November 07, 2013
(+++) SCI-FI FOR TEENS AND ADULTS
The Winter of the Robots. By Kurtis Scaletta. Knopf. $16.99.
Star Corpsman, Book Two: Abyss Deep. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
At its best, science fiction makes technology a subsidiary element in stories about people: what is involving is the human story, not the gadgetry. Indeed, some of the greatest science fiction succeeds precisely because it retells past history as a kind of “future history,” as in the case of Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, which was based on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Today, even lesser SF authors with a strong bias for action make it a point to include human elements as central parts of their storytelling, whether their books are designed for younger readers or adults. Thus, The Winter of the Robots, despite its title and a cover portraying a dinosaur-like robotic construction, is really the story of best friends Jim and Oliver and their science-fair partners – Rocky and Dmitri, respectively – and the adults with whom they interact while exploring a mystery in a junkyard: “So we’re playing Hardy Boys?” “Why didn’t you ask Nancy Drew?” Comments like these set the tone of Kurtis Scaletta’s story, but the book has seriousness beyond those mystery series. For instance, at one point Jim and Oliver, searching for cameras that Jim and Rocky had set up to track local otters, end up at the ruins of a place called Nomicon – where, it turns out, Oliver’s father worked…and died. The site proves crucial to the plot. There is something faintly sinister, and later not so faintly, about the goings-on there, with Nomicon at the center of nefarious doings involving, yes, robot dinosaurs – and robots, it turns out, are fascinating to both of the major female characters in the book, Rocky and Penny (Jim’s younger sister). Scaletta tries hard to make the book as up-to-date as possible, with references to Facebook and fist bumps and considerable use of text messaging to go along with references to golems and dinobots. In truth, the story is somewhat sloppy, trying too hard to mix family issues with a mystery and SF elements and some police business and car thefts and other complications. And none of the characters is even close to fully realized; even Jim, the narrator, is something of a nonentity. But the book is exciting enough and has enough gadgetry and enough relationship exploration to be a quick and pleasant read for the young teenagers for whom it is intended.
Abyss Deep, the sequel to Bloodstar and second book in Ian Douglas’ Star Corpsman series, is strictly for adults, being filled with lots of four-letter words and tough talk and even some sex. This is space opera, crammed with references to obscure and never-explained technologies, meetings with aliens, and all sorts of improbable-to-impossible encounters and battles. At the center of all this is Elliot Carlyle, a mere “lowly enlisted man” with all the right instincts for interstellar contact, now deemed the Hero of Bloodworld after his chance-taking resulted in an unexpectedly favorable outcome for the FMF (Fleet Marine Force) in the previous book. A medical officer, Carlyle finds himself again and again in the midst of horrendous carnage as he tries to repair horribly mangled human bodies and some horribly mangled alien ones as well. “Friendly the M’nangat may be, but they were still alien, meaning we could never really get inside their heads – or what passes for heads – and understand them nearly as well as, say, a human living in San Antonio can understand a human living in Kyoto.” But Carlyle, in addition to physiological skills, has psychological ones, being intuitively able to do the right thing – or the daring thing, which in space opera is much the same – and thereby to make matters extremely complicated before everything turns out better than anyone ever thought it would. Like Asimov’s Foundation books (although at a far lesser level of skill and plotting), Douglas’ take place at a time when a galactic empire is crumbling and various barbarians are at various gates as they try to build their own mini-fiefdoms. So Carlyle encounters terror attacks, both interstellar and possibly involving “some extremist Islamic sect,” and otherwise has adventures that are both futuristic and thoroughly mundane. The combination is a trifle unsettling, as is the frequent perfectly reasonable discussion of bodily processes as 21st-century medicine understands them – quickly extended to supposed advances used by interstellar doctors. The main action in Abyss Deep takes place on “another tide-locked split-personality planet: half ice, half steam,” where Carlyle and the interstellar Marines spend much of their time communicating in exclamation points: “Ship! ...Block them! Don’t let that strider rejoin the others! …Marines! By squads, low-level overleap, Squad One, now!” “I’m monitoring the ship telemetry! …It’s repairable! Keep on that strider!” “Doc! Get your ass back on board! Hold on a sec!” Carlyle keeps bending the rules he doesn’t break; for instance, despite the action being a major risk to his career, he keeps records on the behavior of an officer because “there was no question that Kirchner was totally batshit – another of those technical medical terms – but a court of inquiry likely would be taking a very close look at what I’d done in the time leading up to his mental break.” And he keeps showing bravery in unlikely ways and unlikely places. And although certainly not portrayed as a superhero, he is a very common type in military fiction: the low-ranking character who is smarter, more street-smart and better equipped to survive and thrive than any of the powerful people who rank above him. Abyss Deep proceeds on the same general plot trajectory as Bloodstar, with Carlyle’s boldness getting him into serious trouble while turning out to advance humans’ understanding of the cosmos and the other races in it in significant ways. But Carlyle faces personal turmoil – not quite tragedy, but what passes for it here – when it turns out that his girlfriend, Sergeant Joy Leighton, has been killed in action, necessitating her being brought back with “CAPTR technology: Cerebral Access PolyTomographic Reconstruction,” which however has some significant limitations. Well, there is plenty of nonsense in the plot premises and plot workouts here, but it is generally entertaining nonsense, and readers not too concerned about the niceties of the “science” part of science fiction will have a good time reading this fast-paced, occasionally clever series entry.