“It’s fictional. You’re real”

Redshirts by John Scalzi is one of those stories which are difficult to review, without spoiling, but I’m going to try.

The story takes place in post-television 25th century future on an elite DubU ship – Intrepid. It is under the command of captain Abernathy, whose crew include science officer Q’eeng, first office Keerensky, medical office Hartnell and chief engineer West among others. Intrepid is on a peaceful mission to boldly go where no man has gone before. Sounds familiar? Well it should. During its explorations the crew encounters some hostile situations on different worlds, and quiet often there are away teams formed to deal with them.

The novel opens with some new crew members assigned to intrepid. They develop a sort of friendship while waiting for the shuttle in the bay that would take them to the ship. On reaching ship, they are take on their assigned tasks in different departments. They continue to meet when they are off duty, and found out that Intrepid has highest casualties for new crew members among any Dub U’s ships during these away missions, statistically. As they dig more and more, they find that there is some sort of space time continuum mix up where realities from different times seem to have intertwined.

I should stop now, because I think I have already said too much.

John has great ability to define his characters well and then develop them throughout his stories. This novel is no different. The new crew members Dahl (who is the protagonist), Duvall, Hester, Henson have characters that one easily understand when they interact while waiting in the shuttle bay. They do not always agree with each other. They also form a part of some of the away missions, and suffer losses. They start to observe a pattern, which the officers of the ship seem to be oblivious to. Over the course of events, their friendship, beliefs and trust for each other is tested. You start to identify with the characters, and can’t help but want them to control their own fate instead of letting the mixed up timelines decide what happens.

Redshirts does not disappoint at any place. It is a must read if you grew up with TV shows like the original Star Trek, or Dr. Who. The book is a nod to these and other cheesy space adventures of yesteryears. There are dozens of moments and in-jokes built around the worlds that are familiar and hilarious. It is darkly funny at times; even when things go wrong, John puts a smile on your face with interactions of his characters. The story moves at a fast pace, and is extremely well edited. There is nothing that does not add to the story or character development and you are drawn in. If you want to read a fun science fiction story during summer try this one.

If you like listening to books, get the audiobook. It is read by Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek – The Next Generation). Wil is very impressive voice actor, and he brings this book alive with his narration. He has collaborated with the author before in Fuzzy Nation and few others.

Both the book and the audiobook are highly recommended. I give this book 5 stars; hey, anything that can keep me up all night deserves 5 stars.

Jatinder PS Nagi
July 4, 2012

Memories of the Clouds

I have very few memories from when I was very young. Still some moments are strongly etched in my mind.

When I was couple of years old, my grandfather, whom I remember wearing only white garb, used to carry me on his shoulders, walk couple of miles and to take me to a local potter who made toys out of clay. These toys were molded by hand and painted in the shapes of animals – parrots, dogs, lions, cats, or rabbits. All the toys were painted in bright colors, like reds, blues, yellow, orange, green or black. They would capture my imagination at that age.

Bapu ji, as I fondly called my grandfather, would get me a new toy, and then we would walk back home. The toy, being made from clay, would invariably break within couple of days and he would take me back to get a new one. So this small journey would happen every week.

Time would fly while riding his shoulders, listening to him humming a hymn, the periodic rhythm of his gait, and desire of getting a new toy. We would reach the potter, and I used to choose one of the toy animals. As much as the journey to the potter would be filled with excitement of getting a new toy, the journey walking back home used to be filled with happiness of holding it in my hand.

My eyes would look up in the skies, and I would try to find a cloud, shaped like the toy I just got. As soon as I would find some decipherable shape, I would point to the cloud and shout “Bapu ji, look there is a cat”. He would stop, shade his eyes using his wrinkled hand, and look up. He always agreed with me on the shape of the cloud. He would then tickle my feet, break my gaze from the sky and start to walk again, as I would giggle with tickles.

As I got older and heavier, he would hold my hand, so I could walk along. The moment I would step out of the house, I used to tell him that I would get tired. He would implore me to walk a little further, till the end of the street, where he would promise to pick me up. As we would reach there, he would ask me to go a little further. Humming hymns, pointing to new shapes of the clouds, he would keep me distracted from not feeling tired. Before I knew it, I would have a new toy in my hand, and I would pull on his hand making him go faster. Hopping, skipping, pulling on his hand, he never let go of my hand. We would keep looking for new shapes in the skies.

Summers were hot, so we would sleep on the terraces. The sun would wind down, bringing in a cooler dusk. The sky would get shades of orange, red and purple. I would lie down on the terrace with my parents, or grandparents, or uncles, or aunts, or cousins, and watch those clouds as they float by. Constant changing clouds would result in innocent arguments about their shapes. I would call some shape a horse; my cousin would say that it is a dog. The wind would melt away the white elephant before my aunt would make out its trunk or tail. And sometimes the rain clouds would appear and start pouring as everyone would rush downstairs.

While lying under the skies, I would slip into the dreams of floating with the clouds. I would never know when my father carried me to my bed on the terrace, or when my mother would tuck me in. The bird calls at the break of dawn and my mom’s calling would wake me up. The slanting rays of the sun would hit the eyes. Through peeking eyelids, the white and grey clouds would be floating against yellow or red sky.

Maybe these memories are the reason that every camera that I have ever owned, seem to turn itself up to the heavens. I am still looking for those shapes in the clouds that I used to as a kid. The blue skies seem so far away, yet it seems like so close. It carries all the memories from my childhood in its vastness – of people who were, people who are; for the people who will be.

All I have to do is just reach out.

Jatinder PS Nagi
May 25, 2012

Does the Universe talk back to you?

A good man once told me stories of two people and how they handle life’s problems, and decisions.

One of them prays and there is a method to his praying. While standing on a crossroads of a difficult decision in life, this person would turn his attention to God. He lights a candle, writes his problem on a small piece of paper, prays to get an answer, and then burns the piece of paper in the flame of that candle. In doing so, this person feels he is connecting to God and the rising smoke from burning this candle is taking his problem up to someone who will show him the way. As the smoke rises, he clears his mind of the problem, and waits for an answer or sign from Him. And every time, he has been given the answer or gets a sign from God, and feels that He has never been let down.

The second person the good man met, uses similar technique in resolving and facing his life’s problems. This person, sits down and quiets his mind – a sort of meditative state, if you may. While in this state, he thinks about the decision or the problem he is facing in life, and imagines himself standing on a beach. Then he makes a snowball of the problem, (or wraps his problem inside a snowball). With the full force, he then throws the snowball of his problem in the ocean, and watches it melt away as it is floating away from him. After a while, he starts to see the solution to his problem present itself. Our second person too feels that he has never been let down.

The good man met these people at different places and in different times of their lives. What makes this most interesting is the fact that the first person is a devout Christian, and the second is an Atheist. However, in both cases, you can see that there is a similarity in the way they approach a problem or decision in their lives. They both take their problems, and separate themselves from the problem. In the first case, writing the problem on a piece of paper is a way to take the problem out of your system. In the second case, the person imagines, in a quieted state, that he is taking his problem out of his mind and wrapping it in a snowball. Then they both send their problem to someone that they feel will provide help with an answer – towards God, or towards the world or universe, and wait for the solution to present itself.

Our good man heard these stories years apart of each other. He felt overwhelmed (and a bit freaked out) when he heard a totally different second person talk couple of weeks after the first one.

When I heard these stories, they seemed interesting to me. After listening to the two stories, I felt that our second person is not a religious person, but he sure is spiritual. He feels or believes in the existence of a higher being or the universe. I feel that in both cases the answers are inside a person. However, a lot of times we are emotionally compromised, or we are emotionally invested in a problem that we do not see the answer. In these stories, I heard that both people would separate themselves from the problem or a decision, and they can objectively make a better, informed decisions, and thus never been let down.

The key to making a better decision then seems to be looking at the problem objectively. And the universe will talk back to you.

Jatinder PS Nagi
May 6, 2012

Happiness Quotient

We have all met folks that are just amazingly happy, and others that are downright unhappy regarding who and where they are. Almost 7 months back, I was talking to a person, and he was ecstatic with where he was in his life. The positive vibes that danced in his eyes were infectious. Something clicked in my mind, and I started to take note of people I meet and myself to how happy they are. I decided to find that “Happiness Quotient” for (most of) us.

I have many ideas that are directly borrowed from my life – both personal and professional. Now that I feel is a very one sided story (mine), so I am reaching out to all of you.

I have put together a set of questions for you that will take 5-10 minutes of your time.  I will not ask you name, gender, your address, or even your email. What I do ask is if you are happy or unhappy. What makes you happy or unhappy. I have some optional introspective questions to see how well you know yourself – share why does a thing or a person makes you feel – do you flutter your eyes or do those red horns come out.

At the end of the survey, there is an option to provide me your email. If you do not provide your email, your response may be used anonymously. (Yes, I will make no attempts to find out who you are). If you want your responses to be used with your first name in the final article, then you can provide your email. I may have to contact you to get more details, and I will confirm that you are allowing us to use your name if we find your answers are fit.

So click away people.

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/BYGHQ37

PS. A lot of folks have mentioned that the questions are very vague. I have made them vague.
You can answer quickly or you can think a bit more.

Every Light Cast a Shadow…

A good vs. evil story with an elaborate magic system, set on the background of intriguing political & religious landscape with enough twists and turns to keep you occupied. What else could a fantasy fan want?

Brent Weeks brings the first book of his Lightbringer trilogy “into the light” – The Black PrismHe brought it a while back, I just read it.

Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor at Chromeria, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals. It’s been 16 years since the Prism Wars and Gavin Guile who single handedly turned the tide of the war has kept peace with his diplomacy and wits over the seven satrapies.

Things change when the Tyrean head, Garadul, decide to break free from Chromeria, and declare himself the king. In order to make an example and show his power, he burns down the whole city of Rekton within Tyrea (his own kingdom). A 15 year old kid, Kip, is the sole witness to burning of Rekton, who loses all his friends and his mother (who was the only family he knew). Circumstances bring Gavin to Rekton and he meets Kip, whom he saves from Garadul. He also uncovers Garadul’s plot to become the king. And things start rolling from there.

The story works at more ways than one. First there is the elaborate magic system. Personally it took me a while to get the feel for it, but once you understand the magic, it is easy. The magic system is based on the light. Light as energy has seven colors. Each color has a characteristic and particular behavior, and of course light of that color is needed in order to use it. The magicians, called drafters, are known as red, green, blue drafter based on what color they can use in drafting. In the nutshell, it is materializing the light (energy) into physical objects (matter). The Prism (of course) can draft all seven colors (and few others beyond the visible spectrum). If you are intrigued, Check out Brent Weeks site (link below) for candle example he gives.

Another level this story works is the political and religious landscape. Before the Prism Wars, there were many gods (called pagan gods in the book), and the war changed everything. Now there is only one – Orholam. The White and the Prism are the religious heads of the land. Further, they, along with representatives from seven satrapies form the political setup of the land. The great city of Chromeria, is where this seat of power resides. Gavin Guile is considered as the best Prism Chromeria. Garadul on the other hand wants to get out of what he feels as the Chromerian-oppression.

This story has lot of twists and turns and not just here and there. The book reads very smooth considering the complexity of the plot. It flows so well that the reader does not realize how complex the story has gotten. My stomach was twisting as Weeks kept throwing luxen after luxen right till the very end. Last hundred pages had me biting my nails and I was shouting “Come on, don’t throw that in there now, the book is ending”.

The book ends satisfactorily and also keeps few (may be many) threads untied; but satisfactory ending all the same. It is a trilogy (as we know now), so many of the threads had to be left untied.

Now, on Brent’s writing. It has matured from the Night Angel trilogy. His style has improved vastly (for my taste) and is very engaging. He uses simpler language, unlike many high fantasy stories will use (there are pros and cons for both); but it works in this novel.

If you are planning to buy the book, then I would recommend the paperback, as it has couple of introductory chapters from the next book in the series The Blinding Knife. I have both hardcover and paperback versions.
It is also the right time to read this, as you may not have to wait too long for the sequel (it is scheduled for later this year).

For audiobook fans, the book has two options – single narrator version read by Cristofer Jean and audio drama from Graphic Audio. I have Cristofer Jean’s version which is well read from Audible.com. The Graphic Audio version is now available as a complete set (I want to get that box set). Both are great depending upon your taste.

In conclusion, this quick page turner is a must read. As always beg, borrow, or buy this book.

Click Here to visit Brent Weeks website.
Do not forget to sign up on the forums, you can interact with the author there.

Click Here to visit Graphic Audio site for The Black Prism.

Click Here to visit Audible.com page for The Black Prism.

Jatinder PS Nagi
January 6, 2012

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson…

This review is rather late, but the vast reading list I had during later half of 2011 and the release of Battlefield 3 game caused this delay. I was able to finish The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson during my vacations.

Absolutely amazing.

The Alloy of Law takes place 3 centuries after The Well of Ascension in the Mistborn universe. World has changed and Kelsier, Vin, Elend, Sazed, Spook, and the rest are now part of history or religion. Mistborns (Allomancers who can burn all metals) are now found in legends and stories. Mostly, the world now has Mistings (Allomancers who can burn only one metal) or Feruchemists (who can use the metal to safe keep few traits); and few rare individuals who are both (Twinborns). The line of the allomancy is getting thin in bloodlines.

The cities are on the verge of modernization, railways are coming, horse carts will soon be things of the past. There are beaurocratic governments and few nobles have bigger hand in the government. Things have started to slip; nobel houses are competitive (similar to Lord Ruler’s times, as in Mistborn) and corruption has been creeping in.

The lands beyond the cities are called Roughs. The Roughs is where crime and criminals escape the law (and the cities). Few nobles give up the competitive life of the city, and become lawmen of the Roughs to bring these criminals to justice to create a better safer world.

One such is Lord Waxilliam Ladrian (or Wax), a twinborn of reputed nobel house. The predictability of the Roughs makes him feel safe there. His righteousness and honesty has brought many criminals to justice and that makes him a legend in the cities. An unexpected accidental death of his whole family forces him to retire as a lawman, and return to the city to take the reins of his house, which is undergoing financial troubles. In order to get his house of financial trouble, he starts to consider a mutually beneficial matrimonial alliance with another house.

But the past somehow catches up to him. The curtain is lifted from some criminal activities that are dramatically mysterious and circumstances brings him closer to one of the crimes. The lawman inside him prevails, and in order to solve the mystery of these crimes, he takes alliance with an old ally from the Roughs, Wayne, an allomancer, and a new one, Lady Marasi, a cousin of Wax’s to be betrothed. As they investigate the crime, Wax comes face to face with another lawmen from the Rough, Miles, whom he has worked in the past and who has gone rogue. Needless to say, the soup gets thicker.

Couple of familiar characters from the Mistborn universe makes their tiny appearances towards the end. I won’t tell you who they are, but keep a look out for them. It is almost nostalgic (I felt like going back to Mistborn series one more time).

Once again Sanderson weaves a story which is worth reading. In the traditional Sanderson-esque style, the details are aplenty and as the story progresses, readers get pulled in. The story reads like a fantasy and mystery set in steampunk era. There is allomancy and then there are guns, cranes, steam engines.

The Alloy of Law stands among my top 5 books of 2011, and from the author who is among my all time top 5 writers. The book does fall short – in words. The length of the book is not typical of Sanderson’ books; in fact it is almost a third of his standard books. This was something he wrote to get his mind “cleared” before going back to The Wheel of Time.

The story provides a satisfactory ending, a story set in post-The Well of Ascension, and a great introduction to the upcoming steampunk trilogy set in Mistborn universe. It does leave few strands untied.

If you are a fan of audiobooks, the book is read by Michael Kramer, who has read previous Mistborn series and the Wheel of time series. Michael does a great job and it feels natural continuation from original series. Personally, I like to listen to the book at 1.5 to 2 times the speed, because I find them a bit slower (Apple devices allow you to do that).

If you have not read Sanderson before, and are scared to pick one of his thick books, this is a great book to explore this author (be sure to read the appendix in the back to understand how the magic works in this universe).

In conclusion, I would say this is a great story, and a great book that now finds it sitting next to the other Sanderson books on my bookshelf. A must read, listen, or both for fans of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Steampunk, and Mystery genres.

Click here to visit Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law portal.

Click here to visit Brandon Sanderson’s site.

Please comment, share, and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.

Jatinder PS Nagi
December 26, 2011.

Leviathan Wakes…

A leviathan indeed wakes in Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, and stays awake.
James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for the team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, George R.R. Martin’s assistant. The team weave their first tale of The Expanse Trilogy. And what a tale they weave.

This book bridges the gap many sci-fi books leave between leaving the Earth and colonizing distant stars and galaxies – humans have colonized the solar system; Mars, Moon, and the Saturn’s asteroid belt.
Jim Holden, first officer of The Scopuli, an ice miner that is hauling ice across to the Belt, is forced to become a captain of small crew in an escape vessel when their ship is taken down. Upon investigation, the clues point to Martian Navy as having engineered the attack. This enflames the Belters (residents of the Asteroid Belt). Martian Navy denies the attack and feels that a third force (Earth?) is trying to cause a divide between the Mars and the Belt.
Detective Joe Miller, a belter has seen glory days as a detective, but that is past now. He is tasked to find a rebel Earther (resident of Earth) girl. Her rich parents wants her to be shipped back to them, so that she does not get caught up in the events in the solar system.
Needless to say, that there is some link to the destruction of The Scopuli and the girl gone missing. As both Holden and Miller investigate, they start to see that there is more to it than what seems at the surface. Can’t say more without telling the story.

Book has some strong characters. Jim Holden is a righteous guy, emotionally driven. He tends to do the right thing, and many times at a great cost to himself and people around him.
Miller, a detective seasoned by the criminals of the Belt, works logically. His is stubborn and once has his brain wired with his logic, he imparts quick justice.
Together they form the heart and brain of the story. The chemistry between them is depicted extremely well, and their relationship is that of love, hate and respect.
Fred, another strong character, has his own agenda. He sometimes help and at other times use, both Holden and Miller. He seems to be a nice guy, but keeps readers guessing what his intentions are.
Rest of the characters provide the perfect support to taking the story ahead, although you wish to know more about them.
All characters cross paths and before long you get to see everyone making an attempt to survive in dangerous world.

The narrative moves at a brisk pace, the language and the terminology makes it a believable space opera. There are intelligent and unexpected twists & turns which keeps readers attention in the story. And towards the end, things get hairy as story progresses. As you turn the last few pages of the book, the things go from believable to interesting. Ending gives you a satisfaction of good read, but leaves a lot more open questions like – what happened to few characters, and what happens next. In other words, a perfect ending to story that is going to span a trilogy.
The author(s) have taken a page from George R.R. Martin’s page. Tie few loose ends, leave other open for the next book.

The story has big space battles, hand to hand combat, near death experiences, some love stories, and the big bad evil lurking around. All in all, everything a good story should have.
Personally, I loved it, however there were few things that were farfetched for me. One may ask “like the whole colonizing the Solar System is not?”; still few things didn’t work out for me (can’t say without spoilers).

The novel has a great narrative (this is how books should be written) – fast pace, keeps readers attention, a good sprinkle of action, and many wonderful twists and turns.
And it is a good story with a potential to become great as the series progress.

Do I recommend this book? Hell, yes.
I got the eBook and 10 chapters into the book, I knew I should get analog. I have shared the real book with 4 of my friends and they could not put the book down till it was over. In fact all of them finished it before I did. It is a must read for a sci-fi fan.

As George R.R. Martin puts it, it is a “kick ass space opera”. We just have to wait to see where the story goes from here.

Click here for the James S.A. Corey’s website.

Jatinder PS Nagi
September 18, 2011

The Other Tolkien…

We all know the JRR Tolkien as an author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many, including me, never knew that Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, JRR’s younger brother, as an author. At least, he was when he was young.

In 2008, a small 88 page book was released titled Black and White Ogre country: Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien. This book is edited by Angela Gardner and Illustrated by Jef Murray. Hilary’s grandchild discovered an old tattered notebook with some stories and it was quickly determined that it is a good idea to get them published.

The tales are flights of fancy put together by the Hilary, inspired by adventures brothers had as young boys. There are stories about black ogres, white ogres, black witches, white witches and many other curious folks, likely based on many of the people the brothers encountered. It is also an introductory journey into the minds of the young boys, one of whom was going to develop a world that we now know as Middle Earth.

Like Ronald, Hilary shows in interest in the all things natural. With time, the stories depict the changes in the countryside around them. There are reminiscences of something that may have influenced the tales of Middle Earth many years later. This is a small book that includes introduction to the notebook, the stories (edited and illustrated), and a brief biography of Hilary Tolkien.

This book also had a mention in Humphrey Carpenter’s Biography on JRR Tolkien.

After their mother died, John (10) and Hilary (8) were under the legal guardianship of the church priest who arranged for their Aunt to take the kids in. The arrangement fell out, and as the time passed, kids grew up moving from home to home. Hilary joined his uncle’s business and later British Army during World War I. After the war, Hilary got a home in Blackminster, near Evesham, maintained a Plum Orchard, married and had family. His house also became one of the venues for family get reunions. He kept in touch with his relatives, as well as his brother during their lifetime.

Hilary kept his creativity alive, with paintings and drawings. Some of them he used on the cards he used to send his relatives. He died in 1976.

I recently acquired a copy of this not so easily available book. The copy I got is the first edition and is signed by the editor – Angela Gardner and the illustrator – Jef Murray. Jef  has also made a small windmill doodle as a part of his signature.

Here are few more photos of the book.


Signature on the inside cover


Jef Murray’s Windmill Doodle in Pencil


Notebook of Hilary Tolkien


Returning Home by Jef Murray on the back cover of the book.

JPS Nagi
July 2011

Enjoy Fuzziness …

Audible Frontiers did a shared universe stories called METAtropolis with John as one of the authors and the editor of the anthology. That was my first encounter with John’s writing and I enjoyed it. So when Powells Books announced John’s visit to their bookstore, I was there.

He was amazing, as I have already mentioned in this piece here.

John was on the tour of promoting his new book Fuzzy Nation, which is rebooting of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. I finally got to the book last night (I have a long reading list).

The story is retelling of the 1962 tale, so overall the story has classic Sci-Fi written all over it. Jack Holloway, a debarred lawyer, is a loner. He works as a contractor for an “evil” mining corporation that generally mine on planets across the galaxy, till the planet has nothing to offer. The mining company, by law, can only mine on the planets which do not have sentient life forms. Jack is on the verge of becoming very rich since he helped discover the largest mine of the rare gemstones on any planet. He has also discovered a new sort of “animals” on the planet (which Jack names Fuzzy). This poses a threat to the company who will not be allowed to mine, if proven that these beings are “people” (natives). Jack undergoes an ethical crisis.

The story take a legal turn and the battle between three parties – Jack who wants to get rich, the Biologist community who are excited about this new discovery (who are employed by the company) and want to study these new species, and the future CEO of the company, who wants to stall the legal battle and get the minerals out before anyone can sneeze & to prove to everyone that he is ready to take over the company.

And in this tussle, is suspended the fate of the Fuzzies, that no one has yet decided if they are “animals” or “people”.

A gripping story of legal drama, action, emotions, in an all updated Sci-Fi classic.
Fuzzy Nation is one of those books which I finished in a single sitting in a long time. I generally take my time, and finish the book in couple of days.
Fuzzy Nation was something that gripped me right from chapter 1 and 3.5 hours later, I was done. I could not put it down. The flow of the story maintains the pace, and subtle twists and turns keep the reader guessing.

Audible.com released the audio for the book read by Wil Wheaton, who does an amazing job. After finishing the book, I realized, there is no one else who could have read it better.
Audible book also includes the original H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy.

I never read H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. And after reading Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, which is a sort of rebooting the series, I think I should have (maybe I will listen to it on the audiobook).

A great book, I highly recommend this to anyone – Sci-Fi lover or not.

Check out John Scalzi’s Blog – Whatever.

JPS Nagi
July 2011