Sunday, October 27, 2013

Steal Across the Sky - Nancy Kress

I've been deeply impressed with Nancy Kress' short fiction ever since reading her collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories in 2008. It's another of those books that have been on the list for a review for years now. Short story collections are very time consuming to review however, and since I don't have the time for that right now, I settled for a reread of Kress' 2009 novel Steal Across the Sky. I read it shortly after its publication but never got around to writing the review. To date, I have only read two of Kress' full length novels, the other being Beggars in Spain,  but from those, I get the impression her approach works better when applied to short fiction.

In the near future a group of Aliens make contact with Earth. To make their wishes known, the put up a site on the Internet with a message saying they have wronged the human race in the distant past and with to atone for their actions. They are looking for twenty-one volunteers to visit seven planetary systems and 'witness' for them. What they mean by that remains unclear but there certainly is no lack of volunteers. Soon the Witnesses are on their way to see what the aliens have to atone for. It's a trip that will change the travelers as well as the rest of humanity profoundly.

Steal Across the Sky is a remarkably fast read. It's the kind of book you can read in one sitting. That is not to say it is a light read. Kress packs a lot of information into the text, alternating chapters seen from the point of view of several different characters with short texts showing the response of society to the revelation the aliens bring. It's one of the ways in which you can tell she is good at making the most of the space available. In fact, the novel is more or less structured like a series three of linked novellas, rounded off with a short epilogue.

The core concept of the novel is that the Atoners, as the aliens are referred to, taken something out of the human genome in the distant past, thereby changing the course of history and human evolution. They proceeded to set up a series of double blind experiments with human populations with and without the trait. It is a monstrous crime to steal a part of someone's heritage. Kress links it to the loss of one of the five senses, although after millennia, the loss is not felt as clearly it would be if the entire human population suddenly went blind.

Unraveling the motives of the aliens could have been the main subject of this novel, in fact, Kress has written stories like that before. It is only part of what she is interested in however. One could even say it is a minor part. The largest part of the novel deals with the effect this revelation about the human genome has on the population. Earth has changed and dealing with this change is hard on society. The Witnesses are protected and most of them are shielded from the worst of it but various groups who see the message of the Atoners as support for their previously held beliefs create quite a stir. From terrorist assaults to increased rates of suicide, the level of violence unleashed by the Atoners' revelation weighs on the Witnesses.

Seen as a novel of ideas, the story works quite well but with Kress' attention spread out over a number of point of view characters, most of them are very much in the service of the plot. Lucca for instance feels like twp dimensional rich kid who feels he is held back by his obligations to his family. I couldn't really feel form him despite the loss he suffered. Cam is elevated to a level of fame and influence beyond what her intelligence and education can support. She knows this and yet falls into the same trap time and again. Frank is holding a grudge and just about everything he does is motivated by how society, or rather the police force, wronged him. The only character who I felt was a little better fleshed out was Soledad.

In some ways Kress presents the bare bones of a novel here. John Clute calls it sober in his entry for Nancy Kress in the SF encyclopedia. That is a fitting description. In some respects it is a very well written piece. The style reminded me a bit of The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller I recently read. It is effective in the way it works what the reader needs to know to understand what is going on in the story. Many readers will prefer a novel with a little more meat on its bones though. I enjoyed it, but where I think many of Kress' shorter pieces are exceptional, this novel is merely very good. It is well worth reading but not the best Kress has to offer.

Book Details
Title: Steal Across the Sky
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1986-9
First published: 2009

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Plains of Passage - Jean M. Auel

The literary quality of Auel's The Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters, the second and third volume in her Earth's Children series, left something to be desired to put it mildly, so I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue this series of reviews. I've always had a soft spot for The Plains of Passage, the fourth volume, and since I recently came across an English language version (this is one of the few novels I've read both in English and Dutch translation) I decided to go ahead and reread it. My recent read of Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman may also have something to do with it. The novels share a setting during the ice age, if little else.

After a difficult year among the Mamutoi, the Mammoth hunters, Ayla has decided Jondalar is the man for her and that if it takes crossing the continent to travel to his home is the price for being with him, she is willing to pay it. In early summer they set out on their journey. Knowing he is unlikely ever to travel that far again, Jondalar opts for the longer route that will have them follow the Donau, the Great Mother river for most of its length. It is his last chance to see his kin among the Sharamudoi people living on it's banks. Their journey will take them a full year and exposes them to every danger the unforgiving ice age environment has to offer.

The Plains of Passage can be accused of just about everything that bothered me in the previous two books. Ayla is still a Mary Sue. Fortunately, traveling doesn't give her too much time to invent new stuff although she does make a few steps in domesticating wolves. She does find the time to become fluent in three more languages despite spending weeks at most with the peoples in question. Her abilities win her admiration and several invitations to stay permanently. Despite this universal worship of her supreme abilities she still fears being rejected by Jondalar's people and is on the verge of asking Jondalar to stay with one of the peoples they meet along the way.

The repetitions that mar the later books in particular are also very present in this novel. With every new group Ayla is exposed to there is an endless string of formal introductions, disbelieve over her control of their animal companions and admiration for the inventions Ayla and Jondalar bring. After that, we usually find out what challenge is facing this particular community and what Ayla can do to fix it. Once the the proper steps are taken to fix the problem, Ayla and Jondalar are of to continue their journey. Another repetitive element in the story are the many graphic sex scenes. Personally it doesn't bother me, but in this book the scene where a young girl watching Jondalar and Ayla go at it helps her to overcome a gang rape was a bit too much for me.

Jondalar and Ayla also battle their personal demons during their journey. As mentioned before, it is her fear of rejection for Ayla. Jondalar struggles with an equally unlikely issue. He is afraid that the Great Mother won't find him worthy to create children of his spirit. He still refuses to believe in Ayla's theory linking sex and procreation and the uncertainty about whether or not he'll have offspring drives him to seek the aid of a holy man they meet along the way. He even goes so far as to try and get Ayla to have sex with another man. Given the story I guess it is consistent but it had me roll my eyes anyway.

There is plenty of about this novel I find extremely unlikely, incredibly annoying or outright ridiculous but there are a few aspects that appeal to me. As usual, Auel has done her homework. The novel contains rich descriptions of the ice age landscape and ecology. Some may find them boring or repetitive. For me, the way she describes the landscape is very interesting indeed. Some elements do turn up time and again but she has done a good job in describing the various landscapes her main characters travel through. The place might have been a bit colder than it is today, ecologically it was diverse if you know how to look at them. Picture yourself standing on the banks of the river, somewhere north of Belgrade where the Tisza river joins the Donau, trying to imagine what the place looked like some 30,000 years ago. It is quite a feat of the imagination, especially when you consider Auel describes a journey of several thousand miles this way. For some reason Jondalar's journey east in The Valley of the Horses lacked that kind of refined understanding of the environment he was traveling through.

Archaeological finds have also inspired Auel. A number of the artifacts described in the novel are based on archaeological finds. There is a big difference between the archaeological and ecological sides of this story in that the archaeological evidence is usually incomplete and lacking context. Auel built her story of people worshiping the Great Earth Mother around it and we have no way of knowing if it is anywhere near reality. In fact, I suspect she is wildly of the mark in many respects. Still, someone with an appreciation of prehistoric art and artifacts will enjoy these details in the book. Educated guesses and speculation about how these objects fitted into everyday life are part of what makes prehistory fascinating in my opinion.

The thing that most appealed to me when I first read this novel was the fact that at the heart of it, is an epic journey. It's something of a Fantasy cliche really, but one that remains quite popular. There is something about people being reduced to the basics with only their skill and ingenuity between them and disaster that makes for an appealing story. In that sense, the novel works better than Ayla facing impossible odds in The Valley of the Horses or the high school drama that fills The Mammoth Hunters.

Does that mean it's a good book? No, not really. The novel just has too many flaws for that. At best, I'd call it a guilty pleasure. It's a book that at a rational level, could be burnt to the ground in a review without requiring any great effort from the reviewer. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for it. I don't think I would have bothered with The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves without enjoying this book at some level. It is still more than a few steps down from The Clan of the Cave Bear however. The tragedy of this series is that Auel never managed to come close to the level she reached in the opening volume. Still, this minor step up was just enough to keep me going and even to convince me to reread the fifth book. I guess I will finish this series of reviews after all.

Book Details
Title: The Plains of Passage
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 868
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-28941-1
First published: 1990

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Arslan - M.J. Engh

For my tenth read in the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I picked Arslan by M.J. Engh. I've read a couple of more recent works in the past few months so I thought I'd pick an older one this time around. Arslan is Engh's first novel and was published in 1976. To date, only four novels by Engh have appeared but with that small oeuvre she did manage to make quite an impression. She was named author emerita by the SFWA in 2009. Engh is also a scolar of Roman history. Something that clearly influenced this novel. the edition I've read is the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition. I guess the editors of that series have a knack for picking controversial books. Personally, I'm not sure I would have included it.

Some time during the later stages of the cold war, a figure from the small nation of Turkestan rises to prominence in the world. Caught between China on one side and the USSR on the other, he cleverly uses a combination of politics and extortion to gain control of the armies of the major powers in the world. What he means to do with it remains unclear but the inhabitants of the small town of Kraftsville, Illinois get a shot at finding out when the new dictator of the world settles there for a time. His motives are unclear but he brings great change to the town. Whatever Arslan is up to, he has changed to world for good.

The main problem I have with this novel is that it is horribly implausible. Engh is not to specific on how Arslan gains power, by the time we meet him in the opening stages of the novel, he is already firmly in control. Since his nation has less inhabitants than most of the major cities on the planet, force of arms is clearly not an option. Force of personality obviously has something to do with, and cleverly manipulation people, but world politics is full of people who can do just that. And know how to defend themselves.

In the opening stages of the book, Arslan is portrayed as a brutal dictator. He rapes a young boy and a young girl in front of his men shortly after arriving, in what is certainly the most shocking scenes in the book. Arslan appears to think himself a Caesar. Divine, entitled to shape the world in whatever way pleases him because he has the power to do so. He feels that the rules he imposes on others do not apply to him. In more modern terms we'd call it megalomania. Arslan believes he is so invincible that he even offers one of the main characters the chance to shoot him. As it turns out it is not the first, nor the last, time that he exposes himself to such a risk. Unbelievable, nobody takes him up on the offer and the world is left to pay the price for this stunning bit of cowardice.

Arslan enforces a way of life that even in small town America, with it's ideal of a simple country life, is a serious step back. The economy is reverted to local produce only, contact with the outside world is reduced to a minimum and any technology that can't be sustained by local means phased out. Arslan appears to want to create a sort primitive agrarian state, which is quite scary if you consider what what going on in Cambodia at the time this book was published. You don't really want to think about the effect such policies would have on highly urbanized areas. It is back to basics for Kraftsville but that is not all he has in mind. After a while it becomes apparent no children are born anymore and then his true motivations come to the surface.

It is at this point it becomes clear what Engh is trying to achieve with the novel. Arslan is further developed into a round character. No longer the archetype of a tyrant, he is described as tirelessly working towards his goals, prepared to make large personal sacrifices of his own and living by his own moral standard, albeit a different one from what would be acceptable in small town America. Engh is trying to make the reader feel sympathy for Arslan and puts in a lot of effort to achieve this.

All of this is seen through the eyes of two main chanters. The first is Franklin L. Bond, principal of the town's school and a respected figure in Kraftsville society. He feels it is his duty to keep the place together and to that end collaborates extensively with Arslan. He is also in control of a pitiful excuse for resistance that arises in Kraftsville. Ironically, most of their work seems to consist of restraining people from doing something suicidally stupid. His ambivalence towards Arslan prevents him from doing anything meaningful beyond running the town. Given Arlan's plans, that is simply not enough.

The second point of view is that of Hunt Morgan, the boy who is unfortunate enough to be raped by Arslan. Later on, Hunt develops a complex relationship with his rapist, of appearing jealous when he lavishes his attention on others. Engh uses Hunt to show the reader that in his own way Arslan does care, thereby creating another shade of grey. It's another part of the story I had trouble believing. The voice of Hunt is also much more difficult to read. He uses just about every adjective in the dictionary at least once in his point of view sections. I didn't think it was quite convincing for a boy his age. Although it must be said he is very well read.

I guess whether or not you will like this novel depends on how well you think the author succeeds in making a very unlikely plot sound plausible. For me this pretty much failed on all fronts. I appreciate the efforts of the author to make the reader go back and froth between seeing Arslan as Lucifer himself and a caring man for those around him but in the end his character feels forced. Too extreme in many areas to be believable. The same goes for Hunt really. Franklin is more realistic. People keeping their heads low and muddling through would be very common in such a situation. He can't carry the story though, and so Arslan turned into a skillfully written but ultimately unsatisfying read for me.

Book Details
Title: Arslan
Author: M.J. Engh
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 303
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09501-4
First published: 1976

Friday, October 4, 2013

Shaman - Kim Stanley Robinson

I didn't read Robinson's previous novel, 2312, until a year after it was fist published. I guess I felt the story Robinson was writing had too many things in common with what he had done before that I couldn't get really excited about it. It turned out to be a good read but not one that ranks among my favourites. Shaman on the other hand, is one of those books I wanted to read as soon as it came out. In fact, I even tried (and failed) to get a review copy. Robinson's work is much more varied than the epic science fictions he is best known for and this book is a good example of that. Shaman takes us back in time instead of forward. That in itself is something Robinson has done before in The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo's Dream, but certainly not this far. Shaman is a novel set during the ice age, some thirty-two thousand years ago.

Loon is the apprentice of the moody shaman Thorn. He didn't ask for the job, it just happened to him. After the death of his father, Thorn's real apprentice as Loon thinks of him, and his mother, the shaman and the herb woman Heather take care of him. He is not particularly interested in most of what Thorn is trying to teach him except for the art of making cave paintings. Loon is determined to find his own path in the unforgiving world. The fist step on that path is the wander, an initiation into manhood. That is far from his last challenge though.

Throughout his career Robinson has mixed in the evolution of humanity into his novels. One particularly clear example is Frank Vanderwal, a character in the Science in the Capital trilogy. He is constantly explaining modern human behaviour in the light of patterns we picked up while still being 'primates on the plain.' He even lives as something of an urban hunter-gatherer for a while in Fifty Degrees Below. Another example that comes to mind in Nirgal's run with the primitives in Blue Mars. More primitive modes of living in modern times are thoroughly discussed in Robinson's novels. Shaman itself, appears to be in part inspired by the Chauvet Cave, a site with extensive cave paintings, discovered in the Ard├Ęche department of France. I recommenced you have a look at some of the art in that cave after finishing the book.

While many of Robinson's characters can opt for a (temporarily) more primitive lifestyle, Loon doesn't have a choice. He simply know any better. What keeps him busy are the most primal concerns of all: food, shelter and sex. What struck me about this novel was the sharp contrast with what is probably the most famous series of novels set in prehistory; Jean Auel's Earth Children series. Where she presents life during the ice age as utopia, where a human being can make a decent living with a bit of planning and a good set of survival skills, and where paradise is lost after the discovery of the link between sex and procreation, Robinson's reality is much harsher and probably closer to the truth. Loon suffers periods of starvation followed by a summer of plenty. His weight fluctuates considerably over the course of the seasons and he is always aware of the upcoming lean season. All things considered it is a miracle he still has time for his more spiritual pursuits.

In essence Shaman is a coming of age story. When we meet Loon he is very much a boy, unsure what to do with his life. Throughout the book he grows and builds the confidence he'll need to eventually step out of the shadow of the previous generation. It is quite a transformation to see him change from a moody boy to a confident man. Loon has a few brushes with death over the course of the book. Perhaps the most dramatic section of the novel and a turning point in Loon's life is his track back to his people after months of captivity with a northern tribe. It shows him the world is larger than he imagined. It's a journey that will push him to physical and mental extremes. Such treks show up in several of Robinson's other novels as well. Valerie's journey across Antarctica with her clients in toe comes to mind, as well as the evacuation of Burroughs in Green Mars. All of them are life threatening but none are quite are harrowing as Loon's journey though. The question of whether or not Thorn has a hand in Click's death will stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

Robinson spends relatively little time on the landscape and ecology of the land. Where in other books he is known for long passages of scientific and philosophical theories and speculations. Shaman is much more direct. Loon tackles the challenges that are right before him. He is at home in his environment. He accepts it as it is for the most part without considering his place in it or asking why the world looks the way it does. What keeps Loon wondering is people; the passage of time, the cycles of life and changing of generations, the cultures and survival strategies of other tribes are what occupies his mind. He may not realize it himself but he does posses the kind of curiosity and mindset that would suit a shaman.Something he starts to accept over the course of the novel.

I had high expectations of this book and Robinson's met them. How often does that happen? In a way Shaman is very different from the books that Robinson has written until now. It lacks his passion for the process of science for instance. On the other hand, there are lots of thematic links to his other works. It may not be the solar system spanning science fiction of his more popular books, I still thinks that even fans of his work that don't usually venture outside the genre will appreciate this. Loon's journey is fascinating, harrowing and at times heartbreaking. The only minor flaw in the novel is that after a dramatic opening section it takes Robinson a while to get the story going. It is hardly worth mentioning really. Shaman is an absorbing read. For me, it is one of the novels of 2013 you have to have read.

Book Details
Title: Shaman
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 456
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-84149-999-4
First published: 2013