Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Neutronium Alchemist - Peter F. Hamilton

Last October I read Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction on a trip to my girlfriend's family in Norway. These books are ideal for travel. Huge but not taking up too much space in the suitcase. Although I was not overly impressed with the first novel in the Night's Dawn trilogy, my compulsion not to leave series unfinished kicked in so I decided to give him another shot. The Neutronium Alchemist is most certainly not free of the things that annoyed me in the previous novel, but I must admit it is as compulsively readable as the first one. It is still bloated though. In fact, the page count of this volume is even higher than that of the previous book. This series could have been so much better if it had been a bit leaner.

The dead are returning from a horrible limbo called the beyond and take over the living's bodies. The souls of these possessed are locked away in the recesses of the mind, always aware, but unable to influence matters. This horrible fate is bad enough, but the returned dead are also able to manipulate matter in ways science can't explain. They are extraordinarily powerful and have no intention of leaving or dying again. Faced with the double threat of an invasion of angry deceased and religious turmoil caused by the revelation of a horrible afterlife, the various factions try to pull together and come up with a strategy to deal with the greatest existential crisis in human history.

The situation is quite dire at the beginning of this novel. Possessed are overtaking one planet after another, usually wrecking them in the process. They are far from unified though. To illustrate that, Hamilton gives us three major points of view of possessed characters. Two of them are historical figures. Al Capone, whose syphilis wracked mind resumes to working order after being inserted into a healthy body. He has no clue how society developed since his death, but what he does understand is power. Soon he becomes a force to be reckoned with. Christian Fletcher, the Bounty mutineer, is pretty much his opposite. Well mannered and thoughtful where Capone is crude and decisive, he has quite a different view on what the possessed ought to be doing in the universe. A third, more chaotic point of view is presented by Kiera Salter, who is locked in a struggle for power with the mind of a habitat in orbit around a gas giant.

There is another possessed with a big role in the story. Quinn is turning into the Gollum of the series. He is clearly evil, but not aligned with any of the parties. He is in fact so purely bad that he is by far the most boring character in the book. He will use and discard anyone and anything to get nearer to his goal, which appears to be turning Earth into a satanic planet. Where Capone is building something, corrupt as it may be, Quinn just leaves destruction in his wake and doesn't look back. I hope Hamilton will find a better use for this character in the next book.

On the other side of the conflict it would appear most of the characters are busy chasing what appears to be a side plot. Captain Calvert is busy chasing a rogue scientist who knows the location of a weapon so powerful it can snuff out whole suns. He has half the intelligence officers of several other human factions on his tale. While I don't doubt this weapon, The Alchemist as the characters call it, will be important somehow in the next book, it seems like Hamilton is spending an awful lot of words on it while there are clearly other pressing matters to attend to. One good thing about this quest is that Calvert is too busy to have sex though. The apparently inevitable sex scenes are moved to Capone's sections, which I have to admit is somewhat in character, if still very much a male fantasy.

What bothered me most about the plot is how Hamilton tiptoes around the big philosophical questions his premise raises. There is a proven afterlife and apparently it isn't pretty. The two main branches of humanity each face their own challenges. The Adamists take their name from the patriarch of the large monotheistic relations. Their holy books will require some rewriting. The Edenists view death differently. They digitalize their personality and live on in the Edenist habitats. If their souls end up in the beyond anyway, what does that mean for the programming they leave behind? There is some interesting material here to explore and yet pretty much every character consciously ignores these questions. You'd think that somewhere in the 1,200 pages of this novel, a bit of reflection on these things could have been inserted. It would certainly have added a bit of depth to the novel.

Hamilton raises the stakes in The Neutronium Alchemist, as a middle book is supposed to do. It does more or less suffer from the same problems as the previous novel though. Bloated, repetitive and not very demanding. Although Hamilton tries to make it a multi-faceted conflict, he avoids the really big issue in the story in favour of politics and battles. That might be fine with some readers. I would have liked a little more from this novel but after The Reality Dysfunction, that was hardly what one could expect. Another beach read then. I think I will save the final volume for the next trip abroad.

Book Details
Title: The Neutronium Alchemist
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: PAN Books
Pages: 1,273
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4472-0858-7
First published: 1997

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The House of Binding Thorns - Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the second novel in Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen setting. It is not a sequel exactly. Both books can be read independently from each other. Madeleine and Philippe, two major characters from the previous novel The House of Shattered Wings, play an important role in this novel though. You will definitely get more out of the book if you have read them both. Readers who liked The House of Shattered Wings will want to read this one. It has all the elements that made the previous book a great read. Structurally it might even be a shade better.

House Hawthorn is led by the devious Fallen Asmodeus. He seems to be firmly in control, but the power of a House needs constant attention. By reaching out to the Vietnamese Dragon Kingdom, located under the surface of the murky river Seine, he hopes to gain even more power. The magic of the Dragon Kingdom is completely different from that of the Fallen. It offers opportunities, but there is danger in magic you don't fully understand too. Things get even more complicated when it becomes apparent that both House Hawthorn and the Dragon Kingdom are not as unified as they appear to be.

The setting is of course still the ruined Paris introduced in the first book. A city frozen in the remains of the Belle Epoque after a magical war destroyed it. Perhaps it was the absence of the dramatic ruins of the Notre Dame in this book but, I felt the author went a little easier on the worldbuilding. The setting is still instrumental in creating an atmosphere of desperation though. Paris is a dreadful and dangerous mess where people are trying to make life continue as best as they can. Including politics and petty struggles for power. People do not stop being people because of a magical Armageddon.

The story is one of two local powers in conflict. We get to see it from three sides though. Madeleine is dragged back into House Hawthorn after an absence of twenty years. She is forced to do Asmodeus' bidding but he clearly doesn't trust her. Her sense of decency and lack of subtlety get her in trouble quickly. Philippe, the other character introduced in the previous book is now houseless and seeks refuge in Goutte d'Or, the Vietnamese quarter of this alternate Paris. There, he meets the pregnant Françoise and her Fallen lover Berith. They soon find themselves caught in the power struggle initiated by Asmodeus' bold move. The Dragon Kingdom's position is mostly shown through the point of view of Thuan, a dragon prince sent to House Hawthorn to spy. His position will drastically change over the course of the novel.

House Silverspires, the focal point of the previous novel, was not always a pleasant place. It was a house that, even when desperate, showed the tiniest bit of humanity even when making ruthless decisions. That cannot be said of Hawthorn. Asmodeus rules by putting fear into his subjects. Every time he had a scene I could almost hear Mick Jagger sing "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.." The way De Bodard lets control slip away from him in the novel is very well done and, at some level, very satisfying. He is as good as creepy characters get. There is quite a bit of biblical symbolism in his acts and dialogue too.

In a way, this novel is not just a clash between two houses, but also a clash between two world views. Françoise and Philippe show us what the bitter legacy of colonialism is. While life in a House is not easy, the predominantly Vietnamese Houseless gathered in Goutte d'Or live in destitute poverty. Here and there, De Bodard also mentions people from other parts of the French colonial empire. We're not meant to forget the multi ethnic composition of the city. Something the climax of the novel will emphasize once again.

The clash between the Judeo-Christian mythology the Fallen derive their power from, and the Khi derived from Vietnamese mythology, is something of a metaphor for many conflicts going on in the world right now. The text poses the question how we want to handle conflicts between various world views. Domination, cultural imperialism, peaceful coexistence, cold war, alliances and synergy all come up in this novel. De Bodard explores how these world views affect each other, how they chafe, how one could destroy the other in a conflagration or through a gradual breaking down of cultural values. In the end, the surviving characters realize they will have to make it work somehow. Let's just hope the world will not have to pay the price this realisation has extracted from De Bodard's ruined Paris.

I generally enjoy De Bodard's work, both stylistically and because of the themes she uses, and this novel is no exception. I thought the plot of this novel flowed a bit more smoothly than that of the House of Shattered Wings. It is dark and desperate, full of characters overreaching in an effort to prevent what little they have managed to salvage from destruction slipping from their grasp. It tackles some of the problems of today's society with a touch of Victor Hugo and a bit of magic. It blends the Christian power of sacrifice and redemption with the eastern flow of life force and sense of duty. It is a novel that has a lot to offer. One of those books that will yield more on a reread. The House of Binding Thorns was high on the to read list for this year and fully lived up to my expectations. Not many books manage to do that.

Book Details
Title: The House of Binding Thorns
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Ace
Pages: 356
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47739-2
First published: 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

In his previous novel Aurora (2015) Robinson tackled a well known science fiction trope, that of a sub-lightspeed generational space ship, designed to hold enough people and supplies to survive a voyage of centuries and establish a colony on a new planet. His conclusion is sobering. Taking a human out of the environment they evolved in, Robinson claims, will almost certainly lead to extinction. Our bodies are so attuned to our environment and the organisms we share it with that survival, even elsewhere in the solar system, will be an almost insurmountable challenge. His message to humanity is clear. There is no Earth 2, try not to break the one we do have. Given this message, it is not surprising Robinson returns to Earth for his next novel. New York 2140 is set, as the title suggests, in the Big Apple a dozen decades from now. In that time a lot has changed, but in some respects, the city remains much the same.

In two separate cataclysmic events the sea level rose fifty feet. Coastlines around the world were flooded and many people have been displaced. New York is partially under water but this is not enough for people to abandon the city. The city has adapted to life in a partially submerged city. Many of the skyscrapers are still inhabited and innovative ways to connect them have been developed. One such building with its feet in the water is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. Once the tallest building in the city, it is now into its third century and run as a cooperation of the inhabitants. The disappearance of two men living in the building is the first of a series of events that will challenge the inhabitants of the building and the city greatly.

It is clear from the start the same ingenuity and imagination that brought the red planet to life in stunning detail in the Mars trilogy is at work here. Robinson has done his homework on the city and it shows in many details. From the geography of the region to the layout of the city, all of it is worked into this semi-submerged future New York. Quite a bit of attention went into what the new conditions would do to infrastructure as well. The tidal zone in particular is hard on steel and concrete. Robinson's research into the city didn't stop there. He pays attention to the legal status of the coastline as well, which has very interesting implications for the story, and he takes an interest in the history of the city. Many obscure, sometimes funny, little details about the city precede each shift in point of view. I'm not sure what a native would make of it, but for an outsider the setting works very well.

Given the description on the inside flat and the striking cover, you would be forgiven for thinking this book is about climate change. You would also be wrong. Climate change is a given in the novel. The city has for the most part adapted. The mechanism Robinson uses to explain this rapid sea level rise is considered not terribly likely, but it does fit the requirements for the story. What he really wants to discuss in this novel is global finance. New York is the self-proclaimed capital of capital, and even fifty feet of water is not enough to wash that away. The characters are very much aware of it and discuss the state of global finance, neoliberal economic theory and the economy of the US in detail. Robinson has never shied away from using the social sciences in his books, but to my knowledge this is the first time he goes into economics this extensively.

The way he goes about it is very interesting. While the characters debate the economy as a whole, how global finance works and how wealth is distributed, the story itself focusses of the effects on a much smaller scale. Capital has fled the city when it flooded. Much of the real estate was wrecked and deemed a total loss. Years of human ingenuity and advances in material science has shown investors how there might still be money to be made. Soon, the cooperation finds itself under pressure to sell to an unknown bidder. When money is not enough, other means are employed. Through the characters we get the rationale of why capital behaves this way, while showing us the effect in intimate detail.

Robinson uses quite a large cast to tell his story, no fewer than eight different points of view. One of them is simply named 'a citizen'. Robinson uses this citizen to speak to the reader directly. His writing is often criticised for containing large sections of scientific theory, usually related as an interior monologue (or as some would have it, a plain infodump). In this novel he concentrates that for a large part in the citizen point of view. The citizen is an observer, as far as we can tell he or she does not play a role in the story. You might even go so far as to say Robinson inserted himself in the novel. The citizen informs us about the state of the city, the economy, the geology and natural history of the region and of course the mechanisms of sea level rise. Saves the characters quite a bit of thinking. I very much doubt it is going to convince the people who don't like Robinson's style, but it is certainly an interesting experiment.

The question of how we should shape our world and society often comes up in Robinson's work. It goes all the way back to the Orange County triptych. In these novels there is almost always a sense of optimism. There are ideas to make the world better, technology is there or can be developed, there are people willing to throw themselves into it, and there is enough common sense not to turn away from a problem. If, for instance, climate change cannot be prevented, we can at least mitigate it and adapt to the new circumstances. In this novel, the sense that humanity is willingly doing something dreadfully stupid prevails. There is a sense of disbelief and irritation at the continuous cycle of bubbles and busts that does so much damage to society.

Over the course of the book the citizen gets angrier and angrier. His main argument is that the global economic system heavily favours those possessing extreme wealth while making life unnecessarily  hard on everybody else. The book illustrates this by a look into the world of finance. He details how capital tends to accumulate with those that already have a lot and how, at some point, money is not invested back into the real economy but rather funnelled into what its detractors call the casino economy. Speculating on indexes, derivatives and the like. In this way, capital becomes detached from the physical reality of the world, yet the bubbles it creates (and busts) still have a significant impact on society. The citizen can't help but wonder why the vast majority of people put up with this blatant bit of tyranny. With another bubble popped, even for the people in the capital of capital, enough is enough. The minute chance of becoming filthy rich is not worth the misery it imposes on others. Revolution is brewing.

What is most striking about the economics in the novel, is the way one of the characters thinks about investment and how it is a sin to sink money into a specific project rather than 'keeping it liquid' and moving it around to where the most profit is to be made. As many other reviewers point out there is a parallel between the way water behaves in the novel and how capital flows. Throughout the novel various economists appear to be looking over the shoulder of the characters. Not surprisingly, Keynes is the most prominent among them. The novel frequently refers back to the great depression. Robinson criticises Ben Bernanke, and implicitly the European Central Bank for the quantitative easing and bailing out of banks going down in a self-inflicted bust. The capital pumped into the system does not trickle down, so he argues, but only serves to fuel the next bubble. It is, he feels, not worth the austerity policies necessary to service the public debt. To break the cycle of bubble and bust, one of the characters suggest Piketty-ing the tax system, a form of progressive tax making it virtually impossible to live on capital gains alone. Given the way global politics are developing, it may well be another century before that happens.

Robinson may have shifted his attention a bit compared to other books, New York 2140 is nevertheless a fine example of his writing. Socially engaged, well researched and infused with a great sense of location. Whatever you may think of his view on the world, he manages to get it across in a fascinating way. It is another way of looking at a set of challenges humanity faces. Although he revisits themes he has covered before, you can't say Robinson is repeating himself. It is always building on what has gone before, adding a new angle or refinement to his world view. I greatly enjoyed reading it. In a way it is as controversial as Aurora, knocking around the idea of the American Dream a bit. As such, it will divide readers. When reading Kim Stanley Robinson, this is as it should be.

Book Details
Title: New York 2140
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 613
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-356-50875-7
First published: 2017

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some Strange Desire - Ian McDonald

There are a couple of pretty big novels on my to read list and at the moment I can't seem to manage to read them in a week. To fill the gap I sampled another story from The Best of Ian McDonald, a collection published by PS Publishing last year. Originally published in an Ellen Datlow anthology in 1993, it is a story from fairly early in McDonald's career, and definitely one that attracted attention. McDonald was nominated for the Tiptree and World Fantasy Award for this story. It is a very dark fantasy. Back in the day, this would probably have been marketed as horror. It is definitely disturbing at some level.

The story centres around a group of beings that appear human but are not. They can change their gender at will and, given the right condition, they can live for centuries but to do so, they need human DNA. To acquire  it they enter into a kind of mutually beneficial relationship with human customers. Sexual satisfaction for DNA. It has worked well for centuries. The immune system of this almost human species is nearly indestructible but one disease can kill them. When it strikes, it takes a lot more than a DNA sample to cure the patient.

McDonald walks a fine line in this story. He presents his main character as almost human. Love, anger, fear and other very human emotions play a prominent part in the story and make the reader identify with the main character to an extent. The author suggests in the story that, genetically, the difference between the two species is minimal. The big difference is in their view on human sexuality. For them, it is a means of survival, rather than pleasure. They take a bit of distance from humanity in that respect. Their fluid gender and willingness to go a long with almost any kink, make them popular prostitutes among a certain group of humans. While reading this story I wondered how much it distorted their view on humanity as a whole.

When push comes to shove though, the main character is very aware he (McDonald consistently uses that personal pronoun in the story) is not human. A fact he uses to justify a horrible crime. When the reader reaches that part of the story, the contrast between the loving partner and ruthless predator becomes clear. Survival pushes out all thoughts on how alike they really are. It is our differences that divide us rather than our commonalities that unite us I guess. The balance between companionship and the predator-prey dynamic in the story is very well done. If you like a good horror (or dark fantasy) story you could do worse than Some Strange Desire.

Story Details
Title: Some Strange Desire
Author: Ian McDonald
Language: English
Originally published: Omni SF 3, 1993, edited by Ellen Datlow
Read in: The Best of Ian McDonald, 2016
Story length: Novelette, approximately 8,500 words
Awards: WFA and Tiptree nominated
Available online: Infinity Plus

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Wall of Storms - Ken Liu

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is the second volume his Dandileon Dynasty series. It weighs in at nearly 860 pages in hardcover, driving home once again how insanely productive Ken Liu is. This book appeared a year and a half after the first volume. In that space of time Liu also produced a number of translations and short stories. Besides his family and day job of course. I wonder if the man ever sleeps. What Liu seems to have been aiming at in this novel is bigger, better, faster, more, and in many ways that is exactly what it is. If you liked The Grace of Kings, this book will not disappoint.

It has been several years since Kuni Garu betrayed his friend Mata Zyndhu and claimed the throne. His reign is now established, but whether he will be remembered as the founder of a dynasty remains to be seen. The emperor struggles with the conflicting interests of various groups in his empire. Tradition, prejudice and competing interests of various factions in his vast empire keep the emperor from pushing though the reforms he desires. Slowly but surely he tries to create an empire that moves away from the traditional order of things towards a meritocracy. His choice of successor is to be the final move in this development. His plans are soon derailed by internal strife and an invasion from overseas. Beset by enemies o all sides, the continuation of the young dynasty hangs in the balance.

One of the criticisms levelled at the first volume in the series was that the female characters played very modest roles in the novel. Liu changes that around in The Wall of Storms and puts them in the spotlight. Five women from different walks of life pretty much drive the story. Empress Jia is the oldest of them. She is a ruthless politician, the power behind the throne. She also proves herself to be an absolutely horrible human being. Her ambition and sense of duty make her sacrifice everything. One of the interesting aspects of this is the way she accepts that many people would think her inhuman and is willing to let history be her judge. Accepting the consequences of her actions is small comfort to those who lose their lives in her political machinations.

One of those victims is Marshal of the Empire Gin. She is a much better soldier than politician and steps right into the trap Jia sets her. She is too useful to discard however, the empress hasn't foreseen an invasion, and so she lives to fight another war. There is something bitter about Gin. She is uncomfortable in her new role and increasingly suspicious of the imperial court. She needs a cause to fight for and it takes most of the novel before she finds one.

The three other women are of a younger generation and have different outlooks on the  world. Fisherman's daughter and scholar Zomi is one of the few who manages to seize the opportunities the reign of the new emperor offers. Her superior intellect takes her far. There is more than a bit of irony in the fact that her desire to make the lives of ordinary people better makes her end up developing new weapons of war. It also introduces her to Théra, daughter of the emperor. Her life is a struggle against the sexism ingrained in society. She wants to be more than an imperial bargaining chip. The emperor recognizes his daughter's drive and talent but has to move carefully so as not to endanger her. Théra does not share her father's appreciation for the long game however, and soon takes matters in her own hand.

The fifth woman shaping the story is one of the invaders. She grew up among a people shaped by the harsh environment of their homeland. Driven by the need to find a more fertile land, they invade Dara. Her father is the ruler of the invaders and operates by the maxim might makes right. It has shaped her view of the world and forms a stark contrast with the Dara characters, all of whom are exposed to the teachings of the many Daran philosophers. It is a directness that some of the characters who meet her find hard to resist.

Besides these five, there is a large cast of other characters. As with the previous novel, Liu follows events in different locations. I did feel he managed to stay a bit closer to his characters in this novel. The Grace of Kings gave us a great view of what was going on but at times it leaned towards a history more than a novel. In that area, Liu certainly improved. Another thing I liked about the book was the non-linear nature of the narrative. We jump around the timeline of Dara quite a lot to fill in the backstory of some of the characters. It is a very cleverly plotted novel, showing us exactly what we need to know, when we need to know it.

Although the story is partially inspired by one of China's oldest dynasties, Liu introduces a lot of fairly modern science. Characters tinker with electricity, primitive batteries, airships, submersibles and modern biology. Although the gods play their part, for the characters it is technology and strategy that shape the course of the war. I felt that at times Liu did a bit too much explaining of how things worked, slowing down the story perhaps a tad. That being said, the way this war spurs invention and establishes a framework for a modern research institute was fascinating to read.  Whether or not Théra and Zomi succeed in their other exploits, this might well be their legacy.

The Wall of Storms is an epic tale of war, political intrigue and scientific exploration. Betrayal, triumph and the (sometimes not very subtle) intervention of the gods make it a novel that will do well with fans of epic fantasy. It is a story that keeps you reading. Although it is a formidable tome, it reads fairly quickly. The novel is a step up from the first volume, especially in terms of characterization. I enjoyed it more than the first volume in the series. Like The Grace of Kings, this book is recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: The Wall of Storms
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 860
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-7849-7325-4
First published: 2016

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Brains of Rats - Michael Blumlein

This is a review of the short story that originally appeared in Interzone in 1986, the same title was later used for a collection, which came out in 1990. The story is included in the enormous anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, which is where I read it. The story is available to read online at Lightspeed, which published in in the March 2015 issue. It is one of those stories that are hard to categorize. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for instance, but some people also think of it as horror. Perhaps that last label is most fitting. The Brains of Rats is a very unsettling tale.

The main character is a doctor and researcher who has the means to influence the gender of unborn children. He could, should he want to, make sure all newborns are male or female. As he thinks over the possibilities this creates, his thoughts touch on genetics, human sexuality, cultural practices and a number of patients he has seen over the course of his career. None of which brings him closer to the answer of how to proceed.

Society has told us for many centuries that gender is binary. You are considered male or female, and raised within a set of rules your culture finds acceptable for your gender. For many people this approximation is comfortable enough, but it has been known for a long time that reality is more complex. In this story Blumlein describes how the genes that make us male or female have not changed much over the course of many million years of evolution, and that they are in fact nearly identical to those of species removed from us by millions of years of evolution. What has changed, so Blumlein tells us, is our brain. Many layers of cognitive development overlay the primitive core that determines sexuality.

The main character feels this rapid evolution of our brain muddies the waters. In his mind, what we think and what society tells us about sexuality and gender is at odds with how the brain functions. The main character sees the divide in our brain reflected in various forms of violence. Ranging from spousal abuse, to  gender equality and the treatment of gender queer people, the story contains countless examples how poorly people treat each other. At one point I felt the main character undercut himself a bit by referring to the myth of the 9th century female pope. Although it has been discredited by modern historians, the story was widely accepted as historical for many centuries, so maybe he has a point there too.

There are two elements of the story that make it somewhat creepy. The first is the way the main character brings up his four year old daughter and compares her innocence to what he sees in the world around him. He reflects on how, even at that age, society is already beginning to excerpt its influence. The other is the detached, analytic tone the main character employs. It is a first person narrative, but very little emotion, apart from a vague sense of confusion, seeps through. He is analysing most of the time, looking for the correct diagnosis, both for himself and the species as a whole, without quite finding one that fits completely. Although the main character is essentially passive throughout the story, his thoughts are most unsettling. The Brains of Rats will definitely make you reconsider your own convictions about  gender and sexuality.

Story Details
Title: The Brains of Rats
Author: Michael Blumlein
Language: English
Originally published: Interzone, #16 Summer 1986
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,500 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lord of Emperors - Guy Gavriel Kay

Lord of Emperors, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology, is pretty much required reading for people who have read the first volume Sailing to Sarantium. These two books are one long novel rather than two. The first volume leaves the reader with many unanswered questions and dangling plot lines. After rereading this second volume I can't help but wonder what this duology might have been if Kay had approached them as a single novel. As they are, these novels make for fascinating reading but structurally they don't work as well as they should. It bothered me a lot more on this reread, than it did the first time I read these novels in 2006.

Some time after the end of Sailing to Sarantium the emperor is preparing for war. He has set his mind on reconquering Rhodias and restoring the empire to its former glory. To ensure peace in the east, he has bought off the Bassania, and now diverts funds from the east to finance his expeditionary force. Not everybody feels the emperor's ambitions are achievable, or even a good idea. Plots are brewing in the court, and in the east things are not as quiet as one might wish. While the court plots and manoeuvres, mosaicist Crispin is busy decorating the dome of the emperor's recently finished sanctuary of the sun god Jad. Soon events in the world will distract him from his great work. History approaches another turning point.

Sailing to Sarantium more or less follows history as we know it. Kay moves a few events a bit to better fit the story (most notably the construction of the Hagia Sophia) but not the major flow of history. The climax of the novel is a retelling of the Nika riots that rocked Constantinople in 532 AD. In Lord of Emperors Kay rewrites history completely. It would spoil much of the plot to go into detail here but the invasion of Batiara (Italy) does not go as planned. One of the changes that are of minor importance to the plot, is the rise of a new prophet who will give rise to the Asharite religion. This analogue of Mohammed shows up a few decades earlier than in our timeline. Another nice historical touch is Crispus finding the secret history of Pertiunius (Procopius of Caesarea), in which he details the supposed perversions of the empress.

Most of the cast is familiar, the novel introduces only one major new player. The Bassanid doctor Rustem is sent by his king to Sarantium to spy. He is not cut out to be one however, most of his time is spent being a doctor. He doesn't seem to hold with the western way of healing based on Galenus (Kay gave him another name which I can't remember). Historically, he is the figure who promoted much of Hippocrates' views on medicine, views that would remain influential until the renaissance, but were not particularly likely to improve the patient's chances of survival. He also provides a link to Kay's novel The Lions of Al-Rasan (1995), which is set some six centuries later in Esperaňa/Al-Rasan (Spain/Al-Andalus).

Kay's fascination with the history of the Byzantine empire doesn't end with this novel. He covers some of the same ground in his most recent book Children of Earth and Sky (2016). That novel is set after the fall  of the empire, but its presence can still be felt in many of the details of the story. The links between the books, almost all of them little things, is what makes rereading these novels a joy. While I felt he was getting a bit too comfortable with his Mediterranean settings, you can't help but admire his grasp of history.

Given the fact that it is a Byzantine inspired novel, it will come as no surprise that the plot revolves around an attempt to get rid of the emperor. As such, it is not the most original of stories. The characters Kay employs are well drawn, but more or less what you'd expect to find in such a story. Their talents and beauty are extraordinary, their sins and perversions grotesque, their flaws and mistakes spectacular. All means to achieve the goal are considered justified, including murder, intimidation and seduction. All of this is related to the reader by Kay's trademark omniscient narrator. This narrator creates a bit of distance between the reader and the events in the novel, and a sense of inevitability, that drains some of the tension from the story.

That sense of inevitability doesn't do the story any good in the final quarter of the novel. The climax of the novel comes fairly early on, after which events unfold more or less predictably. There is a wave of resignation washing over the story in the final 150 or so pages. The plot falls neatly into place, the flow of history resumes unhindered because it is too costly to resist its current. Kay ties up all the major story lines nicely but I couldn't shake the feeling that the novel petered out a bit.

Lord of Emperors offers everything a reader might wish from a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Beautiful language, an eye for historical detail, the drama of history unfolding through the eyes of large and small players. I greatly enjoyed the setting in particular. The story itself is appropriately Byzantine, but in its treatment of his characters, the female ones in particular, it is perhaps a bit over the top. The slow afterburn that concludes the novel doesn't do it any favours either. All things considered it is a good but not exceptional novel.

Book Details
Title: Lord of Emperors
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 560
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-06-102002-8
First published: 2000

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Birthgrave - Tanith Lee

In January I read Crying in the Rain (1987), a short story by Tanith Lee. It was the first story I read by her and it made me curious about her other work. Since her death in 2015, new editions of her books have appeared in a steady stream, so I decided to pick up The Birthgrave (1975), the  novel that launched her career. Although she had been publishing stories and a children's novel since 1968, it was The Birthgrave that allowed her to become a full time writer. The novel was rejected by many UK publishers but found a home with DAW in the US. It seems to divide readers. Some absolutely love it, the novel was even nominated for a Nebula, others think it is a poorly written book. I must admit I am leaning towards the latter.

A young woman wakes up under a dormant volcano. She has no recollection of who she is and how she came to be in this place. When she starts looking for a way out of the volcano she encounters the goddess Karrakaz, who tells her she is cursed. Death and misery will follow her wherever she goes, until she finds her 'soul-kin of green jade'. After leaving the volcano she soon finds out that the world outside is violent and brutal, but also that she has powers beyond that of mere mortals. The curse propels her into the world and drives her onward, in search of the mysterious jade.

The story is told from a single perspective in the fist person, which means the reader knows as much of the world as the main character does. By the end of the novel, this is still not a whole lot. Many of the cultures she encounters are mere sketches, history is largely unknown and the limited point of view doesn't offer much beyond the main character's immediate surrounding. It appears to be a fairly standard primitive sword and sorcery setting right until the end of the novel. There, Lee mixes genres and introduces a science fictional element. Although much more explicitly sexual, the sexual revolution had arrived by the time of the writing after all, Robert E. Howard would still have recognized this as a fantasy adventure.

Lee does an awful lot of things in this novel that would drive an editor to despair. The main character does not seem to have a will of her own for instance. Things happen to her and she lets them happen. Sometimes she can be provoked into opportunistically seize control, but for most of the novel, there is no plan, no drive, and no initiative in her whatsoever. Foreshadowing is almost unheard of in the novel, making it appear like a series of more or less random events. To drive the plot forward, Lee resorts to a series of deus ex machina style interventions. The climax of the novel, in which Lee gets her heroine out of a fix by introducing a space ship and then resolves the plot with some dubious psychology, is especially bad in that respect. I am not altogether surprised many publishers turned it down.

But there is that Nebula nomination, the fact that it has been in print for over forty years and the lavish praise heaped upon it by reviewers, authors (a glowing example of which can be found in Marion Zimmer Bradley's introduction to the edition I read) and readers alike. The book must have something going for it. The prose is one thing that stands out. Whether you like it is a matter of taste but keeping in mind that Lee wrote this around the age of 22,  it is quite impressive. Her writing is vividly descriptive, something that no doubt won her many admirers.

Another thing that is noticeable about this novel is the female protagonist. In a time where women in sword and sorcery novels were usually little more than decoration, or at best cast in cliché roles, The Birthgrave presents the reader with a woman who is all those cliché roles in one person and moves beyond them. Not that the book is a feminists' dream. Given the heaps of blatantly sexist stuff DAW was publishing in the 1970s under Wollheim himself, that would have been a miracle. There is quite a bit of sexual violence in the book. While the main character doesn't approve, she is not particularly outraged by it either, even when she is the victim herself. Still, her choice of protagonist was noteworthy. Bradley even comments on how female authors often, out of necessity, wrote from male point of views. Lee shows them it is not necessary.

All things considered, I don't think this is a novel that really deserves the label classic. It is a book that had an impact when it was published, but one with so many flaws that I can't really call it a good book. If I compare this with the short story that made me pick up this novel, Lee must have developed considerably as a writer throughout her career. It is a fairly quick read if you let yourself be swept away by Lee's lovely prose and the emotional turmoil that surrounds the main character. For the slightly more analytical reader, this book has little to offer. The Birthgrave will probably remain a popular book for quite a while yet, but I was mildly disappointed with it.

Book Details
Title: The Birthgrave
Author: Tanith Lee
Publisher: DAW
Pages: 452
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1105-3
First published: 1975

Monday, February 27, 2017

Loosed Upon the World - John Joseph Adams

Last year I read Drowned Worlds (2016), a Jonathan Strahan's anthology of climate change fiction. It had a few good stories in it, but over all it turned out to be a mild disappointment. Climate change is a much used theme in science fiction however, and soon after I came across another fairly recent anthology on the subject. Loosed Upon the World, edited by John Joseph Adams, takes a broader approach to the theme. Where Strahan's anthology focuses on sea level rise, Adams selects stories that also cover shifting precipitation patterns, mass extinction, spread of infectious disease, atmospheric changes and all manner of adaptation and survival strategies. They also vary wildly in scientific accuracy. It makes the anthology as a whole more entertaining.

Two names can't possibly be missing from an anthology like these: Paolo Bacigalupi and Kim Stanley Robinson. Both authors whose work draws heavily on environmental themes. Robinson hasn't published much in the way of short fiction. Adams included an extract from his Science in the Capital series, which I read some time ago. What struck me most about this extract is that, while a catastrophic flood occurs, there is a sense in them that it is not beyond enduring, and is probably not beyond mitigating either. Humanity will adapt, Robinson seems to think. It makes me look forward to his upcoming novel New York 2140, where, judging from the synopsis, the city does just that.

Bacigalupi is present with two stories, both discussing the unsustainable practices in water management  in the American South-West. Shooting the Apocalypse is a story that features a character from his recent novel The Water Knife (2015). It is a brutal tale that probably makes more sense if you have read the novel. I had already read his second offering, The Tamarisk Hunter (2006). It appeared in the collection Pump Six and Other Stories and tackles an attempt to control an invasive species. The older story stands better on its own in my opinion. It was one of the ones I liked best in Pump Six and Other stories.

Since it is set in my neck of the woods, I suppose I should mention Jim Shepard's The Netherlands Lives With Water (2010). Shepard is an American author whose work sometimes crosses over into genre, but is mostly regarded as a main stream novelist and short story writer. This novel could be considered science fiction because it is set in the future, but other than that there is not much speculative about it. The story depicts a crumbling marriage, paralleled by crumbling flood defences. I must admit Shepard got an impressive amount of details on local water management right. In it's depiction of society it relies a bit too much on clichés to be written by a local though.

One of the stand out stories for me was The Precedent (2010), by Australian author Sean McMullen. It does not look at the mechanism of climate change but more at the social consequences. McMullen, in effect, put a whole generation on trial for squandering the world's resources. The story highlights the many ways in which we are wasteful but also how hard it can be to actually find the most sustainable option. How many of us live up to the standard of Jason Hall? There is something surreal about the resignation in which the people on trial accept the judgement. It clashes rather forcefully with the opinion of climate change deniers and the interest of the corporate world. Given that this story takes place in 2035, a lot must change between now and then to so radically turn public opinion.

Angela Penrose's Staying Afloat (2013) looks at the challenges faced by developing nations. It is tempting to go for the large, dramatic technological fixes, but in places that neither possess the wealth, nor technical know-how, other ways must be found. The story is set in Mexico where shifting precipitation patterns have changed a once arid region into one where downpours are frequent.The main character is looking for low-tech, affordable ways to protect the harvest from washing away. This is another story that, despite pointing out the near insurmountable obstacles, leaves the reader with a sense of optimism. It is not just large technological fixes that is going to get us through this. On the local level, changes are necessary as well.

The last story I want to mention is The Eighth Wonder of the World (2009) by Chris Bachelder. The story is set in the Astrodome, Houston, Texas, which has been hit by serious flooding. Many people have taken refuge in the dome. It appears to be anarchy inside. A distinct echo of what went on in New Orleans' Superdome during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Bachelder is another author in the collection who probably doesn't consider himself a science fiction writer. The Eighth Wonder of the World shows us the slow rise of some kind of social order from the chaos immediately after the disaster. There is a sense of danger and fear, but bit by bit people start doing constructive things beyond mere survival. The author only names his characters by their occupation in the story, which creates a bit of distance to them, but also focusses the story on the transformation taking place. It is one of those things that works in a short story but would probably make for a dreadful novel.

Although there are some stories in this anthology that I didn't really do much for me, and one - That Creeping Sensation (2011) by Alan Dean Foster - that left me wondering how on earth the author managed to sell that heap of nonsense, most of the stories were at the very least entertaining. A few reached into the excellent category. Adams managed to gather a diverse set of stories and as such, the anthology is likely to keep most readers on board until the last pages. Both Bacigalupi in the introduction and Ramez Naam in the afterword mention how interlinked all these changes are. It is not just climate that changes but the entire world around us. If there is one thing this anthology succeeds in, it is showing the reader how complex an issue climate change really is. You may argue Adams' selection of stories of course, but looking at it from that angle, I consider it a job well done.

Book Details
Title: Loosed Upon the World
Editor: John Joseph Adams
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 565
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-5307-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The People's Police - Norman Spinrad

Norman Spinrad made his name as part of the New Wave in the 1960s. It is the period in science fiction where things start to get interesting to me. I am not that much of a fan of Pulp or Golden Age material. It is somewhat surprising that I never actually read anything by him before. When Tor offered me a review copy I figured it was time to do something about that. The People's Police is his first published novel since 2011. Spinrad self-published the English edition of his previous novel Osama the Gun (2011) after a string of rejection notes from US publishers. The topic was deemed too controversial. Controversy is something Spinrad clearly never tried to avoid in his career. The People's Police is bound to rub some readers the wrong way as well. Then again, it wouldn't be a good satire if it didn't.

New Orleans is not doing so well. After being struck by hurricane Katrina, the city has never regained its former glory. With increasingly powerful hurricanes hitting the city every year, much of the city's surroundings have reverted back to the swamp it once was. To add to the city's misery, a new economic crisis started by the meteoric rise of the value of the dollar has hit the nation. Police officer Martin Luther Martin, brothel owner J. B. Lafitte and Voodoo Queen MaryLou Boudreau all suffer the consequences of yet another economic failure. Something needs to be done. Each in their own way, will contribute to a series of events that will upset the politics and economics of the state of Louisiana severely.

Spinrad is clearly not impressed with the political and economic state of the US at the moment, and in this novel he presents a crisis that is an extension of the one we are currently crawling out of. It boils down to an extreme rise in the value of the dollar, which is nice in the short term because products get cheaper. In the long run it depresses wages however, which is not good for people trying to pay off a mortgage, closed before the rise of the dollar. A new round of foreclosures quickly ensues. I'm a little hazy on the mechanism that causes the dollar to rise and how realistic that development is. Economics is not exactly my area of expertise.

Whatever the exact economics of the situation may be, the message that the financial and political elite has failed to learn the lessons from the 2008 crisis is loud and clear. Spinrad argues that market economics cannot work without a large and stable middle class, and that the current direction of the US economy is not going to provide that. Since it is also very obvious that the economic elite is not about to change their ways, change must come from the bottom. And there we hit on a second issue Spinrad takes aim at, the deeply rooted mistrust of career politicians and the, in my opinion, somewhat naive belief that putting people in charge from other walks of life would yield better results. Looking at this novel in that light, the election of Trump as president couldn't be more fitting.

The main characters in the story are all people just trying to get by. They have opinions on what needs to be changed, but rarely are able to think more than a few steps ahead, or beyond their immediate surroundings. They are often shamelessly selfish in their motivations as well. Their actions quickly expose some of the divisions in US society. They clash with the religious conservatives, with the anti-union sentiment that has become so prevalent in the last decades, with the close ties between big business and the political establishment, and with the abuse of the system of checks and balances to endlessly block decision-making. It is, in other words, a revolution that meets with stiff opposition.

Spinrad swings all over the political spectrum in this novel. From police union actions that would make Joseph McCarthy turn in his grave to sending in the National Guard to end the anarchism caused by a lack of police enforcement. There is more than a bit of irony in the role of the religious and conservative National Guard commander in the story. Through his religious convictions, and more than a bit of common sense, he ends up doing things that are perfectly in line with his convictions but not by any stretch of the imagination in line with conservative orthodoxy. Whether you approach the problem from the right or the left, so Spinrad seems to argue, the conclusion that the balance between capital and labour needs to be restored is inevitable.

Being set in the Big Easy the dialogues are in a kind of Southern Vernacular English. Spinrad plays with the preconceptions associated with that variety of English, as well as with various stereotypes associated with the rural population of the Mississippi delta, and preconceptions of crime, drug use and race. He constantly tempts the reader to fall into one of these preconceptions and think of the characters as backwards, uneducated and dumb, only to have that character make a move that shows them not quite as simple as the stereotype would have it. This contrast is sometimes downright hilarious but can also be very confronting. The Voodoo queen is probably the best example of that. She is 'ridden' by the spirits but do not think her a puppet.

The People's Police is a very politically charged novel. It questions, it mocks, it satirizes and it challenges. The book is quite cynical about the world of politics and business in particular. You have to be able to appreciate a strong political message in the book to like it. Spinrad does not hide his own opinions, which border on the anarchistic at times, in the novel. I suspect this goes for a lot of his other books as well, so for readers familiar with his work, that will most likely not be a surprise. Personally, I enjoyed his sharp criticism and unapologetically cynical observations. It makes me curious what Spinrad has to say on terrorism. I may have to seek out Osama the Gun some time.

Book Details
Title: The People's Police
Author: Norman Spinrad
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 284
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8429-4
First published: 2017