Sunday, September 27, 2009

Desolation Road - Ian McDonald

The problem with discovering new authors is that it always adds so many new books to the to read list. I have a tendency to read everything I can get my hands on by authors I decided I like. Since reading Cyberabad Days in January I have read two of his more recent works and it quite convinced me to seek out the earlier books as well. Thankfully McDonald is not as prolific as some other authors in the genre, my bank account is grateful. Desolation Road is McDonald's first novel. It has recently been reissued by Pyr, with some wonderful artwork by Stephan Martiniere. For some reason this impossibly large locomotive reminded me of the illustrations by Don Lawrence in The Twisted World, one of his Storm comic albums. Desolation Road is quite something different from novels like River of Gods and Brasyl. It's one of those novels that make a precise definition of genres like fantasy and science fiction impossible.

The title of the book refers to the town of Desolation Road, which it follows from founding to its inevitable demise. It opens with the founder of the city, the somewhat reclusive Dr. Alimantando, travelling through the Martian dessert. The planet is in the process of being terraformed and a comfortable temperature and breathable atmosphere has been achieved. It is still largely uninhabited dessert however. Without realizing it Dr. Alimantando founds a town that is not supposed to be. According to the terraforming plans the first towns in the region should not be founded until years later. Desolation Road is a blank spot on the map. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the town still attracts people. A criminal on the run, a babooshka, a mechanical genius, a pilot without a plane, a set of identical triplets in love with the same woman, the list of strange people goes on for quite a wile. These people, their children and grandchildren will shape the history of Desolation Road and, as time progresses, that of the entire planet.

Desolation Road is a strange novel, science fiction with a distinct fantastic element. The setting very SF, a future Mars, with all manner of interesting and powerful technology available. In parts of the novel McDonald doesn't shy away from myth, religion and spirituality though. It give the whole an otherworldly feel. McDonald's Mars is a place where you expect weird thing to happen. With the town of Desolation Road as the centre of the novel, it does not have any real main characters. McDonald uses a lot of different characters to show us the different phases of the town's history. Especially early on this can be confusing to the reader. Personally I think he takes a bit too long introducing the lot of them. It takes quite a while before we leave the narrow focus on the town itself and have a look at the larger picture.

That large picture shows surprising parallels with my first fictional encounter with Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. A series published several years after Desolation Road. Cory Doctorow seems to think this book has almost everything Robinson put into the Mars trilogy and then some, packed in a book a third of the size. He has a point, although the approach to this subject is very different, the description of Mars and the social and political issues raised in the novel certainly reminded me of Robinson's work. I must admit I have been avoiding books set on a future Mars simply because I didn't think anyone could come up with something as impressive as Robinson's vision. McDonald certainly comes close.

The book does have a downside though. The huge number of characters McDonald employs in this relatively short novel makes any real development in most of them fairly minimal. It gives the whole book a bit of a soap opera feel not everybody will appreciate. The author also uses a number of technological tricks in a Deus ex Machina fashion to resolve certain story lines. The end of the novel, where Dr. Alimantando's time travelling brings us full circle, suffered from this. It's something I saw coming but I was still a bit disappointed by it.

Despite the ending Desolation Road is a very interesting novel. Especially once we reach the point where McDonald zooms out from the little town and Desolation Road's inhabitants start to make a name for themselves in the world. It is not the sprawling, technology fuelled, near future science fiction McDonald presents in his more recent work however. If I had to put a label on it I'd say it leans to magic realism. So depending on what you expect from this book it could be a terrific read or a bit of a disappointment. For me it was a bit of both. I loved the strange atmosphere and vivid image of Mars but on the other hand the ending of the book didn't impress me. Still, I can see why this book attracted so much attention when it was first published. Someone at Pyr seems to have a real talent for picking the stuff that is worthy of reprinting.

Book Details
Title: Desolation Road
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 365
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-744-7
First published: 1988

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of Pump Six and Other Stories, one of the best short fiction collections I have ever read. I was very much looking forward to reading his first full length novel, especially after I found out it would be set in the same future as his stories The Calorie Man and The Yellow Card Man. The last story especially has a close connection to the novel. To say I had (unreasonably) high expectations of this novel is probably an understatement. Although I had some quibbles with both the pacing and character development the novel did not disappoint.

The novel is set in a future Thailand, one of the few places on earth that is not totally dependant on a small number of large agricultural/industrial companies. Oil has run out, the sea level has risen considerably and carbon is strictly rationed. Internal combustion engines have all but disappeared because of this, and has largely be replaced by muscle, both human and animal. Where oil once ruled, the calorie is the all important factor in production processes. To make matters even more complicated, various biological weapons have wreaked havoc on the world's ecosystems and food production can only be kept at a sufficient level to feed the population by careful genetic engineering. Keeping one step ahead of the viruses is tricky though. The Thai government has managed to a degree but the big companies are trying to get a foothold in the country.

Against this backdrop Bacigalupi follows a number of characters. A Calorie Man, an agent of one of the big companies, trying to find the secret of Thailand's relative success in keeping food production up. A Yellow Card Man, a Chinese refugee of the Malaysian pogrom in which he lost his family, desperately trying to build a life again. A Windup Girl, a genetically engineered human, trained to be a secretary and translator with benefits for a Japanese business man. Abandoned by her owner, very illegal, almost unconditionally obedient and without rights she has fallen into the hands of a bar owner who does not appreciate her for her intellectual qualities. And finally a White Shirt, an official of the ministry of environment, once all powerful and now slowly losing ground to the ministry of trade. Something he means to put a stop to. Everybody has a price in Thailand but the Tiger of Bangkok cannot be bought. In Bangkok's steaming political climate these seemingly minor players will be essential in the drama that is about to unfold.

I marvel at the detailed picture of this future Thai society Bacigalupi has created in this novel. His environmental themes in this novel, the commentary on the way we produce our food in particular, is something I don't think I came across in any other speculative fiction I have read. It is a bleak future indeed if Bacigalupi's scenario would unfold but unfortunately it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The way food is dragged across the globe and what that does to local economies as well as the attempts to patent genetic codes and the lengths to which some companies are prepared to go to protect these patents are pretty disturbing. I also think he has written a very interesting chain of events in Thailand's political arena. I would be a major spoiler to elaborate about that unfortunately.

It has to be said though, at some points in the novel Bacigalupi probably pays a little too much attention to his setting. It slows the novel down in several places, making the pacing a bit uneven. A more serious problem is the character development. Emiko, the Windup Girl is especially problematic. Her character and story depend largely on her breaking the conditioning she received. Bacigalupi approached this by putting her under a lot of psychological pressure but given the misery she has been suffering on a day to day basis for years, this does not entirely convince me. The Yellow Card Man Hock Seng is a more interesting character but ultimately he says stagnant, constantly worried about his survival and fearing for another round of violence against the Chinese.

In a way The Calorie Man Anderson and the White Shirt Jaidee are the most interesting, both striving for their goals without compromise. Or course, given the end of the novel, one could wonder if this was a wise course of action but it certainly makes for interesting reading. I guess it is telling that the true twist in the story eventually comes from neither of these four. Bacigalupi made the events in Bangkok the real focus of the book. There is something to be said for that choice, his attention to detail and the believable scenario he presents make it the novel's strong point. It would have been nice see a little more development in the characters though.

The Windup Girl is a very good novel length expansion of the themes Bacigalupi wield with such success in his shorter work. I didn't think it was quite as good as his short fiction but the novel is certainly among the better ones I have read this year. I very much appreciated the environmental themes in his work, something Bacigalupi handles with an understanding rarely seen in other science fiction novels. The future he describes is bleak but also fascinating and the Thai setting is so well realized it convinced me (granted, I have never been even close to Thailand). The novels has some flaws, a few of which other reviews will no doubt think quite serious. The novel kept me captivated anyway. I think the author can do better, and I certainly hope he will in years to come, but the fact remains is that I thoroughly enjoyed The Windup Girl. As far as I am concerned this is one of the 2009 publications that should be on your reading list.

Book Details
Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 359
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59780-157-7
First published: 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Way of Shadows - Brent Weeks

The books of the Night Angel Trilogy were among the big releases of 2008. A brand new writer publishing a complete trilogy with only a month between the books. Something that, as far as I can tell, hasn't been tried by any major publisher. I don't know what it did for sales and the books certainly weren't unanimously declared brilliant by reviewers, but it did garner a lot of attention on Internet. I read several review of these books right after they were published but they didn't appeal to me enough to buy a copy, my to read pile is still rather large. Recently my girlfriend got a copy of the first book so after she was done with it I decided to give it a go. I thought it was a decent read but by no means the best début I've read.

The novel follows the life of Azoth, a boy growing up in the bad part of the city of Cenaria. Part of a gang of beggars and thieves, he grows up in a very violent, poverty stricken world. His chances of getting out are slim indeed. He pins his hope on the master assassin (or wetboy in Weeks' terminology) Durzo Blint. A man who has elevated assassination to an art. The price of becoming his apprentice is high. Azoth needs to prove himself capable of cold blooded murder and cut all ties to his old life. Love, friendship, compassion, these are weaknesses a wetboy cannot afford to get in the way of his business. Azoth adopts a new identity and learns his master's trade. Despite his master's warnings he is not able to completely let go of his past and the few friends he has made. Durzo is a hard master, any sign of weakness could mean his death. But ultimately Azoth needs to make his own decisions. As he gets more and more skilled the tensions between master and apprentice rise, eventually leading to a confrontation on one of the bloodiest nights the kingdom has seen in centuries.

The Way of Shadows aims for the gritty atmosphere many recent fantasy novels adopted. It is quite violent right from the start. This includes quite a bit of sexual violence, although the worst excesses of Azoth's world are only hinted at. Life in the slums is brutal and short and Weeks makes this abundantly clear. It doesn't help that as Azoth progresses in his studies, we're treated to a number of meticulously described and often bloody assassinations. As we near the end of the book these actions scale up to an superhuman effort in death and destruction by both Azoth and Blint. Especially early on in the book the cruelty seems to serve little purpose and in the final chapters I think Weeks is overdoing it. He is sailing right beyond gritty realism into the realm of action movie gore in the final part of the novel.

Don't get me wrong, I like a little action in a novel and Weeks' fighting scenes are pretty good. This novel however, leans too much on this one aspect. The motivation of the characters is often unclear and we get to see only the vaguest outline of what is going on in the wider world. Durzo in particular turns out to have quite a history. With all the trauma and loss he has suffered he could have turned into a very interesting character but Weeks never really develops that. Durzo remains the near perfect assassin, never allowing himself to feel anything, rarely letting anyone see him crack. At several points in the book he gets into fights with Azoth and lets something slip. These revelations usually come as a complete surprise and rarely shed much light upon his previous actions. Azoth has a different problem. He may be an assassin but he doesn't actually want to kill anyone. When push comes to shove he has to be forced into it, which is something of a handicap in his line of work and in the later stages of the book not entirely convincing.

The finale of the book involves an invasion by a foreign and rather nasty ruler styling himself god-king. His resources include the services of quite a lot of strong magic wielders but why he actually wants to rule, or at least conquer, Cenaria is a mystery to me. It seems to have very little of real value and if the little history we are provided with is correct, it is also pretty hard to hold. The plan to take the nation is quite ingenious but why it requires them to commit so much of their magical resources to it remains unclear. Indeed the magic in Weeks' world is only covered on a very basic level, it's limits remain unexplored and the price for wielding it unknown. It's almost like Weeks is telling a story that has no context, constantly keeping the reader off balance with unbelievable scenes, characters miraculously escaping death and unlikely plot twists.

Despite my criticism this first book in the Night Angel Trilogy is not a punishment to read. Especially readers looking for an action packed read will appreciate it, The Way of Shadows is quite a big book but it a quick read nevertheless. It has some good fights and the dark mystery of an assassin's world going for it. Weeks neglects other parts of the story to an extend that it hurts the story though. Maybe if you let yourself be carried away with the relentless action that takes place in the later chapters it is even possible to overlook the novel's problems. I was not able to do so. Weeks has a lot of exploring left to do in this world. Let's hope he gets to it in the next book. I'd say The Way of Shadows is an entertaining read but there is a lot of room for improvement.

Book Details
Title: The Way of Shadows
Author: Brent Weeks
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 688
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-740-2
First published: 2008

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Songs of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth is one of Clarke's later novels, based on a shorter piece of the same name he wrote in the 1950s. In the foreword Clarke states it is something of a response to the rise of what he calls "space opera" on television and the silver screen (he specifically mentions Star Trek, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas), which according to him are fantasy. I suppose one could see them as such if you stick to the narrow interpretation of science fiction. Personally I never saw the point of trying to define genres and sub-genres, it's pretty obvious it is almost impossible to come up with a definition that would satisfy everyone. To Clarke apparently it matters. He sets himself the task of writing a science fiction novel that portrays interstellar travel realistically. So get rid of your Heisenberg compensators, Warp drives and Hyperspace, time to get back to the basics. Sub-light speed travel that literally takes generations.

In 1956 physicists discover a new and exotic particle they name neutrino, a particle that passes right through the earth without even being slowed by it. A decade later the first measurements show that the sun is not emitting as many of these particles as the models predicted. It takes scientists until the early 21st century to solve the problem and the answer is disturbing. Something is seriously wrong. It appears the sun will go nova around the year 3600. That year is still far away but soon the first efforts the escape doom begin. Mankind is trying to reach the stars and seed colonies.

Sometime in the 39th century the Magellan, the last seedship to leave the earth before it is destroyed, arrives a the planet of Thalassa. The Eden-like ocean planet has been settled some seven centuries earlier. After a major volcanic eruption Thalassa has lost contact with the other scattered colonies and Earth itself. Their culture has stagnated to a content, idyllic, almost utopian society. The arrival of the Magellan shakes up the colony. The effects of this contact with this technologically very advanced, last group of colonists to escape earth is going to bring change to Thalassa, whether they like it or not.

The Songs of Distant Earth was published in 1986 and back then the solar neutrino problem was very real. To put your mind at ease, science considers it solved now. The sun does indeed emit less neutrinos than the models expected and this is not going to cause it to go nova. Don't ask me to explain it, the solution has something to do with some of the more counter-intuitive properties of neutrinos, I won't even pretend to understand it. The idea of this impending disaster is an interesting one though. It would certainly give humanity a long time project and the drive to make it work.

Apart from his doom scenario Clarke has also put quite a lot of thought into how this interstellar travel might be accomplished without resorting to faster than light travel. Especially the bit on the friction encountered in space by an object travelling sufficiently fast is very interesting. It's also something Alastair Reynolds mentions in one of his Revelation Space novels.

An even more speculative bit of science Clarke puts in his novel is the use of vacuum energy as propulsion for a spacecraft. This enables them to go much faster, although still nowhere near the speed of light because of the friction problem. This theory seems to have a theoretical basis but seems to have crossed the line into pseudo-science on occasion as well. It's not something science understands all that well, and if Clarke is to be believed, that situation will not change much for the coming millennium or more.

There's more to the novel than natural science of course. Clarke also takes a close look at the disturbance of his utopian society on Thalassa. I must admit this aspect of the novel is almost comical. The Thalassians are obviously pretty intelligent and technologically advanced but seem the have no drive whatsoever to accomplish anything. They're distracted all the time by trivialities. One of the best examples is the scene describing the meeting between the Magellan crew and the randomly elected president of Thalassa. It is absolutely hilarious. Many people will have serious problems accepting this society as realistic but it is certainly entertaining.

Thalassa may be an utopia, the story is not without its share of tragedy. The two groups have a window of about two years to interact before the Magellan continues its journey. Long enough for deep emotional attachments to form. With the crew in stasis, everybody the crew has known on Thalassa will long since have died by the time the ship reaches it's destination however. On top of that there is the trauma of being the last group to leave earth and see it being destroyed. Clarke carefully balances these aspects, giving the book sufficient depth to make it a thought provoking read without being overly heavy.

Whether Clarke managed to write something that is less fantastical than shall we say Star Wars is questionable. Clarke's futures always carry a touch of utopia, something that in my opinion at least, is most certainly not supported by history of the 20th century. Progress is one thing, what we're doing with it is quite another. Mix in the controversial science and highly speculative solution to the solar neutrino problem I'd say Clarke would have been wise to stick to a somewhat wider definition of science fiction that he seems to be advocating. That is, at least partly, hindsight though and it didn't keep me from thoroughly enjoying this book. It won't top anyone's favourite list but if you are looking for a quick but thought provoking and slightly fantastic science fiction tale you could do worse than The Songs of Distant Earth.

Book Details
Title: The Songs of Distant Earth
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 320
Year: 1986
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-345-33908-8
First published: 1986

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Naamah's Kiss - Jacqueline Carey

Naamah's Kiss is the seventh book in the fantasy/alternative history series of epic proportions that began with the excellent Kushiel's Dart. It is also something of a new beginning for the series. While the first six books tell the story of Phèdre and her adopted son Imriel, Naamah's Kiss is set much later. It tells the story of Moirin, great-great-granddaughter of Alais the Wise. I was not impressed by Carey's previous effort Kushiel's Mercy, it was the poorest book in a trilogy that was a lot weaker than the previous one to begin with, but a fresh start got my hopes up that the series had reached a turning point. To a point that has proven true. Naamah's Kiss is not without it's flaws but definitely better than the books in Imriel's trilogy.

The heroine of this book is Moirin, through her ancestor Alais a descendant of both D'Angeline and Alban royalty. She does not grow up in a palace though, Alais' descendants chose to follow the way of the Maghuin Dhonn. Moirin grows up living in the wild in a cave with only her mother for company. This solitary lifestyle means she does not learn of her mixed blood until she and her mother visit a gathering of the Maghuin Dhonn. Her mother reveals that she is the result of a dalliance with a travelling priest of Namaah. Moirin's D'Angeline blood is more recent than she thought.

Moirin fervently hopes the Bear goddess of the Maghuin Dhonn will accept her as one of her people despite her mixed blood but there are signs that she is not the only goddess watching over her. Naamah, the bright lady as Moirin thinks of her, stakes her claim as well. Her gift of desire manifests itself in Moirin. When the then sixteen year old Moirin goes through a rite of passage of the Maghuin Dhonn, one that will show if the Bear goddess will indeed accept her. The result is confusing. The goddess accepts her but it is clear that her destiny does not lie on Alba. The young, sheltered and somewhat naive Moirin decides to depart for Terre d'Ange in search of her father. Her voyage will take her much further than Terre D'Ange though, further than she ever expected. All the way to Ch'in in fact.

In the previous six books, the leading divine force driving the characters has been Kushiel, one of Elua's companions who sees chastisement as an act of love. In Judeo-Christian mythology he is one of the seven angels of punishment. A very hard god to worship indeed. In this book we shift to Naamah, the companion who laid down with strangers when Elua was hungry to provide food. Her priests, Namaah's servants, worship through the holy act of prostitution. In Jewish mythology Namaah is a demon associated with prostitution. An altogether different creature. This shift is noticeable in the book, although it is never easy to serve one of Elua's companions, Naamah's Kiss is not as dark as some of the earlier books.

Picking Naamah is something of a risk for Carey. Her presence in Moirin usually manifests itself as desire. It is a challenge to make sure the reader does not see her as a character who is constantly horny and very impulsive (come to think of it, this is an apt description of a lot of teenagers). Moirin takes quite a few male and female lovers in the course of the book, Carey's books are not something people with a conservative sexual morale would enjoy, but I think she stays just short of overdoing it. I suppose you could say her sexual experiences guide her to the destiny she is seeking. They are definitely experiences that help her learn and grow and, like previous books, they are very much romanticized. I will admit whether or not Carey manages to keep the Moirin's sexual escapades within limits the story can handle is a debatable matter though.

The destiny Moirin is chasing is one of the two major problems I have with this book. It is absolutely unclear to Moirin what it is she is looking for. Apparently it is something of a you'll know it, when you see it experience. It does mean that Moirin spends a lot of time waiting for the next clue form her Bear goddess. She sets herself several limited goals in the course of the book but the direction of the story very much depends on this divine guidance. Not until we are some 380 pages into the book (out of 645 in my copy), do we even get an idea of the true challenge Moirin will have to face in this novel. Which leads me to the second flaw, in my opinion Carey takes too long building up to this point. Once we get there the story moves very quickly to the climax of the book. Battles are not Carey's forte but some more attention to the threatening civil war would have been an option. Or perhaps some digging into the past of Moirin's teacher Lo Feng? Given the importance of the events in Ch'in in the book, some more effort on fleshing out this culture would have been justified. Hopefully Carey will pay some more attention to this nation in the next two books in this trilogy.

All in all I thought this book was a whole lot better than the previous three books. Unlike Imriel, Moirin is a very likeable character. She's impulsive, inquisitive and smart (and also unreasonably gifted in the language department but let's not get into that), a very lively character. Naamah's Kiss misses the dark, somewhat threatening, presence of Kushiel. A change in atmosphere that may take some getting used to for some readers. I think this shift in time frame and atmosphere has done the series a lot of good though. A fresh start is what the series needed and a fresh start is what Carey delivers. Let's hope she can keep moving away from the low that was Kushiel's Mercy.

Book Details
Title: Naamah's Kiss
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 645
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-446-19803-5
First published: 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Heaven Makers - Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert is one of my favourite authors, and I don't mean just his Dune novels either. Unfortunately many of his books are out of print. Recently Tor reissued a bunch of them but despite keeping an eye out for them I am still missing some. The Heaven Makers was one of those still missing, it has not been in print for quite some time as far as I can tell. So when I came across it on a second hand book site last year I couldn't resist. The Heaven Makers is one of Herbert's lesser known work. The story first appeared in two parts in Amazing Stories Magazine in 1967 and first appeared in book form in 1968. My copy is a very cheap New English Library paperback (number 2684), probably printed in 1970, and for sale for 30p at the time. Whoever bought it must have been very careful with his books, it is still in pretty good shape.

In The Heaven Makers Herbert shows us a contemporary world where events are being controlled by the omnipotent Chem, an immortal alien older than the solar system. For these immortal creatures boredom is a mortal enemy (a notion Herbert also used in The Eyes of Heisenberg) and entertainment a necessity. In humans they have found a nearly endless supply of fascinating stories. Director Fraffin, running earth's story ship, is one of the most successful Chem in his business. His success has not gone unnoticed though. An investigation into possible breaches of the law has been launched.

In the mean time Fraffin continues to create new stories by subtly influencing events without the knowledge or consent of his actors. One such actor is the psychologist Androcles Thurlow, who sees one of the most important men in town and father of Ruth, the woman he is still in love with, butcher his wife. A crime he predicted in an psychological evaluation of the killer. Thurlow is severely shaken by the even but even more so when he starts to see alien observers where no one else can.

The cover they stuck on this edition must the most awful I have seen this year. I have absolutely no idea what the publisher was thinking. It vaguely resembles a scene in the book, the crash test dummy is supposed to be Ruth, but that's the only thing positive I can say about it. The publisher wisely omitted the name of the artist. I imagine whoever created it will want to forget it as soon as possible. I did not let that distract me from the story however.

The book is quite short, only 141 pages in this edition. Barely novel length. Herbert does not have a lot of space to stuff in lots and lots of science and philosophy like he does in other works. It is also not as densely written as his later none Dune works. The main theme of the novel is of course the morality of what the Chem are doing to the human population to earth. Humans are little better than pets in their eyes, hopelessly primitive, violent and short lived. I'm not sure if it is intentional but I thought the way Herbert describes them almost comical. They're the little green men everybody thinks about. The flying saucer inhabiting kind that is accused of kidnapping unsuspecting people for strange experiments (they actually do some of that in the book), the kind of creatures that populate countless ridiculous UFO stories.

The Heaven Makers was a quick read and it is a little dated. I rather enjoyed it though. Herbert is much more occupied by the idea of our alien overlords and the consequences of immortality than the development of his characters, a failing of several of his early novels. With it's rather straightforward plot, is not Herbert's most memorable work. I very much doubt it will see print again any time soon. That being said, it is far from his worst either. If you like Herbert's work, you'll not want to skip this one. Hard to find as it may be it.

Book Details
Title: The Heaven Makers
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: New English Library
Pages: 141
Year: 1970
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1968

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Octagonal Raven - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

His fantasy, in particular the Recluse saga, is a lot more popular but L.E. Modesitt Jr. has also written quite a few science fiction novels. I've read a number of these now and they are usually an all or nothing read for me. Some I enjoyed tremendously (Flash, Adiamante, The Forever Hero), others I will never read again (The Ethos Effect, Archfrom: Beauty). The Octagonal Raven has the unusual distinction of combining these two feelings in one book. I have never come across a book that is so much in need of some serious editing in the first part of the story, yet managing such a thrilling climax that I read the second part of the novel in one sitting.

The main character in The Octagonal Raven is Daryn Alwyn, a man from a privileged family on a far future earth. His father is the future equivalent of a media tycoon and controls one of the largest businesses in the sector. He would like his sons to take an interest in the company. Daryn has other things in mind however. He wants to make his own way in the world, not using the family connections to gain wealth and status. Just about the only place where he can be free of the ties of his family is the Federal interstellar fleet. Daryn signs up for the very though training to become a pilot and passes all tests. After a twenty five year career in the military he retires and sets up his own consultant business.

Daryn makes a decent living that way but suddenly an attempt on his life changes everything. It is soon followed by a second attempt and a successful attempt to kill Daryn's older sister. Daryn inherits her shares in their father's company and is now one of the largest shareholders. Events force him to take an active role in the family business but why anyone would want to kill him is still a mystery. With the sophisticated tools used by his would be assassins there is not much evidence the authorities can use. If Daryn wants to get out of this mess alive, he is going to have to take action himself.

Some people say science fiction novels are not about the future but about the present. There is certainly some truth in that for Modesitt's science fiction. It is always filled with social criticism on US society (although one could argue a lot of it is applicable to other places too). I'm not going to list every item of social criticism Modesitt put in this novel, there is simply too much of it, but in The Octagonal Raven the emphasis is on education. Daryn's society is a deeply divided one. Technology exist to give your children pre-selected genes and thus influence not only health but also physical attributes and intelligence. This procedure is costly and while it is entirely possible for a pair with a modest income to loan the necessary funds, it will put them in severe debt for many years to come. For the rich, the is of course not much of an obstacle. Since more intelligent people tend to be more successful, an elite has developed of 'pre-selects'. A small group of rich people, buying these societal benefits for their children, thus ensuring their family's wealth and standing. It is almost impossible for an 'norm', even an exceptionally gifted one, a person who has not benefited from pre-selection, to penetrate this circle. It's an elite based on ability, but a tyranny none the less.

To make matters worse, society is very much geared to a single type of intelligence referred to as perceptual integrative ability. To get a top education or good position in a company a good score on a test designed to test for this type of intelligence is a necessity. At the opening of the book there are even proposals to make the test mandatory for access to certain levels of education. This again widens the gap between the pre-selected elite and the norm bulk of the population. Tensions are mounting and protests against this move soon turn violent as the norms see their chances of joining the elite dwindle even further. I think the parallel with the current situation in the US educational system is clear. Keep an eye on Modesitt's blog and entries on education, tests and what and how we are teaching students will show up sooner probably than later.

Although the connection is not immediately obvious the situation I described above is at the centre of the problems Daryn encounters when he trying to keep himself alive. It takes him a while to figure this out however. Early on in the book we see Daryn musing over events in the world that don't make sense to him, as well as discuss them with his old history teacher. Exton Land, Modesitt's alter ego (L.E. = Leland Exton) and commentator present in several of his science fiction novel, also makes a brief appearance to add his bit. Modesitt lays a very thorough foundation for his story. Unfortunately this slows down the first of the two parts of the book is divided in considerably. The first part of the novel follows two main story lines. Daryn's earlier years (chapters named fledgling) and more recent events (raven chapters). While the fledgeling chapters give us some insight in Daryn's past and motivation to make his own way in the world, I wonder if we really needed all this attention to his early years. His motivation would have been clear enough without them and when you get right down to it, he has a rather uneventful career as a pilot.

The Raven story line is equally puzzling. Modesitt carefully presents some of the pieces of the puzzle but Daryn clearly doesn't see the whole picture. By the time the attempts on Daryn's life start to make sense we're some 270 pages into the book (out of the 460 in this edition of the novel). Modesitt is taking too long to get his point across here. It may be a point worth listening to, by the time it becomes clear he will have lost a lot of readers. If you make it to the second part of the novel though, the story explodes into action as Daryn uses all his resources to defeat his enemies. As usual in Modesitt's novels the actions of his hero are ethically debatable. I was so impressed with the strong finale of the novel that I stayed up way too late to finish it.

The Octagonal Raven is a book with two faces and a slightly unbalanced feel to it. If you hang in long enough to give the story a read chance it is a very rewarding read. It does have some severe pacing issues however. It is not his best SF novel I have read so far, but it is definitely not in the one read only category either. I guess whether or not you'll enjoy this book depends on how much patience you possess. In the end, I am glad my store of patience sufficed.

Book Details
Title: The Octagonal Raven
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 460
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8125-7008-3
First published: 2001

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ritus - Markus Heitz

Markus Heitz is a prolific, German, fantasy author who has been doing quite well here in the Netherlands. A lot of his books have been translated in the last few years and new ones regularly appear. His best known work is probably Die Zwerge, which has been released in English translation by Orbit in July as The Dwarves. Personally the current trend to give every fantasy race their own series doesn't really appeal to me so I decided to try another of his works, that as far as I know, has not been translated into English yet. Ritus, the original appeared in German under the same title, is marketed as a fantasy thriller here. No idea what they mean by that. Personally I think of it more as a horror novel.

Ritus has two main story lines. One part of the story is set in 18th century France, where a mysterious wolf is terrorizing the Gévaudan region. Despite the best efforts of men like Jean Chastel the beast will not be caught. Dozen fall prey to it and the king of France has offered a great reward for the man who kills it. Unfortunately for Jean, the beast they are hunting is no ordinary wolf. In one of the confrontations with the animal his sons Pierre and Antoine are bitten and start to exhibit aggressive behaviour. For Jean the hunt for the beast becomes more desperate as it becomes clear his sons are turning into werewolves. There is a cure but time is running out fast.

The second part of the story is set in 2004 in various places in Europe. Eric von Kastell and his father are hunting werewolves like their family had done for centuries. At the opening of the book one particularly nasty creature has kidnapped Eric's father and an attempt to liberate him turns into a massacre. Eric will have to go on without his father. What's worse, a large part of his research is destroyed as well. Eric's world is turned upside down when he finds out he has a sister in France who claims part of the rather large inheritance. Eric ignores her and dives head on into his work, on the trail of a werewolf in St. Petersburg. There his path crosses that of his family's worst enemy, a werewolf who doesn't make mistakes, a werewolf Eric's family has been hunting for centuries.

The historical part of this novel is obviously based on the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan. This legend has been material from many books and movies, one of the more notable being Brotherhood of the Wolf (or Le Pacte des loups if you prefer the French title). Hetiz has done quite a bit of research on the Beast, Jean for instance is a historical character. No doubt he has taken some liberties with the material to suit his story but there is historical backbone to it. I thought the historical part of the novel was the most appealing part of the book. Jean is a man who has lost his faith in the church after his wife died. He's moody, short tempered but has a good heart and a strict sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility is the source of one of the conflicts he faces, what to do about his obviously dangerous sons. An interesting character.

The 2004 part of the story is a lot more problematic. Heitz keeps a lot of details about Eric hidden. What we get to see is an obviously traumatized man, perhaps not fully human, who redirects a part of his fear and anger by creating pieces of modern art. A lot of his scenes are a sting of chases and fights, they are action packed but his past and the origins of his hunt are not revealed (although the name might be a clue). Possibly Heitz is saving that for the sequel Sanctum. Eric has another dark part of his personality. Besides werewolves he hunts women. His sexual conquests are described in some detail and it is clear that these are lust only (and therefore not particularly exciting to read). His trail of bodies and destroyed rooms makes you wonder how Eric has managed to evade the authorities for this long, as well as how he pay for an obviously very expensive lifestyle. In short, where Jean is brought to life, Eric develops all the depth of a hero in a third rate action movie.

I'm also not thrilled by the end of this book. I was aware that there is a sequel but the ending is still quite abrupt. Jean's story reaches a point more or less natural point of closure, Eric leaves us on a rather unsatisfactory cliffhanger.I guess the project is still salvageable if he pays some more attention to Eric in the next book but all things considered I am not terribly impressed with Ritus. Still, if you are looking for a fast paced, action packed and not too challenging read on werewolves you could do a lot worse than this novel. I'll see if I can still find a copy of Sanctum for review in the local book store, it may already be out of print. If I can get my hands on it I'll try to review it later this year.

Book Details
Title: Ritus
Author: Markus Heitz
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 400
Year: 2008
Language: Dutch
Translation: Marcella Houweling
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-2780-9
First published: 2006

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Zoon van de Duivel - Adrian Stone

I'm always on the lookout for fantasy or science fiction written in Dutch. Although there seems no shortage of readers, there is a steady stream of translations from mainly English language books, not much fantasy or science fiction in written Dutch is actually published. In recent years W. J. Maryson has been one of the most eye-catching author on the scene, some of his works appeared in German translation but as far as I know not in English. I gave one of his books a go but couldn't really get into it. Maybe I should try again some time, my girlfriend seems to like them a lot. Thomas Oldeheuvelt burst on the scene in 2008 with the publication of Leerling Tovenaar Vader & Zoon, which is marketed as fantasy but could be described as horror as well. There are number of other authors of course but their number is relatively small and they are often published by small publishers. Rarely do you find them on the shelf in a book store.

In 2007 I came across a book named Profeet van de Duivel (literally: The Devil's Prophet) by Ad van Tiggelen. A book published by Uitgeverij Gopher, which although they don't explicitly say so on their website, looks like an on demand publisher to me. It was not award winning material but it was imaginative, written in straightforward and correct Dutch and held up rather well structurally. In short, this author showed promise. Apparently one of the two large publishers of speculative fiction in the Netherlands, Luitingh Fantasy, thought so too. They reissued the book under an English pseudonym Adrian Stone (I'm not sure if this involved any rewriting), added some very nice new cover art by Jesse van Dijk and scheduled two sequels. Zoon van de Duivel (literally: The Devil's Son) is the first of these two sequels.

In the first book we meet the main character Marak, descendant of Catharis a man who has ascended to godhood. His rather dark cult, mostly interested in worldly power, is forming a large threat to the stability of the Kingdom of Carolia and the three gods that are traditionally worshipped there. Marak's heritage and magical abilities make him valuable to the cult but he denies them and joins the order of Ava, the god representing balance, instead. The cult of Catharis tries to get their hands on him anyway but after a hectic adventure Marak and his companions manage to capture the cult's leader Zabatha and imprison him. His cult is far from destroyed however and when their leader escapes, Marak knows a new confrontation is inevitable.

The position of the cult's main stronghold is unassailable however, and Carolia is not in a position to launch a major offensive anyway. Dynastic struggles and religions tension, fermented by the cult of Catharis, paralyse the nation. But the threat is even greater than that. Marak's own sister Melissa has helped Zabatha escape and he has gotten her with child. A child of two of the most magically gifted people in Carolia as well as a direct descendant of Catharis. The cult may yet get what they failed to capture when Marak slipped away.

I must say there is quite a bit of improvement when compared with (the gopher version of) Profeet van de Duivel. The flow of the story has obviously benefited from more careful editing, the story seems to flow more fluently from one character or scene to the next. There is one small editing mistake in the book that I found rather jarring. The occasional references to genes. Zoon van de Duivel is set in a typical fantasy setting with a technology level that is roughly comparably to the renaissance period. Genetics in the modern sense of the world did not come about until the 1860s with the research of Gregor Mendel and the word gene not until the early 20th century. It would probably have been better to speak in terms of blood or blood lines instead of using such a modern concept. It's a minor thing, nitpicking really, but the term did seem very much out of place.

Stone has paid a lot of attention to the religious aspect of the book. A lot of his characters are tied to one of the four gods mentioned in the book and religious strife is a major plot element. There are also a number of hints in the book that none of the four represent the complete truth. By comparison the rest of the world is less developed. We know next to nothing about the world outside the nation of Carolia for instance, so the book petty much deals with one culture. Quite a bit left to explore should the author choose to write more books in this setting.

Zoon van de Duivel still falls short of a truly epic fantasy novel. With it's limited world building, rather straightforward story and language and a tendency to very clearly explain the motivations of the characters it is not a very challenging read. In fact it might have done well as a YA book if it wasn't for a number of adult themes in the book. The author does not shy away from violent scenes or themes such as rape and prostitution. That being said, Stone delivers an exciting and fast moving tale, the book builds up to a dramatic climax very well. While it is clear there is more of the story still to come, Stone has managed to avoid the middle book pitfall. With a strong own story arc in this book he doesn't leave you hanging.

All in all I thought it a great improvement over Profeet van de Duivel. His third novel, Ziel van de Duivel (literally: The Devil's Soul) is expected in February 2010. I'm certainly going to check that one out, Stone is an author to keep an eye on.

Book Details
Title: Zoon van de Duivel
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 350
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-2947-6
First published: 2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favourite writers ever since I picked up a copy of Blue Mars (yes, I read those out of order for some reason). His vision of Mars and his blend of natural and social sciences and spirituality usually make for fascinating reading. I must admit I still haven't read his entire catalogue but I'm getting there. His last effort was the Science in the Capital trilogy, which deals with rapid climate change and a possible response to it. I didn't consider those books to be his strongest work but the were interesting reads. With Galileo's Dream Robinson has taken on quite a different project. In a book that is part biography, part alternative history and part science fiction, he takes a look at the live of one of the greatest scientists of all time, Galileo Galilei.

The story opens in Venice in 1609, right before Galileo starts the project for which he is perhaps most famous, his improvement of the telescope. He is approached by a man who tells him that in the low countries someone has made a discovery on how to use lenses to make an object appear closer. Intrigued Galileo begins experimenting and soon realizes the potential of this new device. He arranges a demonstration a the court of the Doge. The military advantages are immediately apparent to those present at the demonstration but Galileo is a scientist. After a nudge from the mysterious stranger and further improvements to his telescope he starts looking at the moon and the planets. Something that eventually brings him into conflict with many scientists of his time as well as the Catholic church.

From 1609 on we follow the life of Galileo to his death in 1642. It soon becomes clear that the strangers who has been giving him hints is not who he appears to be. After they deem Galileo sufficiently prepared for an upset in his world view he is taken to the Jovian system in the year 3020. There a technologically advanced society capable of time travel (in a fashion) has just made contact with an alien mind. Debates on how to proceed are fierce but when it looks like one of the more radical factions is going to take rash action, Galileo, one of the most intelligent scientists of all time, is asked for his opinion. Or at least, thatis what they tell him. Several more visits to future Jupiter will follow, each finding the place in a deeper crisis. It appears the Jovians not only try to avert disaster in their own time, they are not above a bit of meddling in history either.

Robinson is an author who is fascinated by science. Not just the knowledge it yields, but the entire process of observing, hypothesizing, testing and publishing. The many hours of hard work that is involved as well as the scarce moments of new insight. Many of his characters are scientists and their work as well as their impact on society is a frequent theme in his work. What better subject to pick than the man who is credited with major contributions to developing the scientific method? Robinson clearly admires Galileo, in fact the Jovians seem to think he is the third most intelligent scientist of all time, after Bao (I am pretty sure this is a reference to a character in the Mars trilogy) and Einstein. He does not fail to show his humanity. Galileo is portrayed as a man who knows exactly how smart he is and he's not afraid to say so. He is arrogant, stubborn, angry and temperamental and has little patience with stupidity and frequently lashes out at his critics. On the other hand he is also brilliant, caring and sometimes selfish. This obviously does not make him the most beloved person in his age and it certainly did not help him in his struggle with the church.

As far as I can tell Robinson has written a faithful biography of Galileo. With the inclusion of the Jovian story line it, is of course not entirely historical but it is usually quite clear where Robinson switches from historical to purely fictional. A lot of Galileo's correspondence has survived and Robinson quotes liberally from the letters from and to him. The historical part of this novel was an absolute delight to read. Especially the machinations that lead to his conviction and the banning of his book by the Vatican are very interesting. It is amazing to see that this stifling sense of conservatism still rules in the Vatican. It wouldn't be until 1835 that the offending book was taken of the list of banned works, and not until 2000 did the pope offer a formal apology. The current pope however, has mentioned the words "rational" and "just" in relation to Galileo's conviction. It makes one wonder what the church's position on the concept of inertia is.

The Jovian story line is the one that readers will have more problems with I suspect. About a third of the book is dedicated to this story line. As a result we only get to see the barest outline of Jovian society and the conflict that is going on there. Quite a bit it is dedicated to how this time travel is possible and I must admit the physics went right over my head. You need to be able to endure a fair bit of hard SF to enjoy this part of the story but even then it seems a bit under developed. More than a few readers will wonder if this part of the story was actually necessary. Personally I think it adds another layer to the book that enables Robinson to discuss the events in Galileo's time in a more modern perspective. There is quite a sharp contrast by events separated by 14 centuries (not even getting into the theory on time presented in the Jovian story line). I thought Galileo's response the strange, almost surreal, environment he finds himself in very convincing. This is not something everybody will agree with though.

The author took a chance by adding the Jovian story line and I don't think it quite worked like Robinson intended. It's interesting it its own way but it cannot balance to absolutely brilliant historical part of the novel. Despite that, I enjoyed reading this book an awful lot. Galileo's Dream is a novel with several layers, historical element was absolutely outstanding to me but there are also some very interesting scientific, philosophical and religious elements to the book. It is a book that is written to be reread. Several times probably. As usual, I am impressed with the scope of the novel and Robinson's knowledge of the subject. Perhaps not perfect but certainly recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: Galileo's Dream
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 584
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-726031-7
First published: 2009