. The protagonist - Wade - is a student, growing up in trailer stacks (imagine a 3D trailer park) and attending school via OASIS, an interactive 3D virtual reality that much of the population retreats into to escape a world with far too few opportunities. Wade - or Parzifal, as his avatar is known, is hunting for a huge prize in his spare time; the chance to inherit the fortune of the founder of the company who created OASIS.

The prize is hidden in the form of a quest that brings in a mixture of 70s and 80s tropes; video games, D&D, music and pop culture. As Parsifal progresses, the pace and the risks step up, and he finds that there are those who will take action in the real world to enable them to succeed at the quest. Like video game, the tempo at the end made me read the last third of the book in a single sitting, not wanting to put it down. It isn’t the best book I’ve read recently – I only gave it four stars on Goodreads – but I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to seeing what the film version will make of it[1].

Fever Swamp (Luke Gearing)

A short sandbox hexcrawl setting compatible with most OSR rules, set in swampland that can only be realistically traversed by boat. Nicely presented (there is something that reminds me of the old Ladybird books in the small hard cover format) and clearly laid out, this is a setting that could be dropped into other fantasy campaigns quite easily. Even though there are some plot hooks that can be used to draw characters in (the search for a missing - and wanted - scholar, for example) the direct engagement to another campaign is less obvious than the previous Melsonian Arts Council book, the Crypts of Indormancy.

The other area that is a little lacking is on the environmental hazards of the journey through the swamp. I feel that there was an opportunity lost to present some none creature and combat based encounters; however, this may well have been influenced by the ongoing play I have had in a One Ring campaign where travel is much more significant. As it stands, the longer you travel in the swamp, the more likely you are to catch a disease. The drag of the environment itself - coldness, wetness, dirt - is left to the GM to improvise.

That said, this is a competent, well presented, well organised and useful setting. It just doesn't scream "run me" in the way that others like Crypts of Indormancy, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Hot Springs Islands have.

Persepolis Rising (James S.A. Corey)

The seventh book in the Expanse series (so this would equate to something like series 8 and 9 on TV at the rate that they are converting the books). This book does something radically different; it advances the timeline of the story thirty years further into the future, allowing us to discover the long term consequences of the events in Babylon’s Ashes. Holden and the Rocinante are still around, but some of the old alliances and power structures have realigned, as might have been expected after the cataclysmic events in the preceding books. It’s interesting to see the shifts in motivation that have occurred; everyone is recognisable but they’ve also moved on. The story builds on elements from the previous books, things that have been left there hanging, and the ending, while satisfactory, leaves me wanting more. I enjoyed this a lot, but you don’t carry on reading up to the seventh book of a series if you don’t enjoy it.


[1]: Especially if the D&D module reference makes it into the plot.

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