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Review: Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonsdawn describes the arrival of humans on Pern some 2,500 years prior to the events in the main Dragonriders of Pern novels.  (Note that it is set after a short story found in First Fall which recounts the original exploration team’s analysis of Pern and how they missed the threat of Thread.)

McCaffrey introduces dozens of characters whose names will seem very familiar as names of Holds in the Ninth Pass: Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, Captain Ezra Keroon, Sallah Telgar, Avril Bitra, Captain James Tillek, among many others.

The first part of the book seems like Eden.  Supplies and people shipped down to Pern, an organized settlement is constructed, and all of the colonists get to work making the world their own.  There are, however, a few undercurrents of discontent and avarice which slowly come to light.  Avril Bitra, a descendant of one of the original planetary exploration crew, has become disenchanted with the pastoral life and Admiral Benden’s rejection of her: an easy path to power and authority is now closed to her.  Armed with secret information passed down through her family, she intends to locate precious stones, steal one of the remaining space-worthy shuttles, and make it back to “civilization”.  Using her considerable charm, she has enticed several men to assist her, promising each separately that he will take the remaining berth on the shuttle.

But Eden comes to an end with the double hit of a space borne threat, Thread, which destroys carbon based flora and fauna and multiple earthquakes caused by unstable volcanic activity.

In the meantime, two strongly empathic young people bond to a small lifeform they call a fire-lizard.  These miniature dragons are intelligent, can breathe fire after chewing a phosphine-bearing stone to burn the Thread from the sky, and can teleport.  The colony’s bio-engineers genetically alter these creatures to grow large enough to carry a rider, to enhance their natural talents, and to increase their intelligence.  This way, Pern will have a self-sustaining guard against Thread (since ship fuel and fuel cells that power other equipment cannot be replenished).

Although readers will not be surprised that the early colonists succeed — after all, there are dragons 2,500 years later — this is an enjoyable look back into Pern’s history.

Several other comments:

  • It is interesting that several holds in the future are named after some of the villains and some arrogant, unpleasant people.  This could be due, I think, to a propaganda campaign to minimize morale issues, or it might just be reality that some of these individuals were not all bad and did contribute to the society as a whole.
  • I also thought it interesting that the Holds named after some of the “bad people” still have the reputation for shiftiness or rebellion in the future.
  • It seems that McCaffrey may have retconned how soon Thread fell on the Pernese colonists after landing.  My recollection is that the earlier books suggested that the first Threadfall was 2-3 generations later.  In Dragonsdawn, it is only 8 years after landing.  My guess is that this could easily be explained away as misremembered history. After all, the dragonriders and the Harper Hall both complain of moldering records, lost information, and gaps of knowledge due to the cyclical Threadfall and pandemics.
  • An interesting plot element for a future book is the launch of a distress beacon toward the Federated Sentient Planets. I haven’t yet seen a mention of Pern being rediscovered by the FSP (or its successor), but I also haven’t read The Skies of Pern yet, which is the last chronological book in the series thus far.
In my opinion, read Dragonsdawn after reading the main Dragonriders of Pern novels (core trilogy and the Harper Hall trilogy), but before All the Weyrs of Pern since the people of the 9th Pass learn about some of the early colony history and pivotal events in that book — I most recently read the books in the opposite order which was still comprehensible, however.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished June 26, 2011)

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Currently reading: The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall by Anne McCaffrey & Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

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Audible iPhone app

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— added several screen shots 8/18/2011 from version 1.6.1 —

I started a subscription to Audible.com in August 2004 and have downloaded my 2 audiobooks each month since that time. I usually choose novels or books on history that either (1) I have read before and would likely re-read again and again or (2) books that I’d like to read, but might not have the time to do so.

I’ve now read about 150 books this way while driving between work and home, doing outside chores (mowing the lawn or blowing snow), or other household tasks.

In October 2010, I downloaded Audible’s iPhone/iPod app and having been using it exclusively ever since.  Rather than synching my iPhone via iTunes, I can download audiobooks wirelessly (not over 3G, however, since the app restricts this method over a specific size) and delete them from the device on the fly.

Great Features

  • Wireless download
  • The application maintains statistics of listening time (today, daily over the past week, monthly, and all time).  I really like this feature since it gives me a good sense of magnitude from month-to-month.

    Monthly stats

  • There is a “button-free” option which replaces the normal play screen similar to iTunes with a simpler version. Touch the screen to start and stop play, swipe left to rewind 30 seconds, right to move forward 30 seconds, and down to add a bookmark.  This is a great mode for listening in the car.
  • Early versions did not have a narration speed option, but the current one can change the speed of narration to .5X, 1.5X, 2X and 3X.  Very similar to iTunes audiobook options.

    badges

  • If you are into badges like Foursquare, the app offers those, too.  Examples:  weekend warrior, all nighter, binge listener, and 7-day stretch.

Bugs / Incomplete Features

  • The app is still a little buggy.  On occasion (too often, actually), the audiobook just stops and I have to restart the app.  I think this might occur when notifications are received from other iPhone apps.  Generally, however, the Audible app has saved my place so I only had to repeat 30-60 seconds at most.
  • The app doesn’t have functionality to store statistics on the Audible server, so if you have multiple devices or upgrade a device, you’ll lose your stats.

Since October 2010, I have listened for a total of 13 days, 17 hours, and 38 minutes.  Wow.

My monthly stats here.

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Review: Citadel by John Ringo


Ringo continues his Troy Rising trilogy in this direct sequel to Live Free or Die.

In Citadel, the reader is introduced to two new POV characters:  Dana “Comet” Parker , an engineer turned shuttle pilot, and “Butch” Allen, a space-vacuum welder. While some readers may be put off by two seemingly irrelevant protagonists, I found it rather refreshing. In many space opera series, the authors often concentrate too heavily on the high profile strategists and charismatic action figures (like Vernon Tyler in the first book) with all of the many talented officers, engineers, construction workers, military grunts, etc. as mere bit players…if mentioned at all. But here, Ringo can answer the reader’s questions about null-G training, construction complications, and hazards of “the dark of space” without resorting to info dumps.  And while Vernon is definitely the moving hand and mind behind the defense of Earth, he couldn’t do it without these people. It’s similar to my enjoyment of the Star Wars X-Wing and Wraith Squadron novels rather than Jedi story after Jedi story.

For those who miss the Tyler character, he makes a strong presence in the second half of the book.

After finally forcing Earth’s erstwhile benefactors, the Glatun, to support Earth against the Horvath who were menacing the planet and demanding tribute in exchange for not dropping devastating missiles on major cities, a new alien race turns its eyes on Earth. It’s a race against time whether Earth can rebuild it’s defenses, complete several battlestations, and develop a new source for energy after an embargo. The Glatun had clandestinely released much of their technological plans to Earth (having determined that the Sol system might ultimately be their salvation since the Rangora/Horvath alliance would target them first), but it is all up to Earth including Vernon Tyler’s companies, the US led defense department, and the civil government.

Some other thoughts:

  • This book is a lot less hard science than the previous one, which was a relief to me, and much more character driven. I did find the military and corporate acronyms to be a bit annoying. I swear there were whole sentences of nothing but random letters.
  • I did enjoy a peek of the Rangora strategy, both militarily and bureaucratically. Although perhaps not alien per se, these kind of machinations are always fun to me.
  • I liked the discussion about Rangora confusion about Earth wars.  Why are certain battles (the last stand at Thermopylae and the Alamo) celebrated when the battles themselves were lost?  Why don’t Terran “tribes” utterly destroy their enemies (World Wars) and even rebuild them (US and Japan)?

The series concludes with recently released The Hot Gate.

4 out of 5 stars (finished June 19, 2011)

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Currently reading: Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey & Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Review: The Renegades of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

I don’t recommend The Renegades of Pern unless you have previously read other books in the Dragonriders of Pern series.  In particular:

This is not a standalone book.

Renegades runs concurrently with the first 2 trilogies and tells many of the same stories or enhances the understanding of the economy, peoples, and hold life that was somewhat less important in the classic series.  I was particularly taken with the description early in the book of a roving trader caravan’s first encounter with thread, caught out in the open with limited protection (and very little thought, perhaps, that thread was even real).  This story snippet and the devastated family’s attempt to find more permanent shelter in a Hold was a vast contrast to the more active and potent response to thread by the dragonriders.

The book opens with a series of flash incidents where Pernese individuals become renegade (by choice, arrogance, flight from danger, despair) outside of Hold, Craft, and Weyr.  These individuals recur throughout the narrative.

Also fascinating was McCaffrey’s use of alternate points of view to fill in stories which were only tangentially or briefly discussed in earlier books.  For example, Piemur hides away in a storeroom in Dragondrums and the Harper Hall eventually determines that he must have been accidentally spirited away to the Southern Continent.  Renegades tells his side of his escape, exploration arrangement with Toric (the ambitious Southern holder), and his eventual reuniting with his friends.

Although the book is a bit of a “filler” book (covering periods in the 12th, 15th, and 17th year of the Red Star’s current pass), it does tell a continuous thread (pardon the pun) throughout, especially with the rebellious Thella, the sister of the Lord Holder of Telgar Hold.  Passed over as a holder herself in favor of her male sibling, she becomes embittered and sets up a parasitic hold of her own, collecting other holdless, and often equally as ruthless, “renegades”.

The story neatly sets up All the Weyrs of Pern.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished May 24, 2011)

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Review: Live Free or Die by John Ringo

I picked up Live Free or Die by John Ringo on a whim, partially because of the ancient Greek references in the name of the Series (Troy Rising) and the final book, The Hot Gate, (a reference, I presume, to the Battle of Thermopylae).

This first book introduces first contact by an alien culture who essentially parks a wormhole-type gate in the Sol system, stating that other alien races can now visit Earth with impunity, however and whenever they want.  Humans must carve out their place among the other races (1) whose technology is much in advance of our own and (2) who see limited value in the resources that Earth can supply.  With limited to no trade goods, Earth may be condemned to remain a technological backwater and subject to extortion and tyrrany.

Typically, the Earth’s governments have difficulty dealing with the new normal, so it is up to a down-on-his-luck IT analyst and science fiction web cartoonist, Tyler Vernon, to find a way out of the mess.  Vernon plays the trade economics game better than others:  he uses his intergalactic fame with one alien trader to identify an unlikely trade good, negotiates good terms and organizes Terran corporations to parlay his new wealth into a viable enterprise, and develops a multi-year strategy to throw off the yoke of alien extortionist so that humankind can be the authors of their own destiny, in spite of ourselves.

Vernon is smart, creative, and visionary, and has the guts to back up his work.  He doesn’t suffer bureaucracy lightly, whether that be a government agency, the president of the United States, or corporate big-wigs.  The one issue I had is that Vernon is almost too competent.  Ringo explains some of Vernon’s vision and quick-reading ofa situation through his work on his comic book work, where he had to work out how alien races might trade among themselves.  But it’s difficult to buy that he’s instantly an expert economist, merchant, entrepreneur, asteroid miner, hard scientist, etc.  Regardless, it’s pleasurable to read.

I found the first half or so of the book extremely readable, out-trading the professional traders, ignoring or using the government, and playing one powerful alien race against the other.  The last portion of the book was much more hard science, however, so some of the techno-babble and acronyms began to bog down the plot and characterization.

Another facet that many may find difficult to stomach is Vernon’s political bent; while he has no love of corporate nonsense, he espouses a very conservative political attitude.  I found the several “lectures” fascinating, especially as a reaction to the requirements of the time — for example, when the world is under immediate threat of destruction, should environmental regulations be loosened?  Many readers will be turned off.

I’m very interested to find out what happens next.  The second book is Citadel.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished June 9, 2011)