Friday, April 20, 2012

Off to India...

This post is to announce a very short hiatus.  I will be traveling to India for the next three weeks, and along with experiencing one of the world's oldest cultures, I hope to meet a few of the people riding that train and taste their food!  I will check in with an update, hopefully a couple of times, to let those who care know that nirvana hasn't snatched me away or that I haven't been grabbed by any Hindu protector deities.  So, off I go... 

(And yes, there will be some Culture Corner posts for India once I've returned, collected my thoughts, and sifted through photos and memories.)

Review of "Surface Detail" by Iain M. Banks

Virtual hell.  It’s an expression used everyday, from street fighting in the Middle East to an awful day at work.  But what if it were actually possible?  What if a person’s psyche could be inserted into a virtual hell as punishment for an immoral life in reality?  Bringing Dante’s Inferno into Stardate 55.673, virtual hell is just one of the ideas shaping Iain Banks’ eighth Culture novel, Surface Detail.  Rounding off the pile are Banks’ usual assortment of intriguing AI ships, fantastical set pieces, techy space battles, and individual tales of honor, revenge, and duty.  There comes a point, however, where the book is about what was excluded, not included.

Surface Detail tells of the decades-long war the opponents of virtual hells have been waging against its creators.  The moral rectitude of civilly controlled hells the main point of contention, the “War for Heaven” is being simulated inside a neutrally-controlled virtual environment and is drawing to a head as the novel opens.  With factions and sub-factions on both sides beginning to take their subterfuge into reality, bloodshed is about to be for real.

Standing on the sidelines of the war at the book’s opening is the entrepreneur, overseer of the planet Sultucht, and planet’s richest man, Joiler Veppers.  Nothing ambiguous about him, Veppers is grade A evil.  Cementing his position at the top of the bad-guy heap is the treatment of his chattel, the omni-tattooed Lededje.  The unspeakable crimes he commits against her, obvious to say, set one of the themes of the book from the very first chapter: revenge.  Lededje’s travels on this path provide the second main storyline.

And there are additional stories to be told.  Along with Veppers and Lededje, the story of the soldier Vatueil appears - again, and again. A fighter in the “War for Heaven”, he is re-inserted into the virtual environment every time he dies, culminating in perhaps the first experience of reincarnation blues in literature.   The mysterious Yime likewise plays a part in the overall story, keeping the Culture abreast of not only Lededje’s progress, but Veppers and the advances he makes in society.

While previous Culture novels have been uniquely inventive, Surface Detail sees that brightness of imagination fade.  Banks borrowing more than creating, the tours people are brought on of hell as an incentive to live morally upright lives run easy parallels to Dante.  The neural laces acting as soul-catchers, able to digitally capture a person’s persona for later restoration in another body, are firmly in the footsteps of Greg Egan and Richard Morgan.  Under-ice missions, miniaturized ship battles, and armored suits are just more examples of worn ideas.  And so while Banks includes many Culture tropes from previous books, the remainder point at a weary imagination in need of a refresh. 

On that note, virtual hell is a great idea; but Banks dresses it in nothing less than pan-Christian clothes.  The visual cues, though more visceral, are very much of the demon and devil, hellfire and brimstone variety the pope warns of.  As a result, Surface Detail’s hell feels like an ornate vase sitting on the shelf without flowers: all form, no function.  By utilizing such a familiar and morally charged plot device, the reader expects at least a minimum of overt or between-the-lines discussion on the nature of good and evil.  Banks, however, never moves in that direction, using the hells instead to motivate the larger war, fiery proceedings pushed to the background. 

And there are other wasted opportunities.  While Inversions sees Banks touching upon poignant human issues, at no time does he delve into the authoritarian notion of hell as retributive justice (the rational, post-enlightenment variety) in Surface Detail.  Instead, he remains fixed on the less ambiguous, more morally transparent religious view of “hell as punishment”.  As a result, the book does not go into any of the ambiguity regarding who goes and who doesn’t, who judges, and how long eternity is, exactly.  None of these questions are examined, disconnecting the idea of virtual hell from the theme.  It is sensational, but plays no deeper role.  Thus, by turning a blind eye to the sticky moral and social aspects, Banks simply plays off the more easily digested religious/cartoon side of hell.  To the author's credit, however, Vatueil’s story does cut at something deeper in Buddhist beliefs of the afterlife.

In the end, Surface Detail is a safe novel, but one wherein the reader feels a little cheated that virtual hell ended up playing second fiddle to a larger but more standard sci-fi war.  Despite utilizing commonly understood notions of Buddhist and Christian afterlife, Banks never takes the time to unpack the moral and social implications of having a network of virtual hells, instead using these ideas as mere plot devices, minor in comparison to a war which climaxes in a rather pedestrian, been-there-done-that space battle.  Good and evil deserve so much more with hell in play.  That being said, Banks’ usual flair for language, fantastically realized scenes, singular take on space tech, and relatable characters are once again on display.  Though not able to fill the shoes it wears, Surface Detail at least remains able to get you were you’re going.

Pointed Awards Objection

For those unaware, Christopher Priest has posted a pointed objection to the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist that eschews the touchy feely and goes straight to gut-punch land.  While I have not read any of the books on the list and cannot comment one way or another on the authenticity of Priest's claims, the nexus motivating his controlled diatribe--a desire for higher literary standards in speculative fiction awards--is commendable.  I wish that more competent and prominent voices would come out from the woodwork with a want to eliminate the mediocrity that is publicly touted as the upper ranks while writers of real craft are pushed to outskirts.  In saturated times such as these, a wake up call is needed, and Priest seems to provide exactly that voice of reason.  Let's hope quality improves in the long term for all awards so that the genre might earn the respect it deserves. After all, when you reward crap, crap is what's expected.

The article, Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3, can be accessed by clicking on the link to Priest's site.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Uncertainty of Reality: William Gibson’s Sprawl Series

William Gibson’s Sprawl series stands as a landmark event, not only in science fiction, but in literature as a whole.  Rather than rehashing the thematic staples of realist literature: cultural relativism, post-colonialism, feminism, etc., he moves discussion to the next logical step. Humanity envisioned through the glass of technological saturation, trans/post-humanism takes center stage, instead.  His fictional technology seeing beyond the 90’s tech boom, advances in online virtual gaming, second-life applications, plastic surgery, designer drugs, web interfacing, simulated neuro stimuli, etc. have only moved society closer to rather than farther from his vision in the time since the four books were published, 1984-1989.  As humanity transitions, melding with its chemical, mechanical, and biological creations, the definitions of psychology, sociology, and existence itself have acquired previously unrealized levels of ambivalence.  This uncertainty is the nail at which Gibson aims his literary hammer.  With the free market paradigm integrating society and technology, what does it mean to be human?  This essay hopes to examine this question.

“Sprawl” is a term used by planners, developers, and engineers to describe the long-term, unorganized creep of buildings, infrastructure, and humanity across the landscape.  A recurring backdrop to Neuromancer (1984), Burning Chrome (1986), Count Zero (1987), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1989), such is the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area (BAMA).  Though never explicitly stated, the urban enclaves of these two cities, along with those located between (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc.), have spread outward until the suburbs and industrial zones, housing and commercial centers of each have conmingled with one another, creating a single massive urban zone that stretches the length of the American east coast.  Gibson using less than utopian terms, he describes BAMA as a mix of cookie-cutter streets filled with planned suburban housing, post-modern skyscrapers full of tech and money, block after block of urban tenements slowly crumbling alongside those freshly painted, and factories and warehouses in various states of decomposition - a haze lingering over all.  In other words, Gibson has portrayed the modular dimensions of present-day humanity evolving to a logical point in the future: new development is erected, the old remains, and all is subject to entropy. 

Like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, setting the scene in this fashion draws strong parallels to Spengler’s ideas concerning humanity’s cultural decline, rather than Golden Age modernist notions of a glorious, healthy future for the planet.  Gibson at no time portrays a world peace, shiny-happy-people, everybody-loves-their-neighbor state of existence.  Social Darwinism persists, each person eking out their existence.  Accordingly, commodities in the Sprawl prey upon individual’s desires and self-destructive habits rather than any collective perception of a sustained, cross-cultural aspiration to improve global living standards.  Environmental problems persist, crime continues to pervade, newer and trendier drugs ensnare and addict, and money and power--or lack thereof--remain the most common carrots luring individuals.  If it weren’t for the open hand with which Gibson offers the imagery, one might consider nihilism the theme of the series.

If the basic economic structure motivating societal effort has not evolved in the Sprawl, then what has?  The answer is technology.  The virtual world Case explores, the variety of pharmaceuticals and chemicals available to Mona, the holographic dreams of Riviera, the advanced biotech that nearly kills Bobby, the motivations of the AI constructs Wintermute and 3Jane, the ready availability of plastic surgery and physical enhancements to Angie, and the “free islands” in orbit around the earth all add dimensions to life available currently only to the imagination. 

The number of options and facets to life these advancements expose is myriad.  If one can afford it, earthly desires become heavenly in the hyper-Las Vegas style of luxury promoted on the Freeside orbital.  By jacking into cyberspace, a person can escape the exigencies of life and “fly” in another dimension.  Like Huxley’s ‘feelies’ in Brave New World, theater and cinema have been brought to the sensual level, simstim granting people the vicarious experience of being a supermodel or rock star--virtual realities available to match any fetish or desire.  And not only individually, these experiences can be combined, as Case does by consuming stimulants and jacking in for days at a time. Our current capitalist paradigm in full effect, if you’ve got money, then technology can supply your dreams. 

With the exception of Marley from Count Zero, the middle class is not represented in the Sprawl.  Gibson instead selects the opposite ends of the life quality spectrum as focal points for the narratives.  Occupying the upper echelons of power and wealth are characters like Virek, the Tessier-Ashpoles, and Kumiko and her yakuza family.  These, however, pale in number to what Gibson presents as the futuristic version of the common man.  Case is arguably criminal and poor, his acquaintances whores, drug dealers, pimps, bartenders, criminals and other “low” forms of existence.  Bobby’s life is detailed as being one which is far from certain financially.  His mother ignores the family, soothing her soul on soap operas in a dilapidated tenement, his father nowhere to be found.  Slick, Little Bird, Gentry, and Cherry are a group scraping by, their day to day life lived at an abandoned landfill, opportunities more than limited.  And lastly, Mona is an American teenager from a broken home, no money or family to care for her.  Raised by an indifferent uncle, she does what she can to get by, including prostituting herself and taking drugs to escape hardships.  Mona’s existence at the bottom of the barrel is one none envy.  The circumstances of these characters serve to highlight the disparity of life quality which Gibson envisions as being the natural result if the current shape of state market economy continues.  Money, via commercializing legal and illegal technology, is access to a higher quality of life, and vice versa.  Thus, based on the character viewpoints Gibson selects, it would seem the majority do not have access, and are sliding from middle class toward poverty, and the choices that accompany the mode. 

One such provision of technology through money is physical modification.  From those superficial in appearance to deeper, structural alterations, a full menu of reconstructions and remodels are available to humanity in the Sprawl.  People with money or financial backing no longer have to bemoan the crudity of morality.  Molly walks the streets with digital cues registering constantly in the spectacles mounted to her skull.  She also knows her surgically enhanced reflexes not only give her an advantage in defending herself from the criminals around her, but also make her a dangerous human weapon on the offense.  The slap-in-the-face opening paragraphs of Count Zero inform the reader in direct terms of the complete stripping and biological refurbishing Turner undergoes to return to stellar physical form after suffering horrible injury.  Mona is pressured and succumbs to having facial re-sculpturing to look like a famous superstar--an act which a person can easily imagine other young people in the Sprawl wanting to perform should they also have the means.

Beyond alterations of a person’s genealogical visage, however, mind modification, temporary and permanent, must also be taken into consideration when neurological advancements are available.  The zillionaire Virek spends part of his fortune keeping the deteriorated shell of his body alive in a vat while he pursues cyber-immortality in the matrix.   Along with drugs, Case is able to extend his conscious awareness beyond the physical and into virtual, cyber, and other dream-like realities merely by attaching electrodes to his body and plugging into a digital system with wires.  Angie in particular is representative of the mind-body changes possible.  A middle point between being pure human and being pure technology, she is the nexus of unaltered homo sapien sapien and AI.  Her brain hard wired with bio-filament, she can access cyberspace and communicate with AI constructs without the need to jack in, yet still need to eat, sleep, and perform the other necessary functions of a mortal.

The bio-physical enhancements such as Angie’s brain or Case’s built in hardware jack move the discussion from the physical to the psychological.  In other words, from physical, objective reality to the subjective manner in which reality is perceived.  And it is precisely at this turn that Gibson makes his point.

Time has yet to prove whether the human psyche is its greatest advantage or disadvantage.  Perception faulty, the brain depends largely on empirical evidence to support its suppositions. By establishing patterns and relationships, it paints pictures as to what general reality is or might be.  This reality can be foreboding (the imminence of death) and it can be effervescent (seeing a child born or a walk in nature), in turn requiring escape or immersion.  Through atypical experiences of reality, people garner respite from the stress, doldrums, ennui, and day-to-day activity that form the lion’s share of our existence.  In today’s society, this is accomplished in a variety of fashions, including travel, socializing, literature, media distraction, and, as Gibson directly asserts, drugs and alcohol.

The habitual usage of drugs by Case, Mona, Riviera, and others serves not only as a spotlight on their need to escape or better the reality they perceive, but also a parallel to the virtual realities in which they immerse their consciousnesses, for example, simstim or cyberspace.  As Neuromancer progresses, Case spends increasingly less time perceiving reality unhindered by drugs, such that by the time he arrives at 3Jane’s Straylight near the climax, the world seems more surreal than real - a point Gibson accentuates by adding the blind ninja, fish pool in space, and other esoteric elements of interior design.  Similarly, after Mona takes a hit and goes on a stroll around New York, she encounters people who seem not wholly human, and as a result her attitude toward them becomes equivocal under the influence of chemicals.  Friend or foe, she knows not what to make of them, and ends up lost, the deeper emotion of losing Eddie and not knowing what tomorrow will bring subconsciously motivating her desire to find something familiar and permanent.

Drugs being physical effectors, however, are only the first degree of separation from reality.  Add to this the variety of virtual realities available in the Sprawl and things become more than distracting.  Throughout Neuromancer Case switches between realities (objective reality, Molly’s simulated reality, cyberspace, and the simulated reality created by the AIs), and the fact he ends up inside an orbiting tube with irregular gravity--reality--only serves to confuse the senses further and stretch the mental line anchoring Case to objective, “earthly” reality.  Wholly a different view than in a mirror, the scene most exemplary of this stretching is when Case views himself through Molly’s eyes.  His slumped body and bloodshot eyes nearly unrecognizable, the sensations Case feels are not his own but yet are channeled through his own.  Further evidence is the loss of faith Case experiences regarding his memories when pondering the notion that the AI Wintermute may be manipulating him, making him see events and sequences which did not really happen, but nevertheless seem so lifelike and real. 

Though Case is able to pull through in the end and settle on which reality is real, Armitage is not.  Hallucinations, virtual realities, and simulated experiences serve to confuse him to the point he no longer knows what is and isn’t objective reality.  His mind snaps and Wintermute disposes of his psychologically torched husk as if it were rubbish.  It is through this extreme example that Gibson illustrates the potential danger of conflicting perceptions of realities.  Without clear distinctions between the memory of an objective experience and the memory of a virtual yet 100% realistic experience, a person’s psyche is left at odds with itself, and the baseline from which experiences are weighed loses clarity.

And what of the effect of this immersion in alternate realities on relationships?   It is interesting that not one of the Sprawl characters forms what would be considered a warm, loving relationship.  The alienation brought about by regular existence in alternate realities have broken characters’ trust not only in their own perceptions of reality, but distanced them from the web of social involvement.  Mona, searching for drugs with money gained by selling her body, uses people and is used by people, no attempt at making more emotional connections.  Distrustful of everyone, she never forms a significant partnership with anyone she meets, Eddy only a meal ticket.  Likewise, the relationship between Angie and Bobby, though surviving for seven years, is swallowed by the egoistic habits of each: Bobby a craving to dig into cyberspace as deep as the Finn and Angie to the media conglomerate of T-A as their superstar.  The mental games played on Case by Wintermute and 3Jane create a rift between his glowing memories of his former girlfriend Linda Lee and their depictions of her--for better and worse--in simulated reality.  Case walks away from Neuromancer unfit and unwilling to pursue any meaningful relationship.  And lastly, Gibson plays the stylistic game so well that Kimiko never knows if Thom, the little AI in her helper disk, is a conscious being or an extremely lifelike AI construct.  The ambivalence prevents her from forming a natural relationship with Thom, the disk serving her needs as those around Mona do hers.

But for all of the metaphysical and social questions facing the characters, Gibson is able to take discussion regarding the definition of existence a step further.  The end of Neuromancer finds Finn inhabiting the matrix, his physical form no longer functioning in the real world.  Likewise, the climax of Mona Lisa Overdrive sees the characters Bobby and Angie dead in the real world but alive in an aleph.  An homage to Jose Louis Borges (who wrote a short story of the same title), an aleph is an object that can reveal the entire universe--a point that contains all other points, into infinity.  These two’s personalities still alive and interactive--as proved by Gentry and Slick when they jacked into the aleph to meet Bobby--serious questions are raised regarding the actuality of existence for Bobby, Angie and the Finn.  Lacking physical form, are they alive?  Their personalities interactive and for all practical purposes conscious, how to categorize personas lacking tangibility?  Do they fall under the same set of laws as typical humans?  What are their limits and possibilities for experience?  As long as the aleph maintains a power supply, are they effectively immortal?  The fear of death and the goal of immortality desirable for many in Western culture, to what lengths would humanity go to achieve a similar state as the three?  And the list could go on.

With Gibson’s future vision drawing closer by the year, these and other questions begin to occupy significant space aside the variety of social concerns society faces - and all due to changes in technology, not humanity.  By presenting the world as such, Gibson’s moral point of view is obvious.  Perhaps inescapable, humanity nevertheless needs to be aware of the physical, moral, and psychological effects of developing and applying technology.  Though undoubtedly black-listed by religious organizations and fundamentalists, the Sprawl series is not a grand glorification of sex, drugs, technology, and violence, but rather a presentation of these aspects as the natural outcome of the current state of capitalism’s application of scientific developments.  Perhaps mostly a thought experiment, the potential reality, like Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, should make the reader think, and moreover, prepare.

The Sprawl trilogy covers a lot of ground.  The degree to which scientific advances are commoditized and dispersed and integrated with humanity day by day, as well as the aspects of human nature which tends toward self-destruction (drugs, ecocide, etc.) are some of the issues taking the stage.  The slow dissolution of character, from the innocently unaware to the hardened tech-head, and accordingly, it is also an examination of the meaning of life; if AIs and digitized consciousnesses have thought and intelligence, what fundamentally separates them from standard humanity?  Thus, at all levels does Gibson’s Sprawl plant its crosshairs squarely on the near-future of humanity and ask the metaphysical questions that need answering before existence evolves beyond the bounds of definition.

If looking for more information, below you will find my reviews of the books which comprise the Sprawl series:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of "Inversions" by Iain M. Banks

Like Excession, Use of Weapons, The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks' 1998 Inversions continues to prove not only that the reader should expect the unexpected, but goes one step further.  Explicitly starting out to write “a Culture novel that wasn’t a Culture novel”, the novel will undoubtedly divide fans of the series.  Likely to be categorized fantasy by someone who knows nothing of the Culture, knowledgeable fans would sympathize upon finishing the work.  There is a medieval feel to the royalty, court intrigue, sword fights and beautiful damsels, boys growing up to become men, and a few “supernatural” events that bend the story beyond realism.  However, astute readers will recognize something deeper happening beneath the deceptively simple fa├žade Banks has erected and realize the book is something more.  That something more is not only the Culture, but the makings of a book which also steps foot into the realm of literary fantastika.

Inversions is told from two alternating viewpoints.  The first is of Oleph, an apprentice to the doctor, Vollis.  Vollis the king’s physician, the pair regularly attend to the king’s aches and pains, learning of the happenings in neighboring kingdoms, fiefs, and dukedoms in the process.  But it is ultimately the doctor’s involvement in larger political affairs and her status as a woman in a world of men which build the suspense, culminating in a situation neither she or the reader can foresee.  The second point of view is of the man DeWar.  Bodyguard to another king, UrLeyn, DeWar takes a more relaxed view of life.  Rather than meddling with the affairs of the protectorate, he performs his duties, no more, no less.  And he performs them well.  An assassination attempt always just around the next corner, UrLeyn’s enemies constantly keep DeWar on his toes.  Try as hard as he likes to stick only to his job, DeWar is inevitably drawn in, however, his path crossing Vollis’ in a twist that Banks effortlessly pulls to close out the novel.

Glaringly pared down from the detail of Excession, Inversions is on the surface a lean, forthright novel.  But don’t let this fool you.  As the title implies, juxtaposition is the main line upon which the story’s elements are divided.  Banks delineates a variety of analogous relationships.  Leaving detailed elements of plot for the reader to discover, suffice to say the actions of the doctor Vollis reflect a reverse image of DeWar’s, the end results of each turning out like neither had hoped.  One feels they are wielding influence, only to confront the larger web they’re intrinsically and inescapably a part of, while the other maintains position, but ends up acting out of conscience against their wishes.

To speak or not to speak in situations that do not directly involve you?  To act or not to act when the immediate circumstances have no direct bearing on yourself?  Similar to whether or not Western doctors should help Africans, Banks asks some profound questions in Inversions regarding the wisdom of actively and inactively involving one’s self in the affairs of others, cultural included.  African children may have better health as a result of allowing Western doctors access, but they lose their cultural soul in the process.  Native songs they’ve sung for millennia are in a short time replaced Britney Spears or whatever boy band happens to be popular.  Similarly, by allowing Africans to develop in isolation from Western influence, health suffers while cultural value increases.  Where is the balance?  How to weigh the value of each?  Banks attempts to answer this question in Inversions, and depending on mindset, readers will nod or shake their heads.

And there are additional, complementary layers to theme of "inversion", as well.  Western vs. Eastern teachings (e.g. Christianity vs. Daoism or Buddhism) are readily apparent, as are many concepts innate to Greek mythology: powerful personas overseeing and intruding upon the affairs of lesser beings to a result not always intended.  (Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven covers very similar thematic territory.) Clicking at such a number of levels, the analogous relationship between theme and plot is the biggest part of the book’s success, as well as its ticket into literary fantastika.
 
If the novel has any major faults it’s the lack of re-readability.  Plot-wise, everything fits perfectly in place, but once the cats are out of the bag, nothing is left to discover.  Banks leaves a few breadcrumbs which can enlighten or deepen the dialogue upon a second read.  But with everything presented in clear, transparent fashion, the book is a unit of text, highly enjoyable for what it is, but lacking in incentive to re-read.  A possible secondary blemish to the book is its lack of background details.  Medieval-type fantasies depending to a large part on worldbuilding, Banks focuses on character development rather than the setting, and as a result some readers may feel short-changed that not enough details of the background were described. I did not.

In the end, Inversions is a perfectly configured novel.  The book is consistent in plot development, style, title, and tone – which is not something to be said for some later Culture novels.  Though the plot motifs seem typical epic fantasy, the book never has the feel of Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, or others.  It remains Banks’ all along, the sci-fi edge of the Culture constantly lingering just beneath the surface.  Playing with the genre’s tropes, the resulting novel is a meaningful and human story that does not belie typical fantasy storytelling, and Culture or not, is one of the strongest books in Banks’ oeuvre, realist or sci-fi.  As such, the book can be enjoyed by anyone, but those familiar with the Culture will have a deeper understanding of the events which occur.  In fact, of all the Culture novels, this one seems to most heavily depend on prior knowledge.

Review of "A Fall of Moondust" by Arthur C. Clarke

Standing at night, looking up at the glowing white face of the moon, we might ask: what is it comprised of?  We’ve all seen the lunar landing videos, the dusty, desiccated soil that holds the impression of boots and tires so well, but what does it feel like?  How does the stuff behave?  Like sand?  Talcum powder?  Is it powdery like sugar, or fluid like in an hourglass?  In 1961 when mankind had yet to set foot on the moon, those impressions were left in a substance that existed in the imagination, only.  Writing A Fall of Moondust that year, Arthur C. Clarke speculated just what that surface might be like, and in the process wrote a sci-fi thriller rooted in scientific ideology.  Not earthshaking, the novel is nonetheless a solid read for fans of the genre.

In keeping with Clarke’s preference for stories that highlight humanity’s diminutive size compared to the exigencies of the universe, A Fall of Moondust is novel about a group needing rescue after becoming trapped in a sea of moon dust.  Using the tropes of science-fiction – with strong emphasis on “science” – the book tells of the hovercraft Selene and one of its moon cruises that doesn’t go according to plan.  Not exceptionally technical in its discourse, Clarke’s everyday-Joe heroes nevertheless uphold scientific virtue in extricating the trapped people, simultaneously rationalizing and promulgating the suspense.

No space monsters or barrage of mutant asteroids, A Fall of Moondust is simply man vs. the elements.  The team of protagonists set about overcoming the unique limitations imposed by the lunar environment in systematic fashion.  Theoretical knowledge of utmost value if the trapped group is to be rescued, most methods and tools that work on earth are unthinkable on the moon, its gravity and atmosphere posing unnatural obstacles for the engineering mind to circumvent.  And so while Clarke is able to keep plot lines taught, it is the methodology to the rescue which proves the book’s main draw. 

Average build, clean shaven, plaid shirts, and an unfailing belief in the scientific method characterize Clarke’s “heroes” in A Fall of Moondust.  Lawrence is an engineer with an unfailing eye for weeding out solutions relying too heavily on impracticalities.  Lawson, a young astronomer fueled by his belief in scientific observations, challenges the status quo when presenting his objective evidence to the world.  And lastly Pat, the captain of the Selene, is a phlegmatic but resourceful man, not given to losing his cool in moments of fear because of his trust in the material workings of his craft.  Though these characters are obviously conjured to suit the plot, Clarke blunts the edge enough to pass them off as real humans.  Dialogue not so wooden as to make the story unreadable, there is even time for a touch of romance and detective work.

In the end, A Fall of Moondust is a competently written, consistently plotted thriller rooted in physical reality despite having the moon as its setting.  Like other 'mission impossible' type stories, Clarke sets an interesting challenge for himself and his protagonists with the trapped ship, proving it’s the journey not the destination that’s worthwhile.  A paean to science, readers can also expect the glories of objective inquiry and theoretical knowledge regarding chemistry, physics, and astronomy to appear and reappear.  Written at a time when scientific ideology was not yet taken for granted by society, none of the darker, grittier sides of humanity surface.  Unlike the works of later writers, such as Gibson, McDonald, or Banks, Clarke presents the cleaner, more traditional side of sci-fi (read: idyllic), science shining golden to solve all society’s problems.  And so, while the premise of A Fall of Moondust may seem dated due to the knowledge we later acquired of the moon, the story itself remains a compact and easy read.  Not Clarke’s best, it’s at least short, sweet, and interesting to those curious to see physics at work on the moon.

Review of "Galactic North" by Alastair Reynolds

The front cover of Alastair Reynolds 2006 Galactic North boldly declares the author to be “A master singer of the space opera.”  Cracking it open and discovering ships battling in the black of space, futuristic technology and weaponry, and intercultural politics and prejudices progressing in good and evil fashion, the book does indeed seem to personify the sub-genre.  Galactic North is a collection of short stories, many of which fill gaps in the Revelation Space mythos.  Like many short story collections, however, quality is uneven.  Also, despite that several of the stories do stand alone, the collection is best appreciated with a familiarity of Reynold’s created universe.

“Great Wall of Mars” – Revealing the origins of a certain story in Revelation Space, Clavain’s diplomatic mission to Mars does not turn out as planned.  Metallic versions of Herbert’s sandworms, terraforming, and brotherly enmity appear to disjoint his hopes.  For those who haven’t read the RS series, the story reads in forced fashion, one event clamoring over another just to fill gaps.

“Glacial” – Another Revelation Space story, this one, however, can stand alone.  Unfortunately, it’s legs are weak.  Clavain and crew encounter an abandoned base on one of Jupiter’s moons where all the personnel are murdered, except one.  In explaining why only one survived, Reynolds attempts to build a profound morale dilemma.  But by resolving it simplistically - in consequentialist (pragmatist) vs. inconsequentialist (relativist) fashion - expect not to be enlightened.

“A Spy in Europa” – Perhaps the weakest in the collection, this story could have been lifted from the pulp magazines of the 50s and 60s with none the wiser.  Part undercover ops, part alien thriller, none of the plot milestones develop realistically.  Clashing with the previous story’s moralizing, death in this story takes on no meaning.  Magazine pulp, no more, no less.

“Weather” – Moving from the worst to perhaps the best of the collection, this story sees Reynolds finding form.  The characters act like real people, the conflicts are human – or at least as human as they can be with a Conjoiner involved – and theme is well developed.  The story has impact and proves that sci-fi is one of the best genres for discussions on cultural prejudice.  Though set in Revelation Space, this story works independently and can be enjoyed as such.

“Dilation Sleep” – A non-Revelation Space story (and one of the first Reynolds ever had published), this and the previous story vie for best of the collection.  “Dilation Sleep” tells of a man woken from cryogenic sleep and the weird, dreamlike experience that results.  Featuring great descriptions of biotechnology in a human environment, this story is highly reminiscent of Dick and Gibson.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” – As the title implies, the main character is a creature collector, the more exotic the better.  A commentary on animal rights and respecting the rights of all living things, Reynolds leaves nothing to the imagination, literally and figuratively, in driving home his point.  (Not directly a Revelation Space story.)

“Nightingale” - The story’s name is derived from the hospital ship a handpicked crew of ex-soldiers are contracted to extract a wanted man from.  Weirder things happening with each step deeper into the abandoned ship, the slosh of cloned organs and tissue samples they encounter along the way are peanuts compared to what awaits them in the last room.  Highly reminiscent of Neal Asher’s works, this story can be read independently.

“Galactic North” – Abandoning the linear, straightforward style used to this point, the eponymous story attempts to create a time-lapsed mythology of Irravel and Markarian, as well as establish the origins of Remontoire.  Unable to be enjoyed without a knowledge of Revelation Space, this story is uneven and feels like filler otherwise.

Reynolds’ weaknesses continue to play themselves out in Galactic North.  Problems include: overhanded moralizing, readers being lead by the hand through the plot one baby step at a time, dialogue serving plot only, moral buttons being fat and obvious (sadism, justifiable revenge, irrevocably evil bad guys, etc.), plot developments being telegraphed, and political alliances that are black or white.  However, like a tech-ier version of Star Wars, there are some great pieces of imagination tucked away in this collection, as well as in Revelation Space as a whole.  Reynolds’ literary aspirations may not climb high, but he certainly delivers when it comes to pulp storytelling, wonderful gadgetry, and the possibilities of space and technology.  Further commendation should be given him for his inclusion of environmental, social, biological, and other scientific issues as background elements.  Fans of Peter Hamilton, Richard Morgan, Iain M. Banks, and Neal Asher will absolutely enjoy Reynolds’ work, but I would recommend Galactic North only to those up to speed on their Revelation Space storylines.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

New logo!!


For that handful of you who have visited my blog more than once, you may have perhaps noticed a vast improvement in the header recently.  My sister Ann, who is a graphic designer, created the logo, and I’d like to give her a big hug and ‘thanks’!  Not only a graphic designer, Ann is also a professional photographer and artist who has had her work exhibited in the Portland, Maine area.  If you are interested in seeing more, you may visit her Tumblr site, or contact me, here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Like contenders looking for a shot at the champ, or lesser men seeking to find fault in a wise master, so too is the reading of books that have won multiple awards.  Senses are heightened, the eyes are more attentive, and the brain analyzes every word, every phrase, looking for the reasons it is revered amongst the greatest, and perhaps more so, reasons it shouldn’t.  Michael Chabon’s 2008 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, having collected some impressive SF hardware (Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Sidewise), is one such zenith.  In this case, however, it’s tough to find fault in the logic.

While references to Chandler and the book’s noir overtones hog cover copy, there is far more to the novel than just a world weary cop, damsels in distress, and back alley shoot-outs.  Alternate history in full effect, Chabon uses the motif to dig deeper than plot into the ideas of cultural enmity and the sociology of group identity.  The snub-nose revolvers, black felt fedoras, and gangsters are all there, they just happen to be at play in a world of Jews, Tlingits, and all manner of cultural hangers-on in an alternate history version of coastal Alaska.  Yes, the Alaska you know, cold, choppy seas, pine trees, and lots of ice and snow…

Choosing the Slattery Report of 1948 as his departure point from actual history, Chabon brings his artistic license to bear upon an imaginary situation wherein refugee Jews from Europe after WWII are relocated to Sitka, Alaska instead of Israel.  Alaska and the Yiddish at first seeming odd bedfellows, the dark humor and dark skies hanging over each soon develop a healthy relationship.  Part of the “frozen chosen”, Meyer Landsmann perfectly suits the lonely, snow-covered sidewalks and meals at greasy diners, the smell of fried moose burger fogging the windows.  A detective, Landsmann’s troubles begin when a neighbor is found shot in the back of the head.  Israel occupied by the Palestinians, the trouble thickens when Landmann’s investigations take him deeper into the underworld of the Jewish mafia and their plans for the holy land - the neighbor’s murder only the tip of the iceberg.

Another cloud hanging over the characters wandering Sitka’s bleak, winter streets is their land’s  upcoming reversion to American soil.  Like the ambiguity residents of Hong Kong had trading one authority (Britain) for another (China) in 1999, so too do the Jews inhabiting Sitka face the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen to the identity they’ve built in the northwest state in the coming months.  What rights will the people have?  What new laws will come into play? And most important to the story, what crimes can people get away with now without fear of retribution from the incoming administration?

Characterization in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is as good as literature gets.  Everyone has a story, from the Filipino doughnut man (living in a Jewish Alaskan state!!) to the mute chess activist, the Tlingit police chief in the bush to Landsmann’s tell-it-like-it-is police chief.  Barbie dolls and GI Joe nowhere to be found, all Chabon’s characters are real, breathing humans that we meet everyday.  Like John Goodman, Gilbert Gotfried, and Dame Edna, none of the characters are painted in flattering colors.  Bina, Landsmann’s ex-wife, is an overweight, cocksure, and lonely woman.  Landsmann’s partner, Berko, is a half-Jew, half-Tlingit whose massive build, Tartar eyes, and native warhammer do nothing to stop him from wearing a yarmulke.  Likewise, it does not stop him from having trouble knowing which side of his cultural coin he falls on. 

For those who do not appreciate rich, simile laden prose, do not pick up The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – or any book by Chabon, for that matter.  Were he an opera singer, he’d have “pipes”.  The language imaginative but always spot on, it’s possible one’s appreciation of literature can acquire new heights reading his novels.  The opposite of Hemingway, Chabon revels in colorful, obtuse descriptions that defy logic on the surface yet touch something sentimental and precise in afterthought.  At one point Landsmann is “flying solo, as sober as a carp in a bathtub”, while at another he observes a man with a “halo of dandruff, a bony bridge of nose, and grooves on his brow like a grid left in raw pie crust by the tines of a fork.”   The reader grinning one moment, the next shaking their head at the style’s bravado, the novel is truly a treat for those who love the dance of language.  (As Chabon employs roughly 30-40 Yiddish words throughout the text, most of which can easily be understood based on context, readers should be ready for an educational and thoughtful encounter with the language.)

In the end, fans of Coen brothers’ films, particularly Fargo and A Serious Man, will find The Yiddish Policemen’s Union simply top-of-the-heap.  The same dark humor, realistically unique personalities, and simple but evocative scene setting can be found in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  Far more than a murder mystery, readers should also expect poignant commentary on the current state of affairs in the middle east and the violence which seems permanently in cycle there - all in tones far from discriminatory.  The personal struggles of Landsmann, his ex-wife Bina, his partner Berko, and a handful of other people whose lives are caught in the socio-political milieu of reversion will also strike home to readers looking for stories more personal.  With gorgeous style, sublime humor, social and cultural commentary, solid plotting, and brilliant characterization, it’s easy to agree with the awards the novel has won.  Highly recommended.

Review of "Starburst" by Frederik Pohl

Wow.  I’m stumped.  At its most fundamental, Frederik Pohl’s 1982 Starburst is like a cluster... bomb exploding, pieces scattering in all directions.  So many potential points of comment, such a variety of literary angles to run with, but where to begin?  Is the book satire or hard science fiction, social commentary or merely a thought experiment gone wild?  Without any basic literary indicators to shine the way, it is possible to even formulate a review?  Situation check. There are pages; the words printed on one differ from another; there’s a picture on the cover.  It’s a book, and therefore must offer some morsel for comment.  Here goes, starting with only the certainties possible.

The basic premise of Starburst is that American scientists have discovered a habitable planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and send the cream of the human crop - four hand-picked couples – on a ten year spaceflight to inhabit it.  Away they go.  The problem is, the planet doesn’t exist.  Dr. Knefhausen, the project’s mastermind, knew from the beginning the futility of the expedition.  His hopes were that the isolation of space would promote intellectual activity to the degree mankind’s most challenging scientific problems would be solved.  Revealed in the first couple of chapters, this may seem like a spoiler, but it’s not, as beyond this, things really get out of control.

The idea of eight humans locked in space ship for ten years seems a great premise.  The potential for individual and social interaction is abound, along with the opportunity for commentary on the fundamental nature of humanity.  Pohl at no time, however, delves any deeper into the mindset of the characters than a couple of paragraphs, and instead Knefhausen’s wish comes true.  This, however, is not in any fashion the reader might foresee.  Given the current state of knowledge regarding social psychology and mankind’s leanings toward overt egoism in deprived environments - such as the interior of a cramped generation star ship - the group’s accomplishments do not evolve in a realistic fashion.  The book simply spirals into the surreal.  But what to make of this?  The only natural conclusions are that the story is either overly optimistic or an attempt at humor.  Given the tone and how quickly the plot devolves, the book shows strong hints of being satire.  But that is only a guess.  No matter the intent, half-hearted scientific speculation on the details of living in space combined with commentary on the social mores of the early 80s make for strange bedfellows.

Pohl’s earlier novel Gateway is one of sci-fi’s highly recommended.  He struck upon an excellent idea, mined it, and built a pillar of a story around it, brick by social brick.  Starburst is scattered across a wealth of human knowledge, often to the point one thinks Pohl’s tongue is in cheek.  Hydroponic babies, chakra meditation, plasma fusion, and talking ghosts are only the tip of Starburst’s idea iceberg, and none are fleshed out in any detail.  A hodgepodge that slips and slides out of focus, Pohl does not regulate points of view.  Some characters remain on-stage for a few chapters, others a paragraph, and none seem to have a story which flows toward a central theme other than the larger evolution of history and politics.  As such, magic realism seems a better label than the hard science fiction many others have placed on it.

In the end, Starburst is a jumbled mess that slowly takes itself beyond the realm of believability one page at a time – and there are only 200.  Such a mix of tangible and intangible ideas presented indifferently, one must give Pohl the benefit of the doubt that chaos was his intention rather than accidental creation.  Based on the mixed signals, the serious and seemingly sarcastic alike, it remains tough for any reader to know the book’s aim for certain.  It could be a satire on the post hippy generation, an optimistic look at the possibilities of space, a thought experiment on ennui, or just a one-off to satisfy a publishing contract.  Anywhere from the sci-fi version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to the latest from Adam Roberts (Burst of Stars!), Starbust is an unsyncopated offering from a writer who seems to know what he was doing, just not sure anyone else does. 

As a side note, about the only thing that rings loud and clear in the book is the unbelievably prophetic nature in which Pohl depicts the US presidency.  An uneducated country boy whose only desire is to maintain authority with lethal force, images of GW and Iraq will dance before the reader’s eyes reading of the unintentional chaos unleashed when leadership meddles with powers beyond its control.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review of "Felaheen" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

*July 8, 2013 - Dissatisfied with the original review, below is a re-posting with significant revisions.

The scene set and characters introduced in Pashazade and the broader picture of El Ishkandryia painted in Effendi, Felaheen (2003) is the closing chapter in the Arabesk trilogy.  Ashraf’s history the open issue, Jon Courtenay Grimwood puts his main character through the toughest ringer yet in discovering the answer—if it can be answered at all, history being the greased pig that it is.  As hinted at by the title (for those who have been paying attention in the series thus far), things will not turn out as the reader expects.  Style-wise, the novel is the best written of the three, making for a smart conclusion to a smart trilogy.  (Perhaps it goes without saying: do not attempt Felaheen—or this review—if you have not read the first two books.)

Remaining part alternate history, part mainstream fiction, part cyberpunk, and all detective noir, 2003 Felaheen is a conclusion fully consistent with Pashazade and Effendi.  Grimwood pulling no tricks on the reader, the setting, style, and characters are as reliable as ever.  What remains unreliable, however, is the plot.  Ashraf going to meet his alleged father, the Emir of Tunis, at the outset of the novel, his arrival portends an assassination attempt on Emir.  Unsure who would care to kill the crazed elderly man, Ashraf must investigate to clear his own name, and in the process protect himself from the Emir’s other son, one Kashif Pasha, who may or may not be vying to usurp Raf’s inheritance of Tunisia.  Forced underground, the secrets Raf uncovers may lead him to his heritage, and then again, it may lead to his death.

Filling out roughly half of Felaheen are flashbacks to the younger days of Raf’s mother, Sally Welham.  Bohemian ways making her a world traveler with a lot of frivolity, it is fleshing out her travels, through Thailand, Tunisia, and New York, that the details of Raf’s parentage begin to filter into place.  As with the previous books, Hani and Zara continue to play important roles, their interrelationship with Raf concluded—but not how readers may expect.

The first two books in the Arabesk series nominated, Felaheen finally won Grimwood the BSFA award in 2003.  And it’s easy to see why.  His prose is crisp and polished, and the themes at work, including the value of identity, relativism of history, and the environment, not to mention the religious and cultural concerns of Islam and North Africa as they confront a globalizing world, are all issues poignant to not only literary minded science fiction, but society at large.  Like all good writers, Grimwood’s voice never proselytizes and is able to relate these concerns in a fashion that suits the story yet rises above to strike the reader as important beyond the covers.  Readers can argue which of the three novels of Arabesk is best, but given the consistency it’s good to see Grimwood finally rewarded for the effort.

The issue the same throughout the series, I have saved my sticking point until the closing novel.  The only point where the books fall short is creative expectation.  Having borrowed the alternate history idea at work in Dick’s Man in the High Castle, the biotech of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, the noir moods of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and the mainstream plotting of most New York Times bestsellers, Grimwood adds little new to the genre except a solid, well conceived effort.  And while it certainly requires skill to combine these different elements into a single story, such books remain derivative rather than pace-setting.  It fills the gaps rather than creating them.  This is not to say that every author should aim to push the limits of sci-fi, but by merely riding the laurels of others, it’s difficult to say with certainty that the author has earned a place among the greats.   There is a place for Grimwood’s sci-fi, and he occupies it in style.  Suffice to say, Arabesk is recommended as quality reading, just not as cutting edge.

Review of "Inheritor" by C.J. Cherryh

Something must be done about the art decorating the covers of C.J. Cherryh’s unheralded Foreigner series.  No offence to Michael Whelan, Dorian Vallejo, or any other of the artists who’ve been chosen to provide cover art, but their Golden Age depictions of alien life simply do not suit the temper of the books.  Shame on DAW.  Cherryh writes with subtlety and sensitivity regarding intercultural relations that the comic book renderings of guns and fantasy animals simply fail to parallel.  Making matters worse, the crowd willing to buy the books based on such art will more than likely end up disappointed.  The books’ focus on character and societal development toward peace and cultural understanding is far from scene after scene of gun fights and explosions.  Like placing a scantily clad Barbie doll with elf ears and flaming sword on a Gene Wolfe cover, expectations simply cannot be met.

I gripe not only because book covers are a part of the reason the literati refuses to take sci-fi seriously (what adult reader of academic leaning wants to walk around with a tentacled alien attacking a bare-chested, laser-pistol wielding man on the cover), but also because Cherryh’s series is a primary example of sci-fi in which said academics could find material to study and promote.  Numerous PhD’s could be written on the method and manner in which the inter-personal relationships of the humans and the atevi are described and handled by Cherryh.  The emotions and behavior in the books are drawn from an entirely human palette, the fantastic coming from setting alone.  But I digress.  On to the book.

Inheritor, remaining true to the preceding two novels, Foreigner and Invader, again selects character interaction as its focal point.  This time around, however, Cherryh adds new dynamics to the stage.  Jase, the envoy from the orbiting ship who landed at the end of “Invader”, is now embedded in the atevi government alongside Bren and is trying to learn the language and adapt to the culture.  His upbringing altogether different than Bren’s, Jase faces numerous challenges, social and personal, in making the transition from space life to planet life, human life to atevi life.  Bren, having consciously and sub-consciously altered his behavior to fit amongst their seven-foot ebony hosts, expects Jase to do the same.  But he does not always meet with a positive reaction.  Jase is as much “Other” as the atevi, thus springing new relational challenges upon the characters and reader.

Cherryh focuses much of the novel’s content on the juxtaposition between Bren and Jase: one who has changed significantly from a typical human vs. one who is normal by most measures.  The majority of dialogue is spent arguing about the alterations to behavior and mindset that do or do not need to occur.  Running parallel to their conflict, the enmity between the humans on Mospheira Island and the native atevi grows more vitriolic, heaping further troubles upon the two’s already uncomfortable relationship.  Fundamentalists on the human side and rebel factions on the atevi side act as terrorists, trying to prevent the atevi in power from acquiring space capabilities.  As such, Bren’s diplomatic capabilities - personal and political - have yet to face such a challenge in the series.

Cherryh’s style more clean and direct than the bloated nature of Tom Clancy’s political thrillers, the decisions, implications, and repercussions faced by the atevi and human governments, sub-groups, and people are all described in realistic fashion.  As with the previous novels, the author takes her quality time unpacking the situations which arise, relaying subtle nuances and possibilities as pertinent.  The slightest rumor and changes in status have profound impacts on the state of the atevi world.  It is unfortunate then that the book’s ending proves such a clash to the rational fashion in which the setting is presented.  Where only one or two total plot twists occurred in the previous books, an entire handful expose themselves at the climax of Inheritor.  Stretching the limits of plausibility, the wholly unrealistic manner in which Cherryh wraps up the plot threads undermines the quality of the novel to a certain degree.  As stated, however, the series is not to be read for plot, and one must balance the feel-good note on which the book ends with overall intent. 

In the end, Inheritor is a high quality conclusion to one of the best sci-fi series to come out in the past 30 years.  Though the climax is forced and burdened with implausibility, thematic content and character development remain focused and strong.  Foreign cultures increasingly within the scope of Western life these days, propriety and sensitivity have never been so relevant.  Setting an example, Cherryh proves herself a master of foreign policy, from both the individual and societal standpoint.  Thus, the series comes highly recommended for those who’ve read this far, in addition to proof that starting the series as a whole is worthwhile.  Were politicians and policy makers of this day and age to adopt Bren’s sympathy and willingness to compromise, our world would be a more balanced place.  Now, about that cover art…