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Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds March 24, 2014

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Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds is the second in his Revelation Space series and a worthy successor.  It seems completely unrelated to the previous book, but I promise the connection is made plain in the NEXT book in the series, Revelation Space .

Chasm City is just that; a city with a breathable atmosphere inside a huge hole in the ground from which vapor pours, some breathable and some steam.  Chasm City was once a beautiful high-tech nanite paradise until the Melding Plague came and ruined it and most people (those with nanites inside them).  Now it’s insanely chaotic and this of course makes for great storytelling.

Alastair Reynolds does not disappoint. The visitor to Chasm City describes the jumble of a city with a sort of noir detective’s eye; cynical, jaded, world-weary.  He’s there nominally on a mission to find his boss’ killer, and take revenge.  He has holes in his memory from hibernation sleep, and the holes get filled in with..strangeness.

Surprisingly, the strangeness of his new memories is more interesting even than Chasm City.  I can’t help but wonder about the metaphor, intentional or not.

Great writing, great series of books. The audiobook version I heard was well-done, and helped put me in this guy’s head…which turned out to be a very uncomfortable seat.

Mogworld, by Yahtzee Croshaw February 3, 2014

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Mogworld, by Yahtzee Croshaw is a delicious confection of, well, horrible things, starting from the sudden consciousness of an unwilling zombie yanked from the sleep of the dead to be the unholy servant of a mad sorcerer.

Well, that sucks.  It gets worse; people in the land he has come back to are acting very, very strangely, as if their motives are all badly scripted for them.

Ah, forget it.  I’m not going to do justice to this funny, irreverent parody of sword and sorcery cum adventure game mystery; read it yourself and be delighted.  Better yet, listen to the audiobook and enjoy that even more.

Especially Reverend Barry.  Oh, yes.

The Player of Games, by Ian Banks January 15, 2014

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The The Player of Games by Ian Banks is proving to be very amusing. I’m about one-quarter into it and it’s holding my attention raptly.
The story of a game player in The Culture, a fabulously rich and sophisticated (and very, very civilized) interstellar civilization living largely in huge habitats and huge ships, who leaves civilization for a barbaric empire in the lesser Magellanic clouds to play an enormously complex game, designed to mimic life’s larger struggles.  The game is the center of and in many ways symbolic of the empire’s power struggle, so The Culture’s Contact Bureau (the war and diplomacy people) want to put him in the game to lose and therefore convince the empire that The Culture is inferior and therefore not dangerous…I think.  At this point, I’m not sure of much, except that the machines in the Culture are sophisticated and duplicitous and that the Contact Branch’s ships have interesting names: Gunboat Diplomat, Of Course I Still Love You, and Just Read The Damned Manual.

Though the machines are subtle, devious and very, very powerful, The Player of Games is a human.  His long journey out of being a narcissist into understanding his role in the Great Game That is Life(tm) is of course the hidden subtext, but it’s carefully wrapped up in a socio-political thriller, so that’s OK and not at all preachy. Except where the A.I. he works with is explaining to him what an “empire” is, and how it’s put together from information control and nominally aligned power organizations…you know, like the USA.

But, we are an apolitical reviewer from a happy blog, dammit.  So none of that stuff here.  The audiobook is very nicely done indeed, with useful characterizations in the voices of the various persons (human and machine) and careful enough diction that my noisy car doesn’t keep me from hearing during my interminable commute.  I will soon start The Culture novel three, Use of Weapons, after a brief science reading hiatus; that shows you how good a read this is.  I would never finish a series if even one of them could not hold my interest.

EXCITING UPDATE: Elon Musk tweeted that he’s naming two SpaceX droneships after Culture ships in Banks’ The Player of Games. One drone ship will be called Just Read The Instructions, and the other will be Of Course I Still Love You.

Also, I liked The Culture novels so much I read them all.

Consider Phlebas, by Ian Banks January 6, 2014

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Head-slappingly weird, Ian Bank’s first The Culture novel is the sprawling epic that will knock over your furniture and scare your dog. Consider Phlebas is, at least, handsomely descriptive as it chronicles the execution by drowning in sewage, rescue by aliens, marooning in space, capture by pirates, murder of a crewman to win a place in the pirate kingdom, disastrous raid on a temple, romance with a down-covered crewmember, theft of giant laser from a soon-to-be-destroyed orbital habitat and subsequent death-game, and finally the murder and imposture of pirate captain with the intention of capturing a sentient computer from an ice-bound dead world’s last-ditch doomsday machine while fighting nine-foot tall tripod warriors.  Not exactly dull, but often using lyrical prose (the destruction of the giant orbital habitat by anti-matter missiles springs particularly to mind) to break up the action, the whole business is a small skirmish in a multi-billion-lives-lost intragalactic war and pretty much everybody dies by the end.
Truly a great read.  The audiobook version is delightfully executed, and I found myself resenting my weekends, when I didn’t commute and didn’t get to listen to What Happens Next.

I am currently listening to The Player of Games which is next in the series.  I have been programming an Android suite of language-learning apps, so my free time (hah!) is taken up with that, not writing reviews. Sorry.

EDIT:  I left out the part about being a shape-shifting assassin and the part about nearly being eaten by a circus freak worshipped by a starving group of acolytes who eat their own feces and other detritus.

Sorry about that.

Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis October 24, 2013

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Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis, is something I am listening to right now on my morning commute, and I have to say it’s head-slappingly strange.  Not as strange as  Endymion by Dan Simmons, but (two or three hours into it) very entertaining.  The story of a PTSD–ridden police detective who stumbles across a serial killer’s church of murder weapons is made much more interesting by the strange characters of his new partners, the crime-scene geeks.  Seriously, I was about to stop listening to Ellis’ rather too-gritty prose intended (I guess) to show how depressed the protagonist is following the murder of his partner, when he is miraculously assigned the case instead of being forced to take two days off while the shooting of his partner’s murderer is reviewed.1

Also, the serial killer is much more fascinating than your usual sex-crazed serial killer2: he is hallucinating being a Manhattan Native American, complete with visual and auditory images of pre-colonial Manhattan obscuring his vision of the here-and-now.

Interesting stuff.

Amazon carries this audiobook in two versions, and sfpl.org has it as well.

_______

1That’s what makes this science fiction-fantasy in my mind.  The police union would never, ever permit this.

2He would have to be; that is so twentieth-century.

SALT Talks September 12, 2013

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science, Star Trek Technology, Uncategorizable.
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Our Solar System is measured in light minutes.  The nearest stars are light years away.  Is that appalling distance humanity’s prison wall forever?
“The 100-year Starship” is the name of a now-culminating project that
mustered a handful of scientists and science fiction writers to contemplate how Earthlings might, over the coming century, realistically develop the ability to escape our Solar System and travel the light years to others. Participants included scientists such as Freeman Dyson and Martin Rees and writers such as Gregory Benford and Neal Stephenson. The professional futurist in the group was Peter Schwartz, who contributed scenarios playing out four futures of starship ambitions. To his surprise, exploring the scenarios suggested that getting effective star travel over the coming century or two is not a long shot. Even by widely divergent paths, it looks like a near certainty. Schwartz’s talk will report on the exciting work by the 19 participants and spell out the logics of his scenarios. The new book from the
project, Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, will be
available at the event.
"The Starships ARE Coming," Peter Schwartz, SFJAZZ Center, Hayes Valley,
San Francisco, 7pm, Tuesday, September 17.  The show starts promptly at
7:30pm.
To be sure of a seat:

  • Long Now Members can use the discount code on the Schwartz Seminar page to reserve 2 free seats.
  • You can purchase tickets for $15 each.
  • Tune into the live audio stream for Long Now Members at 7:30 PST – become a member for just $8 a month.

Share this talk: Peter Schwartz, "The Starships ARE Coming" Long Now talk on 9/17 http://goo.gl/sE2a4Q

Endymion and the Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons July 25, 2013

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Parts three and four of the Hyperion Cantos, these two books are a most satisfying ending of the previous two—which makes sense, since two or three little things were left unfinished for SIX YEARS while Dan Simmons collected praise and money for the first two.  Can’t really blame him.

I guess it was worth the wait, because these two books (I recommend the audiobooks and a lot of free time) expand on the previous universe and timestream and take place two hundred years later, after a frighteningly corrupt resurgent Catholic Church forces peace and a kind of immortality on the human universe…for certain values of “human”.

I quite liked the characters, action and pacing of these two books, and the fantastic stretches of imagination called for (the physics of the gas giant alone is imaginative, if completely impossible).  I read/heard with disgust the violence and soullessness of the bad guys in this series and hated the gruesome murders detailed within.  I am slightly more squeamish than most, though, so most people will not be as put off by that as am I, probably.

I do heartily recommend these two, available on Amazon.com and at sfpl.org, just as all good books should be.

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiassen July 18, 2013

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Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen is (another) charming tale of murder, remorse, revenge, extortion, ecological abuse, corruption, adultery, drug abuse, elder abuse, theft, mental illness and bad taste.  It is also hilarious in the usual Hiaasen way, with love, honor and virtue triumphant.  The adulterous husband of a naive woman hurls her off the deck of her cruise ship on their anniversary.  She is a fabulous swimmer and, since this is in the bay off Miami, she fetches up on a bale of marijuana and floats to the private island of a retired police detective with more laid-backitude than Jimmy Buffet.

Yes, the rest can be extrapolated from this.  Sure it’s predictable, but so is a rollercoaster and you still pay to get on, don’t you?

Listen to the audio book.  It’s pretty good, and the CD version is cheaper than the Audible version by ten bucks.  How will Audible make any money that way?

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons June 13, 2013

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The Fall of Hyperion, read by Victor Bevine, this sequel/conclusion/part two of the series neatly ties up the ends of a huge, sprawling epic story of war, pain, AIs gone amok, men gone mad, women gone suicidally sane and poets gone, well, god-like.1

Yeah, it’s confusing to hear me tell it; that’s why you need to get the audiobooks (both of them) and set aside your commute for three weeks to listen to it, driving slowly and carefully.  Seriously.  You really don’t want to miss any of this, or your exit (like me).2

The story of pilgrims on a quasi-religious trek to meet the Lord of Pain includes a female private detective carrying her late client’s baby, an exceptionally (and egregiously) foul-mouthed poet, a time-travelling military hero, an academician father whose daughter is aging backwards (and is now near birth),a treeship captain (I am not going to explain that; read the book), a pain-wracked Catholic priest and a traitorous diplomat telling their incredibly strange stories to each other (I reviewed Hyperion earlier) is, amazingly, fully assembled into a coherent story which is moving, human, funny, charming, gut-wrenching and tragic by turns.3

I understand there are more books in this series, but I am currently reluctant to read them, since these two books are nearly perfect as they stand.

_____

1. I doubt I will ever forgive Dan Simmons for injecting meaningful poetry into what should be “ordinary” science fiction. Shame it works so well—but I digress.

2. No, really.  I might have ended up in Santa Rosa.

3. Curious as to how he does it?  Get the books.  Listen to and/or read them.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons May 31, 2013

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons is the winner of the 1990 Hugo award, and for damned good reasons.  Six of them; each is a story within the framework of a religious pilgrimage.  Being a sci-fi fantasy, there isn’t a religion but unexplained phenomenon (same difference) which is said to kill all pilgrims except the one it grants a wish to.  And the number of pilgrims must be a prime number.

Well, the stories themselves are each a little jewel of their own and full of strangeness and charm (and other quark properties)  and horror.  The audiobook version has both a male and a female narrator, for the male and female voices, but the woman’s voice does a very strange and interesting noir detective bit in her story which works well, if uncomfortably, with role reversal (she defends an exquisitely beautiful man from a conspiracy. Bogart would be proud).

There’s lots of blood and guts and sex and drinkin’ and cussin’, so this must be for the adolescent crowd who probably won’t really appreciate the foul-mouthed poet’s tale as much as I did.  Usually when science fiction writers drop poetry into a work it makes me uncomfortable, as if the writer is trying to live up to some literary pretension (genre fiction writers get no respect from the Ivy League patches-on-elbows crowd;  give it up, fellas.  They aren’t capable of acknowledging that science fiction is where all the creative energy of the last two generations has gone).  This poet just quotes others, mostly, so he’s a great foil for that sort of thing.

Part of at least a trilogy, I haven’t gotten yet to the next book in the series (and actually haven’t finished this one, but I have enjoyed the rhythm and pace of these stories so much I wanted to write about it while still excited), but I expect I will enjoy is as much. The mp3 CD is $14 on Amazon Prime, and the nearly free to download Audible version is $22.  Brilliant marketing, guys.

Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore May 13, 2013

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Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore is, though not one of his best-known works, among my favorites.  The story of a Crow who runs from the reservation fearing that he has killed a policeman, Coyote Blue incorporates native American story-telling style (and perhaps substance—I don’t know enough Crow legends to judge) and Moore’s signature wry humor over fantastic characters (in this case, gods and their avatars/servants/victims) involved in petty human and god interactions).  And the characters are memorable, although the heroine is a bit of a Mary Sue, Samson Hunts Alone is pretty darned memorable, from his boyish beginnings through his murder of a policeman to his murder of a bloodthirsty biker.  Sam hides from justice, then gets so good at hiding that only Coyote will play hide-and-seek with him, for reasons only Coyote knows.

I listened to the Audible recording of this, and found the reader quite helpful in making the girl a less whiny Mary Sue and making the wise old uncle more crotchety (as befits wisdom.  Have you noticed how many wise people are thoroughly pissed off?—but I digress).  Coyote Blue is on Amazon (of course) and at sfpl.org, including the audio.

The Shadowed Sun, by N. K. Jemisin May 5, 2013

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The Shadowed Sun, by N. K. Jemisin is another perfect novel from the author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms which I reviewed earlier (glowingly, flatteringly and with much enthusiasm).  It is the conclusion of the story told in the previous work The Killing Moon of a mad prince’s desire to make himself immortal at a terrible cost to all around him.

N.K. Jemisin’s world, very loosely based upon ancient Egypt, features a priesthood devoted to Hananja, the goddess of peace, and of dreams.  The priests themselves are kind of like Shaolin monks in that they are badass killing machines with saintly intentions (ruthlessly killing for peace), but are actually devoted mostly to making sure people are healed in their sleep, or die peacefully therein.  They are hugely influential in making Gujaareh the city of peace, and one of the few civilized places in this world.

I was utterly charmed by their religion (eat your heart out, L. Ron Hubbard) and by the struggles each character has to keep and foster peace in extremely unpeaceful circumstances (see badass killing machines, above). 

The Prince tries to make himself immortal using very un-peaceful means; stealing the magic of dreams and enslaving one of the priests.

Both are worth a read, both have audiobook versions, and both are also available on Amazon.com and at sfpl.org

James Gleick – Faster April 27, 2013

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Faster, by James Gleick, is not really a book about time.  That’s too ambitions for any popular bit of science writing, as Mr. Gleick is famous for producing.  It is more a meditation on the changing nature of the pace of human life, as (appropriately) measured by our ever-faster technology.  Said meditation produces a number of effects, as meditations are wont to do, but none of them are very meaningful except to sharpen the sense that, as time is ill-defined, so our sense of it must also be vague.  Gleick is one of my favorite authors for his choices of subject, mostly;  I am a geek, after all.  I enjoyed the listening but I’m not sure I learned anything (except that lately most changes to the rules of major league baseball have been made to speed up the game.  I would never have known that, since I only started watching baseball for the Giant’s Series wins).[Go Giants!—editor]

Still, if you like some soft popular science this would be a relaxing book.  It is certainly a well-researched book and I did like it.  Astoundingly, the price of the CDs containing the audiobook are for sale at the link above for $128.18 and the audible version is $17.95, a pretty easy choice.  Makes one wonder how Amazon calculates their markup, doesn’t it?

The Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven March 19, 2013

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Imagine if you will, a hemisphere 93 million miles in radius with a hole in the bottom and the sun in the center of said bowl.  Imagine large portions of the interior of this bowl are mirrors to reflect the sun’s light back to it, causing a huge jet to stream towards the hole, and in fact through it.  Imagine that the star moves; slowly, to be sure and dragging the bowl by gravity, but it does move, and never stops.
That’s the artifact that intrepid (aren’t they always?) colonists in The Bowl of Heaven stumble upon in their comparatively fast ramship.  How they meet and interact with the very alien beings occupying this artifact is the other half of the amazing idea of this book, although having conceived the thing in the first place is the astonishing bit, I guess.
The aliens are mentally and physically very different from humans and I will in my usual way refuse to tell you more, except that I do not spoil a garden by running through it.  Read the book.  There may be an audiobook of The Bowl of Heaven by now.

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson March 8, 2013

Posted by stuffilikenet in Books, Brain, Brilliant words.
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One of the many wonderful things about The Psychopath Test (aside from the careful narration on the audiobook by the author) is the fascinating assumption made by the author of this test. “An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues.”—from the Amazon site.  Ronson starts globe-hopping, looking at people with the jaundice-colored glasses.  He visits a Haitian death-squad leader jailed for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York (he had manipulated his way out of extradition for multiple murders and rapes by promising to finger CIA as his backer); a chainsaw CEO with delusions of grandeur famously callous about destroying lives (including his sister’s and his son’s; and a Grievous Bodily Harm criminal who feigned madness to get into a softer lockup and a prison—and regretted it instantly.  Locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane, he swears he’s sane and certainly not a psychopath—but he scores very highly on the Psychopath Test.

The best part about the book is Ronson speculating about the motives of ordinary people, including himself.  I snickered every time he caught himself examining his motives a little too closely, although I’m not sure it was intended as humor.

Possibly just insight.

Soulless, by Gail Carriger March 5, 2013

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A cheery mix of P. G. Wodehouse (wrong era, right style) and Bram Stoker (right era, wrong style), Soulless, by Gail Carriger is a pert look at a vaguely steampunk Victorian England where werewolves and vampires have been adopted by the more progressive Vickies and brought into polite mainstream society.  The story revolves around a woman with no soul whose touch renders vampire and werewolf alike merely human. The daughter of an Italian, she is doomed to a life of spinsterhood until she succumbs to the charm of a Scottish werewolf in the course of being attacked by her catty sisters, vampires, mad scientists, steam-and-blood-powered robots and defended only by her wits and a particularly stout parasol.

Naturally, she prevails.

A cheery read when things look bleak, I recommend Soulless for dreary winters, bad colds and feeling punk.  I understand Gail Carriger (currently a local girl in Bolinas) has five of these novels (the “Parasol Protectorate ” series) and a Young Adult novel Etiquette & Espionage which I am young enough to read right now (same world, younger female protagonist).

Both books apparently have audiobooks (dunno about the box set), but I went with the Kindle version.

The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin January 20, 2013

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The end of the trilogy begun with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods is a worthy conclusion of this tale of gods made flesh and how they adapt, change and grow (or die.  Yes, this book is a tragedy as well as a fantasy, just like her previous books).

The whole of this trilogy is the best thing I have read from a new novelist, maybe ever.  I have opined previously that it’s a lie that THTK was her first novel.  She’s ‘way too good for that; she was a best-selling novelist in her previous three lives.

Like my other reviews, I won’t tell you a damned thing about this novel that will eat into any surprise.  I will tell you it’s Sieh, the child-trickster-cat god of the previous books, who is the narrator of this tale, and he does have a unique take on being human, and being divine.

Very worth diving into, and do read the previous novels first if you haven’t.  I can recommend the audiobook of the first one very highly.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore January 13, 2013

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a happy little read full of the sneaky nerd joy of discovering hidden knowledge, arcane lore, and doing it with modern tools, techniques and technology.  In few words, geek heaven.  the narrator/protagonist, Clay Jannon, has taken a job as a night clerk at the aforementioned bookstore, only to notice the patrons at the late hours rarely buy books, but rather take them on loan from the Waybacklist.  Clay is encouraged to carefully describe each patron as he logs the borrowing and returning.  curious, Clay looks into the books as borrowed and finds then all encrypted.

If you are anything like a serious geek this will send a naughty thrill down your spine.  Clay begins to pull at this bit of twine…and thus begins the story, full of modern tools and ancient tales, Silicon Valley whiz kids and dowdy librarians and a secret cult at the heart of it all.

I loved it.  I especially liked how Clay’s romance of a sort with the Google girl (name already forgotten, since I think of her that way) reflects life’s vicissitudes.  Also liked the realistic way the technophiles go at their enthusiasms with hammer and tongs—very lifelike. 

Because this is a relatively new title, the Kindle version is only four bucks cheaper (but no waiting!) at US$11.99.  There is an audiobook, but this reads really well when you have the flu.

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch it, by David Wong November 4, 2012

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Books, Brilliant words, Mutants, Uncategorizable.
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This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It is a seriously fun book.  The long-awaited sequel to (but standalone read) John Dies at the End, This Book contains the same drollery about fantastic happenings that I found so amusing in John Dies, and introduces some interesting characters to boot.  The reader (whose name I have already forgotten) of the audiobook gives things just the right twists, inflections and pathos in turn to render the listening experience delightfully surreal, and sardonic—just as it should be.

On Amazon the Audible version is $17.95 and the CD version is $17.99, which tells me the value of the CD and shipping and handling.  Curiously, the CD for John Dies is $21.86 and the Audible is $17.95, actually cheaper than the hardcover ($18.47).

Both are available at sfpl.org, still my personal favorite media outlet.  It is true that they don’t deliver to the house, but the electronic versions do load to your Kindle, so there is that.

Armor by John Steakly October 24, 2012

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Armor by John Steakley is the sort of tale I read while still a bored adolescent, and consequently fits my morning and evening commute very nicely.  It is the story of a man joining the equivalent of the French Foreign Legion (in space, with powered armed exoskeletons) fighting people he can’t understand (eight foot-tall ants) for no reason except to lose himself.  Fate is not so kind to him; he survives (barely) twenty horrible battles which were decisively lost by the humans—sort of.

This ordinarily would be a dull story of war but it’s told from the point of view (partly) of a pirate thief sort of character, who is forced to relive the Legionnaire’s  battles when hooked up to the power suit…this is sort of interesting, because he gets a feelings transplant from the dead Legionnaire.  Hilarity does emphatically not ensue but a real disgust with war does, and so does the ability to make tough decisions.

Read by Tom Weiner (narrator of many of Larry Niven’s novels), the audiobook is $109.00 for the CDs and $19.95 for the Audible edition…guess which one I heard.  Go on, I’ll wait.  There is no Kindle version, alas.

John Steakley apparently passed away in 2010, and was the author of Vampires, on which the John Carpenter movie was based.  I haven’t read it, but assume it’s close to the movie version because the movie is so damn visceral.