Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Requires Only That You Hate

I wrote quite a glowing review on Benjanun Sriduangkaew's novella Scale-Bright last week. Maybe if I had paid a bit closer attention to my twitter feed I would have noticed something was up but the whole controversy surrounding Sriduangkaew at the moment didn't actually hit me until last night. Not that I don't like Scale-Bright all of a sudden, my opinion of it is unchanged, but it does seem a bit less likely her career as a writer is going to take off now.

I've been aware of the Requires Only That You Hate blog for years. I read a few posts years ago and then abandoned the blog because the sheer anger on display there drowned out the message, which was frequently to point out sexism and racisim in speculative fiction and the blogsphere. Some of it is nothing short of foaming-at-the-mouth ranting and I'm not really interested in reading that kind of stuff. She has stepped on quite a few  toes over the years. It would appear Sriduangkaew had a few online activities apart form the blog that were even more hurtful to people. I can't be bothered to sort through how much of it is actually true but she has admitted to quite a lot of it.

It saddens me to see this happen. I must admit I have a hard time reconciling these two parts of her online persona. Sriduangkaew must have known her online activities were something of a bomb under her career. She probably also understood that she had crossed a few boundaries where one should stay well clear of. She is paying the price for it professionally and personally now. Sriduangkaew has offered an apology. I very much doubt that will be enough for those she harmed but it is where you start I suppose. Not that everybody whose books I review here in this blog are perfect little angels but this stuff makes me feel a lot more hesitant to recommend her work. It's a very sad affair indeed, for everybody involved.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Dosadi Experiment - Frank Herbert

The Dosadi Experiment is part of a series on Saboteur Extraordinary Jorj X. McKie consisting of two pieces of short fiction, A Matter of Traces (1958) and The Tactful Saboteur (1964) and two novels. The first novel is Whipping Star, which appeared in 1970. It was followed seven years later by this book. The books and stories can be read independently - in fact, that is what I did first time around - but, I after reading the novels in the proper order I have to say you get a bit more out of them that way. The Dosadi Experiment is a very dense piece of writing, revelations and insights follow each other in rapid succession. With the background on the species and the universe provided in Whipping Star it is a bit easier to read. Personally I think it is one of the best Herbert has written. It features many of the themes that are common in his work. The quality of the writing however, and this too is common in Herbert's oeuvre, leaves something to be desired at some points. For some readers, it can make this work impenetrable.

Many generations ago a number of powerful individuals among the Gowachin, one of the species that makes up the ConSentiency, started a  secret experiment. On the planet Dosadi they imprisoned a group of  humans and Gowachin and thus exposing them to highly toxic and hostile conditions on the planet. To prevent their escape a veil across the sky was put in  place, known by the Dosadi as the God Wall. While the Gowachin looked on a society developed, packed into the one city on the planet where a  relatively toxic free environment could be created. Even with the staggering population density this city maintains, there is only a place for so many. A great many more humans and Gowachin eke out a short  living outside the city, a place referred  to as the Rim. Now, the bureau of sabotage has caught wind of this experiment that goes against many of the laws of the ConSentiency. It will cause acute embarrassment to the Gowachin, a species that value the law above all else. BuSab's top agent Jorj X. McKie is sent in to find out why this experiment had to remain secret and what the Gowachin hoped to gain with it.

As I mentioned before, Herbert uses a number of themes in this novel that readers of his other works will recognize. In the early stages of the novel in particular, human survival and our evolution as a species is being discussed. Dosadi is like Salusa Secundus or Dune, a place to harden the human species, a place where the environment demands both physical and psychological adaptations in order to survive. We see a number of these survival tactics in The Dosadi Experiment too. It is one of those adaptations that make the Dosadi an acute danger to the ConSentiency. Their struggle for survival is so intense that they see everything in terms of how it will impact their position, their chances of survival. In fact, when asked what drives the Dosadi: McKie answers: "the power to change your condition." When everything is treated as a threat to, or an opportunity to improve upon, your condition, people become very transparent indeed. Dosadi has peeled away all the games, all the veils that hide such motivations in societies where survival is not an issue. Where others are constantly confused by such misdirection, the Dosadi see what lies underneath.

Unfortunately this way of thinking has a drawback. Most of the characters from Dosadi are pretty much interchangeable. They all think alike and while their station in society may differ, their driving forces are the same. That sameness takes something away from sheer Machiavellian power struggle that unfolds on the planet. The key players are not really that interesting as characters, in fact, they are bordering on being sociopaths most of the time. Herbert is playing this game on a higher level and does not invest in them too much.

One of these levels Herbert is interested in is the intersection between power, politics, economics and religion. Like the Bene Gesserit in Dune, the Gowachin that designed the experiment put in place certain religious restrictions to keep the experiment moving in the direction they desired. This use of religion is more of a sidenote in the story though. Herbert has more to say on leadership, power and justice in this book. One quote that remains frightfully relevant in these times of economic stagnation states:
Does a population have informed consent when a population is not taught the inner workings of its monetary system, and then is drawn, all  unknowing, into economic adventures?
I guess many business moguls, bankers and politicians wouldn't like to consider this question in detail at the moment. While this question seems to challenge the current western economic system, Herbert doesn't assume the alternative to be much better. Keep in mind this novel was published in 1977, cold war thinking was still very relevant at the time. The fall of the communist economic block was still some years in the future.
Communal/managed economics have always been more destructive of their societies than those driven by greed. This is what the Dosadi says: Greed sets its own limits, is self-regulating.
Herbert constantly challenges and questions the use of power in politics and economics. He poses uncomfortable questions about what drives our own society and how the way it functions impact the individual. With all these thoughts in the back of his head, Herbert then moves on to another central concept in this novel: justice.

This is where the novel gets really alien. McKie is not only and agent of BuSab, he is also an expert in Gowachin law. In fact, his is one of the few non-Gowachin ever to be raised to the bar. Gowachin law is a very different beast from law that is being practiced in our society. Herbert of course draws contrasts with the American (and by extension Anglo-Saxon) system, but it will work for places where current law is based on other legal traditions too. Gowachin court cases are potentially lethal to all participants. Keeping this in mind, it is not surprising that one of the tenets of practicing law on their home planet is that litigation is to be avoided at all cost. One of the snippets of text Herbert uses as an introduction to a new chapter puts it like this:
No legal system can maintain justice unless every participant -  magisters, prosecutors, Legums, defendants, witnesses, all - risks life itself in whatever dispute comes before the bar. Everything must be risked in the Courtarena. If any element remains outside the contest and without personal risk, justice inevitably fails.
One may question if this is true of course, but it certainly cuts back on frivolous lawsuits. It also puts tremendous pressure on the few cases that do end up in the courtarena. Litigation among the Gowachin can easily turn into a bloody spectacle.

Herbert uses all these ideas he puts in the novel to create an extreme and very dramatic scenario of course. He does do so in a way that can be seen as commentary on many things that go on in our society. The questions Herbert asks about the use of power, economic systems and justice are, and as far as I can tell will be for some time to come, dreadfully relevant. Thematically Herbert condensed many of the ideas that he had been writing about in the previous two decades into one novel. In a way that is quite an achievement but the result will feel too dense for comfortable reading to many people. I've read this novel twice before the read I did for this review, and I still found quite a lot of links to his other works I had missed. So many in fact that I fear that if I read it again in a few years time, I'll see even more.

My opinion that The Dosadi Experiment is Herbert's best non-Dune book has remained unchanged. It is a novel that summarizes many of the themes that can be found in his works but also highlights some of the problems with his writing. The lack of character development, the constantly changing viewpoints and the cognitive leaps that characterize the novel keep it from being a great work. Herbert's grasp of the ideas he wants to discuss is unrivaled in science fiction but the way he translates them to the plot is less so. Personally, I can live with Herbert's shortcomings as a writer though. I wouldn't recommend anybody new to Herbert to start here, but if you like his style this is certainly a novel you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: The Dosadi Experiment
Editor: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 310
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34253-7
First published: 1977

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Scale-Bright - Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew has attracted more than a bit of attention with her short fiction in the past couple of years. Her stories have been published in different anthologies and magazines but so far no novel or collection has appeared. In August, Immersion Press published a novella by Sriduangkaew, the first publication in book form that I know of. My copy is a very nice hardcover. Thankfully they've paid a bit more attention to the cover art this time around. The only other book I own by this publisher is Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting. The cover of that novella doesn't do it any favours. Scale-Bright is related to three other pieces of short fiction by Sriduangkaew. She collected these in the sampler The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, which is available in electronic format only. I haven't read them myself but it may be a good idea to do so before attempting this novella. There is obviously a bit of backstory here.

Scale-Bright is set in contemporary Hong Kong were Julienne is trying to make a living. She has had an interesting childhood to say the least. Descended from an immortal being, she is currently watched over by two aunts who are anything but ordinary. It is not surprising that extraordinary things happen to Julienne. For those who can see, Hong Kong is crawling with supernatural beings, some of which have old scores to settle. Julienne is quickly caught up in one such conflict. She would be wise to stay out of it but her heart tells her otherwise.

I must admit some of this novella went right over my head, complete with that whooshing sound you hear when it is blatantly obvious you've missed something. Scale-Bright is obviously rooted in Chinese mythology of which I know hardly anything. That is not to say I didn't get any of it. Zhu Bajie for instance is so well known even I have heard of him. His encounter with the Goddess of the moon, another important character in the story, is probably one of the more well known references in Scale-Bright. Sriduangkaew puts in a bit of humour when she draws the parallel with the Greek myth of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor Zhu Bajie still doesn't have a way with women it would seem.  I got a little bit of the mythological roots of the story but still can't escape the impression that you can get a lot more out of it than I did if you're a bit better versed in Chinese mythology.

That is not to say that there is nothing to enjoy for an ignorant westerner such as myself. Sriduangkaew repackages these myths in a modern urban fantasy. It is partly a love story, with a bit of coming of age mixed in. I guess the most important lesson Julienne learns in the novella is that it is fine to want things for yourself. She has the tendency to not want to be a bother to her aunts or other people in general. Julienne's background remains a bit vague but it is clear she has some pretty serious mental health issues and she struggles with this throughout the book. She is attracted to women but can't seem to find one to form a stable relationship with. To make matters even more complicated there is a supernatural attraction to a demon. In short. Julienne is a bit of a mess and that makes her an interesting character. She is decidedly unpredictable, sometimes rash or emotional and oh so brave. An unlikely heroine perhaps but a joy to read nevertheless.

As with the other stories by Sriduangkaew I've read, stylistically it is amazing. I frequently came across sentences that I just had to read twice, not because I didn't understand them, but simply because they were so beautifully written. It was perhaps a bit more accessible than Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods, which is very demanding on the reader, but definitely a work that can be enjoyed for more than plot and characters. A little sample from the very beginning of the novel, where Sriduangkaew poses the question that is central to the plot:
Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.

He wears white paper creased into sleeves and robe, and on his head black paper folded into a cap. His faceted eyes are amber glass on an ivory face. But it is when the rush hour parts around him that his inhumanity becomes beyond dispute.

Smiling he bares blunt shoeshine teeth and again asks, “What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”


Chapter 1.1
I loved this novella, even if it left me with the feeling I missed a lot of what Sriduangkaew put into it. I don't consider that a problem besides the obvious blind spot in my knowledge of Chinese mythology. Books can be read again and Scale-Bright is one of those pieces that probably should be read several times to fully appreciate it. I'm not entirely sure that I would recommend this novella as an entry point but I will say that if you haven't already read some of her stories, you are missing out. Benjanun Sriduangkaew once again shows that she is a major talent in speculative fiction. I for one, can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

Book Details
Title: Scale-Bright
Editor: Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Publisher: Immersion Press
Pages: 98
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9563924-9-7
First published: 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Slow River - Nicola Griffith

Slow River is Nicola Griffith's second novel and the third one by her I've read. Like her debut Ammonite it attracted quite a bit of attention. The novel won a Nebula award in 1996 and has made it into the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. I enjoyed both Hild and Ammonite an awful lot so this book ended up on the to read stack right after finishing Ammonite. I didn't know it when I got it, but Slow River has quite a bit of environmental science in it. If I had known earlier this might have been the more obvious starting point in Griffith's oeuvre for me. I'm still not sure which of the three I like best, they are all very different novels, but I was very impressed by Slow River. It's definitely a book I'd recommend.

Lore, daughter of the rich Van de Oest family, finds herself naked and seriously hurt on the streets of the city after being abducted. Besides the trauma of the abduction, there is something else bothering Lore. She doesn't want to return to her family. In desperation she turns to the first person who happens to come by, a woman named Spanner. She takes Lore in and teaches her to live 'on her wits' as Spanner thinks of it. Lore recovers from her wounds and reinvents herself. Eventually she has to face the trauma of her troubled childhood however, and Spanner is not the person who can help her with that.

The story is told out of chronological order. Griffith weaves three main strands, and three versions of Lore, into the story. The first tells of her childhood, from the time she was a little girl until the point of her escape. The second tells us of her life with Spanner. The third deals with her attempts to rebuild her own life independent of both Spanner and her family. Griffith gives each of these strands a distinct voice. The fragments of Lore's childhood are told by a narrator in the present tense, her life with Spanner is a third person, past tense point of view and the passages dealing with Lore's independent life are written in the first person, past tense. Lore's childhood is dealt with in separate chapters but the other two story lines are interwoven into chapters. The way the novel is structured really underlines the various phases in Lore's life and her outlook on the world.

Griffith leaves quite a few details about Lore vague on purpose. It is suggested that she is Dutch, but the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the ultra rich makes it hard to tell. For most of the novel she stays in an unnamed city, which apparently is based on Hull. It is suggested that she speaks several languages but in the story she never uses any but English. In short, Griffith is sparse with details about Lore. We see the entire story though her eyes and what Lore accepts as a given, the reader is not told about. The novel is very introspective. It is Lore's development that is central to everything we read about in the book. In several places Griffith uses Lore's ignorance or lack of understanding to turn the plot. Throughout the novel Griffith obviously is very aware of the limitations and possibilities of this way of storytelling.

The novel is set in a near future. No year is mentioned but sometime in the 21st century for certain. Lore's family has made a fortune by genetically altering bacteria to make them suitable for a range of bioremediation projects and waste disposal management tasks. They have patented both the genetic alterations and the unique mixture of nutrients the bacteria need to thrive. Not using both the nutrients and bacteria supplied by Van de Oest can have disastrous consequences both in the legal and environmental sense. By controlling the entire chain of products needed in remediation projects Van de Oest has made itself unavoidable. I think of this as the Monsanto way of doing business. It is both highly profitable, very dangerous and profoundly unethical. Although Lore questions some of the business practices of her family, the full range of problems with it remains a bit of a blind spot to her throughout the novel.

Lore has had the benefit of an extensive education and she knows a lot about the technical side of her family's business. Griffith must have put in quite a bit of research to make it convincing. Especially the storyline of independent Lore is filled with details of nasty chemicals, reactions and details on the metabolism of bacteria. There was quite a bit I remembered from my own studies in environmental science. In the book knowledge of genetic engineering, monitoring effluent and systems design have advanced of course but the science behind it seems sound. Where we do seem to have made progress in the mean time is preventing these chemicals from actually getting into our water supply. What Lore sees as routine is, in our part of the world at least, more likely to be an incident at the moment. I'm nevertheless very impressed with the environmental science part of the novel. It's science fiction with plenty of real science and technology.

The environmental science is not what the novel will be remembered for however. At the core, it is a very feminist work. Almost all of the important characters are female. They range from nasty to decent but all of them are competent women in their way. The Van de Oest company is largely run by them, and Spanner's Lore and independent Lore's circle of friends and acquaintances is almost entirely made up of women. When I commented on it when my girlfriend asked if I liked the novel she replied: 'Well, somebody has to make up for The Hobbit.' That seems to be the attitude the novel takes. Griffith doesn't really stress the point but doesn't leave any doubt about the competence of the female characters. It is simply a given. Tricia Sullivan observes in her introduction to the SF Masterworks edition that Griffith's casual acceptance of women as competent, self-directed people remains relevant. It is indeed telling that almost 20 years after it was first published, this is still something that readers will almost instantly notice about the novel.

Slow River is one of those novels that left me unable to pick up another book for several days after I finished it. It is a very impressive work of science fiction. Lore's trials are not easy on the reader. For most of the novel she is searching for herself, grasping to understand the relationships within her family and the complexity of their company. It would seem that she is more at ease with systems design than with the infinitely complex structures of human relationships. She learns though. At the end of the novel a much more mature Lore emerges. Slow River is both technically and emotionally a very strong novel. I consider it a must read.

Book Details
Title: Slow River
Editor: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 321
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11825-6
First published: 1995

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Assail - Ian C. Esslemont

Ian C. Esslemont's sixth novel Assail is the final book in what we'll for convenience call the Malazan main sequence. Esslemont started publishing in earnest a few years later than his co-creator Steven Erikson and his novels are interwoven in Erikson's storyline. By that time Erikson had set the Malazan standard and Esslemont has had a rough time living up to that. His style is different from Erikson, a bit less verbose and a bit less satirical. It has gotten him quite a few negative reviews, some of which are in my opinion not justified. Erikson and Esslemont are not the same person, you can't reasonably expect them to approach their creation the same way. That being said, not all of Esslemont's novels were equally strong. I had problems with Night of Knives and Orb, Sceptre, Throne in particular. Fortunately Assail is one of Esslemont's stronger ones. In fact, some might consider it his best one yet.

Gold has been discovered on the continent of Assail. Lots of it if the stories are to believed. Enterprising people from all over the world make the long, hazardous journey to the continent only to find out just how dangerous the place is. Ancient magic lingers in the north of the continent in particular. Omtose Phellack, the ancient path of ice, still holds the place in its grip. It is weakening though. Slowly the ice is releasing its grip on the land and this creates opportunities for those who have an ancient score to settle with the rulers of the ice. The natives of course, are not at all amused by all this unwanted attention. A bloody struggle for control of the region is about to begin.

The final book in the main sequence needs a final reckoning of some sort. Given the sprawling that and the countless unfinished story lines the previous fifteen books have brought us, it would have been undoable to tie all of them off. Esslemont chooses to focus the supernatural part of the conflict on the eternal war between the Elder races Jaghut and Imass. The summoner Silverfox, whom we met in Memories of Ice is key to this story line. She is both the only hope for the future of the Imass as well as the person trying to heal the rift that has formed between the various clans. It's this part of the story I liked the least to be honest. Silverfox is very passive. She spends most of her time in pursuit of one of the clans bent on continuing the war. I don't want to give away the climax of that story line but I felt it was a bit disappointing. I was more impressed with the way Esslemont handled the confrontations between just about every group mentioned in the previous fifteen books. It must have been quite a challenge to keep all those cultural backgrounds straight.

Another aspect I think many readers will notice is the element of repetition that is present in the book. The various characters, and there are quite a lot of them, in the novel all more or less make the same journey to Assail, meaning we see several characters pass the same place at various times in the book. As with all Malazan novels, the story works towards a convergence; but this time the characters don't come from different directions. Once the first group has passed a particular place, the reader will be aware of the danger it holds for the travelers. It does take away some of the tension at certain points in the novel.

What I did like about the book is that Esslemont uses a theme that appears in Erikson's work as well. He reflects on the fate of civilizations that meet a fully agricultural, imperialistic civilization. In Erikson's work it is often the nomadic peoples who find out the strength of an empire first hand. In Assail it is the Icebloods. A small group of families of Jaghut descent who hang on the north of Assail. The gold on their land is their misfortune. Replace gold for oil, or any other precious resource really, and our own history can tell you what will happen. It's a tragic story. The Icebloods are doomed and they know it. In true Malazan style they are determined to make a stand however. Assail's gold carries a price in blood.

The Jaghut presence is noticeable in other groups of the local population too. They are a very independent lot, not easily impressed by outsiders and of the opinion that killing them and taking their possessions is quite all right. Their land is not one that offers many opportunities for economic growth so piracy and scavenging have become an art on Assail. Even the names on the maps of Assail encourage people to stay away. Assail is cold, wild and has a vaguely Nordic feel to it. When you think about it, Esslemont and Erikson have managed to give the many locations in their vast world a distinct flavour. One would not mistake Assail for Korell, Lether or Genebackis.

Assail weighs in at 540 pages. It seems to be a length Esslemont is comfortable with. His books are substantially shorter than Erikson's, making them slightly less intimidating to get started on. I thought Assail was quite a quick read and definitely one of the smoothest Esslemont has produced to date. Some readers will probably think it is not quite what they expected form the concluding volume of the series. The world of Malaz is huge. There are plenty of questions unanswered and plenty of places left to explore. Personally I don't see how it could be otherwise in this monstrously detailed world. I understand Esslemont intends to write a series of prequels next. He doesn't intend to go back as far as Erikson is doing at the moment though, so it will be an opportunity for Esslemont to write a story that is not completely interwoven in Erikson's work. I look forward to reading what Esslemont comes up with next. He has grown considerably as a writer over the course of this series. I expect some more good stuff from him.

Book Details
Title: Assail
Editor: Ian Esslemont
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 540
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2998-1
First published: 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself - Ian Sales

The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the second part in Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet, a series of alternative histories rooted in the Apollo space program of the 1960s and 1970s. I'm a little behind on this series of novellas. The third one, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, has been out for quite a while but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. This is actually my second read of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself. I read it last year but didn't get around to writing a review then. This week I had a bit more reading time so I had another go at it. Like the first in the series, Adrift on a Sea of Rains, it is a highly technical piece of science fiction. If you liked the first one in the series, this one is sure to go down well too.

The US has missed its opportunity to get an astronaut to the moon first. The Russians beat them to it and NASA shifts its objective to an even greater prize: a manned mission to Mars. In 1979, Major Bradley Emerson is the first to set foot on the red planet. Soon after his return, he retires from NASA, something that probably saves his marriage. Something he found on Mars keeps him tied to the space program however, and in 1999 he is asked to go back into space for a final mission.

The story contains so many references to real events, places and science that finding where the story deviates from our own history is quite a challenge. Sales refers to the Apollo missions of course, in an appendix in the back a list of the missions and how they played out in this timeline is added. There are also references to the 'face' on Mars, photographed by Viking 1 in 1976, some quantum mechanics, including that infamous cat of Schrödinger and of course a number of references to the mysterious Area 51. Where the first novella seems to deal with the Nazi legacy to the space program, this novella is more focused on the conspiracy theories it has spawned.

Stylistically the novella is much the same as Adrift on a Sea of Rains. Sales uses no quotation marks in his dialogue, uses a table to display conversations over radio and generally creates a sense of distance to the characters. Like the main character in the previous novella, Elliott is lonely. It's fitting in a way as he knows something very few people on the planet know and he is not allowed to share it even with the people closest to him. Maybe it is not surprising then that Elliott feels at ease when he's in space.

The structure of the novella is quite interesting. He starts the novella with a list of acronyms, which the reader will want to return to frequently. Some of the novella is absolutely riddled with them. After that follows the main story, which is divided in two main strands. The first set in 1979 dealing with the journey to Mars and one set in 1999, dealing with Elliott's return to space. After that a glossary on important terms and space missions follows. Like with the previous volume, this glossary is required reading if you want to understand where Sales deviates from history as we know it. For the reader who has read though all that, at the very end a section with the answer to the riddle Elliott encounters on his second mission is included.

This odd structure gives the novella two endings as it were. Elliott's personal story has come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion before the glossary. One could even stop reading there as it is a natural end in the plot. It is quite open ended though. For the reader who wants to know what Sales makes of all the conspiracy theories he mentions it would probably have been unsatisfying. Those readers will want to go on and read the rest even if, for the readers more interested in the emotional climax of the story, it might feel like an afterthought.

Like Adrift on a Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is a very interesting piece of science fiction. It is very technical, very well researched and contains a lot of interesting detail for people with an interest in the history of space exploration. I found it amazing how Sales can take a work that is so obviously grounded in real technology and history in such a strange direction. It may not be the most action-packed piece of fiction you'll ever read but it certainly inspired a sense of wonder in me that much science fiction aspires to. In short, another novella well worth reading. I should get on with it and read the third one soon.

Book Details
Title: The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself
Author: Ian Sales
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Pages: 70
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-9571883-5-8
First published: 2012

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Widow's House - Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House is the fourth volume of the Dagger and Coin series by Daniel Abraham. They've been appearing like clockwork every year in spring. Recently the cover art for the fifth and final volume was released. The Spider's War is set for release in the spring or summer of 2015. These books tend to linger on my to read stack for a while. On the one hand I like Abraham's writing, but on the other, these novels are not the most challenging or innovative reads around. They deliver what they set out to do. The Dagger and Coin is solid, epic fantasy, nothing more and nothing less. If you are in the mood for that, you could do worse than these novels.

War has enveloped the world. Geder's armies, assisted by the spider priests are achieving one victory after another. The rapid pace of expansion is causing problems though. His armies are exhausted, food is scarce because most of the farmers have been called up to fight and on top of that, there are rumors that a dragon has once again been spotted in the world. Still Geder wants to press on. The rejection by Cithrin stings and when he realizes how she used him, there is no holding him back. The army marches on Porte Oliva to settle the account with Cithrin.

In The Tyrant's Law, Marcus and Master Kit figured out that the Spider Goddess does not exist but that the ancient dragon magic creates the illusion of communicating with the Goddess. Its victims are completely convinced they are right and will prevail. Throughout the book we see signs how this conviction is beginning to work against the priests and how it will lead the world into a spiral of continuous violence. The shape of the conflict to come is beginning to get clear in this novel. It also means Marcus' job is done for the moment and he takes a bit of a back seat in the novel. The unresolved tension between him and Cithrin remains unresolved. Making peace with his past is also out of reach for the moment.

While Abraham is clearly working towards the climax of the story, in The Widow's House he is mostly setting the stage. There is a major battle in the book but neither of the parties get out of it what they were aiming for. In fact, Abraham makes it clear that the solution for ending this conflict is an economic one rather than military. It is Cithrin's mind for economics that comes up with a way to fuse the economies of the various nations in such a way that war becomes too expensive to wage. Her method is not the same but the idea that war can be prevented in such a manner is one of the principles on which the EU and its forerunners operate. The way in which economics is woven into the story is remains one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Interestingly enough, Cithrin also sets up the mechanisms for a spectacular economic crash here. I don't think the story will take us that far but it would certainly have been interesting to see how she'd respond to that.

Clara in the meantime is still seeing the world though more feudal eyes. Even more aware of the various classes of society, Clara herself moves though a kind of vacuum. She is an embarrassment to the court, yet the mother of one of the nation's highest military leaders. It changes her perspective in many ways. She does remain convinced that Geder will lead the nations into ruin however, and continues her campaign to see him removed from the throne. I liked her attitude in this book. She is of the opinion that the worst has already happened to her and is quite willing to risk her life to see peace return to the world. Abraham does make sure to keep a bit of an aristocratic outlook in this character, she may have fallen from grace but her upbringing will not let her be anything but a lady most of the time.

Geder himself seems at a bit of a standstill in this book. He is still the slightly naive, book smart and in some respects decent man, but also possesses a bit of a psychopathic streak, that comes out in full force under the influence of the Spider priests. He is, in other words, his creepy self for most of the book. The combination of basically decent actions and a ruthless policy of conquest is one you don't come across often in Fantasy. We have seen it in the previous novels however, and in this one we have to wait until the very end before we see cracks starting to appear.

I have often wondered what this series could have been if Abraham had taken a few more chances. He consciously avoids a number of overused tropes of the genre (the promised one, a clear good versus evil story, quests for magical artifacts etcetera) and includes elements in the plot that you don't come across often. The banking, the way he handles female characters and his take on religious fanaticism are good examples of that. Despite all that, the series has a very familiar feel to it for readers of epic fantasy. As Abraham said himself, he aims to do epic fantasy exceptionally well. While te result is familiar, comfortable and pleasant reading, it does leave me with the sense of unfulfilled potential. The Widow's House is another solid entry in the series but one that leaves me in doubt whether the final volume will be able to make me shake the feeling this series could have been more than Abraham has made of it.

Book Details
Title: The Widow's House
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 493
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20398-2
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fool's Assassin - Robin Hobb

This book is surely one of the biggest releases of 2014. After the publication of Fool's Fate in 2003 Hobb stated that she was probably done with Fitz but eleven years later, a new novel starring Hobb's most famous character appears. Fool's Assassin is the first book in a new trilogy on Fitz and the Fool. I must admit I was a bit hesitant to pick it up. Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy had not been received as she might have wished and the way the splitting of the four books in the Rain Wilds Chronicles series was handled, didn't sit well with a lot of readers. What better way to give her career a boost than to return to a fan favourite? The story of Fitz and the Fool ended in their customary dramatic fashion and it seemed like a fitting close for these two characters. Was there really more to tell about them? Well, rest assured there is. Fool's Assassin is quite simply the best book Hobb has produced since Royal Assassin (1996). It is simply stunning.

It's been more than a decade since Fitz last saw the Fool. He's spent most of his time on the Withywoods estate with his wife Molly. He does advise the Farseer King from time to time but mostly he stays out of the affairs of the kingdom. They've raised Molly's children and most of them have now found their own way in the world. The years have not been kind to Molly and while Fitz keeps the appearance of a man in his thirties under the influence of the Skill, she is aging at a more normal rate. What Fitz wants, is to spend as much time with her as he can manage but his past will not leave him be. Fitz may not recognize it straight away but the Fool is trying to reach out to him and that can only mean more trouble.

Fool's Assassin is actually the first book starring Fitz I've read in English. I started reading Hobb when she started to appear in Dutch translation in the second half of the 1990s, I eventually switched to English for the Liveship Trader books but Fitz I've read only in Dutch translation. Reading one in English made me realize how good the initial translations by Erica Feberwee and Peter Cuijpers were. A lot of translations of Fantasy novels into Dutch are, to put it mildly, not very good. Hobb has hit the jackpot with her translators. They've managed to capture the spirit of the novel very well and apply the kind of creative translating that is necessary for a Fantasy novel. That being said, I would like to read the rest in the original language too one day.

In a way, this book feels like coming home. Hobb manages to slip right back into the character of Fitz. He is not the young man he was in the Farseer trilogy of course. Where he was young, rash and prone to decisions that were in equal parts dramatic and stupid, Fitz has matured a bit in the years that followed. His life would seem much more settled but the early stages of the book are filled with quiet drama. Molly aging much faster than Fitz himself is one example. Their wish to have another child together now that they are both around to raise it is another. Fitz and Molly are still very much in love and still quite capable of hurting each other.

The setting and characters may be familiar, but Hobb does do something different in this book. She introduces a second point of view. Like Fitz', it is written in the first person and no, it is not the Fool. I've always felt it was one of the weaknesses of the Farseer trilogy that we were limited to Fitz' point of view and so never got to see much of the events that took place beyond his line of sight. With a sprawling military conflict at the heart of the story, that was a bit of a problem. Interestingly enough, this second point of view character pretty much spends the entire book in the same location as Fitz. That will change in the second book in the series though.

It should not come as a surprise to readers of Robin Hobb but Fool's Assassin is not a book with a very high pace. Hobb takes her time to set the story in motion and examines her characters' actions and motivations in detail. For me that is part of the appeal of Hobb's writing. In a genre where speed and action often seems to be preferred over characterization, Hobb is a writer who tells the story at her own pace. It helps to create the rounded characters in the novel and explore the setting in depth. After six books I had not really expected Hobb to stray from this approach and she doesn't. It's a novel that pays a lot of attention to details and the emotional state of the characters. So if you think Fitz was whiny in the previous novels and Hobb needs to get on with it, you will probably want to skip it. If, like me, you are in awe of what Hobb has already done with Fitz and the Six Duchies, this is one book you do not want to miss.

I would have liked to get into the plot in a bit more detail but that would have been giving too much away about a book that has just been published. What I can say is that Fool's Assassin captivated me and that I managed to read it in a single weekend. If I had had a bit more reading time I might have finished it in a day. It is a wonderful read, Hobb has hit the bullseye with this volume. The only thing I think some fans of her works may dislike is the fact that it ends on something of a cliffhanger. Even if it hadn't, it would still have left me with the feeling that it is an awfully long wait until the second volume comes out. On the bright side, I have a feeling that that one is going to be worth the wait.

Book Details
Title: Fool's Assassin
Editor: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 630
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-744417-5
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Heechee Rendezvous - Frederik Pohl

A while ago publisher Baen experimented with an online game. By playing it you could win free e-books. It didn't last for very long but I did manage to gather enough points to get a few free books out of it and since I enjoyed Gateway (1977) and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) quite a bit, this third volume in Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga was one of them. It's one of a number of Pohl's novels Baen converted to e-books. It would appear it was a bit of a rush job. For some reason they couldn't be bothered to put on some decent cover art (granted, given what passes for cover art at that publisher, it might actually be a blessing) and my epub edition contains an annoying number of typos and formatting errors. Quite frankly, it is a good thing I didn't pay for it or I'd want my money back. But in the end it is the story that counts, so let's have a look at that.

In this third volume Pohl takes us back to see his main character Robinette Broadhead again. He is still rich as Croesus, happily married to a beautiful wife and in the possession of a top notch health insurance policy that keeps him healthy even though he is getting on in years. Despite this, or maybe because of this, guilt still gnaws at him. So much so that he feels impelled to seek out his old councilor Siegfrid once more. As it turns out, Robinette is not done with the Heechee quite yet, or with sophisticated computer programs for that matter.

Where the first two novels managed to rake in quite a few award nominations and awards, Gateway in particular is considered one of Pohl's finest, at this point in the series interest was clearly waning. It was nominated for a Locus SF Award but lost to Larry Niven's The Integral Trees. In 1984 the peak of Pohl's writing career lay some years behind him. Heechee Rendezvous still has that undertone of satire in it but the story itself and the way it is told, will grate on more than a few readers.

Robinette himself is the main narrator but part of the story is also told by an artificial intelligence based on Albert Einstein. The story switches point of view between those two frequently and not always in a smooth way. Albert's tone is a bit pedantic, whereas Robinette himself has a tendency to throw in cliffhangers and if-I'd-only-known type of phrases. It is, in other words, a very good example of how to annoy your readers.

The story itself is amusing enough though. We even end up in Rotterdam for a bit. Having lived there for a couple of years, I recognized some of the places Pohl mentioned. He even mixes in a bit of poor Dutch. Of course he then manages to mortally offend a whole nation (or maybe two) by having Robinette's Russian wife mention that in her opinion speaking Dutch is much the same as speaking German. Ouch! It makes me wonder if Pohl has ever been here though, or if it is all book research.

Pohl throws in quite a bit of cosmology and astrophysics in his story. It is not so much that your average science fiction reader can't follow but enough to know that you are reading a book by a man for whom science fiction contained actual science. One of the major plot points is Albert's inability to convince himself of the validity of quantum mechanics for instance. He still firmly beliefs in a universe governed by predictable laws of nature. Or as he himself puts it: God does not play dice. There is also a bit of Stephen Hawking hidden in the text and some speculation about the ultimate fate of the universe. Some of it has been overtaken by new theories already but not so much as to make this aspect of the story seem very dated.

The plot itself unveils a new layer in the mystery of the Heechee, their sudden disappearance and the reason for their self-imposed exile. You could even say that the story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Pohl does tie up the plot in some ways but he also leaves the door wide open for sequels. He would eventually write three more Heechee books, The Annals of the Heechee (1987). The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Judging from this book, I'm not entirely sure there is material for three books in this series. I do have two of the three sequels though. I may give the next one a go too.

Given the high standard Pohl sets in the first novel of this series, Heechee Rendezvous is a bit of a disappointment. It is entertaining in a way but simply not very well written. Robinette is not the most sympathetic of characters. This is something I can deal with but Pohl somehow manages to continually make him get on the reader's nerves. Quite an achievement, but when I start feeling it is a blessing the book is only 273 pages long, he may have overdone it just a bit. Still, if you enjoy the riddle the Heechee pose, it is very  readable. Just don't expect Pohl to rise to the level he attained in the 1970s.

Book Details
Title: Heechee Rendezvous
Editor: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 273
Year: Unknown
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3781-6
First published: 1984

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yesterday's Kin - Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is one of those writers who, in my opinion, does better at writing short fiction than novels. Her best length appears to be the novella, of which she has produced a number of memorable ones. The best known is probably Beggars in Spain, which formed the basis for the novel of the same name. A few years back I also read Act One, which garnered her a number of award nominations. I was quite pleased that I was able to get an advance copy of her new project Yesterday's Kin through NetGalley. Like After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall it is either a short novel or a novella. I don't have an exact wordcount but I think it falls short of most definitions of a novel. Novel or novella, it doesn't really matter.  Yesterday's Kin is a very interesting read.

Aliens have made contact with Earth and parked a spaceship in New York City. Talks between the United Nations and the aliens have been going on for a while but what they actually want remains unclear. Geneticist Marianne Jenner has paid little attention to these events, absorbed as she is in her work. With the publication of her latest article, announcing the discovery of a thirtyfirst haplogroup in humans, she is suddenly contacted by the aliens. Slowly, the reason for their visit becomes apparent, Earth is about to pass through a cloud of alien spores that could drive humanity to extinction. A race against the clock to find a treatment for the virus begins.

The Jenner family, Marianne and her three children, represent the full range of responses to the arrival of the aliens. They are seen as an invasive species, a threat to public security, a source of information on how to deal with the oncoming crisis or a new culture to be embraced completely. In short, Earth is hopelessly divided on how to deal with the situation. Kress keeps a strong focus on the impact events have on the family. It's one of the things that set her writing apart. Where many writers would be tempted to zoom out, look at the political drama in the background or include more action scenes. Kress keeps things closer to her characters, making the tale more intimate and also more focused. It's not a style suitable for sprawling novels but for the novella length it works very well.

Kress again drew inspiration from genetics in this novella. The genetic research the main character is involved in does not only shed light on the development of humanity but also has a link to the aliens. There is quite a bit of population genetics in the story. Concepts such as haplogroups, mitochondrial Eve and the population bottleneck of 70,000 years ago show up in the story. When you read this story it really hits home how much genetics have been able to contribute to our knowledge of the development of the species, supplementing branches of science such as archaeology and paleontology.

The author doesn't limit the science to genetics though. A fair bit of ecology sneaks in between the lines as well. I do think that Kress didn't quite manage to integrate the view of the aliens as an invasive species (in the ecological sense). With transport of people and goods around the globe at an all time high, accidental introductions of species that can upset an entire ecosystem is becoming a huge problem. That is on top of the trouble already caused by the species that have been purposefully introduced. A single species not involved in a particular ecosystem can alter it radically, usually leading to great losses in biodiversity. The idea that an alien species might cause something like that is plausible but we don't get to see any of that. Social disruption yes, but no ecological havoc. In fact, considering what Kress tells us of the origin of this alien race and the speed at which evolution takes place in complex organisms, it may not be all that big a risk. When Kress eventually reveals why she included that particular idea, it made sense but didn't come across as particularly convincing.

That being said, I did enjoy the science Kress put into this story an awful lot. The use of genetics in science fiction is widespread but I can't think of any other author in the field who takes her inspiration from recent scientific research in the field like Kress does. The life sciences are a very important part of her story but she consistently manages to keep her stories quite close to the everyday life of the characters. It is not the sense of wonder Kress is looking for, but the impact on everyday life. They are a combination of fascinating science and well drawn characters. Stories that are both emotionally powerful and thought provoking. In many ways Yesterday's Kin is a signature Kress novella. If you liked her other work, you can't really go wrong with this one.  I have read Kress stories where the elements of the story fall into place more convincingly but it is still a high quality read. I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up on a few award shortlists next year.

Book Details
Title: Yesterday's Kin
Editor: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 192
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61686-176-3
First published: 2014