Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review of Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong

When living in China, one of my great joys was to go to the bookstore and peruse the tiny shelf of works available in English. (You just never knew when some locally translated text would pop up unavailable anywhere else in the world.)  My education entirely lacking in anything resembling Asian culture, discovering lesser known Daoists like Liezi, new material from major poets like Tao Yuanming, Li Bai, and Du Fu, and, of course, the four major novels of the Chinese canon was like a thousand breaths of fresh air.  Not put off by the size of each novel (each is in excess of 2,500 pages—yes, 2,500) ,I set about discovering what the Chinese sense of “novel” meant.  I ended up reading each twice.

I won’t say that Romance of the Three Kingdoms stands out from the other three; each is utterly unique, and therefore comparable only in general terms.   What I can say is that The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the one that had that power center in my male brain most engrossed.  Literally kingdom sweeping, it features the hallmarks of epic literature (and has been rightfully called the Chinese Iliad by the West).  Emperors, wars, grand expanses of time, honor, heroism, glory, wisdom—all begin to scratch the surface of the multi-threaded and multi-generational story that novelizes the real-world transition from Han to Jin dynasty China.  The country splitting apart amidst civil war and forming itself into three loose factions, more than a century of time passed until the day they were united into a Chinese whole, again.  But the story lies between.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of No Enemy but Time by Michael Bishop

Mankind is a creature which occupies itself predominantly in the present.  Smoking, murder, alcohol abuse, poor diet, resource wastage—all of these habits and behaviors alleviate the moment but do nothing to bolster the idea a human is aware of, or concerned with, the long term existence of itself or the species.  Moreover, it’s fair to say that when one does bring in the long view, “recent” history and near future remain the focus.  Our primitive roots left to esoteric niches of science (archeology, anthropology, and the like) available almost exclusively in museum corners and textbooks, dinosaurs seem to get more attention than cromagnons.  But yet our slumped, hairy forbears are an essential part of the evolutionary formula that has brought homo sapien sapien to its current point of existence, for better and worse, and will always be, no matter what humans evolve into.

Extending the scope of genre fiction far beyond its most commonly held parameters, Michael Bishop’s 1981 No Enemy but Time goes back 2 million years in Earth’s history.  Though ostensibly a time travel story, reducing the narrative to that simple code would be a mistake; its content defies genre convention. 

But the novel does begin on such readily accessible terms.  Inspired by vivid dreams of the Pleistocene, Joshua Kempa has put in serious time studying after work and become a self-made scholar of the era.  His dreams, though occasionally invaded by anachronisms, have proven largely accurate when compared to existing research, and have allowed him to be recruited into a time travel project by the loquacious Dr. Blair.  After a short training period in the African bush, Kempa is dropped into the middle of the veldt 2 million years ago.  Among his meager supplies a data transponder, he goes about documenting the flora, fauna, and habilines he finds there.  But it’s when joining a tribe of the proto-humans that his life in the Pleistocene truly begins.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pyrite Age 2: Pulp Rides, Again

Stop and imagine for one moment the internet existing in the early 20 th century, the time when science fiction and fantasy were fresh and new and flooding the market.  The Lovecraft clique re-tweeting the day’s bits of racism and xenophobia.  The sheer number of forums devoted to Barsoom rehash and predilection.  The Gernsback website reading like a Japanese mail-order catalogue.  Bloggies expounding the latest exploits of sss-hot Conan (those abs!).  Backwater livejournals pointing out the towering magnificence of Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (to no avail).  Hard sf Reddit threads going through Verne novels with a fine-toothed comb.  The majority of media, however, would have been devoted to reviews of the latest magazine releases. As cotton candy as content was, it was the heart of the era.

Amazing Stories, Astounding, Planet Stories, Astonishing Stories, Air Wonder Stories—these and many, many other magazines were where sf&f was happening.  Featuring a handful of stories, some advertizing, and bits of non-fiction or media coverage, they satisfied that craving for “science, in fantasy form!”  I will not rehash what others have put more eloquently (see Brian Aldiss’ The Billion Year Spree, for example), but suffice to say this realm of ‘scientifiction’ drew far more inspiration from Captain Irrational and King Lurid than Mr. Wordsmith or Prof. Humanism.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review of Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon

2015 and (part of) the rave in genre is gender busting.  The space opera fare of Ann Leckie’s Anciliary Justice ignores sex in its pronouns.  Kameron Hurley’s ultra-violent samurai-Medieval fantasy The Mirror Empire inverts the standard male-female power relationship and has a unisex warrior.  And Alex Dally MacFarlane is doing her darndest to promote the elimination of binary gender from sf. These novels and views championed as fresh perspectives, sometimes even ground breaking views that are revolutionizing the way we see the world and genre, it’s as if the history of the field never existed.  But the fact the gendered elements of Leckie and Hurley’s novels are like sprinkles on a cake—superficial at best—is all the more concerning.  Does the modern generation of science fiction and fantasy readers truly consider them in-depth examinations of gender and society?

Rewind to 1960 and the rave is how speculative fiction is beginning to transition from the uber-modernism of the Silver Age into concerns more directly relevant to civil rights issues of the day.  With the emergence of writers like Algis Budrys, Robert Sheckley, Joanna Russ, Brian Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and others, the concerns of the Cold War, discrimination, sexism, race, and other topics more directly affecting people in the Western world were starting to be addressed.  Enter Theodore Sturgeon’s 1960 Venus Plus X.  About a man visiting a world of humans where the physical notion of male and female does not exist, it puts to clean shame the contemporary conception of what a robust examination of non-gender in fiction can be.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Semi-quotidian human lateralness (with shades of destruction).  That is the (admittedly oblique) plaque on the wall beneath David Mitchell’s 1999 debut novel Ghostwritten.  A fusion of multi-cultural flavors, it spans the globe, stretching from everyday soul to soul, telling stories that culminate in something approximating an encompassing vision—if you squint.  The authorial voice striking, the prose bounces and burns across the spectrum of individuals—not always in parallel with circumstance, but certainly with verve. 

Clever (occasionally too clever for it own good), Ghostwritten is a rich meal of a novel with the occasionally empty but enjoyable calorie.  Using an uncommon approach to novel form, Ghostwritten is less a single narrative and more a mosaic of everyday peoples’ stories.  Connected via chance and those quirkly little circumstances that throw strangers together, the people are far from heroes and villains.  The element of chance only a part of the premise, Mitchell seems more intent on using the device to tell the fate of ordinary people in the context of violent history, that is, rather than rubbing the idea of fate itself in the reader’s face.  I am only partially convinced the nine stories flow into a singular, coherent whole, but then again, life does not allow us that, either.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review of Coyote Frontier by Allen Steele

The days of the Jesse James Gang and Wagons Ho! are behind us, yet the images and mindset of the era remain firmly fixed in North American and European culture.  The number of westerns in the cinema has dropped significantly and Cormac McCarthy is certainly a different brand of Louis L’Amour, yet the freedom of the west, meeting natives, the idea of a person hacking their living from the wilderness, and the unexplored reaches of a vast terrain linger through the years—its contrast with the contemporary heightened with every new highway and town built today.  Exploiting this lingering sense of what the American West once went through to arrive at where it is today, Allen Steele’s 2005 Coyote Frontier, third and closing book in the original Coyote trilogy, looks at the interstellar colony dealing with Earth’s inroads onto the fertile planet.

Technology advancing to the point stargates are achieved, near instantaneous travel comes available between Earth and Coyote at the outset of Coyote Frontier.  Looking to barter the technology the colonists are sorely lacking for living space for the huddled billions on Earth, a European Alliance delegation arrives bearing one of the devices.  The sting of the revolutionary war still fresh in Carlos Montero and the other members of Coyote’s minds, they are hesitant to accept the proposal, but agree to send a delegation to Earth to negotiate.  Meanwhile, in the back country of Coyote, trouble is brewing.  With the colony looking to expand, resources are needed.  But in the process of harvesting timber, the native Chireep cause problems.  Their homes destroyed in the logging effort, they start sabotaging the flumes, in turn bringing to a head a disagreement between the environmentalists who want to protect the planet and pure capitalists who want to exploit the planet.  The fight spilling over into negotiations with Earth, Coyote Frontier settles once and for all Coyote’s relationship with its mother planet and the vast terrain waiting for humanity to inhabit. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Review of Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

After more than a decade between novels, Dave Hutchinson has become positively prolific.  Producing a third novel a little more than a year after the second, one has to ask: why?  I guess a setting as intriguing as Europe in Autumn is too rich not to contain further tales.  Europe at Midnight (Rebellion, 2015) is the follow up, giving rise to an additional question: can its interaction with European culture and possible near-future EU reality be as deceivingly sublime as Autumn?

Before I answer that question, I will jump back a little.  Europe in Autumn finished on what Adam Roberts called a ‘knight’s move’.  While for me the conclusion was checkmate in three moves, other people thought things were left unifinished—more of the game to be played, which begs Hutchinson’s own question: what relationship would the new novel bear to the first novel?  The author’s friends’ reply?  Spinoff.  Accordingly, Europe at Midnight is not a continuation of Rudi’s story from Autumn, rather an expansion of the near-future EU Rudi lives in - and discovered at the conclusion of Autumn.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Review of Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson’s 1999 Cryptonomicon is a doorstopper (918 pps).  So too is 2008’s Anathem (937 pps).  2003-2004’s Baroque Cycle is borderline encyclopedic (averaging 878 pps each across the three volumes).  Packed with truly varied and sundry points of interest, cultural observations, history (esoteric,imagined, and otherwise), conjecture, humorous digressions, and dynamic, interwoven storylines, the books may be lengthy, but they are rich, enjoyable reads.   2011’s Reamde, though weighing in at a similar 1044 pages, has a very different verve.

In interviews, Stephenson states that with Reamde, he wanted to get back to basics and write a good, old-fashioned thriller.  I will discuss the meaning of ‘thriller’ in a bit, but for the moment will give Stephenson the credit of having accomplished his goal.  More Robert Ludlum meets Charles Stross than the quirky, unique perspectives on science fiction that have defined Stephenson’s oeuvre thus far, the novel’s aura is indeed his most mainstream to date.  About a scam run inside an online game, the effects ripple until the Russian mafia, terrorists, and game developers are caught up in a worldwide chase involving murder, shootouts, spies, light romance, intrigue, and revenge.  All the familiar game pieces of the genre in place, Reamde delivers on expected content.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review of Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams

Clifford Hicks on Amazon remarks: ‘Three works define cyberpunk as a genre -- William Gibson's "Neuromancer," Bruce Sterling's "The Artificial Kid" and Walter Jon Williams' "Hardwired."’ While I would argue the usage of “define” (where is Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers, or the Mirrorshades anthology, or John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, or James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” or…), there’s no denying the three novels capture the aesthetic of cyberpunk.  Neuromancer certainly one of the most read and influential science fiction novels of all time, I have my doubts, however, people are as aware of Sterling or William’s contributions.  And undeservingly so. 

Indeed one of the original texts, Hardwired (1986) is classic cyberpunk.  Emphasis on ‘hard,’ Williams creates a gritty, near-future US scenario where orbital corporations lord their power, technology and info are that power, people have sockets implanted into their bodies to interface with data networks, the country is balkanized and left largely to waste, and the masses scrape by however they can, legally or illegally.  Cowboy is a former fighter pilot turned smuggler.  Owner of an armored hovercraft, he transports highly valuable orbital products—pharmaceuticals, circuit boards, and crystal chips—through gauntlets of privateer armies, militias, and other forces looking to “collect taxes” on cross-country delivery runs from the Rockies to the east coast.  His conscience regarding the work generally clear, one rough trip, however, makes him rethink his involvement with the orbitals.  Sarah is a 6’-3” bodyguard working in the Florida freezone.  Caught at a career crossroads, running into Cowboy at the medical facility where her injured brother is convalescing pushes her in a definite direction, however.  Little do the pair know but that direction means changes affecting a much broader range of people than just the two of them.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Review of "Eifelheim" by Michael Flynn

Note this review is for the novella "Eifelheim," not the later novel expansion.

Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time is one of the great time travel stories of all time.  While there are several factors why, one is the fact Bishop doesn’t waste time mucking around with the fantastical mechanics of his time machine.  It exists, it works, and the main character is whisked into the past for the real story to be told.  No hand waving, pseudo-science foisted on the reader, I wish I could say the same of Michael Flynn’s 1986 novella “Eifelheim”.  Then again, if the pseudo-science were missing, there would be no novella…

Not time travel, rather cosmic discovery, 90% of the content of “Eifelheim” is Flynn madly gluing, taping, and stringing together disparate and esoteric reaches of knowledge, real and imagined, cramming them all in an imaginary conceptual box.  Polyverse, Big Bang, sociology, hypospace, the Plague, anthropology, Catholicism, and on and on runs the list of ingredients Flynn uses to create his dish of alien transport. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review of Slow River by Nicola Griffith

There are a very small number of novels in my library that target environmental concerns.  Simultaneously integral to and abstract from human affairs, it is one of the most difficult themes to work into a novel with impact.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl has an environmental undercurrent, but the focus remains mainstream sci-fi sensawunda.   Approaching from the opposite direction, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy does a very nice job of bringing global warming and corporate politics to the foreground, but is threaded through with the thinnest of plots.  J.G.Ballard’s first four novels all grapple with environmental disaster, but are aimed at removing the brain housing to get at the psyche beneath—the environment merely a plot device.  Perhaps the novel that best slaps the reader in the face with the hazards of not accounting for mankind’s interaction with the environment while maintaining its fictional dynamic is John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up.  A dense, non-linear work, however, it is a novel for the at-depth reader of science fiction.  Enter Nicola Griffith’s 1995 Slow River.  Effectively balancing environmentalism with story, it may be the most well-rounded and accessible effort to date in the tiny-sub genre of environmental sf.

Bringing the abstract aspects of the environment into human reality via the bildungsroman of a troubled young woman, Slow River is only the second of Griffith’s novels but displays a broad, sure-handed patience that echoes the title.  Named Lore, Griffith tells her story in three arenas: Lore's childhood/teenage years, the time immediately following her kidnapping, and a job she later gets at a wastewater treatment plant. 

Review of "The Gorgon Field" by Kate Wilhelm

    Perky with enthusiasm, a would-be tv writer enters a network television office and heads to the producer’s office.  “I’ve got a pitch you’ve just got to hear.  It’ll be a smash, you can bet on it.”
    “I haven’t got a lot of time.  Script problems with Love and Death.  Not enough drama, they’re whispering.  C’mon, make it quick.”
    “Ok, ok, I’ll be fast.  Think Charles Stross’ Landry Files meets Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear.  Husband-wife detective duo, some playful banter, new mystery each week, the occult and the paranormal abound, and bam—your Monday evening 9:00 slot filled with viewers.”
    “Hmm.  We’ve got loads of the detective and mystery stuff, already.  But you’re right, the sheep—ahem, viewers just can’t seem to get enough.  Tell me more about this paranormal-occult thing.”
    “Well, in the pilot episode I’ve scripted here, Charlie and Constance, the detective duo, are trading witty shots over morning coffee when a knock sounds at the door. A woman enters with a problem the police refuse to help her with—classic, no?!  Her father, a billionaire living in the mountains of Colorado, is being softened up by a young Mexican man she thinks is trying to sneak away with the family’s inheritance.  She had hired a psychologist to talk to her father, but the man left under strange circumstances and hasn’t been heard from since.  Intrigued by the woman’s story, Charlie and Constance head west.  On tour of the ranch, they come across an odd formation of rocks called Gorgon Field.  Having an aura of their own, Constance feels strangely drawn to the rocks, distant voices calling her.  Back at the ranch, however…”

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review of The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

R. Scott Bakker is one of my guilty pleasures.  His Prince of Nothing trilogy is a tense, superbly paced yet detailed series that settles firmly on both sides of the traditional/contemporary epic fantasy fence.  Dune meets Lord of the Rings, Bakker imbues his world with a mood of brooding darkness that showed great focus—Prince of Nothing building steadily to a rousing climax that many fantasy series seem to promise but so few payoff in similar style.  Yes, it retreads the hamburger themes of power, control, ego, honor, etc., but Bakker’s rich imagination, tight control of prose (how often can you say that of epic fantasy?), and narrative structure make for a series that vies with the very best of epic fantasy ever published.

Opening the next chapter in the story of Kellhus, Esmenet, and Achamian, in 2009 Bakker started a second of a projected three sub-series.  Called The Aspect-Emperor, the first book is The Judging Eye.  Picking up events in the Three Seas roughly twenty years after the close of The Thousand Fold Thought, Kellhus has used his powers of intellect and sorcery to create the largest empire the world has ever known.  Having gathered all the martial strength of the lands behind him, he marches with the Great Ordeal north to crush the No-God before it can unleash the second apocalypse on humanity.  His wife, Esmenet has bore eight children, some of which are abomination.  Yet, she maintains clear power of the throne as her husband’s grand army make their way north.  And Achamian, exiled at the end of the first series, lives a life of solitude, contemplating what his dreams of Seswatha mean each morning.  A surprise visit from his past, however, sets his sights northward, as well.

Review of The Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher

To date, 2008’s The Shadow of the Scorpion is Neal Asher’s fifth Agent Cormac novel, but first in terms of internal chronology.  Describing events of Cormac’s youth, as well as his first years training as a soldier, it reveals how he came to be in Sparkind and involved in so much graphic, rip-roaring action across the Prador infested galaxy.

Split into two storylines, one half of The Shadow of the Scorpion describes Cormac’s childhood with his mother, brother, and father at the forefront of the war with the Prador.  The brother a doctor, Cormac learns second-hand the horrors of war.  It isn’t until becoming a man he learns just how much more horrorific war is first-hand.  The second half of the novel is classic soldier-in-training material that develops into all-out special agent action as a splinter group of humans complicate the war with the Pradors by attempting a separatist revolution.