Since starting this blog a miniscule two years ago, I've struggled backstage to put in words that literary quality which separates really good books from superb books--the billionaires from the millionaires, for lack of a better metaphor. Reading Olaf Stapledon's preface to his 1937 Star Maker I found relief.
"...while the decades pass, no resolute step is taken to alleviate the injustice of our social order. [...] In these conditions it's difficult for writers to pursue their calling at once with courage and with balanced judgement. Some merely shrug their shoulders and withdraw from the central struggle of our age. These, with their minds closed against the world's most vital issues, inevitably produce works which not only have no depth of significance for their contemporaries but are also subtly insincere. For these writers must consciously or unconsciously contrive to persuade themselves either that the crisis in human affairs does not exist, or that it is less important than their own work, or that is anyhow not their business. But the crisis does exist, is of supreme importance, and concerns us all. Can anyone who is at all intelligent and informed hold the contrary without self-deception?"
I know my readership is (ahem) limited, but I'd like to think this tiny corner of the review world identifies and values writers who take up Stapledon's challenge. It is writers like Ursula Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, James Tiptree Jr. Ian McDonald, Ian Macleod, Maureen McHugh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stanislaw Lem, Gene Wolfe, and others who speculate upon major concerns of humanity in prosaic, and often challenging fashion. None, to my knowledge, are New York Times bestsellers, but it would seem making it to that list is not their primary concern. So while I certainly enjoy a ripping yarn and can appreciate it as such, I aim to critique books for their ability to address the concerns as Stapledon puts it: the human condition.
Take this as Speculiction's mission statement (as borrowed as it is).
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson’s 1999 conclusion to the Bridge trilogy, plays out more lines into the river of Virtual Light and Idoru, then reels them in for a conclusion that, while abrupt, underscores the sociological, technological, and cultural agenda the author has been working toward. What I’m about to write will probably get me shot, but this concluding volume cements the Bridge trilogy as being superior to the Sprawl series. But before I get into the details of that discussion, a few particulars about the book.
Where Virtual Light and Idoru each featured two main characters with a handful of quickly but effectively drawn background roles, All Tomorrow’s Parties bears more in common with Mona Lisa Overdrive. Several characters given equal time in the spotlight, the chapters of the novel are a turnstile of viewpoints, from characters already introduced to those new to the series. Living in a corrugated box in a Tokyo train station with an aged painter of miniatures as his “doorman”, Laney opens the novel trying to come to terms with the stalker effect of the 5-SB trials he participated in as a youth. Drowning himself in data in the stuffy box, his life slips away as he draws closer to the mother of all nodal points. Rydell, now working security for the chain of convenience stores Lucky Dragon, quits his job one day when an offer he can’t refuse comes down the pipe. Chevette, having ended her relationship with Rydell years prior, is having trouble with her current boyfriend. Named Carson, his abusive nature has Chevette on the run to a place she remembers as home: the bridge. Fontaine (the erstwhile lift repairman from Virtual Light) spends his days on the quake rattled structure guarding over his antique watch shop until a all-too-quiet young man knocks on his door one morning.
Posted by Jesse at 6:51 PM
Idoru, William Gibson’s 1997 middle entry into the Bridge trilogy, takes the baton of Virtual Light’s conclusion and runs with it. Celebrity worship, pop culture, media influence, and the futuristic tangents advanced technology offers these take-it-or-leave-it facets of modern existence are the centerpiece. Less standard noir than Virtual Light, Idoru expands the themes into an imaginative, singular story that develops the series positively.
Like Virtual Light, Idoru features a young woman and man as main characters. Chia MacKenzie is a fourteen year old member of the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fan club who has been asked to go to Tokyo to investigate whether the lead singer of the world-famous band will actually marry the virtual pop star Rei Toei, as rumor has it. Living and breathing the band like millions of other fans around the world, Chia’s reluctance to take up her club’s commission is surpassed by her devotion to Rez, the lead singer, and she soon after finds herself on a plane to the earthquake re-building city. Colin Laney was an orphan who spent time in an experimental school being administered drugs for research purposes. Emerging with the ability to see through masses of data to their underlying patterns, he took his unique talent to a paparazzi corp and was put to work digging up the secrets of celebrities. When a scandal broke out, Laney found that Southern California was no longer friendly ground and Japan is a place to escape the legal and personal troubles his life has brought, and it is to the island nation he heads in the opening pages. With the otherworld-ness, cult fetishes, and streamlined, materialist mindset of post-modern Tokyo buoying them along, Chia and Laney find their orbits intersecting in ways that only a console savvy, pop culture saturated, all-too-plausible vision of our future can offer.
William Gibson’s Sprawl, as seminal a trilogy of books if ever there were in modern sci-fi, is a tough act to follow, let alone by the man who wrote the books. But if the series can be considered raw steel, then the follow up has to be considered the bare blade. Honing in on the present, Gibson shows no shortage of the futurological imagination and wordsmithing that made him famous. 1993’s Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge series, is every bit as genius.
Virtual Light, and the Bridge series as a whole, have a lot in common with the Sprawl series. Gibson continues to paint vignettes of the future and examine the intersection of technology and culture, society, religion, and politics. And the writing, as always, is kept drum tight. But the Bridge series is also a departure. Set merely years in the future rather than decades, the world presented in Virtual Light will feel extremely familiar to readers of today. The technology Gibson features is more subtle and connected to contemporary development—the beginnings of the cyberworld presented in Neuromancer, for example, cell phones, communications infrastructure, lo-res holograms, data manipulation, and others. There is a small contingent of people who feel nothing compares to Neuromancer. Ignore them. Gibson, though more subtle this time around, keeps the momentum going.
Posted by Jesse at 6:40 PM
Monday, July 29, 2013
Looking at the spread of colors, shapes, and lines smeared across the canvas that is J.G. Ballard’s 1979 The Unlimited Dream Company, it’s easy to get lost in the details, the view to the whole, submerged. Superficially disorienting to say the least, the narrative packs a bewildering visual punch while beneath the surface lurk the powers of nature, myth, and beast—the book certainly art more than story. Surreal only the beginning of the description, for those uninitiated to Ballard strap yourselves in and prepare for a ride—on erotic wings.
The Unlimited Dream Company, if it were the work of a visual artist, would be part of Dali, Paalen, or Ernst’s portfolio. Imagery jumbled and intense in semi-recognizable fashion, Ballard twists the story of the protagonist Blake in neo-pagan, erotic, primeval fashion, drawing on the leitmotifs of the eponymous poet/painter to create his picture. Either dead or alive after a plane crash in the opening pages, the young man finds himself on the shores of the Thames in Shepperton, an odd group of people looking on. Psychotic at best, Blake wanders the streets of the area like a mad man, having wild sexual fantasies, tea with a priest, stating the oddest, most unpredictable of things to strangers, and assisting the zoo keeper. Shepperton slowly converting into a dense jungle of birds, wildlife, and flowers of all variety in the wake of his mad roaming, the story’s focus burgeons into “inner space”.
Posted by Jesse at 7:46 PM
The World-Thinker and Other Stories, like The Potters of Firth and Other Stories and Golden Girl and Other Stories is a collection of Vance’s earliest short fiction. The quality not the same as the work he would produce later in his career, there nevertheless exists that little spark of wit that would define the grandmaster’s style of sci-fi. Perhaps for the die-hard fan only, the following is a light breakdown of the collection.
“Seven Exits from Bocz” - Vance scheming on what Hitler's rightful fate should have been - in a sci-fi setting of course!
“The God and the Temple Robber” - A confused story, but one which hints at an anything-goes, Dying Earth sensibility A man steals a jewel but returns it when dire consequences incur. What he finds upon his return to the temple is not what he thought.
“I’ll Build Your Dream Castle” - A strange tale for Vance, the focus being the building industry and the integrity of the business concerns backing it. An early story, Vance obviously is experimenting with form.
“DP!” – After WII troglodytes begin emerging from caves in serious numbers, and as a result, affirmative action has never received such a Vancean twist. The movie District 9 has something in common, though it is possible Vance is playing off Wells’ The Time Machine, trying to give credit where credit is due to the real heroes of the war.
Posted by Jesse at 7:42 PM
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Kim Stanley Robinson Mars trilogy is one of the grandest thought experiments in literature, let alone science fiction. Red Mars setting mankind’s inhabitation of the red planet into motion, Green Mars delving into terraforming and the social and political aspects of the inhabitation, it remains for Blue Mars to make the final statement regarding man’s potential on Mars. Working ever deeper into the concepts outlaid thus far, the book continues evolving the series’ main ideas, bringing our own society into sharper focus by comparison. Fully contextualizing life on Earth, Blue Mars expands to solar system size, and is thus a grand finale in more than just story.
Wasting no time, Blue Mars picks up events precisely where Green Mars concluded. After the successful revolution against the United Nations Transition Authority, those still alive are trying to clean up the remnants of a planet torn by war. But with the divide between the Reds and the Greens growing ever wider over the existence of heavily politicized items, e.g. the space elevator and sun mirror, it may only be a matter of time before the remnants are smashed even smaller. With the fragile Martian society threatening to collapse inwardly, evolving the Dorsia Brevia agreement into a planet-wide constitution may be more than Mars and its people can handle. Complicating matters further is the fallout of the ecological catastrophe which occurred on Earth at the end of Green Mars. Millions and millions homeless, Mars seems the obvious point of emigration. But can the planet’s precocious infrastructure handle the influx? Peaceful coexistence in the solar system is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Posted by Jesse at 6:52 PM
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a landmark of science fiction. The books visualizing the terraforming of the red planet from a desert wasteland to a verdant living space, Robinson examines humanity from economic, psychological, political, sociological, and ecological viewpoints, culminating in the most in depth look at colonizing Mars as has yet been written. The quantity of material so great in fact, The Martians was published three years after Blue Mars. Collecting material spilling over in the creative effort, it features short stories published from magazines, cuts from the novels, Robinson’s notes, musings, and others—26 pieces in all. The time and place of the selections scattered throughout the three novels, some fill gaps not explicitly described, some are alternate “histories”, some are just sketches, and some are minor thought experiments. Written in a variety of modes (pure short story, memoir, poetry, technical writing, and constitution included), there seems a little something of everything.
Quality varying significantly, this collection is for the serious fan of Robinson’s Mars universe, only. Without an underlying sub-text to link the whole, each of the individual pieces requires a vested interest in the universe to be appreciated; most of the selections are vignettes featuring familiar settings, few expanding the series in any significant fashion. There are, however, a few threads running through the collection: a couple Michel stories, three featuring Coyote, and two involving Archaean bacteria. Spurious, it’s easy to see why they were cut from the novels.
Posted by Jesse at 6:44 PM
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars was a big, bold thought experiment on the environmental, political, and social aspects of colonizing Mars. Perhaps the most in-depth look at the topic (a sci-fi one if there ever was) to date, the novel was only the beginning of the story. Terraforming and social evolution examined in even greater depth, the story of the First Hundred and those who survived the revolution of 2061 continues in Robinson’s Green Mars (1994).
Green Mars begins with the introduction of two new main characters. The Underground still a hunted entity by the Transnationals, the first is one of Hiroko’s many love children, Nirgal, who lives in hiding with the other rebels under the polar ice cap. The second is a businessman named Art Randolph, who begins the story on Earth,. Working for the most moderate and progressive of the Transnationals, a business entity called Praxis, Randolph is called upon by the company to go to Mars and act as an ambassador/negotiator with the Underground on Praxis’ behalf. The company’s leader, William Fort, seeks to create an alliance of eco-capitalist proportions. Many familiar characters also return. After undergoing cosmetic surgery, Sax finds employment with one of the largest Transnationals, working undercover as part of their plant biology program, making the air of Mars thick enough to breathe. Maya, while still an emotional rollercoaster, continues to occupy a respected leadership position in the underground community, as does Nadia and her skills as an engineer. And Ann, still practicing geology in the most morose of fashions, wanders the Martian landscape, mapping and monitoring the ever-quickening pace of changes, more and more defiant of the planet’s development.
Posted by Jesse at 6:33 PM
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Having just finished the second book in Stephen Donaldson’s ongoing The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant called The Illearth War, I can’t help but be put in the mindset of The Empire Strikes Back. This is in comparison to the strong (underscored three times) The Lord of the Rings feel Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series, exudes. Both Illearth and Empire the middle story in a trilogy (and like Thomas Covenant, Star Wars has since spawned additional trilogies), the outcome is not as cotton-candy as the first in their respective series. As many will agree, this is an advantage, rather than disadvantage.
Having awoken back in the real world at the end of Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War finds Thomas Covenant trying cope with his dreams (as he believes them to be) of the Land and his feelings about reality based on these dreams. With a newfound sense of bravery to behave as normally as possible with leprosy, he sets out into the world beyond his door. But it isn’t long before he’s back in the Land. Forty years having passed compared to his two weeks in the real world, Covenant shakes his head in further disbelief: if ever there was proof it was all a dream, the time disparity is it. Waking up in Revelstone, he learns that a new set of Lords, overseen by the enigmatic Elena, have replaced those who died at the end of Lord Foul’s Bane. Well versed in the wards of magic, the Lords inform him of Foul’s movements in the time that has passed. Somehow making the giants disappear and massing a huge army, the good people of the Land will need to defend themselves sooner rather than later against the looming machinations of Foul.
Given the coarse, operatic nature of Dune’s two sequels, I was reluctant to continue the series. I thought Leto II’s rise to power was an appropriate place to leave off in the cycle despite the three sequels Herbert penned. After posting my reviews of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, however, one comment was left stating the first three novels were in fact just stage-setting for the fourth, God Emperor of Dune, and if I was to truly appreciate the series I needed to continue. Continue I did, and though I still think Dune is slightly better, the fourth book is certainly a step above those between and does indeed seem a thematic pinnacle the first books were aiming at.
God Emperor of Dune is set roughly 3,500 years after the conclusion of events in Children of Dune. Leto II, now with arms and legs useless appendages on a huge worm body, uses his prescience and hyper-senses to maintain supreme power over the known universe, not to mention his inhuman appearance. Ruling from Arrakis where terraforming has nearly completed the change from inhospitable desert to verdant inhabited land, Leto’s Fish Speakers (an army of unfailingly loyal female soldiers) enforce his dominion: no technology, no interstellar travel, and complete obeisance to his rule, including its limited dispersal of the all-valuable spice. Proclaiming himself god and starting his own religion, Leto maintains his dominion through belief and fear in holding to the Golden Path.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Picking up the events precisely where The Other Lands left off, The Sacred Band is the other half of the story, and the conclusion of David Anthony Durham’s epic fantasy trilogy Acacia. Traditional fantasy continuing to be given its due, the author likewise moves forward with subverting the familiar with ideas more pro- than transgressive within the sub-genre. Unpredictable at a minimum, those who have followed the story of the Akaran children with an idea to the intra-story themes Durham is working toward will not be disappointed. Those with eyes only for blood and glory, may be.
Having heard the news of the Auldek’s march to purify themselves by starting a new generation through battle, Akaran prepares itself for war. Mena, without her beloved Elya, travels to the cold northern reaches to plan the Acacian army’s defense. Corinn, having recently brought her brother back from the dead, crowns Aliver king, giving the revitalized man the opportunity to redeem his failures and the people a hero to cheer for. In the south, Kelis, Shen, Benabe, Leeka and the others continue their cross-country plight to learn more of the mysterious Santoth. In Ushen Brae, Dariel escapes a collapsing social situation for adventures in the wilds that will forever change who he is as a man. And the League, always hanging on the margins, scheme and plot over the Lothun Aklun knowledge the Auldek left behind, expecting to rise to the forefront. These and the other side stories are interwoven through affective, occasionally exciting events that draw the entire Known World into a new phase of its evolution. What that phase is, will be surprising.
David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: The War with the Mein was the author’s first foray into speculative fiction and a book that stretched itself between classic and contemporary epic fantasy. Though the surface plotline was wrapped up nicely, a few of the outlying threads were left hanging. And it seems intentionally so. Picking up events in Acacia nine years after the close of the previous novel, The Other Lands expands the map while setting into motion the main storyline, all left to be concluded in the third volume, The Sacred Band.
In those nine years that have passed since the Mein were defeated and Corinn took power, life in Acacia has settled into a semi-peaceful existence. One by one Mena has hunted and killed the foulthings—monstrous creatures mutated from the Santoth’s display of magic at the conclusion of Acacia. Dariel has roamed the land as an engineer, rebuilding what was destroyed in the war. Corinn’s son Aaden was born and has grown into a healthy boy, doted upon by his queen mother, aunt, and uncle. But things are only semi-peaceful. In the twilight of the war, the League have been conniving and produced a masterful ploy to complete their takeover of the Known World. In the northern land of Aushenia, seeds of unrest amongst the population have been sown, a revolution of democratic proportions budding. And in the south, a wasteland is developing, the formerly fertile lands wiped clean by the powerful display of Santoth magic, the now barren land threatening to slowly starve the people.
Reading David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: The War with the Mein is a mixed experience. On more than several occasions the clichés of epic fantasy are displayed in less than subtle fashion, but that it’s all done with a sense of grace, ease, and often enough, surprise, it’s difficult to stop reading. The story setup is tried and true, but that Durham wills the book forward with tension, colorful enough characters, and moments that don’t always turn out as one expects, push it beyond mediocre. But just. A bridge between traditional and modern epic fantasy, the novel gains and loses everything for stretching itself across the divide.
Looking at the story setup for Acacia, one cannot help but acknowledge its ties to the roots of epic fantasy. For twenty-two generations King Leodan and his ancestors have held power from the island of Acacia. A time of ease and luxury, the outlying kingdoms, most notable of which the Mein, pay tribute, withholding their malevolence for a time they might regain their independence with force. Growing up in the most opulent of conditions, Leodan’s children, Aliver, Corinn, Mena, and Dariel, are never aware of the institution upon which their family’s empire is built and the political and economic contracts forcing these tributes. But things are about to change. The Mein, filled to the point of bursting with malcontent, have sent a most cherished assassin to upend the Known World. And this is just the beginning of the tale.
Friday, July 19, 2013
One day, with nothing better to read, I grabbed a copy of Clive Cussler’s Lost City from my girlfriend’s bookshelf. She said she’d bought it to improve her English, and after having a look at the cover and reading the blurb on the back, I thought that might be the book’s only use. I held hope for something better, but was disappointed: my first impression rang truer than true.
Lost City is exactly the kind of novel Ursula Le Guin discusses in her book Language of the Night as having disconnected itself from the mythic mode of storytelling it so desperately wants to be a part of. Its premise of an aging but tough hero fighting against an aristocracy trying to win both the arms race and find immortality has all the right parts and symbols, but yet completely lacks storytelling depth to bind them cohesively. The description of the hero, Kurt Austin, runs as follows and serves as a good introduction to the verve of the book:
The man was husky in build, with shoulders like twin battering rams. Exposure to sun and sea had bronzed the rugged features that were bathed in the soft orange light from the instrument panel, and bleached the pale, steely gray hair almost to the color of platinum. With his chiseled profile and intense expression, Kurt Austin had the face of a warrior carved on a Roman victory column. But the flinty hardness that lay under the burnished features was softened by an easy smile, and the piercing coral blue eyes sparkled with good humor. (46)
Stereotype rather than archetype seeming to play a stronger role (I unintentionally envision an aging Conan), this description of the main character leaves the reader laughing at his supposed perfection rather than in awe of his “chiseled” looks.
It’s tempting to call The Fountains of Paradise Arthur C. Clarke’s magnum opus. Containing bits and pieces of nearly everything the author was involved with, personally and fictionally. The book has it all, from his beloved Sri Lanka to the immense possibilities of science, alien phenomena to his belief humanity will improve itself, the realistic presentation of science to “knowledge” as the hero, not to mention being produced in the latter stages of his career. Part historical overview, part thriller, and all hard sci-fi, whether or not The Fountains of Paradise is the best of Clarke’s oeuvre is up to the reader to decide. That the novel is at its heart is undeniable.
The Fountains of Paradise is the story of the Vannevar Morgan. Fresh off the successful construction of the three-kilometer high Gibraltar Bridge, the engineer is ready to start on his next vision: to design and build an orbital tower—an elevator to space. The time late 21 st century, mankind has begun inhabiting the nearer planets in the solar system. Development ongoing apace, many needed resources must still be brought from Earth, something an orbital tower, with its capacity to deliver vast payloads into the atmosphere without the need to launch fuel-guzzling, noisesome rockets, would greatly improve. Morgan past middle age and having a heart problem, the time needed for the project’s conception and implementation, however, may just exceed the number of years he has remaining.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Not yet out of his teens, Samuel Delany had his first short stories published in science fiction magazines around 1962. Moving on to works of greater length, he shortly thereafter published two novellas, the second of which was called Captives of the Flame. Seeing the story’s greater potential, he expanded the novella (to Out of the Dead City) and tacked on two additional novels, The Towers of Toron and City of a Thousand Suns to create a series. Strongly hinting at the unique books he would later write, these three novels are collected in an omnibus called The Fall of the Towers and are the subject of this review.
The Fall of the Towers is centered around Jon Koshar, the rebellious son of a fish hatchery magnate. Having killed a man on political principle in his youth, he served five years in a penal colony mining tetron, the planet’s main source of fuel and technology, before escaping into the wild. While still a prisoner, Koshar made contact with the underground resistance, a group which seeks to free the peoples of Toron from its politically corrupt, manipulative leaders. Toron an island where what remains of humanity survives, on the mainland little that is inhabitable exists in an interminable cloud of radiation. Hanging above all is the threat of war from an unseen enemy said to live beyond the radiation barrier. The clash of social, political, and environmental proportions that breaks out as a result, and the adventures had by the characters, is the stuff science fiction is made of.
Perhaps only personal, it is merely a footnote to the index. That the ratings are also slightly in flux means that it is a more subjective than objective exercise. All too often ideas about a book will strike long after I’ve finished—for better or worse—causing me to reevaluate the opinion. Nevertheless, I will attempt to qualify the system.
5 Stars books are singular, timeless, engrossing, poignant, prosaic (experimentally, lyrically, or in some other quality fashion), and address the ideas and questions of being human in profound and interesting form. In short, they represent the peak of the art of fiction. The overwhelming majority of books on my blog that have five stars are also older, which leads me to believe that in order for a book to receive this distinction it must also pass a test of time. Some examples: Solaris, Master and Margarita, Stand on Zanzibar, Brave New World ...
Posted by Jesse at 6:57 PM
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
I cannot think of a suitable place to begin my review of Jeff Vandermeer’s 2004 City of Saints and Madmen, my notes shooting off in wild directions. I guess the title sums up the book perfectly; it is a smorgasbord of odd, paranormal, tragic, sinister, delicate, macabre, slithering, comedic, dreamlike, twisted ideas, with the eerily weird, eerily strange forever hovering in and around. But as abstract as it may be, Vandermeer always keeps one toe in our reality, making the collection an art piece that can be enjoyed at several levels.
City of Saints and Madmen is an extremely varied conglomerate of writing. From short story to transcribed interview, historical abstract to scientific monograph, letter to appendix, bibliography to memoire, all the pieces directly and indirectly describe the fictional city of Ambergris and its variety of inhabitants, human to mushroom. The streets and buildings, homes and back alleys a muddy labyrinth of the industrial era, the mood of moist fungus overhangs all. “The Story of Mr. X” regards a writer held against his will in the basement of a building. “The Cage” tells of an antique collector and a strange piece he feels compelled to buy one day from a family experiencing a plague (of sorts). “King Squid: Being a Brief Monograph Explaining Both the Phenomena of the Giant Freshwater Squid of Related Squid Folklore (Including the Festival of the Freshwater Squid)” is a monograph by Frederick Madnock on the rumors and scientific merits of the creature—entirely fictional, of course. And there is much more, including an encrypted story within a story and the laugh-out-loud bibliography to Madnock’s paper. Each piece with its own typeface and layout, the book was obviously prepared with care and an eye to the aesthetics beyond semiotics. The entire book tied together by place, name, and idea, it was also prepared with multiple purposes in mind.
It seems there is no subject too big or too small, too esoteric or too familiar, that Terry Pratchett won’t tackle in Discworld. His 1989 Pyramids, seventh in the series, sees the author exploring Egypt—just entering the groove that would become more than forty novels in the Discworld setting. The humor amongst the best Pratchett has produced, the book still leaves something to be desired for plot. As such, I’m guessing it won the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for historical grounding, wordplay, stabs at theme, and accomplishments to date, rather than consistent storytelling or characterization.
Pyramids is the tale of Teppic, son of Teppicymon XXVII who is king of the desert land Djelibeybi. Sent to the Assassin’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork for grooming into an “educated young man”, after graduating Teppic finds he’s needed back in Djelibeybi due to a family emergency. Djelibeybi stuck in a time warp, the state of the kingdom compared to Ankh-Morpork is a shocking experience. Though determined to follow with tradition, Teppic soon finds what’s best from history may not be the best for his country.
Monday, July 15, 2013
Ian McDonald’s 2004 River of Gods was a return to writing after a three year break. Batteries obviously recharged, the novel won the British Science Fiction Award and was nominated for others. The premise of the book so fertile in fact, 2009 saw the publishing of Cyberabad Days, a collection of short stories and one novella—a spillover of creative effort from the novel. While a couple of the stories have the feel of a writer in the drawing room, trying out characters and angles for a larger work, most have been polished into more-than-presentable form. The quality of the collection building to a crescendo, the three final stories are glittering examples of the power of sci-fi in short form. Each set in the same India of 2047 as River of Gods, the following are my notes:
A rather standard sci-fi foot on which to start the collection, “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” tells of a poor boy and the stars in his eyes for the war mechs that battle outside his village. Possessing little of the flare that makes McDonald such a great prose stylist, the narrative is written in straight-forward fashion compared to Riverof Gods, but has a nice ending.
For those unaware, The Snow Queen is a fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1845. Possessing all the elements that make tales fairy—innocence, love, severance, magic, and the blackest of evil, his story was ripe for a modern revisioning a la Roger Zelazny, Donna Jo Napoli, Jeff Vandermeer, Neil Gaiman, and a host of other writers who have used the seeds of the past to grow stories of their own. Not letting the opportunity slip away, Joan D. Vinge wrote The Snow Queen in 1980. Anderson’s story fully transposed into a science fiction setting, Vinge succeeds on a number of fronts, but falls short in others.
The basic plot structure of The Snow Queen remains true to the original: a pair in love are separated and must escape the wiles of the Snow Queen to find their way back together again. Triamat, however, is a far different setting than Anderson’s. A water planet, two groups (called the Summers and Winters) inhabit what little land exists and every 150 years exchange power. At the start of the novel, the transition from Winter to Summer is drawing nigh and the Snow Queen is preparing to sacrifice herself in the traditional ceremony which marks the handover. Secretly, however, she has scattered clones of herself around the planet, hoping to keep her position after the transition.
Friday, July 12, 2013
John Scalzi has numerous fingers in the science fiction pie. From writer to editor, blogger to being past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the man’s life appears to resonate the genre. His novels a mix of Silver Age motifs with more contemporary ideologies, the third book in the Old Man’s War series, called The Last Colony, is no exception.
Following on the heels of the success of the Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, the novel continues the story of John Perry, Jane Sagan and their daughter, Zoe. Now in old age, the couple think they have settled into the twilight of their lives to live a life of peace with their daughter. However, when members of the Colonial Union approach and ask them to oversee a new colony—a colony for the future—the two accept and are sent to the planet Roanoke with a team and supplies. Or so they are told. Arriving at Roanoke, things quickly disintegrate. Information they thought was factual turns out to be manipulative lies, and when the Conclave becomes involved, events only become more complicated. Before too long Perry and Sagan’s peaceful retirement plans come falling apart. What are the Union’s plans for the colony, and why does the Conclave care about such an out-of-the-way place, well, that is for the reader to find out.
Posted by Jesse at 7:16 PM
Ursula Le Guin, having incorporated Daoism into numerous works of her fiction (see The Lathe of Heaven and all of the Earthsea Cycle), sought to take matters a little closer to home. Utilizing a more hard-line ideology of contemporary China, her 2000 The Telling presents a Cultural Revolution scenario in a sci-fi setting. The novel examines life on a planet where all traditional customs, beliefs, and practices have been outlawed, and its violators processed with impunity. Playing off this well worn theme, Le Guin produces a book that confirms the tradition of dystopian novels featuring authoritarian excesses, while simultaneously injecting the value of storytelling.
The Telling is the story of the anthropologist Sutty, a young woman who has been sent by the Ekumen to the planet Aka as an Observer of the people’s traditional beliefs and customs before they become entirely extinct. The government, a purely capitalist institution called The Corporation, has passed laws that forbid anything related to the past. Lawbreakers punished and reeducated, the old ways are slowly dying out. Sutty, in an effort to find what few remnants of the past are still alive, takes a trip to the countryside and there encounters quantities of culture beyond her dreams. Keeping it alive, however, may take her life.
For those who have not discovered Brian Jacques delightful and exciting Redwall series, you’re in for a real treat. Though aimed at the young (I first enjoyed the first book at age eleven), it can easily be enjoyed by adults as long as its intentions are understood (I read it this year, and though the experience was not the same, I still enjoyed it). A combination of animal and heroic fantasy, Jacques transforms the meadowlands and forest into an epic landscape where mice, badgers, shrews, moles, hares, foxes, stoats, and all variety of woodland creatures live in pastoral harmony, fighting for survival when evil looms. The series now standing at twenty-two books in total, the first, entitled Redwall, was published in 1986 and is the subject of this review.
Redwall Abbey is a brick structure standing in the middle of Mossflower Wood. A place of safety and tranquility, woodland creatures come and go, meet with friends, receive medical attention, or just enjoy a good meal with the brothers and sisters safe behind its high walls. (Thankfully, there is no religion at Redwall Abbey despite the setting.) All is well in the Summer of the Late Rose until Cluny the Scourge, a bilge rat, comes careening up the road in a cart laden with rough-cut mercenaries and an eye to making the Abbey his new home. Father Mortimer unwilling to simply hand over the keys, the normally bucolic Abbey finds itself in a fight for its life against the treacherous villain.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
For those who have read the first three books in Ken Macleod’s Fall Revolution series, The Sky Road will be a sublimely satisfying last bow. None of the books connected linearly in a strong sense of the expression (in other words, it’s not necessary to read them in order but it goes a long way toward manifesting the overall vision), The Sky Road offers yet another perspective on the future of humanity through the splintered lens of politics and technology. The novel is a delicately pointed end to the series, and while certainly the most subdued, may be the best of the four.
Like The Stone Canal, The Sky Road is divided into two stories told in alternating chapters. The first focuses on a young man named Colvis colha Gree and is set at a time centuries in the future when the world has re-built itself to a pleasantly bucolic/industrial state many years after a major civilization-destroying apocalypse. Though a history major at the local university, Colvis is working his summer vacation as a welder on a crew building the first rocket the world has seen in ages. Technology beyond mechanical considered “black knowledge”, the rocket represents mankind’s first excursion back into space since the Deliverer saved humanity. Meeting a young woman while drinking at the town market one day, Colvis suddenly finds his studies and work have a connection.
The Stone Canal, predecessor to The Cassini Division, saw a flurry of technical, and as a result, social developments, move one part of humanity to post-human status. And so while Wilde and Reid’s personal matters were resolved, larger matters, that is, an agreement between standard and post-humans was left hanging, a peaceful resolution far from certain. Focusing precisely on this schism, The Cassini Division, Ken Macleod’s third novel in the Fall Revolution sequence, brings the implications of Singularity to full head.
Set 350 years after the events of The Star Fraction, The Cassini Division is told through the eyes of Ellen May Ngwethu, captain of the spaceship Terrible Beauty and one of Cassini Division’s most prominent officers. Assigned the protection of humanity, she and her comrades occupy the moon Callisto, dutifully guarding the wormhole and the hive-like construction on Jupiter from any post-human incursion. At the outset of the novel, Ellen is sent to Earth to bring back Sam Malley. A brilliant physicit responsible for the mathematics supporting the engineering of the wormhole, Cassini Division has a mind to enlist his help for a sortie through the ‘hole to meet with New Mars. A non-cooperator—capitalist, that is, finding Malley amongst the dirty underbelly of London’s non-Socialists on Earth proves tricky, while convincing him to join their team proves moreso. Ellen fully believing the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, she pursues her mission with confidence and stubbornness, and ultimately takes her fight to other star systems. Whether the post-humans have good intentions, well, that the reader will have to discover alongside Ellen.
Back cover copy claims Ken Macleod’s debut The Star Fraction (1995) is like “modern-day George Orwell”, and there is some truth in it. Not an examination of totalitarianism, the novel is rather a thought experiment on technology in an environment as rife with subtly variegated politics as the scene Orwell covered in WWII Spain in Homage to Catalonia. Given the dry wit and experimentatal mode, however, I would say that Macleod is more Heinleinian. Regardless of classic parallels, however, the first of the four books which comprises the Fall Revolution sequence, The Star Fraction, is an astonishingly confident debut which examines poly-sci in a way neither author did: the Singularity.
Before jumping to the review, I think it is necessary to position the The Star Fraction within the context of the series given it is certainly not an A-B-C-D affair. When I picture the Fall Revolution sequence in my mind’s eye, a lobster claw appears. The Star Fraction being the wrist from which two stories branch, The Stone Canal forms the claw and The Cassini Division its pointed end, while The Sky Road forms the second storyline, the pincer. Setting the tone (style, pace, mode of presentation, etc.), The Star Fraction introduces readers to Macleod’s brand of sci-fi and presents the major themes at work in the three books which follow. Thus, if you are thinking of reading Macleod, it is strongly encouraged to begin with this novel.
Monday, July 8, 2013
Listening to The Writer and the Critic recently (a monthly podcast out of Australia), there was a brief discussion on the value of fragmenting a narrative: does it enhance or detract from a novel? My personal opinion that it is very similar to using present tense narrative; sometimes an author just tries to be different to no effect for no other reason than to break the monotony of their style, and I think the same applies to fracturing a narrative. It can also be a pointless way of rearranging how a story is told simply to try something different. But there are also times that it complements the subtext under discussion. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk series, as I mentioned in my review of Pashazade, is one such set of books, of which Effendi, the subject of this review, continues consistently.
Introduced in Pashazade, Ashraf al-Mansur is a young man with a big question mark plastered over his past and present. Shoved into a situation he himself only marginally accepts, believing the ancestry he is presented is just as ambiguous as knowing for certain how he was altered in childhood and where his present-day life is headed. Thrust into the position of Chief of Detectives at the outset of Effendi, the uncertainty continues. A brutal set of murders targeting Zara’s father Hamzah right at the start of his new career, he has no time to step delicately into the role, the city catching fire around him in the aftermath of the grisly deaths. El Ishkandryia threatening to collapse inwardly, Raf must navigate a slow boiling stew of commercial and political interests toward helping the people he cares about toward a peaceful resolve that does not entirely destroy the city.
Posted by Jesse at 7:37 PM
Science fiction at the beginning of the 21st century continues to expand the boundaries of the genre. A variety available like never before, some stories have evolved little from those which appeared at the genre’s birth while others continue to press and challenge norms, seeking unexplored territory in the hidden yet remaining interstices. And some bridge this gap. Resting on the tropes of past generations yet combining those selected to create something original, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s underrated Arabesk trilogy is one such example. Pashazade, the introduction of the setting El Ishkandryia and the man Ashraf al-Raf and his singular set of problems, is part alternate history, part cyberpunk, part mainstream fiction, and all detective noir. Though telling a self-contained story, it paves the way for the two books which follow, Effendi and Felaheen.
WWI never having expanded beyond the Balkans, the geo-political outlook of Grimwood’s Arabesk is different than our own. The Ottoman Empire has taken over North Africa, and a liberal yet Islamic state occupies the upper part of the continent, including Alexandria, which in the novel is called El Ishkandryia. A 21st century city with 21st century problems, Grimwood does not appropriate a nostalgic or jaded view of traditional Arabic and Islamic values for entertainment purposes, rather incorporates them into a setting that seems to fully synergize Western urbania with familiar ideas of the Middle East. Muezzins can be heard, muddy coffee is served, and nobility still hold place. Simultaneously, social ills, the latest technology, and the vice of all humanity exist in proportion. Never once digressing into info dump territory, El Ishkandryia is fully exposited through character and plot—a testament to Grimwood’s skills and the quality of the book.
Posted by Jesse at 5:17 PM