Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review of "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson

William Gibson is a unique figure in science fiction.  Able to parallel and juxtapose prescient technology across profound social and cultural lines in literary style, his writing can be both appreciated by genre fans and savored by an aesthete.  Published in 1986, Burning Chrome is a collection of Gibson’s short fiction from the early part of his career, 1977-1985.  Despite that much of the content pre-dates the success of Neuromancer, all the elements which inform the Sprawl world and the novels which follow can be found here.  Thus, the collection is a great introduction to not only that series, but the author’s worldview and style in general.  What follows is a short commentary on each piece in the collection.

“Johnny Mnemonic” – Unlike the film, the original does not try to jam all of Gibson’s ideas into a two hour popcorn marathon, nor does it translate to the imagination in such tones of… unintentional comedy.  The short story is tightly focused plot and character-wise and contains some of the most overt description of the Sprawl in print.  Not the best of the collection, it’s nevertheless a solid opener. 

“The Gernsback Continuum” – This piece highlights Gibson’s wider spread interests as an artist and presents his view of the genre of science fiction.  Modernist gushing of the early 20th century in focus, the hope and dreams of another time find their meaning changed in the future.  One of the best in the collection, this story is one of the defining moments of the cyberpunk movement--thematically, that is.

“Fragments of a Hologram Rose” – James Cameron would later (unadmittedly) borrow the premise of this story for his movie Strange Days, namely: what the effect of being able to replay memories has on lost love.  Suffice to say, Gibson’s original possesses none of the Hollywood flair and is relayed in far more convincing tones. 

“The Belonging Kind” (with John Shirley) – This look at the bar scene is the story of an introverted man trying to fit in.  Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground springing to mind (the surreal version, that is), the story is a harsh or uplifting commentary on nightlife and humanity's social side, depending how you view it.

“Hinterland” – Daily life on Straylight, or a shorter, lonelier vision of Pohl’s Gateway, either way, it is a haunting story of humanity and companionship in the isolation of space.

“Red Star, Winter Orbit” (with Bruce Sterling) – Perhaps the weakest in the collection, this story is of the cycles of political, societal, and technological power that Russia and the USA have had, have, and most importantly, perhaps will have.

“New Rose Hotel” – A hauntingly poetic entry, Gibson finds his groove in a Sprawl biotech deal gone wrong, the conspirator holed up in a Japanese tube hotel (a-la Case at the beginning of Neuromancer), fearing for his life. (Note: this story was made into a film starring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and Asia Argento.  Easily outpacing Johnny Mnemonic, it is the best screen adaptation of Gibson's work produced thus far.)

“A Winter Market” – A Sprawl story that lays the groundwork for Slick, Gentry, Cherry, and Little Bird in Mona Lisa Overdrive, it asks the question: what if you could escape physical pain without committing suicide by casting aside your mortal body for a digital life inside cyberspace?

“Dogfight” (with Michael Swanwick) – Perhaps the most fun and entertaining of the collection, this story takes the joy of video gaming to the next level, and drags along with it drugs, tech, and the angst of youth.

“Burning Chrome” – The icing on the cake, this Sprawl story caps the collection in glorious fashion.  Harddrives smoking, ‘trodes channeling the matrix, and reality two steps behind, this is stereotypical cyberpunk in a neon nutshell - and may be the best of the collection.

In the end, Burning Chrome is not one of those short story collections intending to simply cash in on a writer's early success.  Though some stories are stronger than others, all have been crafted with the same literary care Gibson invests in his novels.  Each sentence, phrase, and word is parsed for meaning and impact.  Moreover, almost all the themes and plot devices which can be found in his novels can be found here in capsular form.  Thus, if you’re unsure of whether or not to invest yourself in Gibson’s works, this is a great place to start without having to worry about the filler publishers often try to push on readers.  For those who have read the Sprawl series but not Burning Chrome, then the recommendation is obvious: I wish I had read it first.

Review of "Invader" by C.J. Cherryh

While the first book in Cherryh’s series, Foreigner, took its time, establishing Bren Cameron’s character and the dilemmas he faced attempting to adapt to a culture entirely foreign, Invader wastes no time.  Picking up precisely where the events of Foreigner left off, Bren is in the hospital suffering from the injuries of the previous book, and though he goes on the mend, life does not get any easier.  The space ship which suddenly appeared at the end of Foreigner threatens to disrupt tentative peace which the treaty between the atevi and humans had created. 

Pushing the ball up-court, Cherry winds the Cameron’s tension even tighter in Invader.  As if she were once a cultural attaché herself, every little nuance and ramification that hang from political decisions are described in insider fashion – and there are so many cultural toes to step on in atevi society.  Making matters both better and worse, Cameron’s relationship with his protectors works goes even deeper.  The details of their personal lives pull while the atevi’s natural indifference maintains the unnatural distance between them. 

Cherryh also takes the time to expand the reader’s understanding of the relationship between the atevi’s grammatically challenging language and cultural behavior.  Without out a doubt one of the most well thought out ideas in the genre, other sci-fi writers should take note.  Instead of simply stringing together gibberish and calling it alien language (who is to dispute?), Cherryh is erudite enough to not only create the rudiments of a language (like Tolkien, but to a lesser degree), but to intertwine it with her aliens behavior.  And it’s a plausible marriage.  A culture that sub-consciously uses calculation to formulate correct sentences would naturally be adept at not only picking up theoretical mathematics, but likewise always be concerned with the larger chains of events under discussion, as well as potential inputs and outputs for a given social situation.

Not only in language, Cherryh really takes the time to unpack the other ideas injected into her story.  Rather than glossing over something so simple as a space ship suddenly appearing in the atmosphere of a society that has never known life from outside their planet, she digs into what effect this would have on them.  If a UFO were to appear over the earth – somewhere outside an Oklahoma cornfield – imagine the explosion, not only in the media, but in the government offices of every major country around the world.  What does it want?  Are they hostile?   How do we communicate with them?  It’s these most basic yet most essential questions that Cherry attempts to answer in her tale.  No superheroes here, only people making rational and fallible decisions based on what they know and can know.

In the end, Invader is better than Foreigner, and Foreigner was worthy of a much larger readership.  The details, the back-history, and continued character development all fits within and expands upon the framework of the first novel.  Likewise, where Foreigner contrasted an individual and a culture, Invader goes to the next level by contrasting the two cultures (human and atevi), thus enlarging the diameter of the looking glass to incorporate all of the sub-groups the societies are broken into, the enmity between providing plot tension.  Fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals, altruists, libertarians, and traditionalists are all represented, and in turn push the book – and the series – closer to the realist side of literature than the unfortunate book cover allows.  But that’s another story…

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Buying Books in English in Poland


I am an American living in Poland, Wroclaw specifically, and if you can’t tell by my blog, I read extensively.  In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve tried to avoid paying the exorbitant prices asked by retail bookstores in Poland for English language books, including making orders in the US and asking my family to ship the books.  Though the final cost ends up roughly the same, I’ve since found alternative channels in Poland which require significantly less time.  The following is the result of my search to find cheap, English language books in Poland. (Note: If you scroll toward the bottom you will find specific locations in Wrocław to find books, otherwise all are Poland-wide.)

1. Allegro.pl – If low price is your aim, then without a doubt Allegro is the best source for English language books in Poland.  The Polish ebay, titles appear and disappear quickly, but most often prices can’t be beat.  Also, as many Polish booksellers use Allegro as their shop window, it makes the site great one-stop shopping.  English language books can often be found for 20, 10, and sometimes even 5 zl, though the high prices do also exist.  As sellers are interested in maintaining high ratings, service is usually top-notch.  I’ve never had a problem with any of the sellers, all delivering goods within 7 days after payment.  The drawback of Allegro is that selection is unpredictable, random, even.  New releases exist, but usually for the same price as a shop.  For some, the other disadvantage might be that the books are used, though the ones I’ve purchased have always been in fair condition at minimum.  The last potential disadvantage is that the website is available only in Polish.  However, if you have somebody to help you navigate (what is actually an intuitive interface), contact with the sellers can be done in English.  Having a Polish bank account to speed transactions doesn’t hurt either. And lastly, allegro makes you sign and agreement before you can begin buying/selling.  So, if this is a game breaker, find a friend with an allegro account!

2. Englishbooks.pl – Underrated and underused, this great site offers a very large selection of overstock and used books for great prices.  Anywhere from 8-30zl, the selection tends toward books which have had numerous printings, for example older, mainstream titles like Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.  This is not to say other titles are not available as well; a quick search using their engine will let you know if they have what you’re looking for.  The site available in Polish/English, non-Poles will have no problem navigating the site and making transactions, the proprietor, Anna, speaks great English.  She offers wonderful service, as well.  The orders I have made have been processed quickly, the books in hand a week or less later.  So, before searching the other sites below, this site comes highly recommended as a great starting point.  If what you want happens to be available, it’s almost guaranteed to be the cheapest, though probably used. 

3. Tradebooks.pl – Due to market concerns and society's ongoing transition to ebooks, Tradebooks.pl had to close its doors in Poland, unfortunately.  Updated August 30, 2012)

4. American Bookstore –This website (for bookstores of the same name located in Cracow) tends to have higher prices (35-55zl), but service is top notch, not to mention the website is available in Polish/English.  The selection is quite good and I have found myself ordering from them a couple of times when the title I sought was unavailable on the previous sites.  They even offer COD.* Going to the shop, however, will give you better prices.

*At least they did last time I ordered.  Worth checking beforehand.

5. Amazon.co.uk – At first it may seem like ordering from a foreign supplier would be an expensive option compared to the other choices, but Amazon UK’s international shipping is not that bad ( £4.00 per delivery + £0.40 per kg), making mass orders more reasonable.  Needing several books for my Master’s thesis, I found it was actually cheaper to buy a couple of the more obscure academic titles through Amazon.co.uk rather than the other channels mentioned here.  Having received the books eight days after ordering them, time also is not an issue, and I have tucked this site away in memory as an option for those times I’d like to order several books that aren’t so easy to find.  (It’s possible that Amazon.de also offers a similar service for English language books, I’ve just never checked it out.)

6. Massolit – Though their lovely used books store/cafe in Cracow offers a larger number of titles, what’s offered on their website is not shabby either.  It's not up to date, however.  If you see a title online, be sure to write and ask whether it actually exists.  With regards to non-fiction, it's difficult to beat them for used books available in Poland.  My only complaint is that prices most often hover too close to the price of new books even though almost their entire stock is used.  On average, expect to pay 20-30zl for fiction and 40-60zl for non-fiction.  The website is available in English, and though I’ve never ordered anything from them (preferring to visit their shop for a better selection), I imagine the competency of the staff extends to delivery. 

7. Empik – I have a love/hate relationship with Poland’s version of Amazon.  As they have good business ties with a few European book suppliers, often the only place I can find the book I want in Poland is Empik.  Furthermore, titles newly available in the UK are almost immediately available on Empik.  Seemingly aware of this, prices are most often quite high, new books usually beginning at 45zl and going higher.  Despite this, my sheer desperation for a new release has on a couple of occasions made me bite the bullet and pay an exorbitant price.  Consoling me is that Empik offers free delivery to any of their stores if the buyer is willing to make the pick up in person, which saves 8-10zl.  My other complaint is that the listings on their website (available in English) can’t be trusted.  Though they do once or twice per year go through and remove titles no longer available, on a couple of occasions I have ordered books only to be informed 30 days later that it was no longer being stocked.  If money’s no object, than Empik’s your place.

8. Merlin.pl is also another Polish website which offers English language books, however, I’ve found the selection extremely limited, prices high, and therefore not worth mentioning here.  Their selection of Polish language books, however, is really great and reasonably priced. 

9. Book City is a relatively recent site on the web (at least I only discovered it recently).  I would call them empik+. There prices are on average better, the selection is slightly better, and the one time I ordered from them, the shipment was made promptly and correctly.  The thing that keeps me checking their site is that 1 time out of 10 the book I'm looking, if available, is priced relatively reasonably (e.g. 20-30 zł, instead of the unreasonable 35zł+ on empik.

In conclusion, these websites are the result of my travels and excursions on the web – by no means exhaustive.  If I have overlooked a website, by all means comment on this post or write me an email and I’ll be glad to check it out.  I’m interested in cheap, good books too, and would love to see the availability of English language offerings expand in Poland!

Places to find English language books in Wrocław:

I have now lived in Wrocław for more than 6 years, and in that time I think I've scouted out all of the nooks and crannies around the city where even one or two novels in English are for sale.  So, if you live in Wrocław and are looking for reading material, here you are:

1. Szarlatan - tucked just behind Plac Grunwaldski, Szarlatan is a quirky, esoteric little shop.  They sell a wide variety of curios, inlcuding old postcards, vinyl records, and other trinkets.  But mostly they have books.  If you walk through the leaning stacks all the way to the back (i.e. as far as you can walk into the store), you'll find a back corner filled with random novels sold REALLY cheap, typically in the 3-12zł range.  The proprietors are quiet but friendly (like most Poles) and don't seem to mind me poking around for an hour through the disorganized stacks.

2. That little shop in the Fenix building whose name I don' know - All I know is that in the southeast corner of Wroclaw's main market is the Fenix building.  Entering through the front (to the left of the McDonalds) there are elevators and stairs.  Go to the first floor, turn right, and walk all the way to the end into the bookshop.  After entering the shop, turn right, and in the corner is a small selection of English language books.  The proprietor of this shop purchased the stock of Tradebooks.pl (see above) when they went out of business, and every once and a while will update what is available on the shelf.  The books are priced 12-25zł, which makes a quick look worthwhile.

3. Columbus - One street north of the main square is Igielna Street.  Close to its intersection with Kużnicza Street is a small language bookstore called Columbus. After entering the shop, on the left wall is a selection of English language novels.  This shop can also supply most any language learning material you may want or need.  Prices are between 15-30zł, so not bad.

There used to be other shops, but slowly they are drying up.  I did not mention empik above, as this is obvious, and they are located around the city.  It's perhaps more difficult to avoid an empik shop than find one.  If money is no object, than empik's selection of recent titles may be what you're looking for.

Review of "Foreigner" by C.J. Cherryh


“Sometimes the clothes do not make the man…” sang George Michael.  Fortunately the cover of C.J. Cherryh’s literary sci-fi offering Foreigner can boast the same.  The story contained within is (pun intended) light years from the throwback sci-fi cover.  And the back cover is only slightly better.  The Publisher’s Weekly quote reads: “Cherryh’s gift for conjuring believable alien cultures is in full force here, and her characters… are brought to life with a sure, convincing hand.”  Copy often overstated, this statement is only partially true. The first part is a twisted untruth (or an insult to traditional Japanese), while the second strikes the truth, square.  In other words, ignore the publisher’s contribution to Cherryh’s 1994 Foreigner and focus on content.

Plot thin but well motivated, in Foreigner Cherryh’s focuses more on character and quality writing.  The only human, Bren Cameron lives amongst an alien race, the atevi, after his race is stranded on an unnamed planet.  Bran an emissary, his life consists primarily of struggling within the unfamiliar modes and channels of the atevi social system to pacify hostile opinion regarding humanity.  The position challenging, he must come to terms with the two cultures’ differences while assaying diplomacy in a manner that respects both human as well as his alien host’s interests.  An assassination attempt or social faux-pas always just around the corner, the story is never dull.  

Students writing theses on E. Said’s “Otherness” take note: as the setting of Foreigner is Shogun with sci-fi window dressing, cultural interaction is the thematic nebulas of the novel.  While some readers may complain that the atevi seem alien and plural, not an individual among them, the more discerning reader will appreciate Bran’s introspective monologue as he tries to work out their behavior, motives, and the implications surrounding the awkward relations.  Like Bran, distinguishing between the atevi must be done with care by the reader.   By portraying the love-less atevi as a more nuanced society, Cherryh thus accomplishes a goal: to give the reader a realistic understanding of what meeting the Other may be like, whether they be alien or simply foreign to the reader’s culture.  

Deft but subtle, characterization is the strength of Foreigner.  For the less culturally aware, Bran will be easy to sympathize with.  The uncertainties he faces daily in an unfamiliar environment are easy to imagine.  The well-traveled (read: culturally sensitive) will find Bran whiny and obnoxious at the beginning - a Western tourist who complains when a Buddhist temple won’t allow entrance them wearing shorts.  Fear not, transitions occur which satisfy all involved – and not in tones even approaching proselytizing or the politically correct. 

With regards to the cultural aspect, Cherryh has done no more “conjuring” than to visit her local library for Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword or Varley’s Japanese Culture, then magnify a few aspects.  Despite being ebony seven-footers, the humanoid atevi of the novel follow strict protocols of etiquette and social rigor, bow upon entrance and exit, believe in hierarchal duty, remain forever concerned about preserving their own and other’s reputations (i.e. “saving face”), practice zen building and street alignment, condone samurai-esque blood feuds, and maintain strong links to their religious and traditional past while developing their world into a modern civilization.  Post WWII Japan, Cherryh’s aliens feature little originality from a sci-fi standpoint.  

That being said, it was never Cherryh’s intent to dazzle and wow with cultural inventiveness a la Jack Vance, rather to hold a mirror up to Western society.  Readers looking for fast, action based sci-fi should then avoid Foreigner (though perhaps their lives would be enriched for investing the time and thought).  Despite that the last 100 pages wrap up the book in breathtaking fashion, the first 300 are used to develop Bran’s relationship with the atevi, as well as begin digging into their cultural mindset.  The book is thus written for those interested in the sociological and anthropological side of the genre.  With characterization and human interest the themes of the day, fans of Le Guin’s Hainish series will undoubtedly find something to like about the novel.  The book that follows, Invader really unearthing atevi culture, Foreigner is really something to be savored en route.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review of "Iron Council" by China Mieville


Though never delineated in any descriptive sense, Mieville’s first two books in the Bas-Lag world were set within a loosely-shaped, unspoken corral of ideas.  Potentialities certainly existed, but were not endless; Mieville came across as too erudite for the possibilities of the world to be infinite.  After all, Bas-Lag was not some washed out D&D setting or 46th generation Star Wars sequel that was desperately trying to refresh itself.  The ideas of Perdido Street Station alone so unique, whole series of books and stories could have been told within the confines of New Crobuzon.  One’s head still spins with the plethora of phantasmal notions contained between its covers.  With Iron Council, unfortunately, Mieville unlatches the gate and turns his story loose in the pastures of the infinite beyond.
Telepathy, warlocks casting spells – err, hexes, teleportation, psychic mind control, and a variety of other ill-timed, poorly described, and feebly connected plot devices flood the plot of “Iron Council” and leave it a wet, muddled mess.  Sixty pages til the end and Mieville is still introducing new ideas – miasmas, air elementals, time golems, an “onrushing skeletal insectoid animal thing”, etc.  It’s overdone.  Where he was selective in Perdido and The Scar, balancing elements from the real world with the fantastic, Iron Council’s scales tip heavily in favor of the convoluted.  On all too many occasions I found myself asking: “Well, why didn’t the mind controller just use his skill to stop that…”, or  “That’s funny, nobody thought of using that in Perdido, but here it is so obvious…”  And so while Judah’s golems, the Inchmen, and a few other original ideas fit seamlessly within the scope of Bas-Lag, the vast majority feels like filler intended to impress, but in effect does no more than overwhelm. 
The fact that the book is spilling over with ideas of the fantastic is ironic considering it is the most overtly idealized and political of the Bas-Lag books.  In a return to New Crobuzon, the Vodyanoi’s bloody strike on the River Tar in Perdido has moved to the next degree in Iron Council.  The working class interests of railroad workers versus the corrupt authoritarianism of their overlords is the ideological struggle of the day.  Obviously bringing to bear his Marxist background, Mieville nevertheless treats each with relative equanimity.  Characters on both sides make moral sacrifices, and the resolution of their conflict is not what the reader expects.  That being said, the narrative is heavily weighted in favor of the point of view characters displaying socialist tendencies, while the authoritarian characters fight only in hordes, their evil of the purest black and white.
Story-wise, Iron Council is the tale of Judah Low, an ordinary young man working for the railroad until seeing the effects of Manifest Destiny on the native population.  Learning their magic (in Dances with Wolves style), Judah goes on to use his skills as a golem animator (golemist??) to help the railways workers - cactacae, Remade, and humans among them - fight against the oppressive mercantile backing the railroad’s development.  These first sections of the novel set in untamed and unchartered lands, Mieville reserves the second setting for familiar territory.  Seeming alien and unfamiliar this time around, New Crobuzon is once again the scene of action.  Volunteering at soup kitchens is Ori, a young man with a revolutionist’s heart who feels “there’s too much talk and not enough action” in politics.  The activist group he becomes involved with and their resistance efforts balance what is otherwise a narrative fully occupied by the railroad digging ever deeper into the wilderness, internal conflict abound.  Mieville is able to draw these two settings together to close out the novel, but at the expense of plot plausibility.
Beyond dividing setting, Iron Council also finds Mieville experimenting with style.  Minimalism the desired effect, the story is continuously punctuated by short, staccato blasts of sentence in an attempt to emulate the masters of simplicity (think McCarthy, Gibson or Chandler).  But while The City & the City sees Mieville in perfect stride, the tone suitably sparse yet smooth, Iron Council is unfortunately his baby steps in the arena, every bump felt along the road.  Novel structure is also toyed with.  The best part of the book may in fact be a 150 page flashback in which Mieville performs a nice bit of storytelling, laying out the history of the Iron Council and its perpetual train.
In the end, had Mieville toned down the number of new ideas forced into the plot, been more consistent in style, and more sparing with thematic content, Iron Council could have lived up to the expectations generated by the first two books of Bas-Lag.  Instead, the novel comes across as an unfocussed effort lacking the impact and wholly original worldbuilding of its predecessors.  For thematic aim, however, Mieville cannot be faulted, his intentions pure.  If such inconsistencies are not a bother to you, then Iron Council may be highly regarded.  Otherwise, with iIts devices and themes unnecessarily convoluted, sadly, Iron Council is a train gone off its tracks. (The number of similar elements significant, readers of this novel maybe interested in Ted Chiang's Seventy-Two Letters, and vice versa.)

Review of "Nightwings" by Robert Silverberg


In the late 1960s, Robert Silverberg’s home caught fire, forcing him to start afresh in a variety of ways.  Wallowing through insurance bureaucracy and trying to dig himself out of the ensuing financial hole, he wrote a novella called “Nightwings” out of desperation for cash.  Despite the circumstances, the story was well received, winning awards, and prompted Silverberg to continue the story by writing two additional novellas, “Among the Rememberers” (also called “Perris Way”) and “The Road to Jorslem” (also, “To Jorslem”).  In 1972, the three were collected into a single edition called simply Nightwings, the subject of this review.
While each novella’s storyline closes on itself, Silverberg achieves the superlative by simultaneously advancing the umbrella story of the three to an expanse of literary magnificence.  One novella suffusing into the next, readers are left with a strong sense of spiritual empathy for the struggles and atonement of the protagonist.  Evolving through a variety of names, this man begins as the Watcher, a guilded worker whose job it is to wander the earth and scan the heavens for invaders.  Recently humbled, humanity is entering its Third Cycle and is on its toes, wary of species seeking revenge for the hubris and downfall of its Second Cycle.  In his travels the Watcher’s companion is a Flier, a biologically altered teenage girl whose gossamer wings are only capable of bearing her weight at night.  As times fall suddenly into uncertainty, the two seek to redeem the past to have a life for the future.
Silverberg’s prose is velvety smooth.  Words, sentences, and paragraphs move effortlessly, a tone of soft beauty gently buoying the story onward.  In a poetic tongue rare among sci-fi writers, inner monologue on loyalty, shame, pride, subjugation, faith, and hope are the foremost ideas expressed.  The Watcher’s choices and consequences thereof -  paralleled by humanity’s history - are exposed and dealt with at an introspective level.  Though these themes will seem familiar to readers of Downward to the Earth, the mode by which the characters of Nightwings overcome the problems they face are more religious in nature than the cultural terms of Gunderson and the Nildor/Sulidor.  That Silverberg uses future Earth as the setting and a variety of familiar place names and concepts – geography, Western religion, Jerusalem, etc. - also grounds the novel in sentiment more strictly human and less alien.
Due to the fact the book began as a novella and only later were its three parts collected into a single edition, “Nightwings” is not as well known as Silverberg’s other works, Dying Inside, A Time of Changes, and the Majipoor series.  Thus, fans of those books, along with Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz will undoubtedly want to check out Nightwings as well.  From a theoretical standpoint, Ken Wilber’s theory of Integral Psychology has perhaps never been represented so well in fiction.  Beautifully crafted, containing wonderful symbolism, and a having a strong moral and spiritual core, this work easily exists in the upper echelon of science fantasy.  As writing the book was an act of transcendent catharsis for Silverberg, so too will its reading be for the reader.

Review of "The Scar" by China Mieville


A knock-out punch on the 21st century fantasy scene, Mieville had some big expectations to live up to following the success of Perdido Street StationThe Scar does not disappoint.  The fresh perspective, the imagination, and the social commentary in Bas-Lag have all been taken to the next level.   Where Perdido aimed at setting, plot, wordplay, The Scar takes the same elements and more evenly balances them across theme and character, producing another quality fantasy novel for the times.
Like Perdido, The Scar tells the story of a variety of characters.  Stage time, however, sees itself returning more often than not to Bellis Coldwine, a linguist by trade, and Tanner Sack, a Remade prisoner.  The beginning of the novel finds the two sharing a transport across the sea, the former in capacity of translator to the captain, and the latter part of the prisoner cargo being delivered.  In the wake of unforeseen events, the lives and expectations of Bellis and Tanner are quickly turned upside down, the characters finding themselves the latest pressganged into living on a massive floating city known as Armada.  The ugliest, motliest collection of battleships, stolen cargo boats, tugs, and clippers ever found in fiction, Armada is the libertarian dream of every pirate. 
What New Crobuzon is to Perdido, Armada is to The Scar.  Seeming to love every stroke, every letter, every grotesque word, Mieville goes into a similar level of detail in describing the massive floating city.  This time around, however, he seems to have relaxed a little.  Instead of wadding description, fistfuls of thesaurus at a time, onto the narrative, his style is more comfortable.  Words are chosen carefully to convey deeper meaning but in a paucity of number, rendering the novel a less gnarled, smoother read. 
There are readers who have complained about the ending of The Scar, claiming it’s either weak or anti-climactic.  However, such is the maturity – and daring - of Mieville’s sophomore novel.  The joy in the journey, the novel’s ending more than fits the events preceding it.  Many readers of the second half of Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind) likewise complain of the soft manner in which she finished the books.  But must every fantasy novel have a blood-and-guts clash of titans to finish it off?  Like Le Guin, Mieville should be lauded for the mature fashion in which his conflict is resolved through rational rather than explosive or macabre means.  Readers lauded the manner in which Mieville broke the mold with Perdido Street Station, why not be gratified by the atypical note on which The Scar ends? 
Further comparisons are needed.  Though not wooden, Isaac’s portrayal in Perdido was nevertheless inconsistently human.  Yes, he got angry when Motley kidnapped his girlfriend, but his chasing of slake-moths around the city was never properly motivated.  His moral indifference killing creatures while studying the mechanisms of flight did not match the profound sense of moral urgency he felt saving the world from those terrors of the sky.  In The Scar, on the other hand, Bellis, Tanner, and most of the other characters are more consistently rendered as living, breathing humans.  Background and character insight are related properly in motivating his “heroes”.  Bellis not an especially amiable person, the fact that readers dislike her rather than feel no emotion at all indicates Mieville is doing something right.  Not all protagonists can be altruistic saviors defending honor - a fact the author thankfully relishes in.
Mieville has been quoted as saying: “I think that all science fiction or fantasy has inevitably allegorical aspects, but I also think it's important not to suggest that that's what the book is ‘about’: you have to give the fantastic permission to be its own end, to follow its own dynamic.” Nothing could exemplify this more than The Scar.  For readers who prefer the supernatural, the monsters, and the creativity of what fantasy is on the surface, then it is all there on the page, one claw, huge eyeball, and squid creature at a time.  One original idea after another, the cray-men, avancs, and new varieties of the Remade add to the species of Bas-Lag. 
For those who prefer to see their characters and story grounded in concepts more fundamental, Mieville likewise offers a mature look at the themes of possibility, separation, cultural stance, and acceptance.  The titular theme is not an idea Mieville approaches from a single line of attack.  One of the characters can be quoted as saying “A scar is healing.  After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”.  Following this single line of thematic reasoning would have Mieville stepping in the footprints of countless previous writers, and so it is when learning of Armada’s leaders, a couple who scar themselves anew daily to symbolize their love, that another dimension is added.  And there are two other major fashions in which Mieville explores the theme.  Thus, in addition to being an appropriate title, the novel also represents itself well in the world of literary fantasy.
In the end, The Scar finds Mieville exploring new territory as a writer while expanding his familiar world of Bas-Lag in plausible, visceral fashion.  Unique imagination and thematic output on strong display, readers of both literary and genre fantasy will find something to like about the novel.  Certainly one of the voices the beginning of 21st century fantasy will be remembered for, the novel comes highly recommended.  (A word of advice: though Perdido Street Station need not be read before, it would certainly serve as an excellent introduction to the world of The Scar.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review of "Helliconia Spring" by Brian Aldiss


What if the planets orbited not only the sun, but the whole solar system orbited another, even larger sun?  Cycles within cycles is the basic premise of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy, of which the first installment is Helliconia Spring (1983).  A planet of the fantastic, Helliconia is home to a diverse variety of imaginative flora and fauna a la Jack Vance.  The sentient life, however, bears comparison to our own.  Struggling Darwinian style, humans and a species called Phagors inhabit the planet, the latter forming a group which thrives in the ice ages that cover Helliconia in the millennia its meta-orbit moves through aphelion.  Humans likewise having their moment in the sun (forgive the pun) in perihelion, this ongoing cycle highlights the species battles for survival.

Primarily an examination of the base virtues and vices of humanity, Helliconia Spring places more importance on theme than entertainment.  Enforcing this idea is a secondary storyline featuring researchers in an orbiting satellite, observing and watching as life develops and recedes on Helliconia like scientists over an ant farm.  This Gaian perspective sets the mood of the text, both literally and figuratively.  Except for the first 130 pages which tell the unpredictable and fascinating story of Yuli, linear storytelling takes backseat to a collage of interconnected vignettes serving to portray the fundamental struggles and glories of a group of humans and Phagors.  

A situation earth’s present day humanity simply cannot empathize with, the Phagor are a novel element in the puzzle of life on Helliconia.   Able to compete with mankind (from an evolutionary standpoint), these sentient yeti-like beings cause and bear the brunt of humanity’s enmity and physical violence.  Acting as a cultural mirror from which humanity’s own actions and behavior can be plotted and critiqued, it is through these confrontations, big and small, that Aldiss utilizes the “Lucifer Effect” to subtle effect - one of the strong points of the book.

That being said, there are also weak points.  When trying to outlay an entire species’ motivations, shortcomings, and strengths, a writer of fiction must inevitably choose a few characters to exemplify the ideals they wish to express.  While Aldiss does this with a finesse many writers of realist literature fail to achieve, the story nevertheless fails to realize planet-wide dimensions.  On few occasions does the reader get the feeling that the scope of the story is beyond the small group of humans and their town of Oldorodan where the majority of the novel takes place.  By selecting such an isolated group, the wider variety of lives and experiences of people across the planet fails to manifest itself.  It’s possible that in Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter Aldiss goes on to provide the reader a wider perspective, but for the moment, viewpoints are limited, though it would seem Aldiss was aiming at something larger.

The second bone to pick, albeit minor, is the novel’s clock.  There are moments time is necessarily accelerated to better contrast societal rather than individual development.  While these transitions most often come across well, there are moments a few of the characters seem caught on a bunjee cord of time.  Some lives zoom ahead but are talked about in the present, while in the next paragraph, a related character’s circumstances are addressed in the present but two years prior.  This situation leads to an occasionally disorienting narrative (particularly the Phagor sections) for what is otherwise a well organized storyline.  

In the end, fans of Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction will find something to like about Helliconia Spring.  Using the “soft” approach, Aldiss examines the social, religious, anthropological, mythological, evolutionary, and gendered aspects of humanity in a science fiction setting.  There are no space ships, lasers, or interplanetary wars.  In fact, the extra-planetary setting and the orbiting station are the only true sci-fi devices; the remainder is able to be read as pure fantasy.  The creatures and animals are creatively imagined and therefore will interest readers of Jack Vance – just don’t come looking for the fast paced plot and wry humor.  Aldiss’ prose is descriptive, direct, flows nicely, and is rarely amateur.  Thankfully, it also has more color than the notes of the scientists orbiting Helliconia, observing man as he emerges from his shell to struggle in the spring of life yet again…

Review of "A Fire upon the Deep" by Vernor Vinge


Featuring spiny space ships, comical alien species, and dark cloud interplanetary good vs. evil, Vernor Vinge’s 1992 A Fire Upon the Deep bears all the hallmarks of Golden Age science fiction.  But what cements its position within the era is its decidedly comic book touch.  At no times does the reader feel convinced of the seriousness of the story, yet on it moves, one loosely sketched scene following the next.  Further symptoms include characters which serve only to move the plot, dialogue taken from a low-budget action film, and scenes so half-heartedly detailed that plausibility evaporates.  Potential abound, the first book of Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is unfortunately nothing more than b-lit space adventure.

A mathematician by day, writer by night, Vinge’s primary calling in life is plastered across the pages.  Plain, workaday words relate action and thought in the most simplistic fashion.  There is not a beautiful or touching phrase or scene to be found in the whole book despite the tragedies that befall some of the characters.  In scientific fashion, the book does contain a few inventive ideas and the plot is outlined well; the Tine species and the concept of the galaxy being divided into differing zones of intelligence are unique.  But like the black and white numbers used to calculate the length of an arc, Vinge’s novel lacks any of the colorful details that flesh out his ideas and make them fully visible to the imagination.  Lifeless and listless, the story’s potential hovers continuously beneath the surface, trying to break free of its lackluster prose.  More directly stated, a better writer would have unpacked Vinge’s universe word by word, the species and characters brought to life in the reader’s imagination through vivid, lifelike description and delicate wordplay.  

And there are further complaints, beginning with some of the dubious circumstances Vinge foists upon readers.  Number one is an extremely suspect aspect of Tine society.  The Tines a race of sapient canines walking on four paws, it’s difficult to imagine them erecting castles, smelting iron, publishing books, and constructing two-way radios with only their noses and incisors, not an opposable thumb or hand among them.  (You want dogs in sailboats, there are dogs in sailboats.)  Number two is the lack of foresight with regards to technology.  Set literally billions of years in the future, spaceships exist and can travel at nearly the speed of light, however, people are still communicating with flat screen video via network channels maxed out at 10mb/s.  Only 20 years have passed since A Fire upon the Deep was published and we’ve already overtaken that rate - not to mention messaging has been made more efficient than Usenet style memos.  The list of anachronisms goes on, but I digress.

Given these aspects, subtlety and maturity are not epithets a critic would bestow on this work of pulp fiction.  Lines such as: “So you mean the evil lord has been inside our computer all along?“ are par for the A Fire upon the Deep course.  This kind of dialogue suggests that Vinge takes the intelligence of his readership lightly.  Thus, for those looking for more understated dialogue, a plot sometimes hidden between the lines, and a fineness of detail that portrays insight into the human condition, it’s best to look elsewhere; A Fire upon the Deep reads like the cheap novelization of a comic book.  

In the end, A Fire Upon the Deep is for those who enjoy the less-than-serious, adventurous comic book side of the Golden Age of science fiction.  With blatantly good vs. the blatantly evil, anthropomorphized aliens, humans saving the day, and an anachronistic mix of technology, it offers much the same as the pulp offerings of sci-fi in the middle of the 20th century.  For those who want space adventure that cuts with a more realistic edge and contains real themes, try Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos or Banks’ Culture SeriesA Fire upon the Deep is just Disney in space.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review of "The System of the World" by Neal Stephenson

A large portion of science fiction writers attack from typical angles - alien species, spaceships, laser battles, and so forth the name of the game.  In writing the Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson instead went for the sci-fi jugular.  Turning a few fictional characters loose to mingle with the historically accurate - Newton, Leibniz, Handel, and Locke among them - in Europe around the turn of the 18th century, the Baroque era is by far a more challenging arena for a sci-fi writer to create, and one, which Stephenson presents, is key to understanding our current scientific and economic paradigms.

The System of the World picks up 15 years after events from The Confusion.  Despite the time bridge, Stephenson continues exploring the era for the themes he presented in Quicksilver, foremost among them the primal root of binary logic and numismatics in relation to its importance to today’s society.  It’s also a chance for Stephenson to let loose the little boy inside and play with all the kings and queens, poisons and pirates, and castles and treasures.  There are shoot-outs in the Tower of London, clockwork bombs, Solomonic gold, jailbreaks from infamous prisons, duels with cannons—not sabers or pistols, and Alchemy.  All are part of The System of the World, the fitting and more than satisfactory finale to the Baroque Cycle.  

Certainly not science fiction in the strictest sense, The System of the World - and the Baroque cycle as a whole -  are instead “written in the spirit of sci-fi”, according to Stephenson.  Numerology, virtual economics, metallurgy, calculus, and astronomy are only some of themes at work, and as such, one can’t help but agree, despite the historically accurate setting.  Quicksilver and The Confusion having positioned the pieces and motivated the plot respectively, The System of the World takes the overall story arc to the next level, concluding the plot threads of the main characters – Jack, Eliza, Daniel, Bob, Dappa, etc. - in a satisfying fashion.  That Stephenson also hones the thematic point of the Cycle to expose the financial and mathematical system underlying our modern world only heightens its literary importance.  The genre of science fiction now extends into the past as well as future.

The warning: Stephenson is not a writer for everyone’s tastes.  Much of the density of the Baroque Cycle can be chalked up to digressions on the geography, fashion, culture, and lifestyles of Europe in the late 17th/early 18th century.  Named the Baroque Cycle for more than just the tail end of the era portrayed, the title is also an allegory to the level of detail and ornamentation Stephenson grafts onto the storylines.  Wigs, street layouts, etymology, social hierarchy, architectural styles, the filth of the poor,  etc. are all fair game in the text.  Thus, if you are not interested in learning about the era as well as participating in a great story, don’t bother reading.

The digressive nature of the Cycle aside, Stephenson has under-appreciated skills as a writer.  Woven effortlessly through the informative content is a plot so subtle, less attentive readers will complain of the lack thereof.  Rest assured that on the occasions it does occur, what was a quietly susurrating story takes on levels of excitement one could never imagine when examining the motif of coins, mathematics, stock exchanges, etc. at face value.  The various climax points scattered throughout The System of the World will have readers effortlessly turning pages.  Though an old man may not seem a likely character to carry the action of such a story, Daniel’s life is suffuse with subtle action and intrigue in carrying the lion’s share of the plot.

A Toronto newspaper has been quoted to the effect that the Baroque Cycle will be studied for years.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In the way of theory and concept, it offers nothing new or overtly controversial – and nor did it intend to.  The only research people will be doing is to double check Stephenson’s facts.  Was Newton in fact a diehard alchemist who allowed his irrational thoughts to be polluted by the rational?  Did the virtual nature of economy actually begin so long ago?  Is that truly the fashion in which a German became king of England?  These and a host of other questions will have the truly curious checking history books to confirm what has been under all of our noses for so long, it just took Stephenson to spice it up with a dynamite story to make us interested.

In the end, the Baroque Cycle is a brilliantly conceived series of books that goes to great lengths to expose the roots of computing and numismatics which found our current economy.  Simultaneously weaving a fictional yarn through the immovable landmarks of time, the interstitial historical trivia which fleshes out the story will either have the reader bored to death or reading with pleasure.  True nerds will love the manner in which Stephenson takes the historical sandbox of the turn of the 18th century plays in it like a mad scientist with all the toys at his disposal – gunpowder, nautical mimitations, historical landmarks, kings, metallurgy, etc. in this case.  Never to be studied conceptually, The System of the World, and the Baroque Cycle as a whole, use the mode of story to describe precisely why knowledge is power by highlighting the historical transition in Europe from irrationalism to rationalism in a fashion textbooks never could.  From history to mathematics, wordplay to plotting, Neal Stephenson is the nerd’s nerd, a true natural philosopher.  Highly recommended.

Review of "Wholeness and the Implicate Order" by David Bohm


David Bohm (1917-1992) was a physicist heavily involved with quantum mechanics, systems processes, and, in the latter stages of his life, the relationship between consciousness and his theory of matter.  Having spent the early part of his career in the laboratory examining the behavior of subatomic particles, gaining recognition and winning awards for his work (including the Nobel), his views regarding the direction of physics and the fundamental nature of reality eventually caused him to diverge from the traditional scientific community.  Reacting to the “Copenhagen interpretation,”—the consensus of his peers that the paradox as to how matter simultaneously exists in both static as well dynamic form could be explained—as well as physics continued inability to discover the “ultimate particle,” Bohm retreated from the scientific community to develop his ideas independently.

Believing that “a more harmonious and orderly approach to life as a whole, rather than to a static and fragmentary view which does not treat knowledge as a process, and which splits knowledge off from the rest of reality” was the key to overcoming the anomalies encountered by classical physics, in 1980 Bohm published Wholeness and the Implicate Order (81).  Combining knowledge from the immeasurable, “i.e. that which cannot be named, described or understood through any form of reason,” with the tested outcomes of scientific research, Bohm proposed a theory of reality compatible with both the phenomena of matter scientifically proven to date and the empirical results of intuitive experience (29).  

Under intense microscopic examination, all matter exhibits behavior indeterminate to human analysis: sub-atomic particles simultaneously exist in both wave and particle form, a paradox which cannot be overcome according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  Thus, in order to surmount the impasse, Bohm proposed that a deeper, indefinable, order-defining structure underlies all definable movement and existence.  This structure he called the “implicate order.”  Patterning all that is both comprehensible and incomprehensible to humans, implicate order is the primary causative structure to reality.  Emulating the polarized wholeness of Daoist thought, Bohm’s theory posits that what is comprehended and scientifically quantifiable is the unfolded, or explicate order, and what cannot be comprehended scientifically—dependent on intuition to perceive—is the enfolded, or implicate order.  According to Bohm, in the enfolded order “space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements;” as a result, “a more basic connection of elements is possible.”  It is this underlying fundamentalism—its primary causative nature—which defines the implicate order as “a harmoniously organized totality of order and measures,” patterning and structuring reality (xviii). 

Bohm goes onto define the sub-categories of his theory, including interactivity—the movement of the system in which content and meaning are conveyed between the implicate and explicate order—and the degrees of applicability.  Furthermore, as Bohm forever sought to avoid the compartmentalization and isolation of knowledge, he sees the “fragmentary view” as a perspective “which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them.”  Thus, the wholeness and interconnectedness he purports in his theory of implicate order can thus be perceived as a remedy to that worldview which “has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, worldwide economic and political disorder, and the creation of an environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for the majority who live in it” (1-2).  As Bohm makes clear at the outset of his book, “what is primarily needed is a growing realization of the extremely great danger of going on with a fragmentary process of thought” (24).  Those interested in similar ideas would do well to invest in this book as the details of Implicate Order are more interesting than the outlay.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Culture Corner: Poland - Out the door...

From a landscape point of view, Poland has a lot in common with America’s New England.  Similar to the Appalachians, a single ridge of mountains transverses the southern border of Poland, Germany to the Ukraine.  Spread from this chain to the sea in the north lie loosely rolling hills, farmlands and forest, the latter occupying the majority.  Here and there are scattered lakes and ponds, and connecting them, the lazy, winding river.  The occasional city appears in a shallow valley, but most of the Polish population lives in towns and villages, the distance to the nearest house never far.  Sound like Maine?  

The flora and fauna one sees in Poland are easily recognizable to anyone who has spent time in America’s northeast.  Birch, pine, spruce, maple and the like populate the woods, along with deer, fox, squirrels, and mice.  There are of course some differences – no wild boar or badgers root the forests in Maine, but generally speaking, the similarities strike home watching the landscape roll by the car window.  It goes without saying then that I spend a lot of my free time here as I do at home in the US: in the out-of-doors.  Hiking, climbing, and just being under the sun are regular parts of my life.  As such, I’d like to share some photos with you so you can have an idea for yourself what the Polish landscape is like.
Here is an actual view looking out the car window.  (This photo fails to convey an important difference between the US and Poland, however: the sheer lunacy of Polish drivers.  Undoubtedly as this photo is being taken, one of these drivers/madmen is getting ready to pass us at autobahn speeds.)
  A very typical Polish village on a summer’s day.  
 And one of those nice meadows filled with wildflowers…
The Tatras are Poland and Slovakia’s only claim to real mountains, i.e. mountains which require more gear than the latest North Face fleece and a bottle of Dasani.  The highest is Gerlach at 2,655 m (8,710 ft for the metric impaired) with several of the surrounding peaks nearly as high.   They’re beautiful in every season (as you will see) and worthy of the numerous postcards for sale in the tourist towns of the foothills.
This is a National Park on the border with the Ukraine called Bieszczady.  It rolls with sublime hills, wide open vistas, and these colorful trees in autumn.
This is a path very near my house I often go running on.  Could’ve been New England, no?
Like the Yeti, here is a rare sighting of the author himself enjoying Bieszcady in November 2011.
Winter too settles in, temperatures drop, and water becomes walkable.  Above is a scene from a local park called, in fact, South Park.  If it could speak, I’m sure it would lay honor to the name decades before the cut-and-pastes from Colorado made the moniker famous.
This has happened to me only once in Poland, but I thought I would offer it as proof that at least it’s possible.  It goes without saying then, the blizzards that the grandmas in Maine drive through with the pedal to the floor are not as easily handled by the Polish.
Hiking in the Karkonoszy mountains last winter, this is a “cabin” we stayed in.  
In the Tatras once more, this time it’s winter.  On the right is a lake called “Eye of the Sea,” and since they’ve built a stone stairway to it, even ladies in high heels have access.   In the upper right is Poland’s highest peak, Rysy.
This time truly a Yeti, here I am climbing Rysy.  Crampons buckled as tight as I could get them, ice axe in a death grip, and teeth grinding with every step vertically, we made this (successful) assault in early winter 2010. 
But like Maine and New England, waiting through the winter long enough means that the sun will shine.  Which also means you can once again go with your friends to the local lake for a nice, refreshing swim…
 
For those who were paying attention, you probably noticed that not only does the landscape bear strong resemblance to the northeast of America, the flow and look of seasons is likewise very similar.  So, even though I’m six hours ahead of most of you, we still hold a cycle of life in common.  Think about it.