Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review of "Mona Lisa Overdrive" by William Gibson

Having established a pattern of publishing a book every two to three years (the exact opposite of Iain Banks, Philip K. Dick, or Charles Stross), it would seem William Gibson spends his time perfecting his prose, paring down the text to a maximum of detail in a paucity of words.   Packed from end to end with impacting sentences which paint vivid pictures of a devolving near-future America,  Mona Lisa Overdrive is no exception.  The third and final novel of Gibson’s Sprawl series is another masterpiece featuring a narrative drive focused like a laser.  

Weighing in at a light 312 pages compared to much of sci-fi today (looking at you Hamilton, Stephenson, and Reynolds!), it’s obvious that Gibson believes there’s no need to overwhelm with volume to impress.  Quality rather than quantity, the author truly has his finger on the pulse of the language, the neologisms just waiting to be adopted into lingua franca.  Like triple distilled whiskey, the style can be savored, each word lean and sharp, and the most vivid of near-future dystopias swirling into view.  

Beginning roughly seven years after the events of Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive picks up the storylines of some old characters while introducing new ones.  Kumiko is the daughter of a powerful yakuza boss, sent to London to escape Tokyo internecine warfare.  Slick is an ex-con living in the wastelands of a New Jersey landfill, building bizarre robots in an attempt to clear his mind from the chemical brainwash he underwent in prison.  And Mona, a young prostitute, follows Eddy her pimp wherever the drugs take her.  These characters, as well as Angie and Bobby from Count Zero and Molly from Neuromancer, find their lives on a slow collision course that will have all of those jacked in to cyberspace standing at attention.

While there are some shallow fans who consider Neuromancer the only worthwhile offering of Gibson’s oeuvre, readers who appreciate his vision and insight will easily see how this novel advances the series to the next level.  Theme as well as story, Gibson continues to push at boundaries and is rewarded for his effort.  Worthy of notice alone is his ambition to comment upon technology, art, social ills, the environment, and the meaning of being human in a technologically saturated environs.  That he also tells a motivated, paced story filled with highly original ideas moves him to the alpha dogs of the sci-fi pack, no matter the era.  Other than plot threads which may or may not match up in the end, Mona Lisa Overdrive is worth every penny as a satisfying conclusion to what must be considered one of the best sci-fi series out there.

(If you have read the whole Sprawl trilogy and are interested in reading more, you may like to read my essay entitled The Uncertainty of Reality: William Gibson's Sprawl Series.)

Review of "The Lions of Al-Rassan" by Guy Gavriel Kay

Though the practice in Western societies died out long ago, while reading Kay it’s easy to imagine an old European city with him on a street corner, a melodious voice telling the trials and triumphs of men of old.  A myth from another time, his 1995 The Lions of Al-Rassan establishes a mood that is at once empathetic yet speaks of a time more archaic.  Written in warm, refined prose, the themes of history, romance, warfare, and political intrigue as lived by a range of epic characters fill the story to the brim, standing the novel as an example of historical fantasy to rival the best.

Using European history as a springboard, The Lions of Al-Rassan is at heart the tale of Spain’s reclamation of Iberia from the Moors.  Never trying to disguise the fact, Kay nevertheless creates new names for the places, cultures, and religions, the map included even holding the same shape as the Mediterranean.  Kay does, however, writes his own story, that of the larger-than-life Rodrigo Belmonte of the Jaddites and Ibn an Ammar of the Asharites.  The two springing from myth, the eyes of Achilles and Hector can be seen dancing in the shadows.  Belmonte is a supreme military strategist and Ammar a warrior-poet, and despite their individual strengths, each remains subservient to the wishes of their kings and kingdoms.  Religious fervor building between the sun worshippers and the star worshippers, choices regarding honor and duty come often and hit hard for the two men as they traverse the land, doing the bidding of their lords trying to maintain honor and self-respect.  

Like smaller tributaries feeding a larger river, so does Kay tell the story of Belmonte and Amman.  New chapters and scenes beginning in abstract settings or with distant characters, what is introduced is slowly woven into the lives of the two, such that by the end of the novel, a swollen tide of people and events bears the story to its tragic conclusion.  While some of the action and sex is certainly gratuitous, in this novel Kay is at least able to direct these scenes toward the main plotline, salvaging what was superfluous effort in Tigana.  The ending, though a bit rushed, remains satisfying and will surely have more affective readers turning the last page with a heavy heart.

Having helped Christopher Tolkien edit the manuscript that would become The Silmarillion, Kay’s sense of style hearkens back.  Rather than the unpolished, immature prose which a large portion of fantasy rushed from the keyboard to the press exhibits today, Kay has refined his wordplay to the point the pages turn almost imperceptibly.  The tale unraveling rich and elegant, reveals are not immediate and the tone is subtle.  A relaxing balance is struck between the formal use of language and a brevity depending more on action than word.  Focusing on the human aspects and progression of the story, some readers may complain of the lack of cultural elements or details in the setting.  As characterization and plot are so lush and textured, however, most will not notice.

In choosing so many historical settings for his novels, Kay is fast becoming the Michener of historical fantasy - The Lions of Al-Rassan not excluded.  The themes of love, honor, duty, sacrifice, loyalty, etc. so pervasive, the novel is nothing less than classic storytelling.  Thus, for those who enjoy stories told in time worn tradition and in mythic scope, this novel is undoubtedly for you.  Classic characters fleshing out a classic story, this is a well written book even if it adds nothing new to the genre.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review of "Perdido Street Station' by China Mieville

Perdido Street Station, British author China Mieville’s second novel, is an original work of fantasy that’s sure to turn heads.  Whether homage or theft, elements from a wide variety of sources present themselves in the book.  The visceral descriptions of character and place are in the spirit of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast works or Michael Swanwick The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The monsters are in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, an overt Gene Wolfe, or any comic book.  And the story elements draw upon a wide variety of sub-genres--steam- to cyberpunk, horror to epic fantasy.  That being said, Mieville is able to combine these disparate elements into such an enticing mix of monsters and mayhem that the setting, characters, and the storyline plumbing their depths form a cohesive whole unique in fantasy.

Perdido Street Station resides at the heart of Mieville’s fictional New Crobuzon.  Like London or New York’s main terminals, its trains disperse into surrounding suburbs, boroughs, and neighborhoods that have a unique cultural, economic, or social status.  Home to a wide variety of human and xenian species, Mieville goes to great lengths, particularly in the first third of the book, to properly set the scene.  The cactus, frog, and insect-esque peoples populating the city are all detailed.  There are also lengthy descriptions of the crusty grime and stagnant filth that saturate the dark alleys and narrow streets, the smoke languoring ominously overhead, and the polluted sludge calling itself a river flowing through the city.  While this may not appeal to readers with a weaker stomach, the dystopian disgustingness nicely compliments the ever-evolving mix of steampunk tech that the city’s population depends on, produces, and exploits. 

Playing a witting - and sometimes unwitting - hand in New Crobuzon’s propagation of technical advancement and knowledge is the book’s main character, Isaac Grimnebulin.  Having left the university where he was teaching on moral grounds (the school was openly performing experiments that even Goebbels and Hitler would have nightmares about), Isaac is a rebel in more ways than one.  Involved in a taboo relationship with a khepri artist named Lin, a half-human, half-insect woman, Isaac’s liberal views also allow him to take on the commission of a garuda, a bird man who has had his wings removed for committing the crime of “choice-theft” in his own community.  An interesting moral concept, one that plays itself out nicely in the novel’s denouement, it is in solving the puzzle of how to get the garuda to fly again that the plot really starts to takes shape, corrupt government, crime-ridden underworld, and the seedy side of society complementing the story nicely. 

Needing a wide variety of birds, insects, and unnamable creatures which fly to go about his research, one day Isaac receives a mysteriously colored caterpillar that refuses to eat any of the food it is given.  It is the accidental discovery of the sustenance the caterpillar desires that springs the book to life, action thereafter moving in an ever gosh-wow direction.  Fascinating visuals and jaw-dropping scenes steadily take over the pages, bringing the reader on an exciting joyride of mud and slime, unearthly creatures, and scenarios that defy description out of the book’s context.  Dogs fly, spiders sing, dance, and play with scissors, and corpses are animated by powers all too tangible.  While pace may suffer at the novel’s outset as Mieville sets the scene, Perdido Street Station picks up steam like a freight train on its way to delivering a wonderfully satisfying, exciting, and unpredictable conclusion that is the reward for those who stick it out.

Mieville’s sixth novel, The City & the City, had a high degree of polished, focused prose effortlessly moving the story forward.  Published at the inchoate stage of his publishing career, Perdido Street Station instead features a more workmanlike command of language, flashes of true understanding of the craft escaping only here and there.  Viriconium and Gormenghast acknowledged by Mieville in the intro, readers should expect a lot of adjectives and descriptive elements as Mieville goes about worldbuilding - the setting a character unto itself.  (For my money, however, I would put The Iron Dragon's Daughter as Mieville's greatest influence--right down to "puissant" and "thaumaturgy", but that's for another day.)  His imagination worth the effort, memorable images and ideas with finite color and shape will hang in the mind long after the novel is finished despite the more than occasional clumsy or pretentious passage.  It goes without saying readers who don’t mind visuals more implanted than suggested will probably enjoy the novel the most, but will have to forgive Mieville the inability to match the mood of Viriconium.

In numerous interviews Mieville has deflected the question “Is there a political agenda to your writing?”, with the response “Not really.  Genre, plot, character are of foremost importance.”  Constantly hanging around the edges, tinting the story are, however, a number of elements which can be nothing less than class struggle, commentary on economics, and cultural relativism.  One never quite sure whether these elements amount to a thematic whole, sheer storytelling and visuals are the workhorses of the novel.  As such, it may be best to sit back and take the dirty, visceral, utterly weird ride Mieville has created to Perdido Street Station.  It is wholly original genre work for the 21st century--a feat increasingly difficult to pull off.   

Review of "Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson

(This review has also been posted at

A sturdy home in the burbs seems the best metaphor describing Robert Charles Wilson’s 2005 Spin.  The novel does everything correctly.  It builds mystery in a curiosity evoking fashion.  The characters have all the right traits to color a story.  The prose moves the plot steadily forward, at times even gaining artistic heights.  And lastly, sci-fi elements support the evolving premise of the book as well as any fan of Heinlein, Wells, or Asimov could hope.  That being said, it is the mapped nature of the novel which undermines its overall quality, and ultimately leaves what is a solid domicile for some, lacking character for others.    

The fundamental concept underpinning Spin is that the earth is one day suddenly encapsulated in a time bubble by an unknown group dubbed the Hypotheticals.  While a minute remains minute and a second a second on earth, time in the universe beyond moves exponentially faster.  Wilson plays the idea in two directions for society.  The first are those who react positively to the notion only 50 years remain before the sun fizzles out.  They seek to profit from the knowledge available to experimentation having  millennia as a timeframe.  The second part of society, however, is in despair of the looming fate, effectively giving up on moral codes and civilized behavior. This dichotomy and the ground between are portrayed by the three protagonists: the twins Jason and Diane, and the main character Tyler, respectively.  Style smooth and literary, Wilson chronicles forty years of the lives of the three as they deal with the knowledge the sun will burn out in their lifetime.    

With the impending apocalypse at times less than convincing, character reaction is not the only divisive aspect of the novel.  Story content can likewise be split along two lines, scientific speculation and the relationship among the three main characters.  Thus, while astronomy and biology nerds delight on one hand, the eyes of romantics sparkle on the other.  Wilson fails to intertwine these two aspects, however.  Despite that the obvious intent was to impress upon readers the effect of catastrophic world events, it is rare that any of the characters are emotionally affected by the crime sprees, depression, and general chaos.  They live their “normal” lives carrying out their adolescent love drama, the chaos pushed to the background for the character development scenes.  In trying to drive home the human aspects of the desperation of the scenario, one would expect stronger ties between the two.  Pohl’s Gateway, for example, does a much better job of portraying a human at end, not to mention McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road.  As a result, Spin could have been split into two books: one in the hard sci-fi genre, the other in romance.  As so much sci-fi contains wooden characterization, however, Wilson shouldn’t be denounced too heavily for introducing plausible characters to a genre story, and in the end it is just the disconnection between the two which undermines the overall intent.

Another problem arising from the textbook nature of the novel is how contrived many of the scenes feel.  One can almost see the points in Wilson’s outline being ticked off one by one as the pages turn.  Main character is questioned by insignificant third-party to reveal inner personal secrets to reader. Check.  Main character “accidentally” runs into old flame and is forced to update life.  Check.  Scientist appears stage left for info dump on state of world after major event.  Check.  Create implausible distraction so that two characters can be alone.  Check.  And so on.  Suffice to say, some writers do a better job of disguising movements in timeframes and dispersal of necessary story info.

But there remain several positive points to the novel.  Wilson incorporates a large amount of research into the book.  Medicine, terraforming, rocketry, astronomy, the potential for life on Mars, planet seeding, etc. all fall under discussion, and at times, actively propel the plot.  For the hard science fans out there, this will certainly appeal.  As was mentioned, the strong prose coupled with the escalating feeling of suspense, though starting to peter toward the climax, nonetheless does an effective job of making the reader want to turn the page.  Hints and clues constantly left dangling, Wilson knows how to keep readers wanting to know the “real truth”.

Those who choose to pick up Spin will be left oscillating rather than spinning.  The two sided coin that is the novel – combination speculative science vs. love story – will enthrall or put off.  But in the end, the quality prose, interesting premise, and fully developed storyline will be enough for most readers to at least say it’s a sturdy effort by a competent writer and that their time hasn’t been wasted.  The house in the burbs, despite a few undesirables, has been good to them. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Culture Corner: Wroclaw

A couple of years ago I promised you a culture corner from Poland.  That ship never sailed, and probably so did your confidence in me.  Well, better late than never, I come limping into the harbor, hopefully with goods intact.  
The following is a photo introduction to the city I’ve lived in for more than two years now, Wroclaw.  Pronounced like ‘vrots-luv’, it’s located at the geographical center of Europe and home to nearly 750,000.  Though probably never to be known amongst the other giants of culture in Europe, Paris, Rome, London, and the like, Wroclaw nevertheless has its own charm and is certainly cosmopolitan.  There are regular theater and opera events, several museums and galleries, a historical city center to wander, and a host of cafes, bars, and restaurants to while away the hours.  German or Prussian for almost the entirety of the past millennium, the city and entire Lower Silesian region were part of Poland’s post WWII reparations.  As such, you’ll see a lot of German influence in the architecture and cityscape in the following photos.  Neither too big or too small, Wroclaw is a city I enjoy living in and hope the photos indicate as much.
  First the overview , literally.  This is Wroclaw’s city center.  In the foreground is the river Odra, along its banks are the city’s main university (on the right) and the city market (on the left), and in the background are numerous spires, red clay tile roofs, and towers representing the remaining influence of the Catholic church.  In fact, taking this photo I’m standing in the towers of the city’s cathedral.
Strangely enough, one of the things I like most about Wroclaw are its dwarves.  Each uniquely prepared by an artisan, these small cast iron fellows (no ladies, yet) appear in the oddest of places around the city.  Walking past a spot as you’ve done a hundred times, suddenly out pops a dwarf you’d simple never noticed.  Each performing some activity – usually associated with the building they are located near - they add character to a city that, in the wake of communism, needs a little color.  Each dwarf has its own name (these two are Grajek - like “Player” - and Spiewek -“Singer”) and if you want, you can buy a children’s map that will take you on a tour of the city’s famous places, dwarf by dwarf.
Part of the main city square, this is Plac Solny (Salt Plaza).  All of the building facades in this areas have one vibrant color or another, lime greens, sky blues, creamy yellows, and as you see, sometimes in cadmium pink.
This is the exact heart of Wroclaw, it’s old City Hall.  Gothic to the max, laws have been enacted, proclamations decreed, and people defenestrated from this building over the centuries of its existence.  Just slightly to the right of this photo is the old stone whipping post where criminals were once publicly punished.
In the hands of many over the years, the Jesuits to the Prussians, this is currently the University of Wroclaw, a place I attended for two years.  
 A street scene from the old city center, the Wroclaw Opera House on the right, the moon on the left.
There are things for the young to do as well, such as attending “black music” parties (despite that Poland is 97% Polish, the remaining three percent occupied by Gypsies and Ukrainians).  I guess that’s what allows them to be so vague in their advertising.  Oh, and in case you were unaware, the Europeans adore Michael Jackson.   …and Bon Jovi.

Sitting in the window of what was formerly the city jail, this is a sad dwarf, now watching as people enter the premises to enjoy the galleries, museum pieces, and cafĂ©.  
Wroclaw has a botanical garden as well, this particular section being the backside of the Japanese Garden in early, early spring.
This is the interior of the market you saw in the first photo.  It has the freshest fruits and vegetables, flowers, candies, cold cuts, fish, and just about anything else you can think of can be found here, one of my favorite places in Wroclaw.
Not only on the ground or tucked in windows, dwarves are sometimes flying overhead attached to lampposts!
And lastly is Wroclaw’s cathedral, St. John’s.  Named after the city’s patron saint (his severed head part of the city’s sigil), the Gothic church is a relaxing sight in the evening when walking the quiet cobblestone streets of its island home.
That’s all I have from Poland for now.  Will post more in the near future.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review of "River of Gods" by Ian McDonald

Roger Zelazny wrote his masterful Lord of Light in 1967, a time when the West was gaining and consolidating greater and greater knowledge of the East.   The insights of Mircea Eliada and Joseph Campbell were used to full effect.  In 2004, nearly 40 years later, Ian McDonald has introduced River of Gods, another sci-fi novel with India as its fundamental element.  McDonald, however, increases the complexity, Hindu mythology just one of the ingredients.  From the pantheon, he piles on sociology, cultural anthropology, political science, and technology to postulate a near-future for India.  And so while both novels crackle with energy and storytelling power, River of Gods has more facets with which to view life-altering technology in the human context.

The novel set in India of 2047, much of the country and its culture will be familiar to readers.  McDonald does not envision significant changes in religion, food, clothing, etc.  What will not, however, are the forms to which technology has advanced and taken hold in society, particularly artificial intelligence.  The US having established the Hamilton Acts, laws which limit the usage of AI above a certain level, some places on the globe remain impossible to regulate and thus have become havens for tech that’s not strictly legal.  (One of the entities in the novel, for example, resides in India and utilizes its smarts to profit significantly from stock market using enhanced intelligence.)  History repeating itself, another familiar/unfamiliar motif of the novel is that India is no longer united.  Multiple nation states have split off along various lines, including cultural, religious, commercial, etc.  These differences, along with political issues, are what steer the overriding plot.

There are, however, numerous individual storylines (interwoven) that give the novel its color, roughly ten in all.  While some people have complained this number is too high, McDonald’s choice to include so many viewpoints suits his objective.  To show the effects of technology in the social context, it seems only natural to have more than a handful of characters to spotlight the variety of sectors societies are composed of.  And to his credit, at no time is the reader confused switching between viewpoints.  The clues are always there, chapter titles bear the viewpoint’s name, not to mention that within the overall group, many of the characters form pairs or teams, which ultimately aid the reader in tracking the storylines.  At no time did I feel lost reading this novel, and more importantly, neither did I feel that the individuals overshadowed the main storyline.  To his credit, McDonald remained focused throughout, never losing touch with the book’s message, which is perhaps the reason the book won the awards it did (the BSFA the best in my opinion).

The individual storylines too varied to go into detail, suffice to say there is enough happening at all times to keep the reader, reading.  McDonald’s writing style having brisk but dense sentences, fans of Gibson–and more than just Neuromancer - will undoubtedly appreciate McDonald’s non-utopian view of the future and the role technology may play in our lives; the style with which each scribe - suitably descriptive yet efficient – is similar.  And while Dan Simmon’s sci-fi focuses on the mythic parallels of AI, fans of the Hyperion Cantos will also enjoy McDonald’s more down to earth portrayal of the subject.  Both authors, along with Iain Banks, brilliantly imagine the “mind” of AI.  And lastly, readers of Greg Egan will particularly like the gritty edge that McDonald brings to the technology in his books, the asexuals in particular reminiscent of Distress.

If you do not like works such as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem because you thought they contained too many words you didn’t know or it took too much effort to look in the glossary, then you should be warned that River of Gods contains many Indian words, as well as neologisms McDonald invents to contextualize his near-future India.  There is a glossary, but some readers may tire of looking or be unable to sit back and just flow with the novel.  Like Wolfe’s series, however, it’s not necessary to know every single word; context is more than enough to understand the message.  And the second warning is, if you prefer linear narratives, be careful; some of the individual storylines are not always told in a-b-c fashion.  Only momentarily disorienting, McDonald quickly clues you in, and most readers will not have a problem.

In the end, River of Gods is a book that, while not for everyone’s tastes, presents well thought out ideas on technology and society in an exciting and complex fashion.  The Indian setting and characters, while perhaps not always culturally accurate, nonetheless becomes an entity of their own under McDonald’s pen.  For its insight, its imagination, and its obvious concern for the health of society today, this book comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Connecting the world...

Though now fifteen years old, I recently found a great article on the web about our age's flow of information.

In the middle of the 90s, the writer and novelist Neal Stephenson decided to get down to the roots of data transfer: how is information getting from one side of the world to the other in the blink of an eye.  Taking along a buddy and GPS receiver, he set out on the ultimate geek adventure.  Some tourists travel the grand canyon, some the Amazon River, Stephenson followed the FLAG cable from England to Japan.

Over land and sea, the resulting travelogue resonates with humor, anecdotes, historical precedents, exotic locations, and raw info on the physical reality of data transfer.  It is Voyage of the Beagle in the 21st century.  Though lengthy (about 100 pages), the article is well worth a read for the sheer knowledge it contains about the nuts and bolts of global information systems and the history of the web of fiber optic cables draping the earth.  Anyone interested in computers would certainly enjoy it.

Published at Wired, click here for Stephenson's article "Mother Earth, Mother Board".