Sunday, August 30, 2015

The House of Shattered Wings - Aliette de Bodard

For some reason all publishers decided to release works I absolutely want to read in a matter of two months this year. This summer so many books I'm interested in are appearing that I can't keep up with them. For me,  The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard is one of the most anticipated titles of 2015. This book has been on my to read list since I first learnt she was working on a new novel and when it came in last week I almost put Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix away to dive into it. That would have totally messed up my review schedule of course, so I regretfully put it away for a bit. The two review copies that are also on the to read stack had to wait though. Reviewing is all well and good but sometimes you have to treat yourself to the book you want to read most at that particular moment. And a treat is exactly what The House of Shattered Wings is.

In the late 20th century the ruins of the city of Paris are populated by a mix of humans and fallen angels. The angels may have lost God's grace but they still have power. Their bodies contain magic that can be used by humans and angels alike. A central government, if ever there was one, has disappeared and the upper layers of society is organized into houses. These houses continually vie for influence in a Machiavellian political game. Silverspire, the oldest of these houses, founded ages ago by the very first fallen angel, is now in trouble. Since the disappearances of its founder, its influence has decreased to the point where its enemies feel they have a chance of taking them down a notch. Distracted by house politics, the real nature of the threat eludes Selene, the head of the House of Silverspire. Three people connect to the house, an addicted human alchemist, a newly fallen angel and a mysterious young man hold the key to saving it or taking it down for good.

The House of Shattered Wings has so much worldbuilding in it that is almost wasted even on a novel length work. Fortunately there is going to be a second book in this setting. The book tells us the basics of what happens from the end of France's Belle Époque to sometime in the late 20th century. De Bodard doesn't mention a specific year but at least sixty years have passed since the end of the Great War and Paris is still struggling to recover. The Belle Époque, a part of French history usually thought of as the years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of the First World War in the summer of 1914, was a period in which rapid technological progress and economic growth fuelled by France's growing colonial empire seemed to make anything possible. There are hint throughout the novel that fallen angels have been present in the world for a very long time, and that they are not the only mythological creatures appear to mere mortals. Their presence doesn't seem to have radically altered the course of history up to 1914 however.

The focus of the novel is on House Silverspire. It was founded by the very first of the Fallen. He is referred to as Morningstar in this novel, which, as most of you will have already guessed, one of the names of Lucifer. The main antagonist is another figure from Judeo-Christian mythology. Asmodeus is sometimes thought of as one of the seven princes of hell but in the novel he leads a rivalling house. Fittingly, house Silverspire occupies the Île de la Cité in the very heart of Paris. It is the location of one of France's most famous cathedrals, the Notre Dame, which - like much of the rest of the city-  lies in ruins. There is in other words no lack of religious symbolism in the novel.

The author doesn't limit herself to Judeo-Christian mythology. There are references to Greek and, briefly, Persian mythology as well and, through one of the main characters, Chinese/Vietnamese myths. De Bodard uses the word Annam to refer to Vietnam. It is an old name that was used for Vietnam or parts of it before decolonization. What happened to Frances colonial empire after the Great War is a bit unclear in the novel. Travel and communication have been severely limited and the characters do not seem to know much of what goes on outside of Paris.

De Bodard shifts effortlessly between Christian images of heaven and hell and the Chinese influenced court of the Jade Emperor, includes wide ranging concepts as the grace of God to Buddhist views on reincarnation, and views energy not only in the western sense but also as the flow of Khi (or Ch'i, or Qi).  Where many writers would be tempted to simplify matters and pick one religious view as the highest truth, or at best two opposing views, De Bodard's creation has room for many of them. The co-exist in a way that is as complicated and messy as the real word. Behind each character and each significant event in the book lie layers of history and mythology for the reader to unravel. The temptation to infodump every other page must have been overwhelming at times but the author manages to keep that to a minimum. These shifts in worldview and thematic background keeps the reader on their toes.

The Fallen themselves are just as complex as the worldbuilding. They are born into the word with powerful magic but little in the way of memories. They are extremely long lived and, particularly in their youth, radiate magic. Their breath holds power, their nail clippings, their blood all can be made into magical objects. Even their bones can be ground up to make a particularly potent and terrifyingly addictive magical aid. It puts them in a very difficult position. They are born with power but without the experience to handle it - youth is most definitely wasted on the young in this case - into a world that has as much use for them dead as alive. Although their magic dims as they age, many rise to positions of power. A process that tends to turn them from angelic and naive to cynical and cold creatures. Their very nature makes them lager than life, their flaws and mistakes likely to have severe consequences for the people depending on them. The head of Silverspire in particular is in a position of power but lacks the strength to improve the situation of the house. The best she can hope for is maintain the status quo. Seeing that precarious balance between the houses break down might be an interesting topic for another novel.

The main characters are all people who are not in a position of power but possess the potential to wield it in significant quantities. On the surface they appear to be quite different people but they share the fact that they've been torn away from their homes and have to make a new place for themselves in this shattered world. Like the city longs to recapture the optimism of the Belle Époque, the characters long to return to the home that is irretrievably lost to them. The novel is a tragedy on many levels.

With so many influences The House of Shattered Wings is not a novel that is easy to categorize. It has a distinct post-apocalyptic atmosphere with Paris in ruins and largely depopulated. I've also seen it described as a Gothic novel, which given the ruins of the Notre Dam, the sense that the past glory cannot be recaptured,  and the way  some of the characters fit into Gothic archetypes makes sense. You could call it an urban fantasy or an alternative history as well in a way but none of these fit entirely. It's a fusion novel that, in the way it blends and twists familiar genre tropes, remind me a bit of Elizabeth Bear's Edda of Burdens or Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych.

My expectations of this novel were probably unfairly high but De Bodard manages to surpass them anyway. As should be evident from the somewhat rambling review there is so much in this novel worth discussing that I scarcely know where to begin. It is a novel filled to overflowing with fascinating world building, complex characters and elegant writing. It is a demonstration of what is possible within speculative fiction if one is willing to look beyond established formulas and classifications. Once De Bodard has dragged you into this world there is no alternative. You will be back for more. I am not sure that I will be able to resist another of Nnedi Okorafor's books away when the second, as of yet untitled, volume set in this magnificent world is published.

Book Details
Title: The House of Shattered Wings
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 402
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47738-5
First published: 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Book of Phoenix - Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor is a prequel of sorts. A story that explores what happened to create the world described in her 2010 novel Who Fears Death. I read Who Fears Death in 2013 and thought it was a very confronting and in some ways very depressing book. It got quite a bit of attention at the time, but maybe not quite as much as it should have. This new entry in the series started out as a short story published in the March 2011 edition of Clarkesworld. It was then expanded to a novella, which appeared under the title African Sunrise in the Fall edition of Subterranean Magazine. The once again expanded novel version of the story was published by DAW in May of this year.

Phoenix is a genetic experiment. Her growth is accelerated and she is able to do things no ordinary human can. She grows up in a facility called Tower 7 among doctors and other genetic experiments. Her heritage is unknown to her as is the full extent of her abilities. Her captors don't seem to fear her as much as they should though. She is not allowed to leave but gets unlimited access to information. She seems content until one day the only man she considers a friend witnesses something that pushes him to take his life. After that, the world is beginning to take shape for Phoenix. She becomes destructively desperate to escape her keepers.

In Who Fears Death, Okorafor tackled some very difficult themes. The use of rape as a weapon of war was one of them, female genital mutilation is another. For her western audience this is something that, while horrific, is not likely to be part of their personal experience. Most western countries haven't had a war fought on their soil in two generations, such brutalities usually take place in far away places. Easy to close the book, shake your head and move on if you choose to do so. In The Book of Phoenix Okorafor tackles slavery. It forces the white western reader to consider their part in that ugly piece of history. There is a lot of uncomfortable material in either book but for different subsets of Okorafor's readership.

The novel shares the same type of futuristic magical realism with Who Fears Death. It is essentially set before the wrath of Ani destroyed the highly technological society that preceded Onyesonwu's world. It is a world severely impacted by climate change, but not so much that society has collapsed completely. With the aid of technology, people have adapted. Technology is the key to power in the world and genetics is an important part of it. It is presented as a framestory. An explanation of how one man found an account of the end of the world in a cave in the dessert and how he, with the aid of his wife used it to write the 'Great Book' of the Okeke, a book that would go on to create misery for many of the characters in Who Fears Death.

Phoenix is essentially a slave in the book. She is valued as an experiment, not a human being. Her fellow prisoners are traded like commodities, used to enhance the quality of life for the ruling class. The parallel with the African slave trade is inescapable. Okorafor does a very good job in exploring how Phoenix and her fellow captives are dehumanized and how the fact that their captors don't recognize them as human beings with human desires eventually leads to their downfall. The arrogance of the ruling class in this novel is painfully obvious and possesses the short-sightedness displayed by many currently wielding economic and political power. The Book of Phoenix does not attempt to be a completely accurate extrapolation of current trends but it certainly contains a warning for a society displaying a similar kind of hubris.

Another thing that struck me was how the novel lashes out at the consistently one-sided view of Africa that can be found in western media. What we get to see is the wars, the natural disasters, famines and epidemics. Africa in the media is a place to pity, to send emergency aid to and to avoid if you want to stay healthy. This incomplete image of the continent is one that annoys Okorafor and she is quite clear about it in the novel. One of the characters puts it better than I ever could:
"Will you come with us?" I asked again.
"No." He spread his wings. "I am guarding New York."
"Why not Mali?"
"Africa bleeds, but it will be fine," he said. "I go where I am most needed."

Chapter 18 - Deus Ex Machina
That should give the reader something to think about.

Most of the story, all of the material in the frame, is written in a first person point of view from Phoenix' perspective. The name of the main character is no accident. She is quite literally a phoenix. The novel tells the tale of her transformation, her deaths and her rising from her ashes. Each incarnation is a bit different from the last. Phoenix is a character that doesn't respond well to injustice and one that wields the power to break free of who ever tries to contain her. She spends quite a lot of the novel exploring those powers and figuring out how to use them. Her growth as a character is often in violent spurts, conveyed to the reader in emotionally powerful scenes. She is rash but also compassionate, deeply in love but filled with rage at the same time. She is in other words, a wonderfully complex character.

The Book of Phoenix could be considered science fiction but the language, imagery and themes of the novel are not those encountered in novels that are generally considered science fiction. Is Phoenix post human or godlike? How about the tree that grows through Tower 7? Does humanity fall because of messing with genetics too much or for cutting down the tree of life? Or is one simply a differently framed image of the same thing? Okorafor pours her science fiction in a mythological cast that results in a book with a slightly magical atmosphere to it. It is a rare combination, one that sets this book apart from pretty much everything else I've read this year.

There is probably not much in it but I think this prequel is a better book than Who Fears Death. It is a pretty wild ride, looking over the shoulder of a very unpredictable main character. I felt Who Fears Death relied a bit too much on magic to resolve tricky problems in the plot. The Book of Phoenix is better in that respect. Like its predecessor, it is a novel that asks equally difficult questions to most of its readership, and one that doesn't shy away from pointing out uncomfortably truths. Combine that with beautiful writing and a complex main character, and you end up with a very interesting read. Very much recommended.

Book Details
Title: The Book of Phoenix
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW Books
Pages: 233
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1019-3
First published: 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

Six Years and Counting

Today it has been six years since the grand opening of this blog. Since I'm past the halfway mark, reaching double digits doesn't seem entirely impossible anymore.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Falling in Love with Hominids - Nalo Hopkinson

Tachyon Publications publishes a lot of very interesting fiction for which there is a limited market. Novellas and short novels, single author collections and themed anthologies for the most part. It is not material that is likely to end up on best-seller lists but for the real fan of fantasy and science fiction, it is a treasure trove of works that would otherwise easily be overlooked. I've been reading a couple of these a year since I joined NetGalley. Tachyon doesn't seem to have a problem with me being located in the Netherlands. Where I get frequent refusals because of my location from other publishers, Tachyon is generous with advance copies. So in the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of Falling in Love with Hominids from the publisher in exchange for a review.

This collection is my first encounter with Nalo Hopkinson's work. She is originally from Jamaica but has lived in several other places as well before ending up in Canada. In 2011 she relocated to California, where she currently resides. Falling in Love with Hominids collects eighteen pieces of short fiction, all previously published between 2002 and 2014. There is no overarching theme or link between the stories. There are a few recurring elements of course, and some of them are linked to Hopkinson's novels, but other than that the pieces all appear to stand alone.

Hopkinson's writing is very diverse. It ranges from post-apocalyptic to surreal and from historical to contemporary fantasy. There are a few things that keep coming back in the stories though. There are references to Caribbean/African tradition and folklore in several stories, although Shakespeare and western mythologies pop up too. Hopkinson also uses a very varied cast of characters, people of all races, genders and sexual orientations appear in her stories. Although she doesn't emphasize it in most of the stories in this collection, there is a sensitivity to issues relating to racism and sexism in her writing. For some reason, I also get the impression that Hopkinson's home is full of house plants.

There's a few pieces that connected with me in particular. For some reason most of the ones I liked best are in the first half of the collection. The first is the one that opens the collection. The Easthound (2012) is a post-apocalyptic tale seen from the point of view of a child. It is a very creepy story. The author uses the point of view of the main character to throw the reader off balance. Without adults around, the children create their own view of the world, one where stories and fantasy mix with the deadly reality of their situation. The characters are children and at the same time wise beyond their years. An absolutely brilliant piece of writing.

Soul Case (2007) is more of a historical fantasy in which Hopkinson describes an assault on a community of escaped slaves. The story is based on a number of real communities that existed in various places in the Americas. Most of them were eventually destroyed by the colonial powers. I came across the story of the Jamaican Maroons in Maryse Condé's historical novel Children of Segu a while ago. She focusses on a different part of their history than Hopkinson does. The story is related to the novel Hopkinson is currently working on. I will have to keep an eye out for Blackheart Man. A novel length treatment of this topic could be a very interesting read.

In The Smile on the Face (2004) Hopkinson takes us in a very different direction. Although there is a reference to an early Christian saint it is much more contemporary. In essence it deals with a young girl whose changing body is getting her unwanted attention and is making her feel insecure about her looks. The guy in the story seems to be a bit too good to be true but it is a good look into the mind of a teenage girl and the bullshit they have to put up with in an age that seems to value appearance over anything else.

The final story I want to mention is Old Habits (2011). It is a ghost story set in a rather dreary mall. The main character was unfortunate enough to loose his life there and now he is stuck with a bunch of other ghosts who shared the same fate. They can't see the living, can't interact with them, and can't leave the mall. Or they can but what awaits them outside is just as uncertain as what awaits us after death. Most of the ghosts are not in a hurry. The loneliness and desperation of the ghosts is worked into this story very well. They strike you as a bit peculiar in the opening stages. Hopkinson then proceeds to make them almost inhuman in their hunger for a taste of life, and then shows us the tragic demise of the main character, bringing him back to being human again by killing him. Very disturbing.

A collection of such diversity as Hopkinson delivers here, will always contain a few stories that don't connect with the reader. There were a few that did little for me but overall I very much enjoyed Hopkinson's imaginative and varied approach to storytelling. In just over 200 pages she travels the length and breadth of speculative fiction. Falling in Love with Hominids is as good an invitation to delve deeper into an author's oeuvre as you are likely to get. I think I am going to take her up on that. It would appear that once again the to read stack has grown.

Book Details
Title: Falling in Love with Hominids
Author: Nalo Hopkinson
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 222
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61696-199-2
First published: 2015

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Teranesia - Greg Egan

Lana and I had our friend Melanie over last week. Melanie is from  Australia and while I have known her for something like 14 years, I  hadn't actually met her in person before. It's a strange experience, you  have to actively remind yourself once in a while that you do actually  know this stranger very well. Melanie knows a thing or two about me too.  She brought me a gift in the form of this book. Egan happens to live in the same city Melanie does. I have heard the name before of course but I  hadn't read anything by him until now so it was definitely a good choice on Melanie's part. Egan writes hard science fiction  and his work generally includes mathematical themes and quantum  physics. He is also interested in genetics and regularly includes  protagonists with sexual orientations other than heterosexual. Teranesia (1999) ticks most of those boxes so if I were to venture a guess I'd say it is reasonably representative of  Egan's oeuvre.

I'm not holding back on spoilers in this review.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife is Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel length work for adults since his breakthrough novel The Windup Girl (2009). He has written four other novels in between those too, aimed at younger audiences. The Windup Girl was hugely successful, winning Bacigalupi a Hugo, Nebula, Campbell and Locus First Novel Award. Although the Windup universe provides more than enough space for further stories, Bacigalupi opts to expand another future in The Water Knife. The novel is linked to his short story The Tamarisk Hunter (2006). The main theme is environmental. Which given Bacigaulpi's track record will not surprise the reader. He has managed to produce a novel that is very will timed though. His vision of extreme water shortages in the American South West will make for uncomfortable reading for many people living in the area.

Several decades into the future the American South West is a parched wasteland. The states in the area are involved in a deadly game for water rights to support the desperate remains of their population. The region is swamped with refugees as well and local authority has largely collapsed. Among the ruins of Phoenix, Arizona, we follow three people trying to survive. The journalist Lucy Monroe gets in over her head covering the brutal murder of one of her contacts. The Water Knife Angel, a problem solver for Catherine Case, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, heads to the city when their agent there shows signs of cracking under the strain of the chaotic events in the city. The Texan refugee Maria has other concerns. She has lost her family and is trying to keep from ending up prostituting herself by selling water. One misstep gets her in serious problems with the local gang. She needs money quickly.

The water situation in the region has always been something of a mess. It has been known for a long time that the current use of water is unsustainable but so far this hasn't stopped cities expanding in the region. Bacigalupi names the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, first published in 1986 and updated in 1993, as one of his inspirations. It is probably a good place to start if you are interested in the problem as it gives a comprehensive overview of the situation. It is clear that there was a lot more research involved in writing this book however. Lots of little details in the book, mostly mitigation strategies, point in that direction anyway.

The drought that has been going on in California in particular in recent years is making this a very relevant book at the moment. After several years with below average rainfall the state is beginning to feel the shortage. I get the feeling that as long as the discussion focusses on who can keep their lawn and who can't, and whether an outdoor pool or a green lawn evaporates more water, the sheer scale of the disaster has not really sunk in yet. In this novel Bacigalupi drives home the importance of good water management. He doesn't focus on the environmental impact as much as I had expected though. The social impact is much more the focus of the novel. The way he goes about portraying that, is probably the book's greatest weakness.

The American government in this novel seems to have lost the ability to combat natural disasters at a federal level. The pressure put on the system by drought, tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes (all of which are becoming more frequent as a consequence of climate change) has stretched it too far and is now limited to feeble attempts at humanitarian aid. Since the role of the central government is limited, the states have stepped in and wage a kind of undeclared war against each other. The water authorities are armed, local militias guard state borders to keep refugees out, and fierce battles in court over water rights rage. All of this frequently turns very bloody and Bacigalupi describes the horror in detail.

What surprised me about this situation is that there is no effort whatsoever being made at making the situation more sustainable. There are plenty of mitigation strategies in place of course, but the real problem is that there are simply too many people, needing too much water for the region to support. What the authorities appear to be busy with, is trying to take water away from somebody else. The overriding motivation of just about all of the characters is greed. The few people who think America might still pull itself together tend to end up dead for their trouble. It is so horribly cynical that at some points in the novel I began to wonder if the wilful ignorance the world is displaying at the moment isn't better. Yes, people are greedy, and corporations perhaps even more so, but is the world in such a bad shape that nobody in the whole wide world wants to do anything constructive any more?

Greed is a theme in just about any of Bacigalupi's other works as well, of course and he often goes into detail on the horrific consequences it can have. In each of his novels there tends to be a bit more hope though. Someone pushing back, trying to get society going again, somehow build a life that is worth living. In this novel there is just violence and corruption. Even the finale of the novel is very cynical. Characters getting out of their personal hell but at the expense of other people. I fear that by injecting so much post-apocalyptic violence into the novel, Bacigalupi has drowned out his message a bit. A terrible shame because it is one that needs to be heard.

That is not to say it is a bad novel. Just a terribly depressing one. The Water Knife is something of a thriller. A treasure hunt if you will, a race against the clock with the players doubting each other at every step. Bacigalupi knows how to build the tension and as an eco-thriller it works well enough. I had hoped Bacigalupi would manage to do a bit more with the environmental and social themes he picks for the novel than just showing us in gory detail where we're heading. In a way he has written the disasterporn his journalist characters report about in the novel. All things considered it was a decent read but not all it could have been.

Book Details
Title: The Water Knife
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 371
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-385-35287-1
First published: 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson

After his venture into prehistory in Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson turns around and takes us to the twenty-eighth century. His output has been very varied over the past two decades and in this novel he again explores territory he hasn't covered before. Generational starships have come up once or twice. There is one in Icehenge, and another in Blue Mars, but they are always at the periphery of the story. In this novel, the concept takes centre stage. It makes Aurora an unusual book in some ways and a return to familiar themes in others. It is full of ideas on space exploration and terraforming, but there is also a notable shift in his thinking on these subjects. One that will surprise more than a few of his readers. Nevertheless,  I think Robinson wrote one of the best science fiction novels in 2015 with Aurora. I fully expect him to show up on a couple of awards shortlists next year.

The generational starship Aurora is set to arrive at the Tau Ceti systems, one of our closest neighbours, 170 years after its launch. They have been sent to found a colony and spread the human race across the galaxy. The ship is huge, carrying miniatures of the most important of Earth's ecosystems. The variety of life on board is impressive but the ship can carry only so much. After a more than a century and a half, a strain on the ship's ecosystem is starting to be felt. The restrictions imposed on the population, trying to maintain the precarious ecological balance is starting to wear on the population. As they approach their new home, a kind of cabin fever spreads through the ship. Some people can't wait to be out and about. Others are not so sure.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a can do approach to science fiction. In a field that is inundated with natural disasters, alien invasions, ecological catastrophe and all manner of post-apocalyptic tales, his stories tend to be more upbeat. We can act meaningfully to mitigate the effects of climate change, we can reform the capitalist economic system to create a more even distribution of wealth and a more sustainable economy, we can go out and colonize other planets, we can build spacecraft that can reach the stars. The challenges are formidable but solutions can be found. This novel, in a way, is not quite as optimistic. Yes, we can reach the stars, but what happens when we get there, that is another story.

Robinson has some pretty scary things to say about ecosystems in this novel. He reaches back to island biogeography, a branch of biology founded by Wilson and MacArthur that is very influential among conservationists. What Robinson is describing is a system spiralling into collapse. The ship simply isn't large enough to sustain the variety of life on board it and there is a constant pressure to revert to less complex, but in the long run more stable, systems. The people on board, ironically the factor that contributes most to this pressure, try to prevent that from happening but the realization that no ecosystem is fully closed is starting to sink in. Now take a step back and think about what this means for the situation on Earth, where natural ecosystems are being forced into ever smaller areas to clear land for human uses.

There seems to be a limit to how long a spaceship can sustain a human population and that leads to the next problem the colonists face. They are sent to Tau Ceti because it is conveniently close, not necessarily because it has the most hospitable planets. When the moon they had pinned their hopes on turns out to be a killer, the colonists face a dreadful decision. Try another, less hospitable location, or refuel, turn around and head back to the solar system. Neither of which has a good chance of success. Colonizing the stars is harder than science fiction makes it out to be.

In essence, Robinson is saying the stars are too far away, and life is too well adapted to the solar system to make relocation a viable option. It is an idea that is quite popular in a sense. Where the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the early 20th century supposed that humanity would one day leave its cradle, in recent years it becomes apparent that it may not be that easy to permanently live elsewhere. Even the terraforming process on Mars, mentioned briefly in this novel, has run into problems Robinson did not yet know about when writing his Mars trilogy. When reading it I got the sense that Robinson is telling us we need to take better care of spaceship Earth, because abandoning it, does not appear to be an option.

Robinson chooses an unusual point of view for large stretches of the novel. The ship's main computer is given the task to create a narrative of the expedition by the main engineer of the ship. While a quantum computer can do a great many things (simultaneously), it is not very well equipped for this task. Early on in the novel, the computer digresses, expresses problems in trying to select what to include and what to leave out and is given to long rambles about the details of running the ship and its observations about the humans he is transporting. Gradually it evolves into a somewhat understated drama with the computer as omniscient narrator (which, on the ship at least, is more or less correct). It is so well done that some readers may wonder if the final part of the novel, which is not narrated by the computer, is necessary. That's not really an issue I can discuss here without giving away the end of the novel so you'll have to find that out for yourself.

Some readers will inevitably have issues with Robinson's approach. The ship's issues with the command to tell the story makes for a fairly slow start of the novel. At one point the engineer interferes and tells the ship what it is doing wrong (too much detail, too much backstory). Robinson will have lost more than a few readers at that point. I guess it also depends on the willingness of the reader to accept the computer as a character as well as the narrator. In terms of character development, the computer shows the most growth by far.

This review can't even begin to do justice to all the ideas Robinson puts into this novel. Besides ideas on ecology and human evolution, he also includes thoughts on Alan Turing and artificial intelligence, the ethics of generational space ships and how subsequent generations would see the choice their ancestors made for them, philosophies on consciousness and self-awareness show up in the text, as well as thoughts on language and communication. If science fiction is the literature of ideas for you, I very much doubt you could do much better than this novel.

Aurora is a novel that provides an awful lot of food for thought. It has taken me a few days before I could make myself pick up a new book just to digest it all. Robinson has produced come wonderful books in the past and Aurora definitely ranks with the best of them. The narrative structure is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea. Robinson's choice of narrator influences the characterization and pacing of the novel to a large extent. Personally, I am more than willing to put up with a slow start to see where Robinson takes the story, but it is a novel that requires a bit of patience. I feel it pays off though. It is without a doubt one of the notable releases in science fiction of 2015.

Book Details
Title: Aurora
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 466
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-09810-6
First published: 2015

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Broken Monsters - Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters is Lauren Beukes' fourth novel. The first two were set in her native South Africa but for the third, The Shining Girls,  she moved to the US. She sticks to the US for this novel, moving from the city of Chicago to Detroit. Although Beukes has clearly outgrown small publisher Angry Robot, I must admit that I miss the South African setting of her first two novels a bit. The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters are fine books in their own right, in terms of writing probably a step up, but there is something about the use of language in those books, as well as the wildly inventive concepts that does not seem to have survived the crossing of the Atlantic. Of course, if you are looking for a supernatural mystery novel, you still couldn't do much better than Broken Monsters.

A monster is on the loose in Detroit. When half of a young boy is found, messily attached to half a fawn, one of the most gruesome cases in Detective Gabi Versado's career begins. In a city that is slowly dying, she has to find a killer who is obsessed with transforming the death around him into art. A race against the clock begins to find him. On top of a killer, Versado also has to contend with a teenage daughter facing her own monsters and a failed writer turned reporter who insists on bringing every gory detail of the murders to the public.

The Detroit of Broken Monsters is indeed about broken things. A failed artist trying to make a career out of the broken remains of his life, writer fleeing his own failures in New York, trying to make a name for himself, a broken family trying to make things work and above all a community of people trying to bring a broken city back to life. Detroit as described in this novel is in a sad state indeed. Bankrupt, rapidly loosing its population and even more rapidly decaying into an industrial wasteland full of ruins that were once the heart of a proud Motor City.

Beukes' mystery is not a whodunit. Early on in the novel it is already quite clear who is responsible for the murders. What Beukes is interested in is the motivation for these killings. Where many novels about serial killers would include a motivation grounded in sick ways of obtaining sexual gratification or sexual frustration as a motive for the killings, Broken Monsters takes another approach. That makes it a refreshing read for a mystery reader. There is something ironic in the way the killer tries to get attention for his 'art' but often manages to achieve exactly the opposite.

Throughout the novel Beukes draws parallels between the attempts of artists to create art out of the abandoned factories of the city and the killer's attempts to create art out of dead things. He sees his art as a way to open a door, to transform imperfect beings into something new. Where the factories do indeed turn into places where their old function transforms into something new, where a new Detroit is born from the ruins of the old, for the artist it turns out to be a bit more complicated.

A motif that Beukes takes with her from her previous novel is the presence of doors. Not the ordinary kind, but the ones that take you from one place to another. Where they involved temporal displacement in The Shining Girls, the door the killer tries to open leads to an even more frightening place. The door motif returns quite often in the street art mentioned in the book. There is even a character who makes a living by opening doors of abandoned buildings to see if there is anything worth salvaging left behind.

Information technology is another element that receives a lot of attention in this novel. Layla, detective Versado's daughter is practically stuck to her phone and lives her life as much online as in the real world. Beukes shows how each mistake shared on the web can have dramatic consequences and how, no matter where you are in the world, it will keep pursuing you. She also shows another side of all this new technology. The failed writer reinvents himself as a journalist and uses relatively cheap equipment and software to follow the murders. In the process he gets in the way of the investigation. These two story lines show both the possibilities and dangers of the Internet. Just like looking through the lens of a camera creates a psychological distance from events taking place right in front of you so does the Internet lure the characters into a false sense of anonymity and security.

As usual with Beukes' books, it is hard to categorize. You could see it as a mystery or thriller, but it also contains elements of urban fantasy and horror. Towards the end the novel becomes increasingly strange, with events for which there doesn't seem to be a rational explanation following each other rapidly leading up to the final showdown that is the climax of the novel. It's something that seems to suit Beukes but depending on what expectations the reader has before reading the novel, reactions will be mixed. The author's mix of genres is both the forte and weakness of this book depending on the reader's preference.

I enjoyed reading Broken Monsters more than I thought I would. It is a very smooth read most of the way. Only early on in the novel, when Beukes rapidly introduces a number of main characters, is the reader's patience tried. It is pleasantly different from her previous novels but also contains some elements that firmly links it to  her older work. Although, as I mentioned in the introduction, I would not mind seeing Beukes return to a South African setting, her attention to detail makes Detroit come alive on the pages. It is, in short, a novel well worth reading, even if it didn't manage to unseat Moxyland as my favourite book by this author.

Book Details
Title: Broken Monsters
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 520
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-746459-3
First published: 2014

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I'm In Another Mind Meld

Andrea Johnson, aka the Little Red Reviewer, invited me to participate in SF-Signal's most recent Mind Meld. This time the question was:

With your towering and sometimes toppling To Be Read (and reviewed) list, how do you choose which books to prioritize? Are there certain variables that push your reading decisions one way or another?

 For some of you this may seem like a straightforward question but for bookbloggers it can get quite complicated. I did the sensible thing and blamed Lana for my poor choices. Want to find out how other bookbloggers go about it? Check out the article over at SF-Signal.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of those few authors who have managed to appeal to readers on both sides of the literature/genre divide. Cloud Atlas (2004) was shortlisted for the Man Bookeer Prize but also the Nebula and Clarke Awards. Something that didn't go unnoticed at the time. The novel was made into a movie as well. Given the fact that it contains six separate stories, this can't have been easy. The reception of the movie was apparently mixed. I guess I am going to have to see it myself to make up my mind. It strikes me as almost impossible to pull off but Mitchell himself apparently was pleased with the result. But it is the book I'll be discussing in this review so back to business.

Cloud Atlas is a novel composed of six interwoven novellas. The first one starts in 1850 in the Pacific and through the lives of six different people, embodying the same soul, we end up in a post-apocalyptic future. Each of the individual stories are linked, passing something on to the next generation. Along the way we visit 1931 Zedelghem in Belgium, the fictional Californian city of Buenas Yerbas in 1975, present day Britain, a futuristic Korea and a post apocalyptic Hawaii.

Mitchell does a lot of interesting things in this book with structure and prose. Five of the six novellas stop abruptly in the middle of the narrative. Sometimes with a clear cliffhanger, sometimes mid-sentence. The novella set in the post apocalyptic future, positioned at the centre of the book, is the only one that isn't broken up. Mitchell moves into the future and then turns around and starts working his way back to the first story again.

The author uses a lot of different techniques in the novel. The first story is written in the form of a diary. The second is half of an exchange of letters between two young men and former lovers. The third a multiple point of view, third person narrative. The fourth story is a first person narrative. The fifth takes the shape of an interview and the final novella is essentially a camp fire tale (I suppose you could call it a frame story). It's a way of structuring the novel that not everybody will like. The changes can be quite abrupt and the stories are only tenuously connected. The diary of the main character in the first novella is found by the main character in the second, whose letters end up in the hands of the third, whose life is turned into a novel that ends up in the hands of the fourth main character etcetera.

Not only does Mitchell use a lot of different techniques, he does a lot of interesting things with his prose as well. The diarist for instance, has a fondness for the semicolon and the & symbol. The letters are written in a lazy style, with the writer frequently omitting the first person pronoun or use 1/2 instead of half. in this way each of the novellas has its own peculiarities. The most challenging is probably the final novella, which is written in a vernacular that almost has to be read out loud to be understood. This book has been translated into several languages, I pity the translators of that particular section.

To a hardcore genre reader all these styles, changes and shifts in the prose might seem like showing off. The thought occurred to me once or twice while reading the novel any way. It has to be said that for people who enjoy creative and at times playful prose there is definitely a lot to be had in this novel. One reader might think of it as showing off, the other might feel it is a showcase of what a talented writer can do with language.

As I mentioned earlier, the novellas are linked but only minimally. There is no overarching plot but there are motifs. The most notable one is the birthmark that allows the reader to identify the reincarnated soul of the main character. Another thing they have in common is that each of the characters documents their story in some way, allowing it to be passed on to the next generation. If there is such a thing as a theme in this novel it is probably the predator/prey dynamic that each story incorporates. The main character is usually on the prey side of things and the predator can take very different shapes but it is always there. The one constant in this entire book and apparently something that Mitchell considers a universal property of mankind. Not a very cheering thought.

The science fiction element in the novel is mostly present in the fifth and sixth novella. The fifth in particular presents a very disturbing future. We get to visit a Korea where the North Korean Juche ideology (which in my opinion makes as much sense as Ghadaffi's Green Book, which is to say none) with a kind of hypercorporate economy. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that this economy in effect devouring its natural resources and the very society that supports it, so the sixth (post-apocalyptic) novella should not come as a surprise. The main character is a clone whose intellect rises beyond her usefulness with depressingly predictable consequences. The science fiction elements in the novel are clearly present but not anything that hasn't been done before. Mitchell is not trying to explore the consequences of advanced technology for society, how it will redefine or shape societies, human interactions or moral values, or any of the other things that good science fiction explores. He focusses on showing the fundamental hunter/prey dynamic. As such, I'm not terribly impressed by his future societies.

Cloud Atlas is a very difficult book to review. I'm very impressed by the way Mitchell ignores the usual genre/literature divide and uses elements from both to tell his story. I do not think that he manages to blend the best of both into this book however. It is very preoccupied with structure and technique, something a lot of readers will feel is pretentious. In fact, it hides so many literary tricks and techniques that I am pretty convinced I haven't even caught half of them. It is an ambitious book, fascinating in many ways, but also a book that I feel tries to do too  much and as a result falls short in some aspects. It does show how rich literature could be if it would manage to break down the wall that in the mind of readers, writers and publishers still divides genres. As such Cloud Atlas is a very interesting novel. One of a growing number of books on both sides of the divide that is chipping away at the wall. I don't expect it to come down any time soon but it is starting to crumble in places. Hopefully books like Cloud Atlas will allow more of these genre-defying books to slip through.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre
Pages: 529
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-340-82278-4
First published: 2005