Saturday, January 11, 2020

New Review of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Pt.2: Wounded Eagle
New review by Berthold Gambrel 

This was a tough review to write, because this book is part two of a series, and part one ends on a massive cliffhanger. The majority of part two is therefore about the protagonist, Captain Robbin Nikalishin, dealing with the repercussions of that cliffhanger.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of plot, for fear that people would stumble upon this review without having read part one, and it would be spoiled. Normally, I’m content to give spoiler warnings, but in this case I don’t even want to risk that.

Many of the things I said in my review of part one still apply: The story is still engaging, the characters are still memorable and vivid, the world-building is impeccable, the prose is still crisp, and Capt. Nikalishin is still a brave man who nonetheless can be profoundly irritating in some respects. His stubborn pride remains, although it kind of morphs into something else as he grapples with the consequences of the events at the end of the first book. And his relationship with his mother continues to make me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Grow up, you big baby!”

And, as I said in my review of the first book, none of these latter points about the captain’s character should be interpreted as negative comments on the book itself. Quite the contrary. Even more than the first, this book is a character study of Nikalishin, and he is certainly a very interesting, multi-faceted personality.

Again, no spoilers, but one of the central plot elements in Wounded Eagle involves Nikalishin being forced to choose whether to reveal certain information to punish a particularly despicable character, but at the cost that revealing this information will be deeply painful to an innocent third party. Nikalishin’s choice, and the reasoning behind it, are very well thought-out and described, and was satisfying to read, even if I can’t honestly claim I’d have made the same decision.

Read my review of the first one, and if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read this series, I don’t know what will. It’s a sci-fi epic that focuses on human drama, with lots of interesting world-building, as well as some deep philosophical and religious ideas woven into the story, in the form of the “Mythmaker Precepts”—the philosophical pillars at the core of Taylor’s 28th century society.

Now, with all that out of the way, I want to have a word about my favorite character in the series: Prof. Anezka Lara. She’s not actually in this book as much as she is in part one, but when she’s around, she’s a lot of fun. Her gruff, no-nonsense personality reminds me of several academics I’ve known, and frankly, I adore the way she bluntly tells Nikalishin what she thinks. It’s especially nice in this book where—and here I’m straying close to spoiler territory—he’s kind of a big deal, and most people are treating him with kid gloves. Not Lara. She’s never one to mince words.

Again, if you like sci-fi at all, read this series. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, there’s a good chance you’ll be captivated by the narrative Taylor weaves.

Now, I’m off to write some fan-fiction about Prof. Lara and…

JUST KIDDING! That is a joke; don’t worry. But if you want to understand the joke, you should read the series.

See the original review at

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Review of Brother Termite, by Patricia Anthony

I've reviewed a very strange book entitled Brother Termite, by Patricia Anthony.

“We should have been more intelligent than to love the thing we were destroying.”

I have conflicted feelings about this book – in fact, I found it profoundly disturbing – and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to give it three or four stars.  I couldn’t give it five because the plot is annoyingly muddled and hard to follow.  But the book is also very affective, partly because it’s narrated from the aliens’ point of view and the reader can’t help having sympathy for them, so I settled on four stars. 
The story is laid in an alternate reality (I think you know that aliens didn’t really take over Earth during the Eisenhower Presidency) and those aliens are obviously extrapolated from the Gray Aliens of Roswell fame.  These aliens evolved from an extraterrestrial termite-like species, but I doubt the author really studied termites.  I’ve made an extensive study of termites and I can’t believe that evolved intelligent termites would be anything like the creatures in this book.  Apparently the author was fascinated by the hive-mind concept – the inescapable collective consciousness – which I think might be applicable to various species of ants, but less so to termites.  Termites mind their own business and are very peaceable.  They have their castes – workers, soldiers, alates (reproductives) – and each caste behaves according to its genetic imperatives.  They kill only in self-defense, such as against invading ants, when the less powerful termite soldiers sacrifice themselves to satiate the invaders, thus preventing an invasion of the mound and the destruction of the Queen.  And the alates also sacrifice themselves, flying out in great numbers, of which only a very few will successfully breed and form a new colony.  The rest end up as food for every other species in the world, including sometimes humans.  And my opinion is that if such a species developed intelligence and individuality, that would lead to an inner moral sense that is not so different from the human imperative. 
There are many characteristics displayed by the aliens in this book that I take exception to.  They can’t touch each other because that plunges them back into the collective consciousness and they lose their individuality.  Now, terrestrial termites are very tactile – since they are all deaf and only the alates have eyes, they rely on touch, as well as pheromones, for communication.  Pheromones aren’t even mentioned.  These aliens have both hearing and sight, and they seem to be all male (except for the breeding female), so perhaps they evolved from Kings.  (They also seem to have only four limbs and an upright walking stance, and they also breathe and talk like humans, through the mouth.  Insects breathe through spiracles on their abdomen.)
But then there are the “Loving Helpers” – an ironic name for very small, non-intelligent entities who must have evolved from workers and perhaps also from soldiers.  They constantly inhabit the collective consciousness and can’t live apart from one another, and it seems that anything they touch is destroyed.  They absolutely terrify humans.  I can’t imagine any real termite workers (or soldiers) evolving like that. 
As I was reading this book, I kept thinking that if termite-like creatures evolved in this manner, it must have taken a really long evolutionary period like 10s of millions of years.  And lo and behold, near the end of the book it’s stated that these “people” (I don’t recall if a name is ever given to the species) first came above ground 30 million years ago.  So they could have evolved this way, I guess, but I certainly don’t like the results.
 One thing I do like is the impressive descriptive style.  The “Cousins” (as they are known throughout the book) have a great sense of order and anything chaotic unsettles them.  The author uses colors, smells, and configurations (the Cousins especially like fractals) to set up scenes and define emotions and attitudes.  This is done very skillfully and it’s one of the reasons I settled on four stars.
I notice that the Goodreads description mentions that the book is occasionally comical, but I didn’t find one single bit of humor in this whole book.  I recommend Brother Termite only with a warning – prepare to become deeply involved and profoundly unsettled as you read it.

Additional note for my conlanging friends:
In Brother Termite, no attention is given to the communication problem. How did they communicate with Earthers when they first invaded? Everybody speaks perfect English all the time, even among the aliens. There are maybe three words used that would be in the alien language, and don't ask me what they are because I didn't write them down as I read, and finding anything in an ebook is well-nigh impossible. So I found that aspect of the book quite a disappointment.