Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Santaroga Barrier - Frank Herbert

A couple of years back Tor reissued four of Frank Herbert's novels in absurdly cheap paperback format. For some of these titles it had been quite a while since they'd been in print and despite a poor quality of the paperbacks I snapped them up as soon as they were published. Thankfully Tor realized it's mistake and reissued another four novels in a somewhat more durable format a while later. These first four reissues contained what I consider Herbert's best novel (The Dosadi Experiment) as well as the worst (The Green Brain). All four are quite different from his famous Dune novels but in quite a few you can see themes returning he used in those books. The Santaroga Barrier is one of his more interesting novels. A deceptively simple story really.

Psychologist Gilbert Dasein is assigned a market study of the peculiar town of Santaroga. On the surface everything seems normal but closer inspection reveals a number of strange things about the town. All businesses are locally owned. Outside businesses are allowed into the valley but quickly go belly up as none of the locals will shop there. There is no psychological disorders, no juvenile delinquency, no crime worth mentioning and no food-stuffs form outside the valley can be sold there. Something is decidedly odd about the place.

Dasein knows two investigators have tried to study the town before and neither lived to tell the tale. No violence mind you, just accidents. All together it is enough to put him on edge. He has reason to believe he will be more successful though. Dasein has met a girl from Santaroga in college and he's still deeply in love with her. If not for her insistence of returning to the valley they would have a future together. More than enough reason for Dasein to find out what's so special about the place.

The Santaroga Barrier was first published in serialized from in Amazing Stories in 1967 and 1968, only a few years after his big hit Dune. Psycho-active substances were clearly still on his mind at that time. Then again, how could they not have been in an era when LSD was quite popular. There obviously is something different about the people in Santaroga and that difference is caused by a mysterious substance known to the locals as Jaspers. The effect is profound but not immediately recognizable if you don't know what to look for. Daseis, as a trained psychologist, does know what he is looking for and he quickly notices the brutal honesty of the people in Santaroga as well as their brusque, straightforward manner and use of language. The first of many clues about the nature of Santaroga.

The effect of Jaspers is apparently based on the work of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher best known for his 1927 book Sein und Zeit (Time and Being). He's quite a controversial figure because of his involvement with Nazism. The main character's last name is borrowed from one of the key concepts in Heidegger's work: 'dasein'. A word that consists of the word 'da' which could be translated as 'there' and the word 'sein" which means 'to be'. His philosophy is way over my head but one could say Heidegger's project is to investigate the sense of being. It's hard to pin down what makes the Santarogans different from ordinary people but if I had to try I'd say they are more aware of themselves and their community, shaper, harder to fool. This mindset has it's consequences for the way the Santarogans have shaped their community.

Besides the effect of Jaspers on the individual, Dasein soon discovers there is another level of change as well. Throughout the novel there are hints of a group mind at work. This process seems to be almost entirely unconscious but several near fatal accidents convince Dasein that the town as a whole considers the outside world which he represents as a threat. It raises a suspicion bordering on paranoia in Dasein. The gradually building suspicion and the process of Dasein fitting together the clues he finds makes for some very interesting, if not particularly light, reading.

I guess one could read The Santaroga Barrier as a more or less standard science fiction story about a remote somewhat strange community hiding a big secret. On the surface it is just that. Herbert has built in an impressive deeper layer of meaning in the seemingly trivial everyday occurrences in the book. I'm not at all familiar with the work of Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, who apparently is another major influence on this novel. I would not be surprised that if you are, there's a lot more to this novel than I have discovered.

Like a lot of science fiction novels of this era, it does not excel in great characterization. In fact, I thought that Dasein's girl Jenny was a very poorly drawn character. She seems to be genuinely happy to see him show up in Santaroga, but other than an incentive for Dasein to stay, she doesn't add all that much to the story. It would have been interesting if Herbert had made a bit more work of developing her character and the relationship between the two. The main character and the entire book are very focussed on solving the puzzle, on defusing the crisis that is brewing. That is not something everybody will appreciate in this book.

I guess thematically and stylistically The Santaroga Barrier is a book of it's time. It leans very heavily on the ideas Herbert used as an inspiration. What makes this book stand out is the depth of these ideas. To Herbert they were not merely interesting concepts. He delved deeply and conveyed part of that interest and understanding in this book. It does not have the epic scope and wide variety of themes of the Dune saga but of all his works outside that setting, The Santaroga Barrier is probably the most underrated. It's a short but challenging read. If you are looking to explore Herbert's work beyond Dune, this book would be a good choice.

Book Details
Title: The Santaroga Barrier
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 250
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34251-0
First published: 1968

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Busted Flush - George R.R. Martin

Busted Flush is the nineteenth entry in the Wild Cards series of mosaic novels edited by George R.R. Martin. The previous book, Inside Straight is something of a new beginning for the series, a new trilogy with new characters and a couple of new writers. It's a good point to get started. A lot of the earlier novels are out of print so it would take a bit of effort to round all of them up. Inside Straight was not something I would normally read. I'm not a huge fan of comics to begin with and the bunch of lousy movies they've been turned into recently doesn't help. I had to admit is was an interesting read however. Unfortunately Busted Flush falls short of the standard set in the first book of the Committee trilogy a bit.

The story picks up some time after the events in Inside Straight. The UN secretary-general has snapped up the new American heroes after their dramatic performance in Egypt and formed the Committee. A group of Aces dealing with everything from genocide to natural disasters. And there is plenty of work, our heroes are spread thin. In fact, the cracks in their organisation are clearly beginning to show. There is no time for rest however, a crisis is developing in Africa, where the People's Paradise of Africa and Nigeria are headed for armed conflict. Most inconvenient, Nigeria's oil is in great demand now that the Caliphate is driving up oil prices and crippling western economies. Here too the Committee is called upon to save the day. A third party heads out to New Orleans where a particularly bad hurricane season is creating all manner of problems for the local populations. Will these small groups of Aces be up to the huge challenges the UN has set them?

Like the previous book, this mosaic novel is written by nine people. A slightly different crew than last time: S.L. Farrell, Victor Milán, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Walton Simmons, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis and Carrie Vaughn. Martin himself has limited his role to editing in this volume. Again who has written what is clearly indicated in the book and again Martin assisted by Snodgrass have done a fine job of making the book work stylistically. I have more problems with the plot however.

At one point in the book we have most of the main characters at one place before the story branches out. There are three main challenges the Committee faces but the other parties all have their own plans as well. Besides the African revolutionaries and the Arab rules there are two western government agencies involved in the story as well. All of these get their share of attention turning the novel into a mosaic for real. These little pieces are interconnected of course and they do build a surprisingly complex picture. What they fail to do is turn the book into one story.

The assignment in the Middle East for instance, feels like a loose thread in the story. Although there is some development in some of the characters, a couple of people have it pointed out to them that politics are not as black and white as they were lead to believe, events there don't really add much to the overall story. The authors don't manage to really connect this thread to the things that go on in the finale of the book either. I had some problems with the idea of the Caliphate as well. We tend to see the Arab world as one block of nations in the west. In reality they rarely agree on anything though. Sometimes on oil prices but even that is a stretch a lot of the time. Several attempts in the last century to unify two or more Arab nations have failed miserably. Mostly because each of the respective nations' leaders feels they should be in charge of the whole. And then there is the fact that there are a lot of people in that region quite prepared to underline their own political or religious ideas with a Kalashnikov if need be. The Caliphate is a very unlikely bit of fiction.

The situation in Central-Africa worked a lot better for me. Clearly based on the enormous mess we think of as the First and Second Congo war, some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting in recent history, it injects a dose of gritty political realism into the story. Not that I think a (nominally) Marxist revolution would have any more success controlling Congo than the factions currently fighting over the region but the brutal fighting and chilling disregard for human suffering hit close to home. Martin et al. are not afraid of exposing the role a number of outside factions play in the conflict either. The way the world deals with Africa isn't pretty and that message clearly echoes though this part of the novel.

I guess this novel shows the limits of the Wild Cards approach. This book is graced with some very good writing, a number of good action scenes and a fair number of interesting ideas, superpowers and characters. The plot is all over the place however. The Wild Cards collective has failed to make this book into one novel. For the real Wild Cards fan there is still plenty to enjoy compared to the previous entry it isn't a very strong book. Maybe it suffers from the middle book syndrome a bit? Perhaps some of the loose ends will be dealt with in the final book of this trilogy, Suicide Kings, but even that is not going to turn Busted Flush into a truly satisfying read.

Book Details
Title: Busted Flush
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 398
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1782-7
First published: 2008

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reaper's Gale - Steven Erikson

I have an exam on Saturday, severely limiting my reading time this week. Unless you include such fine titles as Arbeidsrecht in de praktijk and Sociale-zekerheidsrecht. To keep you entertained I put up this review of one of Steven Erikson's novels. I wrote the original in September 2008. It's undergone some serious editing, I'm afraid the original version was not very good.

This massive tome is the seventh book in Erikson’s Malazan series. The sheer size of his novels (some 1260 pages in my mass market paperback of Reaper’s Gale) make reading Erikson a time-consuming hobby. His books are something of a pain in the backside to review. He employs a huge cast of characters and has the habit of dropping the reader right into the action with fairly little background information. Even something as simple as writing a summary of this book is a challenge. His books make for an fascinating read however, so it is time to stop making excuses and start writing a some reviews. Once the final volume The Crippled God is released later this year, I am going to see if I can review some of the older titles in this series.

In the previous six books of the series the story lines and characters have been spread out over several continents. Now many of the characters are converging on the Letherii Empire, an empire beset on all sides by it’s enemies. In Midnight Tides, book five of the series, we witness the rise to power of the Triste Edur emperor Rhulad Sengar. Possessed by the Crippled God, Rhulad has died a thousand deaths over the last couple of years, only to be resurrected again. This has not improved his mental condition, which was already bordering on insanity at the end of book five. Rhulad’s armies are searching the world of new and ever stronger challengers to face the emperor. A fleet with the latest group of challengers, the formidable Karsa Orlong and the equally dangerous Icarium among them, is approaching the Letheri capital.

The Edur empire is now in serious trouble but Rhulad is carefully shielded from the world by his Letherii administrators. Even his most loyal followers are kept away from him. Although the Edur rule the empire in name, much of the real power lies with the Letherii administration and they are happy to let the Edur think they are in charge. Tensions between the Letherii and the Edur mount when it becomes clear the Letherii are keeping the Edur away from their emperor.

Several other developments outside the court threaten the empire as well. Economic genius Tehol Beddict and his servant Bugg are trying to undermine the Letheri economy by removing as much gold from circulation as they can. On the borders of the empire, the warlord Redmask is stirring among the Awl people and there are rumours of unrest in the eastern kingdoms. An even more serious and unexpected threat is posed by a Malazan army under the command of Tavore Paran preparing to stage an invasion of the continent. On top of these worldly threats several gods also taken an interest in the affairs of the empire. Errant, Mael, the Crippled God, Shadowthorn and Cotillion and several soletaken try to influence events in Lether. When all these parties collide the outcome is nothing short of catastrophic.

This synopsis doesn’t even begin to cover everything that happens in the novel. Erikson’s work is epic in every sense of the world. Some people will think this book as slow moving as the glaciers of Omtose Phellack, the author does take some time to get going. Once you have the various story lines more or less sorted out it is a much more coherent novel that The Bonehunters however. In that book the author spends a lot of time setting up events for the final books in the series. And indeed a lot of things begun in The Bonehunters fall into place in Reaper’s Gale.

I will leave the theorizing about what all of this means to the upcoming books in the series to the die-hard fans but there are a few things that struck me about this novel. The time line of this series covers some three hundred thousand years. While many of the details of what happened during all that time remain vague the author clearly has put a lot of thought to the history of this world. You can see this in countless details. In this book it struck me that the city of Lethras is built like a city in Norman England, never tearing anything down, just building layer upon layer. It also shows in the way Erikson describes the technological level of the various societies. The T’lan Imass are particularly interesting in that respect. They are something of a contradiction. A society that chose not to develop technology beyond stone-age tools but possessing such a highly developed spiritual life and powerful magic that they are a force the be reckoned with nonetheless. They even go so far as to making themselves immortal, a snapshot from a society hundreds of thousands of years old, remembering what mortals have forgotten. Quite a contrast from Icarium, who has created machines that are the pinnacle of technological development, but doomed to forget his actions and start over again and again. History repeating?

Erikson again describes a group of pastoral nomads, the Awl, who are being wiped out despite their prowess in battle. If I remember correctly the Malazan empire subjugated several of such tribes during their expansion. Given Erikson’s background as an archaeologist I can only assume the topic interests him. There are various theories on how for instance the Mongol Empire was able to pose such a formidable military threat to the more ‘civilized’ empires surrounding them, but also why their way of life is ultimately unable to sustain such an empire without adopting the practices of the subjugated peoples. This is what happens to the Edur as well in a way. Their society is seems to have regressed to a hunter-gatherer like tribal structure. The Letherii eagerly make use of their backward ways. The book even contains a warning of what will happen when one tries to settle the steppes and farm them. Pastoralism is a complex and very dynamic way of managing the environment. While farming usually quickly leads to depletion and erosion of the top soil, pastoralism is much more sustainable if one manages to prevent overgrazing (search for the tragedy of the commons if the topic interests you).

Another interesting element in the story is Erikson’s criticism of capitalism, in particular the myth of perpetual growth. Tehol and Bugg intentionally create a bubble, a construction company that floats on loans and more loans to pay of earlier loans. They are able to withdraw huge amounts of gold from the Letherii economy, making it impossible for anybody to actually collect on the outstanding loans. When Tehol’s company collapses the under the weight of all those debts, a chain reaction is set in motion and financial chaos is the result. Erikson uses this theme as well in Midnight Tides but in this book Tehol and Bugg are brilliant. Especially the scene where Bugg explains things to this lawyer and the poor man finally understands what’s happening is hilarious.

The Malazans fight another brilliant campaign in Reaper’s Gale. I am not quite sure I understand the motivation of the army to fight on when they apparently have been cut loose from the empire, but the way they go about is admirable. Unfortunately Erikson is also a bit long winded on this part of the story. A lot of the rather large cast consists of various squads of the Malazan army and Erikson diligently chronicles their manoeuvres.The campaign itself is interesting, especially once the trap laid by the Letherii is about to close, but I do think this part of the book could do with some editing. I have to admit the character Beak, among all those soldiers, stand out. He’s a very interesting character. Unfortunately the brightest flame burns quickest.

Although it would be nice if Erikson could keep his novels in the three digit range, I have to say Reaper’s Gale was a very satisfying read. More so than The Bonehunters. Memories of Ice is still my favourite but Reaper’s Gale does not fall short of that achievement by much. If it wasn’t clear already, this book definitely shows the Tales of the Malazan book of the Fallen is going to be a landmark in epic fantasy once the series is completed. And it looks like we won’t have to wait that much longer to find out how the story ends. Erikson keeps to a tight schedule of one book a year. With the mass market paperback of Dust of Dreams expected in June, the final instalment of the series, The Cripled God, expected in fall (mind you, there is no official release date yet) and Ian C. Esslemont's third Malazan novel Stonewielder expected in December, 2010 is going to be a big year for fans of this series.

Book Details
Title: Reaper's Gale
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam
Pages: 1264
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-81316-6
First published: 2007

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pacific Edge - Kim Stanley Robinson

This book is the last novel by Kim Stanley Robinson I haven't read at least once. Having no other novels left to pursue is not necessarily a bad thing. There is some short fiction I have yet to dive into (I'm very much looking forward to the collection of Robinson's best short fiction that is scheduled for an august 2010 release) and two of his earlier works, Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness are up for a reread in the not too distant future. In the mean time, let's have a look at Pacific Edge, the third book in the Three Californias trilogy. Where The Wild Shore showed us a post apocalyptic California and The Gold Coast deals with future where urbanisation is out of control, in Pacific Edge the author explores a utopian future. A California where people have learnt to listen to the land and pursue more sustainable population levels and economic activity.

In 2065 the world looks quite different from what we are used to. The unsustainable economic practices of the past have been severely curtailed by putting limits on company size and personal income among other, equally drastic measure. The main character Kevin, an architect judging from the descriptions designing lovely sustainable homes, lives in a part of California where population growth and economic activity are carefully moderated to make sure they don't exceed the carrying capacity of the local environment. Recently Kevin has been talked in to taking a seat in the local council for the Green party. A decision he will come to regret. In his first council meeting the mayor tries to slip a shady deal past the council. He doesn't succeed but it is the beginning for a political struggle for Kevin he did not foresee when taking the job.

The second character the novel focusses on is Kevin's grandfather Tom, the only character appearing in all three books. Since the death of his wife Tom has become something of a recluse, living in the hills out of town. Even Kevin only sees him once in a while. Until he is drawn out of his isolation by an old acquaintance visiting. Tom was something of a political creature in his younger years, part of this we find out from snippets his writings dating back to the year 2012 (the revolution is imminent I guess). He is not eager to be drawn into Kevin's battle but his contacts can be very useful indeed.

Robinson creates a utopia that needs a lot of maintenance. It is clear that the myth of perpetual growth and the lure of expansion have not been permanently vanquished. The way Robinson uses the problematic situation of providing clean water for so many people is very interesting indeed. He cleverly weaves a situation that was already a very recognizable problem when this book was published (1990) into the story. His descriptions of the legal situation in 2065 are fascinating and it generally takes a good bit of skill to make this stuff interesting and even more to make it understandable for someone from a country with quite a different legal tradition.

Kevin pretty soon realizes he is in way over his head, that the issues he is dealing with are on a scale he does not have any experience with. And yet Robinson keeps the story on a small, very local scale. A softball match, Kevin's love affair with his political opponent's girlfriend, a wildfire, the minor issues brought before the council. Seemingly small things hiding major and far-reaching issues. It makes one wonder if we are indeed trying to solve these problems on too high a level. On the other hand, any concentration of power seems to attract people who want it but do not necessarily have the competence or integrity to use it wisely. Looking around me I don't see much difference between local and national politics in that respect.

The way of governing a community described in Pacific Edge is something that shows up in his later novels as well. A lot of the social experiments he describes in his Mars trilogy for instance, are all very small scale with projects needing more resources handled by cooperatives. In some ways it is the direct opposite of what is going on in the world at the moment, where the drive for companies to perpetually expand doesn't seem to slow down in the least. The tipping point in the book is somewhere in the 2010s. So far there is little sign of this prediction coming true. A prediction that seems to be spot on, is the description of the young Tom's struggle with Swiss and US immigration services. There are a number of very vocal political figures advocating practices not unlike the ones described in the book and frankly, I find that very disturbing.

There's quite a bit of Mars in this book if you pay attention to it. Those books must have been on his mind already when he wrote this. Apart from a description of the Mars landing, the social structures he describes, the power and demise of multinational corporations, the increasing pressure on earth's ecosystem, the local initiatives and new modes of government are all themes that will return in this trilogy. In the context of his entire oeuvre this book is more interesting that either The Wild Shore or The Gold Coast. I must admit I thought the ending of the book a little anticlimactic (if entirely in the style of the rest of the novel). The solution to one of Kevin's problems turns out to be deceptively simple.

Jo Walton wrote a piece on this novel for recently in which she wonders if there is anybody who likes all three. I didn't. The Gold Coast was not my book, even if I can appreciate the author's skill. I guess I have to say The Wild Shore is my favourite. Pacific Edge is probably a love it or hate it book. Politically it is a lot more provocative than either of the previous books. I guess a die hard supporter of neo-liberal economic policy wouldn't make it past page fifty. That's a shame, this vision of California's future may not be the most likely but it certainly offers some interesting thoughts on the current environmental crisis the world is in. To me this utopia doesn't sound so bad, even if it is a high maintenance one.

Book Details
Title: Pacific Edge
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb books
Pages: 326
Year: 1995
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-312-89038-4
First published: 1990

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dragon Haven - Robin Hobb

And finally the second part of Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles is here. In the US the two parts of what is really one long novel are published with only a few months in between. I was impatient and got the UK version of the first book Dragon Keeper July. I guess that is what you get for not being able to wait. I'm going to have to be content with getting the better UK cover art in return. Although Hobb tried to find a natural break in the story to split the book, I felt Dragon Keeper ended quite abruptly. It left me wanting to read on. My feelings about Dragon Haven are not that different, it's a satisfying read but I do get the feeling Hobb is not quite finished with this setting.

The dragons and their keepers, accompanied by the liveship river barge Tarman, are slowly making their way up the Rain Wilds river in search of the legendary city of Kelsingra. Far away from civilized society the keepers and their company have only themselves to rely on. After a life in the margins of the major Rain Wilds settlement of Trehaug many are ready to go out and create their own rules. Restrictions imposed on them in the Rain Wilds are not that easy to shake however. The keepers also have to try and care for and bond their dragons as best they can and it is becoming increasingly clear that neither the dragons nor the keepers are quite up to the task.

More unrest is caused by the ever present temptation to harvest dragon parts and return to the civilized world to sell them at an enormous profit. To make matters even more complicated the already dangerous Rain Wilds environment shows them the risks of this ill-prepared expedition into uncharted territory. After one of the frequent quakes a wave of highly acidic water literally washes over the expedition scattering them and their provisions. When the water calms the survivors are left to gather what little remains to them and press on. Turning back is not an option for any of the members.

Dragon Keeper clearly showed us the restrictions Bingtown and Rain Wilds society imposed on the various members of the expedition and how each of them is struggling under the burden.The further they get away from any kind of authority, the greater the temptation becomes to leave their past behind. This process of slowly realizing nobody is going to tell you what to do any more is very well done in the book. The generally young keepers push beyond the boundaries of what used to be acceptable and then find out that some rules do actually make sense.

On board the Liveship that accompanies the expedition conditions are perhaps even more complicated. The more adult crowd on board harbours a good many secrets and slowly but surely they are all coming to light. It's quite a feat that Hobb manages to keep track of who is keeping what hidden form who and what the others have heard or guessed about the situation. With all these characters mostly confined to each other's company the relationships between them form a complex tangle of love, anger, betrayal, distrust and forgiveness. The emphasis is on Alise, Sedric and Leftrin. At times I felt Sedric's reaction to the realization he's been sent away by his lover and Alise's husband Hest a bit too much. We get to see Hest as a very cruel and dominant person from both Alise's and Sedric's point of view. The first book, in which he actually appears, did nothing to convince us this image isn't deserved but without any insight in what is going on in his mind it is one way traffic. Both of them make decisions regarding their relationship to him but neither actually has to face him which made it feel like plain running away to me, no matter how noble the cause they've attached themselves to.

In one review I read of Dragon Keeper, the reviewer considered it only readable for the part of the population endowed with ovaries (or something to that effect). A comment that aimed at the lack of battles and other action scenes. If you consider this a problem then Dragon Haven is not going to be an improvement. Hobb's books are generally very much character driven and this one is no exception. The characters have quite a few issues among them and Hobb spends quite a bit of the book working through those. Personally I enjoyed the way we get to see the various characters change and how it affects the other members of the expedition. This is clearly not something on which everybody is going to agree with me.

Originally these two volumes were intended to be one large novel. After reading both parts I think I would have preferred that option. I enjoyed both books a lot but I can't entirely shake the impression that it didn't take eleven hundred pages to tell this story. They say that if an author wants to write a bigger book a good way to do it is add a character. Did Hobb start out with a point of view too many? These books as well the Liveship Traders trilogy, all books with multiple points of view, have the feeling of a story that was not meant to be quite so large. Maybe Hobb is better at keeping the story focused when writing a first person point of view.

An other factor that contributed to this feeling that perhaps these books are a bit longer than they need be, is the ending of the story. Without giving the end away, story lines are wrapped up, conclusions reached, it does end at a natural point to end the book but it definitely leaves possibilities for sequels. In a way it is giving the reader the feeling the journey has only just begun. I have no idea what Hobb will be working on once the work on the announced Hobb/Lindholm short fiction collection is done but I get the distinct feeling Hobb isn't done with the Realm of the Elderlings yet.

I seem to marginally prefer the Robin Hobb books in which she employs the first person perspective. I've seen some pretty negative reviews of her Soldier Son trilogy. I thought this switch to another main character and another world was refreshing. I must admit her subsequent return to the Realm of the Elderlings makes for some quality reading though. Dragon Haven is an engrossing story, both from the perspective of the dragons and their influence (a recurring theme in all the Eldering books) on the world as well as on the level of the human characters and their personal journeys. It's an absolute must read for Hobb fans.

Book Details
Title: Dragon Haven
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 570
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-733581-7
First published: 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review for Fantasy Realm

The good folks from the Dutch language website Fantasy Realm asked me to review a book for them. The first time in over a year I've actually been offered a review copy of anything. I hang out there quite a lot so I accepted their offer.

The book they asked me to review is Mirlesta, het verhaal van de Staf en de Bronzen Plaat by Dick Marco Stedehouder. It was published this month by Free Musketeer. As you probably guessed from the title you're going to have to learn Dutch to read the book and the review. For the people who don't consider this a problem a 1600 word review of the book can be found here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Masque of the Red Death - Edgar Allen Poe

Last week I wrote about Dan Simmons' historical horror novel The Terror. It's based on the 1845 Franklin expedition to find the north-west passage which vanished into the Canadian Arctic. Simmons worked quite a few literary figures into this book, one of them being Edgar Allen Poe. In what is without a doubt one of the most interesting scenes of the novel, the crew of the two ships, frozen in the ice for two years now, organize a Carnivale. Using sailcloth and paint the rig up a series of tents on the ice to mimic to coloured rooms described in Poe's story The Masque of the Red Death. In defiance of the creature that haunts them, the cold, the crushing ice, the dwindling stores and the ever decreasing chance any of them will see home again the men throw one last party. Given their source of inspiration it is not altogether surprising it ends in tragedy.

Poe's original story was first published in 1842 and has been an inspiration for many authors and film-makers. I'm not at all familiar with Poe's work, my old English teacher approved of his work so naturally I avoided it. I guess my teenage rebellious streak has somewhat worn off in the last fifteen years. After reading the scene in The Terror I felt compelled to find the source. The Masque of the Red Death has been in the public domain for quite a while. A quick Google search turns up quite a few places where you can read it or download an e-book.

The Masque of the Red Death deals with a plague sweeping the land. To escape its horrors Prince Prospero and one thousand of his noble companions retreat to the abbey of the prince and seal themselves off from the outside world. Inside the abbey entertainment and provisions are available for an extended stay. Prospero entertains his guests in seven rooms he himself decorated. Six rooms are decorated and illuminated in one colour, while the seventh is a combination of black and blood-red. In this room, an ebony black clock chimes every hour, spreading a growing sense of unease among the guests.

I understand there is some debate about what Poe actually meant with his story. At first glance it appears to be a futile attempt to escape death, or perhaps reality. Simmons certainly seems to have interpreted it as such. One could also think Prospero and his companions got what they had coming abandoning the land the way they did. Poe does not really make it clear. The story leaves you with something to think about. I very much liked the way Poe builds the sense of horror in this story, rising from the descriptions of the abbey and the black room. The wrongness of the place is with you from the very first moment and gradually develops into full blown terror. An experience shared by Captain Crozier when inspecting what his men have made of the Carnivale or the ice.

Sometimes I think literature should be taught the other way around, starting with what young people actually read and working back to what influenced the writer. For a genre looked down upon by mainstream literature horror certainly has deep roots in the classics. Simmons' work is perhaps not the most accessible in genre fiction but I am quite sure that I would not have been so appreciative of Poe's story without Simmons' introduction. It's not the first time I've tracked back either. Last year Ian McDonald's Brasyl lured me into reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I guess this is one of the reasons why my to read list grown exponentially. Reading more Poe will have to wait for a bit though, maybe in a couple of months.

Book Details
Title: The Masque of the Red Death
Author: Edgar Allen Poe
Pages: 10
Year: unknown
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1842

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Black Powder War - Naomi Novik

With Black Powder War Novik finishes the first arc in her successful Temeraire series. The first two books in the series were surprisingly entertaining. I generally prefer my dragon in small doses so I read books including this fantasy trope only once in a while. Both His Majesty's Dragon and Throne of Jade were good, if not flawless, reads in their own way. I enjoyed Black Powder War as well but I am beginning to fear this series won't keep me interested much longer. Laurence and Temeraire have a fine adventure but this book is very much a middle book.

After surviving a fierce round of Chinese court intrigue and ending up as adopted Chinese royalty, it is time for Temeraire and Laurence to consider their return trip to England. A trip that becomes all the more urgent when orders arrive asking Laurence to travel to Istanbul where the British have bought three valuable dragon eggs for a considerable sum of money. The eggs are to be transported to England before they hatch. Before they can begin their trip from Macao to Istanbul however, disaster strikes their transport and a large fire breaks out on board. The ship can be saved but needs extensive repairs. This delay is simply not acceptable. Laurence and Temeraire opt for the dangerous journey overland.

After a long and dangerous journey Laurence finds Istanbul not quite what he hoped for. The British ambassador seems to have perished in an accident and the Sultan insists he has not received the payment. The money is missing and to make matters worse, Lien, one of the Chinese dragons involved in a recent attempt to replace the emperor and a bitter enemy of Temeraire, has made an appearance. Somehow Laurence must manage to acquire the eggs and handle an ever impatient dragon, intend on returning to England and applying some of the things he has learnt in China to improve the living conditions for British dragons. Their journey is far from over. It seems the road back to Dover is long and winding indeed.

Novik's novels are perhaps more historical than fantasy and this a large part of this novel is devoted to the battle of Jena-Auerstedt, fought in October 1806, where, how can I put this gently, the Prussians got their ass handed to them by the French, removing Prussia from the War of the Fourth coalition. Dragons, unfortunately for the Prussians, did not change that outcome one bit it appears. Novik's descriptions of the battle and the entire campaign are vivid and one can't help but feel sympathy for Temeraire and her crew, being caught up in a major defeat of one of their allies without being able to alter the outcome at all. Oddly enough there is no mention of this event in the cover text, leading me to believe the important events in this book would be set in the Ottoman Empire.

A lot of this book is about getting Temeraire and his crew from one part of the world to another, which is what a lot of Throne of Jade was dedicated to al well. I don't feel Novik manages to use the time in transit to develop her characters quite as effectively as in the second book. The battle in Germany felt like a detour to me. It shows us a nice piece of history, the author uses it to some extend as a learning experience to the still very naive dragon, but other than that it does not seem to be all that necessary for the plot. The storyline concerning the eggs Laurence is sent to Istanbul for, seems to more or less put on hold while they fight the battle. Quite odd since, again, the significance of these dragon eggs to the overall story is not clear.

It's not all bad though. Temeraire's naivete is still endearing, as are Laurence's attempts to shield him for what he feels must be certain disappointment when finding out England will not be all that interested in improving conditions for its dragons are comical at times. The emancipation of dragons theme is something which I had expected to be more prominent in this book but when it does come up, Novik offers an interesting parallel with the abolition of slavery by the Brittish, a hotly debated issue at the time. There seems to be enough opportunity to add a little depth to the plot but alas, it is not happening in this book. The ending, and I'll try not to spoil it for you, is quite abrupt and not very uplifting. In a way Laurence and Temeraire can claim victory but one obviously overshadowed but the catastrophe that is the war in Prussia. The book also ends rather abruptly. It would have been nice to have gotten a glance at England before the end of the book but Novik saves that for the fourth book in the series, Empire of Ivory.

Black Powder War is an entertaining read and those who enjoyed the first two books will want to read it. It falls short of the standard set in the first two novels though. I found the meandering plot to be the largest problem. Mostly the novel is one big bridge from resolving Temeraire's problems in China to getting back to England with very little else added to the story. It sets a brisk pace and I very much appreciated the historical part of the novel but that does not make up for it's flaws. I'm hoping for better things in the next book. If not, this series is in trouble.

Book Details
Title: Black Powder War
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 365
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-48130-6
First published: 2006

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Terror - Dan Simmons

In my end of year post a couple of months back I said I wanted to read one of the two huge tomes by Dan Simmons on my to read stack this year. This week I decided it was going to be The Terror. My only previous encounter with Simmons' writing is the Hyperion Omnibus I read last year. This much more recent book promised to be quite something else. Where Hyperion is a far future science fiction novel, The Terror is an interesting blend of horror and historical fiction. Add to that my soft spot for books about Arctic exploration and this book should be a winner for me. And it was, mostly.

The novel is based on the 1845 expedition lead by Sir John Franklin in search of the north-west passage. In those days the Canadian Arctic archipelago was far from completely mapped. Several previous expeditions had tried to force their way through the ice to the Pacific and failed. Now they would try again. Equipped with the latest technology the largest expedition yet to explore the far north of Canada sets out for Greenland and the north-west passage beyond. Their ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are last seen in august of 1845 by and American whaler and are never heard from again. Explorers and historians have been trying to figure out what happened to them ever since.

Simmons tells the tale of the ships frozen in the Arctic ice, of bone-chilling cold, back-breaking physical labour and ever dwindling supplies but most of all of the terrifying creature that haunts the expedition and regularly takes one of its members. After two years without a summer and with escape from the ice increasingly unlikely, the officers and crew are forced to make some hard decisions about their future. Hunger and scurvy threaten the crew if they stay, the creature and the cold if they go. And what's worse, the creature is trying to get in...

There is something heroic and often tragic about these stories of polar exploration. On the one hand the reader knows very well that getting themselves in these impossible situations is their own fault. There usually isn't much of a purpose for these voyages other than exploration. More often that not the situation is not helped by the unpreparedness, stubbornness, prejudice and ignorance of those who plan and lead these expeditions. In fact, on the the characters asks himself the question what the hell he is doing on the pole:

So why, wondered Crozier, did a nation like England, blessed to be placed by God in one of the most gentle and verdant of the two temperate bands where man was meant to live, keep throwing its ships and its men into the ice of the northern and southern polar extremes where even fur-wearing savages refuse to go?
Chapter 16 - Crozier

That quote nicely sums up the attitude of the explorers, in one sweep making it clear that neither the poles nor the equator are fit for civilized societies as well as wondering what drives them to these places anyway. On the other hand, the sheer determination, unbreakable optimism and thrill of exploration found in these stories are contagious and can turn many of these tales of survival and human ingenuity into a great read. I encourage you to read Alfred Lansing's account of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition for example. The author captures both these elements of polar exploration very well in The Terror and goes on to add a few elements of his own.

History tells us that Franklin's expedition finally was lost to a combination of exposure, hunger, scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning and was even reduced to cannibalism at the end. Various rescue expeditions and later scientific study have given us a telling but incomplete picture of what happened in the years after 1845. Simmons has clearly done his homework, besides the detail on the ships and it's crew, he manages to seamlessly work most of the detail of the journey itself that has been uncovered in the past century and a half into his story. Those discoveries leave him more than enough room to add his own horrific element to the story.

He tells the tale seen from the point of view of a number of expedition members, from John Franklin himself to the lowliest sailor or marine, often using flashbacks to events earlier in the expedition to flesh out some part of the story. If there is a central figure, especially later on in the book, it is Captain Frances Crozier, an experienced naval officer held back by the navy because of his Irish background. After the death of Franklin in June 1847, before the events described in the bulk of the novel, the burden of command falls on him. Crozier considers himself melancholic, which I think he mistakes for alcoholic at least partly. His private thoughts are in stark contrast to the determination he projects when dealing with his men. The strain of command, the private doubts and his outward calm and competence make him an interesting character. I can't go into it much without spoiling the end of the book but he certainly doesn't end it as a melancholic drunk.

The other key character is the mysterious Lady Silence. An Inuit woman (the book uses the term Esquimaux) who has taken up residence on board the Terror after one of the expedition's scouting and hunting parties accidentally shoot her companion. The medical officers on the ship soon find out she is unable to speak because her tongue has been cut out. Her mysterious presence, the immense cultural and linguistic barrier and her ability to survive a lot more comfortably than the men on the ship make her the focal point for superstition and worship. Especially later on in the book, Inuit mythology adds another layer to an already rich work of fiction.

The historical part of the novel as well as the intense and chilling descriptions of the Arctic environment make this book a great read. I had some issues with the horror part of the book and the pacing however. At 960 pages this book is long. Longer than the story justifies I think. Part of that is due to unnecessary repetition. Crozier has the habit of mentally going over the roll for instance. We get several quite detailed summaries of who perished and when and who is still around, what their medical condition is and what their chances of survival might be. The expedition starts with over 120 men, these roll calls can get quite long. There are also a number of detailed descriptions of funeral ceremonies and of course the repeated attacks of the creature.

The scenes in which the creature appears are very well written. Especially early on in the book they add an element of fear on top of the other burdens of the men. After several attacks however, it doesn't quite as well any more. I guess the reader and the characters both put it in the back of their mind as an inconvenience that can't be helped. It doesn't push the plot forward or alter the decisions the men are facing. It isn't even all that clear what attracts it in the first place, although the final hundred pages or so of the novel shed some light on that. As such, the whole supernatural element in the story is not terribly effective.

On the whole the good far outweighs the bad. The author manages to make you shiver from the descriptions of the polar landscape and experience the life aboard a 19th century ship though a myriad of well researched details. He also delivers a surprising finale which, given the fact that the reader knows the fate of the expedition before reading a single page, is quite an achievement. The Terror may be long but despite my quibbles about the pacing, it reads quickly and at no point failed to hold my attention. Simmons has created a fascinating book based on this great tale of exploration. Definitely worth reading.

Book Details
Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 960
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-00807-5
First published: 2007

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The van Rijn Method - Poul Anderson

I'm currently reading The Terror by Dan Simmons which is a massive book. Over 900 pages in mass market paperback. Obviously I will not be able to finish this for a midweek review so to keep you all entertained I put up an older review I meant to add a while ago already.

In my efforts to get a bit better acquainted with the classics of the science fiction genre I came across this book. Poul Anderson was a prolific author in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction. A couple of years ago I read one of his last novels Mother of Kings, a historical work based on the life of the tenth century Norse queen Gunnhild. The prose of that book requires a bit of patience on the reader’s part but both the subject and style of that book appealed to me. In science fiction Anderson is probably best know for his work in the long running Technic civilization setting. Between 1951 and 1985 Anderson wrote countless novels and stories in this universe. Baen is now collecting these in seven books, The van Rijn Method being the first.

Although the Technic civilization stories share a setting there is no overarching story, all the works in this volume can be read independently. The editor, Hank Davies, has chosen to order the stories by internal chronological, which differs greatly from the order they were published in. Although Anderson rarely mentions years or even references to other stories in the setting the order seems to be roughly correct, the historical progress matches at least. According to the chronology in the back of the book, drawn up by Sandra Miesel, this first book encompasses the period from ca. 2055 to the 2420s. A period where humanity is exploring the galaxy and colonizing new worlds. This era also sees the rise of the Polesotechnic League, a galactic mercantile organisation of significant power and influence. Many of the stories in The van Rijn Method deal with representatives of this league.

The first story in the collection the Hugo and Nebula Award winning The Saturn Game (1981) does not feature the league however. It is set in the 2050s when humanity has started exploring the gas giants and their moons. On the journey to Saturn, which at sub light speeds takes years, a fantastic role-playing game provides part of the crew with relief from the tedium of space travel and the claustrophobic environment of their spacecraft. But when distinction between reality and fantasy start to blur the game becomes a danger to the crew. This novella is a beautiful piece of fiction. With his poetic style he manages to make the transitions between the game and reality so smooth as to be hardly noticeable. Like the characters the reader could easily loose itself in the game. A stronger opening of this collection is hardly imaginable.

In the stories Wings of Victory (1972) and The Problem of Pain (1973) we fast-forward a couple of centuries to the time when humanity has developed faster than light travel. The galaxy is still an awfully big and dangerous place though. In both these stories Anderson exposes us to earth-like world where, despite their deceptively familiar environment, danger lurks in every corner. Anderson also spends quite a bit of time on the problems of communication with alien species. These stories show the thought Anderson put into the physics of the planets he describes. There is quite a bit of scientific explanation on the how and why of unexpected events and encounters on these alien worlds. I’m not quite sure I agree with his approach on evolution though, he seems to believe a similar environment will send species down a similar evolutionary path. In a way that makes sense but I have to feeling it is too simplistic, and too linear, a view of evolution. It does provide a good rationalization for encountering numerous humanoid aliens though.

In Margin of Profit (1956, revised 1978) we are introduced to the man who gives the collection it’s name. Nicholas van Rijn is a big, loud, influential and rather rude space trader. He appears to be of Dutch origin and regularly butchers the English language (apparently on purpose). The original story Margin of Profit was published in 1956 but Davis included the 1978 rewritten version in this collection. In the story van Rijn outsmarts his opponents by pointing out simple economic principles. Van Rijn is one of Anderson’s most popular characters. I must admit, I am not sure why. The man is never seems to have escaped the Dutch East India company mentality that made the Dutch rich at the expense of Indonesia in particular. Pretty much all he does is complain he is too old and fat for a job and moan that the whole universe is against him, a simple poor trader. Obnoxious to say the least. Van Rijn does have his talents though. Mostly for thinking his way out of difficult situations and, preferably, have someone else do the hard work.

Anderson cleverly creates a lot of uncertainty about van Rijn’s motives by mostly portraying him through the eyes of other characters. We are never quite sure about why he does things or whether his ignorance, blunt language or anger are real or a mask. His opponents invariably end up underestimating him. This technique is very prominent in the full length novel contained in this collection, the author preferred text of The Man Who Counts, first published in serialized form in Astounding Science Fiction in 1956.

One of Anderson’s other recurring characters is David Falkayn, van Rijn’s most promising employee. Falkayn is a rather cocky young man. In the 1966 story A Sun Invisible he tries to charm a young woman out of information about her home planet she is not supposed to reveal to him. Another story, The Three-Cornered Wheel (1963), see him reinvent the wheel to get around the religious restrictions in a society who’s help Falkayn and his companions need to get their broken down ship of the planet. By the end of this volume he is still in his twenties so maybe he’ll overcome that much too high opinion of himself in later stories. The second volume in this series, David Falkayn: Star Trader, will feature a number of Falkayn stories.

On the whole Anderson’s stories are rather light on character development so whether Falkayn will become more likeable remains to be seen. Anderson stories contain a lot of interesting scientific concepts and studies of various religions and social structures. It makes for interesting reading even if the quality of the stories is a bit uneven. The choice to present these stories in chronological rather than publication order means the reader frequently moves between various stages in Anderson’s development as a writer. Just the setting does not quite provide enough continuity to make this collection a coherent whole in my opinion. Still, there’s some pretty interesting short fiction here, if you can overcome an unsympathetic main character in some of them. Anderson’s rigorous scientific underpinning combined with a more literary style compared to his contemporaries sets his work apart in a way. Like much of the golden age science fiction it is a bit dated but I think this collection is definitely worth reading. I will be reading the second part in this series to see where Anderson’s future history takes us.

Book Details
Title: The van Rijn Method
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 450
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4165-5569-8
First published: 2008