Review: The Outback Stars by Sarah McDonald

The Outback Stars by Sarah McDonald (Tor, 2007) is the author’s debut novel.  McDonald, a formal naval officer, tells the tale of Jodenny Scott who, having survived the destruction of her former ship, joins the crew of the Aral Sea to escape what she feels are the sins of her past.  On the Aral Sea Scott finds an environment far different from her previous berthing and sets out trying to set her department aright discovering mischevious plots, ancient mysteries, and romance along the way.

McDonald, thanks to her naval background, is able to color Jodenny’s experience with extraordinarily vivid detail.  Where many military sci-fi books focus on the captain of a ship McDonald’s attention on a supply office trying to straighten out a departmental mess makes for surprisingly compelling reading.  Her focus on action and detail when it comes to lives of the Aral Sea’s crew pushes the ship itself into the background.  There is almost no discussion of how the ship itself looks, is structurally organized, or how it works.  Through the actions and stories of the crew you can garner somewhat of an impression but about the only things you know for certain is that the Aral Sea is big.

Similar to Tobias Buckell’s use of the Carribean culture to infuse his novel with unique flavor, McDonald bases her culture off that of Australia.  Amidst a setting full of the remnents of an ancient alien race she interweaves aboriginal Australian myth.  The narrative is split between the corruption of Jodenny’s department, the mystery of the aforementiond ancient alien race, and Jodenny’s attraction to her subordinate Sargeant Myell.  While all of these plots are easy enough to follow McDonald drops too many tantalizing clues about her setting that end up getting lost in the shuffle.  Brief mentions of Maori discrimination, an infodump about the rich hegemony forcing aboriginals to stay on a ruined earth, and hints on the relationship between the ancient alien race and the aboriginal belief system to name a few.  The last is the real sticker in my opinion.  Throughout the book Sergeant Myell has dreams in which a native shaman appears, he is frequented by a gecko and keeps finding links that tie him back to something larger himself.  All of this ends up going nowhere (we’re talking chapters of development) further than servings as useful deus ex machina towards the end of the novel.  Last but not least McDonald continuously uses in paragraph temporal shifts that often forced me reread certain passages over again, a minor nettle but confusing none the less.

All complaints asside I found The Outback Stars a compelling if flawed debut.  McDonald draws you in with her intensly detailed and interesting descriptions of naval life and tanalizes you onward with the deeper cultural context of her setting.  It is unfortunate that the latter serves as only a minor blip in the novel’s concluding chapters.  A definate C title that is only held back by a few minor details that a few more novels should see rectified.  The sequel, The Stars Down Under, is out in hardcover now and I will definatley check it out sometime in the future.

Digg: Astroids, Cyborgs, and Quantum Physics

Three Diggs caught my eye this morning:

The first is about a 5,000 year old astroid being recorded on an Assyrian tablet that sounds like something out of a movie.  I am particularly fond of the sixth paragraph.

This is a cool video of a new prosthetic robot arm.

The last is a short bit about scientists bouncing photons off of a satellite and recording their return trip.  Cool in that it raises the potential for quantum communication.

Lab Cleanup Day

If you are a devotee of CSI or its less attractive siblings, you probably have a skewed view of laboratories. The CSI laboratory is a wonderous place. A mixture of beautiful whites and blues paint scenes of an organized and sterile environment. Sexy people roam this shangri-la using their Bruckheimer-granted skills to do in 15 seconds what takes mere mortals hours or days (no, you can’t get a DNA match from a piece of evidence in under a minute). At the risk of ruining any mystique the show may have given me and my brethren, the show is a lie…albeit an entertaining one. The real-life lab is a dirty and cluttered place, more of a graveyard for old data and outdated technology than anything else. But sometimes a group of scientists with the right mix of daring and foolishness will attempt to impose order on the chaos.

The last attempt at a Lab Cleanup Day in our lab was likely prior to 1997. Either that or in the past decade nobody saw the need to remove a list of lab rules dating to that year and referencing individuals nobody currently in the lab has ever heard of. Either way it was clear going in that it wasn’t going to be a particularly easy or enjoyable afternoon. I signed up to help with the “Corner of Mystery”, which was an area near the chemical hood that people had been using for storing anything and everything they couldn’t be bothered to find a real place for. During the excavation, I pulled out a confusing array of junk:

1) A PC tower with an Intel Pentium II processor and a Power Macintosh G3, both of which Wikipedia assures me were discontinued early in 1999.

2) Carbon dioxide tanks that were still partially full and just left in an alcove. Yes, those are the same kind of pressurized tanks that can fall, crack open, and then be propelled violently around by the gas escaping the cylinder.

3) A huge blue, hexagonal contraption that was outfitted with multiple hoses coming out the sides. Underneath a pile of stuff stacked on top of it was a faded note saying not to store things on top of it. Not being exactly sure what it was but knowing it hadn’t been used in quite some time, we just hid it in the radiation area.

4) Mouse skin samples…maybe. The absence of any definitive labels left the true identity of the samples a mystery but it looked like there might have been fur on some of them. We threw them on top of the blue thing in the radiation area along with some other samples we thought were too toxic to deal with.

So for anyone who’s looking for an old PC or Mac from the late 90’s…I’d love to help you but you’ll have to look elsewhere. My boss had us keep them. You know, just in case.

Review: A World Too Near by Kay Kenyon

A World Too Near by Kay Kenyon is the 2nd book in the Rose and the Entire series started in Bright of the Sky . The second volume is certainly stronger than the first it still suffers from some of the same problems though the pacing is certainly tighter.  Where as the first book started with the (re)discovery of the Entire; a strange alternate universe created by the strange creatures called the Tarig.  Much of the first book was designed with the obvious intent to acquaint the reader with the intricacies and difference between our universe (the Rose) and that of the Entire.  Given the rather massive scope of that task the slower pace was a necessary element to maintain the story’s readability.

Now that we know much about the Entire, the Tarig Lords, the Inyx and the various problems set forth in the previous volume more attention is placed on the characters of the story, their motivations, and their actions.  Once again the Sydney sections shine in this regard and she and her mount Riod show some particularly devious uses for the Inyx method of heart-to-heart (telepathic) communication.  However I think Kenyon’s characterization really shines with the relationship between, and portrayals of, Johanna and the gond engineer Morhab.  Ideally, I would provide some sort of example here but to do so, I think, would ruin the genuine surprise regarding how things turned out between those two characters.  Needless to say a major theme within the book is the notion of perspective and how it effects allegiance and, with the Johanna/Morhab sections, Kenyon manages to draw the reader into that theme in a very real way.  Or so I percieve 😉

Like the last book, A World Too Near is equally appealing to science fiction and fantasy fans (often two distinct crowds) and employs tropes familiar to both genres.  The Entire employs a type of science that borders on the mystical while characters fight using sword, dagger and knife and, while there is nary a mage, dragon, or elf to be seen, the fantastic creatures that populate the Entire will be based of templates familiar to any fantasy fan.  The novel follows a very familiar quest structure: Titus Quinn must get take a particular object to a particular location (to keep things vague for those who have yet to read the first book) in order to save his world.  That is an almost obscene simplification of Titus’ story but the idea of the hero’s journey in this novel does have an air of familiarity.

Complex characters with shifting, sometimes twisted, motivations and loyalties combined with a tightly paced plot full of political intrigue and tense action make for a much stronger second outing in the Rose and the Entire.  The conclusion, as many middle volumes tend to be (think the awful low point at the end of The Empire Strikes Back) it leaves hungry you for the next volume.  A definite A title.

It Has Begun

As I continue down my Wheel of Time audiobook odyssey, I’m currently about midway through The Dragon Reborn, it’s nice to know that Brandon Sanderson has, at last, started work on the concluding volume .

From Brandon Sanderson’s Blog:

There was a powerful moment there for me when I got to write those words “The Wheel of Time turns. . . .” Mr. Jordan, despite his preparations for the book, didn’t actually write those words that have started each book in the series. I guess he figured he didn’t need to, since they’ve been the same since book one. He knew that his time might come soon, so he focused on more important scenes.

That left me being able to write the opening paragraph to chapter one. (Though, of course, there will be a prologue. While those words won’t start the book, I decided that they would be the way that I started work on it.)

It has begun.

Now, who is willing to put money on who wins the race between Duke Nukem Forever and A Memory of Light?

Link: Early Small Favo(u)r Review from Graeme

Graeme’s Fantasy Review has an early review of the latest Dresden novel from Jim Butcher.  It hits stateside on the first…minus the “u”  (I guess Orbit thought us Americans couldn’t handle that spelling).  For those too lazy Graeme sums things up nicely:

‘Small Favour’ is really a book for the long term ‘Dresden fan’ but don’t let that put you off if you’re after a good slice of urban fantasy pulp noir (it’s pretty much persuaded me to find the rest of the series). I think it’s got pretty much everything you’re looking for.

Which means those of us in for the long haul might well enjoy it more. Anyway I’m jazzed to get a hold of the book and am happy I have Wednesday off (for other reasons, not a new Dresden book).

Rock Band and Wii….Gimped?: My $00.02

Just noticed over on Shacknews this morning that Rock Band is dated for a June 22 release on the Wii.

Unfortunately the Wii version will lack both downloadable content and online play.  Furthermore rumors abound that both character customization and world tour mode are missing as well.  While the core gameplay will remain I have to wonder if such a gimped version of the game is really worth the effort.  Given the rapidly decreasing prices, and rapidly increasing capacity, in memory cards I think that downloadable tracks should be possible on some level.  It wouldn’t be as ideal as a hard drive but it could work.

I grow increasingly worried at the longevity of the Wii.  While Nintendo has created a product able to bring gaming to the masses they have hobbled their system with poor support for online gaming and other content.  With its simple interface and intuitive controls I could see the Wii being the centerpiece of an entertainment center but with its minimal native storage space and lack of HD support this idea seems woefully underdeveloped.  I have heard far too many horror stories about the friend code system, and the lack of an online infrastrucure, in an industry that is becoming ever more dependent on cooperative and competitive online content, is going to seriously hurt in the long run.

Innovation is great.  Unfortunately innovation that comes while ignoring worthwhile industry trends is dangerous at best, and suicidal at worst.  Things aren’t all grim.  Nintendo, and other developers, seem to have recognized the problem and tried to rectify it with online support for some games.  SSB: Brawl and Guitar Heor 3 both feature online support, and the upcoming Mario Kart will feature it as well.  But again, all three are sidled with Friend Code system and, as I’ve frequently heard in the case of Brawl, servers woefully inadequate to handle player demand.  What online play does exist is eerily silent; in world where voip is increasingly mainstream playing games online in silence is becoming almost a foreign experience.

I’m not sure how one would go about rectifying this problem.  That is assuming Nintendo sees it as a problem.  Software update?  Dare I say it…new hardware?  (whether it be in add-on form, a venue Nintendo has experimented with in the past,  or a different “flavor” of the Wii).

Virtual Console married to the player communication and coordination functions of Microsoft’s Live service would be a match made in gamer heaven but Nintendo hasn’t said a word whether it plans any modification of its online services.  They have been quiet on the new Wii announcements (to my knowledge Mario Kart remains the only big title on the horizon) and I await anxiously for new from the big N on their next big step.

Bill and Eli’s Big Adventure

All of us have fond memories of childhood adventures; of playing pretend in backyards and parks, or exploring places we think we shouldn’t be.  Conn and Hal Igguldon’s Dangerous Book for Boys was a testament to this and I think in all of us (or maybe it’s just some of us) that little boy that longs for adventure and discovery never really goes away.

I’ve blogged about Mr. Harris before.  He seems to me an average guy (or not so average maybe) who has some solid opinions on the gaming industry.  In between his gaming commentary he has offered tips on being lazy, opinions on music, various distracting links, and annecdotes about his son Eli.  This year, as his son is home for spring break, Bill has set up a huge adventure for his son and, despite his claims at being the prince of laziness, he has managed perhaps one of the greatest feats in fatherly badassery that I have ever seen.

Check out the below posts on the adventure for childhood memory in the making:

Big Adventure 1

Big Adventure 2

Big Adventure 3

Big Adventure 4