Friday, June 13, 2008

Book Review: The Automatic Detective, by A. Lee Martinez

The Automatic Detective, by A. Lee Martinez

The Runaway Robot, by Lester del Rey, is a children's book about a self aware and likeable robot. It is probably still my favorite book today. Consequently, I tend to measure all robot books by it. But not all robot books are cut from the same roll of paper.

Mack Megaton, the robot hero of The Automatic Detective, is a robot who was designed to take over the world, but defied his programming, and, due to a "Free Will Glitch," is now on probation to becoming a full citizen of Empire City, weird home of mutants, strange vehicles, and robots galore. He also had a cynical streak a mile wide, and no real fit for his huge strength and drive. When his neighbors get disappeared, he makes it his mission to recover them. A sentient gorilla pal and a poor-little-rich inventor are there to help.

With any book, you have the possibility of the "Yeah, right" factor, or when your willing suspension of disbelief fails. That happened to me a couple of times while reading this -- with the idea that "mutagens" could transform someone into a mutant, as quickly as overnight (although there turned out to be a slightly better explanation for this than it at first appeared), the talking gorilla, and the rich girl who apparently has a crush on Our Robot Hero.

But, while the Yeah Right factor hit me a couple of times, it couldn't hit hard enough to stop me reading. I actually put down the book a couple of times with the thought, "Well, I don't know if I'll finish that." But I discovered something: I wanted to find out what happened. So, despite my quibbles, I could barely stop reading.

I got a hellish headache that day (cause unknown), and I couldn't stop reading. I was up past my bedtime, and I could barely stop reading (and only then after I skimmed ahead to see how it would end).

In conclusion, A. Lee Martinez is not the next Raymond Chandler (who is?), but he could certainly keep those pages turning. And if there was a sequel to this book, I would want to read it. Right now.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: Worlds of the Imperium, by Keith Laumer

Worlds of the Imperium, by Keith Laumer

What if, in a parallel universe, your double was someone evil -- and really powerful? What if people from another universe kidnapped you with the idea of replacing him?

When I first read that premise in a book review, I was wild with excitement to read this book. But when I read it, somehow it never reached the crescendo of excitement I expected from a premise like that.

One of the drawbacks of being a writer is a tendancy towards overcriticality -- analyzing writing and story structure when you'd like your brain to just shut up and enjoy the story. So at the beginning, I was thinking, "That opening paragraph isn't very good. It has too much boring description, doesn't even orient me in the story." Etc.

But, I soon got involved in the story. It moved along quickly and kept me turning the pages. The Imperium is a parallel world where there was no WWI or WWII. It's very military-oriented, but fairly peaceful. Germany and England never had a war, and in fact formed one giant empire. (At one point, a jovial Hermann Goering show up at one point as a mild-mannered -- and good -- character. Kind of creepy, if you ask me.) The Imperium people travel to parallel worlds unimpeded -- until another world introduces them to guerilla style warfare -- with atom bombs. Brion Bayard (our hero), is from our Earth. His double is in charge of the violent world now threatening the Imperium.

It's a fast paced story, a quick read (because it's relatively short), and an interesting look at early (copyright 1962) parallel universe stories and steampunk. The ideas in it are interesting, although by now they're not the height of originality. The story kept me reading, with enough twists and turns to hold my interest, and it had a fairly satisfying ending, although sometimes, I felt like I was watching an old movie. (There was one point when a villain hung by his hands and the hero was trying to help him -- like the cliffhanger endings on so, so many movies.) Still, lots of exciting things happened and I practically read it in one sitting.

It was a fun and interesting read, but not my new favorite story, which I guess is what I was looking for when I opened this book. (Perhaps if I didn't get my expectations so high, I wouldn't be disappointed when "good" books aren't "superb" books.)

On the one hand, I felt a bit "that's it?" at the ending. (In the paperback I read, the story ended on page 178, with several short stories added at the end to pad out the page count. This may account for the sudden feeling of the end.) But I was satisfied with a quick and relatively pleasant read. I did skip over a few fight scenes, because the violence was boring me. But I was thrilled by at least one plot turn. And the story definitely kept me up reading past my bedtime.

It's nice to know that this is part of a series, so I know I can revisit Brion Bayard and the Imperium if I want to someday.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Larklight, by Philip Reeve

Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space, by Philip Reeve. Illustrations by David Wyatt. ISBN 1-59990-020-3

In a Victorian setting where travel through the “aether” is common, eleven-year-old Art, his sister, and their father live in an ancient house beyond the moon, where gravity engines frequently need re-started and rusty auto-butlers serve their meals. The aether is filled with thin oxygen--no space suits necessary. Icthymorphs flap past their windows--and make good eating as well as fascinating study for their scientist father.

Then they are attacked by giant white spiders, beginning a breakneck adventure that continues for four hundred pages. It includes aliens, space battles, killer moths, a conversation with the giant storm on Jupiter, and a giant robotic spider stomping London.

The book is obviously aimed towards children or young adults (our young heroes team up with a teenage space pirate named Jack -- which I admit, I found a bit corny). But the inventive world and humorous quality of the writing can keep an older person entertained, too. Just a look in the front and back of the book had me in chuckles before I got home with its humorous advertisements for fake products.

Occasional Victorian spellings (such as ‘sopha’ for sofa), the long, descriptive ‘In which we…’ chapter titles, and the careful refusal to say ‘fart’ when describing the hoverhogs’ method of propulsion all bring to life the feeling of Victorian England in space.

The hilarious understated British humor reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse. Take this calmly thoughtful paragraph in the midst of danger (from page 56):

Among my mother’s book I had once discovered a volume of stories by a gentleman named Mr Poe, who lives in Her Majesty’s American colonies. There was one, The Premature Burial, which gave me nightmares for weeks after I read it, and I remember thinking that there could be no fate more horrible than to be buried alive, and wondering what type of deranged and sickly mind could have invented such a tale. But as I lay immobilised in a jar on the wrong side of the Moon with only a ravening caterpillar for company I realized that Mr Poe was actually quite a cheery, light-hearted sort of chap, and that his story had been touchingly optimistic.

Of course, Art survives the moths and goes on to have more adventures, all while trying to remain properly British, and considering the sensibilities of his straight-laced older sister (even though she annoys him).

Overall, Mr. Reeve wrote an inventive, fast-paced yarn in the space opera tradition. David Wyatt’s well-executed line drawings add greatly to the work, helping one to envision the fantastic settings and details.

Although I didn’t love everything about this book (the humorous tone kept me from identifying closely with the characters, and the gentle mockery of Victorian values got old at times), Mr. Reeve is a splendid writer, and his genius for world-building shines throughout. That is the real reason to read this book.

This is the cover on the version I read: