Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sarum - Edward Rutherfurd

Last year I reviewed Rutherfurd’s latest book New York: The Novel. I had read several books of this author before then but given the enormous size of most of his works they tend to linger on the to read stack. I wanted to read at least one of the before the end of the year so I decided to take one with me on vacation to Germany. Sarum is Rutherfurd’s first novel and it might well be the biggest of the bunch (although the two books on Dublin could be considered one very big novel I suppose). My mass market paperback weighs in at 1344 pages. Even with a lot of reading time available it took me almost a week to read it. Like the other books I have read by Rutherfurd I found it a fascinating read but not nearly as good as some of his later books. It feels a bit unbalanced and the characterization leaves something to be desired.

Sarum covers the history of Rutherfurd’s home town, today known as Salisbury. It is an ambitious attempt to cover a hundred centuries of local history through the lives of a number of families in the region (I think of this as the James Mitchener approach). Rutherfurd starts the story at the end of the last ice age and shows us the hunter Hwll, who witnesses the formation of the English Channel, realizing he is now cut off from mainland Europe. An event thought to have taken place some 7500 before the birth of Christ. The author continues to cover the construction of Stonehenge, the Claudian invasion of Britain, the twilight of the Roman era, the reign of Alfred the Great, several periods from Norman England, including the building of the cathedral, the great plague and the blossoming of the cloth and wool trade, the war of the Roses, the reformation, the civil war and glorious revolution, the expansion of the British empire, the Napoleonic wars, the height of British colonialism, the second world war and a brief episode in 1985 (right before the book was published). In short, Rutherfurd stuffs a lot of local and global history into this one novel.

With a hundred centuries to discuss the author has had to make choices. He admits in his foreword that there is enough material for a book many times this size. There were a couple of things that struck me about his selection. With Stonehenge and quite a few other prehistoric monuments in the region there is of course no escaping this part of the region’s past. With only archaeological evidence to go on, not a whole lot can be said for certain about the people who constructed them or even the purpose of the monuments. It gives Rutherfurd a lot of freedom to fill in the blanks himself. Rutherfurd chooses a very dark story to explain the construction of Stonehenge. On the whole, I was not quite sure what to make of the prehistoric section of the novel.

The second thing that struck me about Rutherfurd’s selection is the rather heavy emphasis he puts on the medieval period. I guess this is the period in history that Salisbury was at its most influential. Rutherfurd goes into detail on the wool trade and the building of the cathedral in particular. His detailed look at daily life in and around the city and the struggle to shake the town clear of the influence of the bishop but the dynastic struggles of the English Kings or the English involvement in France don’t seem to touch daily life in the city too much. As a result Rutherfurd spends a lot of pages on providing historical context that is only marginally important to the story of the characters he is telling.

After the reformation the importance of Salisbury as a centre of the wool trade declines and so does the attention of the author for these periods. There is a bit on the 18th century, when most of the story takes place in various corners of the British Empire. The whole 19th and most of the 20th century (the book was published in 1987) have to make do with some 200 pages. Although the history of the town as such may not be all that exciting during this period I can’t help but feel the author ran out of stream after the Glorious Revolution.

Having read his most recent book a while ago, I noticed quite a bit of progression in the writing. In Sarum I felt that the providing of historical context, which frequently takes the form of several pages of summarized history told by the narrator, was at times slowing the book down. I would not recommend this book to anyone not having an interest in history but even if you do, at some points you’ll probably be telling the author to get on with it. I didn’t have that feeling quite so much in New York, or The Forest for that matter. Both books he wrote later and both book dealing with a shorter time frame.

His growth as a writer also shows in the way he tells the story of his characters. Covering such a time span, Rutherfurd creates quite a few of them for this book. Most only receive a limited number of pages and their stories are not always fleshed out very well. A lot of them are quite predictable too. Especially early on in the novel the characterization isn’t handled very well, later on in the book it improves a little. It is very obvious that Nooma is going to get screwed or how the trial of Godric Body is going to end. If I compare that with what the author did with his characters in New York, there is a world of difference.

There are quite a few aspects of this novel I am not thrilled with. That being said, I did enjoy reading it once I got going. The history of the region is quite interesting and Rutherfurd is obviously intimately familiar with it. The cathedral in particular is an element that receives a lot of attention. It is one of the constant factors in the later part of the novel. I passed though the region once, twenty years ago, on the way to a vacation in Cornwall. We only made a brief stop to visit Stonehenge. After having read this novel, I will no doubt look at the area with different eyes if I ever visit again.

There is another interesting aspect about this novel. Rutherfurd has written three novels situated in a geographically close setting. Sarum is the first, London, a novel which I have yet to read, the second, and The Forest, dealing with the New Forest area, the third. Despite their proximity these places have quite a different history. The New Forest and Salisbury, practically neighbours, are quite different books. I am looking forward to reading London to find out if Rutherfurd succeeded in making this third novel as different.

On the whole, I feel Rutherfurd was a bit too ambitious in writing this first novel. Sarum feels a bit unbalanced by a mediocre start, a very detailed section of Roman and medieval times and a hurried conclusion. If you are interested in the history of Salisbury and the Sailisbury Plain it is a good book to read but it could have been done in a bit more compact fashion and with the history lessons not quite so obvious in the text. Rutherfurd has gone on to write better books, which I suppose, is not the worst that could be said of a début.

Book Details
Title: Sarum
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Arrow Books
Pages: 1344
Year: 1992
Language: English
Format: Mass market paperback
ISBN: 978-0-09-952730-5
First published: 1987

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brasyl - Ian McDonald

And the second review to tide you over till I'm back from Germany. I wrote this one in March 2009. I polished it a little but it needed less work than most of the older stuff I've been moving to this blog. I've read a number of other books by McDonald since writing it and I still think Brasyl is a good one to begin with. Although his recent novel The Dervish House would work as well.

A while ago I read McDonald’s collection Cyberabad Days, short fiction set in the same future India as his 2004 novel River of Gods. I was very impressed with this collection so I ordered River of Gods and his latest novel Brasyl soon after finishing it. River of Gods is a six-hundred page monster, I don’t think I am quite ready for that, so I decided to have a go at Brasyl first. A novel that has been nominated for a Nebula Award got to have something going for it. Because of the way this book was written, I found it very hard to write a spoiler free review on it. If you haven’t read this book yet be advised there is probably a few things in the text you don’t want to know about yet.

As the title suggests, McDonald again takes us to an unfamiliar setting for many fans of the science fiction genre. The novel consists of three stories set in Brazil in the years 2006, 2032 and 1732 respectively. Each of the chapters following that order. In 2006 in Rio de Janeiro we meet the overambitious and rather shallow TV-producer Marcelina Hoffman, someone who will do pretty much anything to attract viewers. She is responsible for some of the sleaziest reality shows to hit Brazilian television. Marcelina lives on a diet of botox, coke, capoeira and the thrill of chasing her next commission. Her latest idea involves finding the disgraced goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa blamed for the loss of the deciding match in the 1950 world cup, held in Brazil. A match it seemed, Brazil could not loose but did anyway. Half a century later it is still a touchy subject but Marcelina intends to find out if Brazil is ready to forgive him. On national television of course.

The seconds strand of the story is set in São Paulo in 2032. In this future Brazil Big Brother is everywhere and surveillance and (privatized) security have reached insane proportions. Not that this has stopped crime of course, as Edson de Freitas knows very well. Edson thinks of himself as a businessman who has managed to rise above his favela origins but a lot of his deals are still illegal. When one of his brothers steals a highly fashionable handbag, with a number of nifty security features built in, Edson comes to his brother’s aid. With the help of a team of quantum computer specialists they manage to keep Edson’s brother out of the hands of the police. In the process Edson meets the mysterious Fia, a girl he instantly falls in love with.

Jesuit priest Father Luis Quinn asked for a task most difficult to perform in the service of his order. When he arrives in June 1732 in the plague stricken Portuguese colony of Brazil it seems he is prepared for anything. A skilled linguist and master swordsman should be up to the task his order set him. In Brazil’s unmapped interior the Jesuit priest Diego Gonçalves has set op his own little kingdom. Rumours of slavery, murder and heresy have reached the head of the order. Quinn is to investigate and if necessary deliver the wayward priest to justice. Accompanied by the French scientist Robert Falcon, Quinn heads upriver to investigate. Apocalypse Now in the 18th century (or Heart of Darkness, if you prefer a literary comparison).

The question of course is, what do these three stories have to do with each other? It is a question that will plague the reader though most of the novel. Not until the last 80 or so pages do the pieces fall into place. Sure, McDonald drops hints here and there in the story. The emergence of a quantum knife, a device that cuts though any material at the quantum level, in Quinn’s time, the fact that Barbosa died in 2000 in our world but is apparently still alive in Marcelina’s, Fia’s resurrection in Edson’s story… All these hints don’t make sense until McDonald reveals the larger framework in which these stories are set. This is a rather sudden event, for me it jarred the flow of the story. After al these little hints McDonald decides to lay it out for the reader in the space a a couple of pages. Structurally this book has issues.

The factor that combines the three stories turns out to be the Quantum Loop Gravity theory. I understand absolutely nothing about it, other than that is an attempt to unify quantum mechanics and gravity into a single theory. It is a different approach to the same problem string theory tries to solve. One interpretation of Quantum Loop Gravity holds that at the quantum level space is just connections between bits of information. That everything is connected information in time. Or to put it in a more recognizable form, everything is one big quantum computer, running a multitude parallel universes. This has some scary, almost Matrix-like consequences each of the characters faces in his own way.I was most impressed with the way McDonald let’s us share Quinn’s understanding of the situation from his 18th century perspective. Using a more philosophic and religious approach, Quinn’s understanding of the situation is probably easier to follow than the lecture Marcelina receives.

Structurally it may have issues, this book also has a lot going for it. One of the things I admire most about this novel is the way McDonald changes his style to match the character and year he is writing about. Parts of Quinn’s story read like an 18th century travel journal for instance. McDonald’s prose is never light reading, there seems to be a rhythm to it the reader has to catch for the story to really flow. Once you do, it is not a book you easily put away. Reading a few pages here and a few pages there won’t really work with Brasyl. An added difficulty for the reader is the way McDonald completely immerses the reader into Brazilian society, local customs and history. His story is laced with words of Portuguese, Tupi or African origin, some of which I am quite sure I can’t pronounce. Adding this Brazilian vocabulary gives the book the feel of a, for western readers, exotic setting but for people completely unfamiliar with the place it may be confusing, even to the point of disrupting the story. There is a glossary in the back of the book, I think I could have managed to read this book without it but at some points it does help.

The characterization is another very strong. Each of the characters goes through a very profound change in their lives in the books. A change that shakes the foundations of their existence in fact. In that respect, I probably liked Marcelina’s story best. From a very self-absorbed and superficial woman, who’s ethical standards are completely dependant on the show she is producing, she changes into a warrior for a cause she believes in. With Quinn, McDonald takes a different approach. We get to see him more from the point of view on Falcon, changing from a determined priest into a raving madman and then to a prophet. Edson, I must admit this part of the story was my least favourite, is so focussed on Fia that it takes him quite a while to learn something about himself. Once his eyes are opened, the things he used to want are no longer important to him. Three very different characters with very different outlooks on life and reality, all of them somehow contributing to the reader’s understanding of the scientific and philosophical idea that is the core of this novel.

All in all I got the impression Brasyl is very carefully written and well researched. It displays the poetic quality of McDonald’s writing very well. Like Cyberabad Days it is a challenging read, one I didn’t truly appreciate until what I had just read, had time to sink in. I think McDonald managed to earn himself a place on the list of my favourite authors with these two books. The settings he chooses, the quality of the writing and the way seems to be able to completely immerse himself in the local culture all contribute to making Brasyl a book worth noting. If you haven't tried any of his work yet, this book would not be a bad place to begin.

Book Details
Title: Brasyl
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 357
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59102-543-6
First published: 2007

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Shadow Rising - Robert Jordan

The first review to tide you over till I am back from Germany. I wrote this one in March 2009. I has been polished a bit and I removed some references to the intended title of Jordan's final book, A Memory of Light. Got a second review scheduled for Thursday so stay tuned.

As I mentioned in my review of The Dragon Reborn, the first three books in the Wheel of Time series are bit different in style and scope than the books that follow. At almost four hundred thousand words The Shadow Rising is the first of three most massive books in this series. Where the first three books are relatively self-contained stories, in this book the story branches out in several directions. It is where the book where Jordan’s saga becomes a true epic. It is the point where he starts loosing readers but also where the series becomes more than a standard fantasy tale. There is something to the criticism found in many reviews that this book is overwritten. My mass market paperback is over a thousand pages, perhaps a slight indulgence on the author’s part. Despite that, it is still one of the better books in the series in my opinion.

At the end of The Dragon Reborn almost all of the main characters have gathered in Tear. Rand has drawn Callandor and fulfilled one of the prophecies surrounding the Dragon Reborn. There is no going back now, Rand has announced for the entire would he is the one that will break the world anew and save it in the Final Battle. That battle however, has not yet come. In the mean time he has a country to run and plans to make. Moiraine is still insistent he confides in her and tries to get him to take the initiative. Rand feels the forsaken look over his shoulder. He must act in some way they won’t expect and he must act soon. But who can he trust?

In the end Rand hesitates too long and the Stone is attacked by shadowspawn. After consulting the Aelfin ter’angreal in the holds of the Stone of Tear Rand decides to travel to the Aiel waste and try to fulfil their prophecies as well. Mat, having consulted the Aelfinn as well, decides to travel with him. Egwene has been summoned to the waste as well, by Aiel Wise Ones who have found out about her Talent for Dreaming. And of course Moiraine sticks to Rand like glue.

Perrin chooses a different path. Disturbing rumours of Whitecloaks in the Two Rivers have reached his ears. They can only mean one thing, the Whitecloaks are still looking for him. Perrin, Loaial, Faile, Gaul, Chiad and Bain travel to the Two Rivers to settle the matter. Perrin intends to let himself be arrested by the Whitecloaks so as not to endanger his family. When he arrives he find that matters have already gone to far for that to be an option. Even if Faile would have allowed it.

Nynaeve and Elayne decide to continue the mission the Amyrlin Seat has given them without Egwene. After having interrogated the two sisters they have captured in the Stone they are more determined than ever to find the remaining Black sisters. It seems they have moved to Tanchico to dig up an artefact that could be dangerous to Rand. Bot Lan and Rand, both of them romantically entangled by now, are worried about their safety and send Thom Merrilin and Juilin Sandar with them. Something Nynaeve and Elayne do not appreciate.

I said all the main characters were in Tear at the end of The Dragon Reborn. That is not quite true. Min is still in Tar Valon and Siuan has no intention of letting her go after Rand. Her visions are too useful. While Min walks the tower grounds pretending to be the girly, empty-headed Elmindreda, a young woman seeking sanctuary in the tower from two hotheaded suitors, she sees matters in the tower destabilize.

The Shadow Rising may be a big book, there is also an awful lot going on. As usual with Wheel of Time books, a lot of it won’t be important until later books though. Mat for instance, has his encounters with the Aelfinn and Eelfinn. These encounters completely turn him into the gambler, trickster and general in the later book. Some of it seems to have surfaced as early as The Eye of the World, where his old blood sings when he encounters Trollocs for the first time, but the encounter with the Eelfinn completes the transformation. Apart form the memories of other men, it has been speculated they are his ancestors, these encounters also provides him with his power-wrought weapon, his foxhead medallion and the prophecies he is to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. All these things prepare him to step out of Rand’s shadow. The waves created by these encounters travel throughout the later books, the Daughter of the Nine Moons for instance, won’t show up until Winter’s Heart.
“Go!” the man shouted. “You have had your answers. You must go before it is too late!”
Abruptly a dozen of the yellow-clad men were around Mat, seeming to appear out of the air, trying to pull him toward the door. He fought with fists, elbows, knees. “What fate? Burn your hearts, what fate?” It was the room itself that pealed, the walls and floor quivering, nearly taking Mat and his attackers off their feet. “What fate?”
The three were on their feet atop the pedestals, and he could not tell which shrieked which answer.
“To marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons!”
“To die and live again, and live once more a part of what was!”
“To give up half the light of the world to save the world!”
Together they howled like steam escaping under pressure. “Go to Rhuidean, son of battles! Go to Rhuidean, trickster! Go, gambler! Go!”

Mat and the Aelfinn – Chapter 15: Into the Doorway
In a way, Rand makes even greater strides. He finds out the history of his people and the story of his parents in this book. The scene in which he enters Rhuidean is a great bit of writing. Through the eyes of Rand’s ancestors we explore the origins of the Aiel, the mysterious Jenn Aiel, the Tinkers, the history of Rhuidean, hints on the guardian of the Eye of the World and the origins of the Aiel War. His experiences in Rhuidean shape Rand’s relationship with the Aiel to a large extend. It is one of those passages that will probably make more sense during the second time around but I still think it is fascinating reading.

Perrin simply kicks ass in this novel. His rallying of the Two Rivers to rise up to the challenges the region hasn’t faced in centuries is one of probably Perrin’s finest hour in the series (unless he manages to surprise me in the books yet to be published). It will also get him in an awful lot of trouble, but that is a discussion for Lord of Chaos. With Mat, Rand and Perrin all being very prominent in the book there is less emphasis on the female main characters. This will change in The Fires of Heaven where both the ladies will be much more influential. Unfortunately that also means the already… odd… relationship between the genders will be put more on edge in that book. In fact, The Shadow Rising is the last book where it didn’t annoy me that much. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a fair bit of snorting, sniffing, and braid-tugging but Jordan has kept it manageable in this book.

A number of Forsaken have have shown up in The Dragon Reborn. InThe Shadow Rising we get to see a few of those that were still missing. They still are not all accounted for however. In later books the Forsaken spend nearly as much time trying to finish each other off as they do trying to make sure Rand won’t fight the last battle for the light. In this book their plots are still rather straightforward. Moghedien in lurking, Lanfear is trying to seduce Rand and Rhavin and Sammael are playing at being Lords of the land. Asmodean shows up as well, setting the stage for one of the most debated questions in the Wheel of Time series. But that riddle is something for later books to look at. Asmodean is odd for one of the Forsaken. Most of them at least go out in a blaze of glory but he just screws up. All things considered he is quite pathetic.

Even with all this action the question whether The Shadow Rising is too long remains. I don’t really think so, or not by much anyway. Jordan manages to weave the four main story lines into a good novel as far as I am concerned. Although not as fast paced as the earlier book he makes good progress in each of them, which is more than can be said for some of the later books. Jordan has shown himself quite capable of handling the four main story lines in this book. The beginning of the novel is a bit slow, Rand hesitates too long. But then, that was Jordan’s point. This book is a change in direction for Jordan. If you do not like where he is taking it, there really is no point in continuing with the series, if anything, the story becomes even more sprawling than it already is. Still, I think this book shows Jordan is capable of more than he has shown us in the previous entries in the series. Maybe the series, and Jordan’s world-building in particular, is becoming too ambitious. If it is, it doesn’t show in The Shadow Risings. All things considered, it is a very satisfying read for people who enjoy epic (and yes, that implies it is long) fantasy.

Book Details
Title: The Shadow Rising
Author: Robert Jordan
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 1006
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass market paperback
ISBN: 0-812-51373-8
First published: 1992

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Away for a week

My girlfriend and I will be taking a short vacation in Germany next week. I very much doubt we'll have an internet connection at the place we're staying and even if we do I probably have better things to do than surf the net. That is of course no excuse to let things grow quiet around here. I have scheduled two reviews for next week. I just won't be around to comment or remove those annoying Chinese mail order bride spam messages.

See you next week!

(P.S. the picture was taken at cap Fréhel, Bretagne in 2008. Now you all know what I look like :P)

Soul Catcher - Frank Herbert

Soul Catcher is one of Herbert's books that has been out of print for quite a while. I've been keeping an eye out for this book for over a year and probably ended up paying too much to get my hands on it. I can't say I regret spending that money though, this copy is in very good condition considering it is older than I am. In Brian Herbert's biography Dreamer of Dune, this book is mentioned a lot. It is one of the more interesting works in Herbert's oeuvre, being the only mainstream novel he ever published. This was not his only attempt to break in to he mainstream market but none of the others were successful. Although there are no obvious science fiction elements in this novel, the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert's other works. It is not easy to come by but if you do find a copy don't hesitate because it is labelled mainstream. If anything this book shows how meaningless the distinction is.

After his sister is raped by a gang of drunken lumberjacks and commits suicide to cover her shame, native American Charles Hobuhet plans to take revenge on the white man's society he's been living in. Once a promising student of anthropology and nearly a white man, he returns to his roots and takes the name of Katsuk. He kidnaps David Marshall, the thirteen-year-old son of the newly appointed Undersecretary of State. David is he perfect innocent. Katsuk means to sacrifice him in a ancient ritual to take revenge for all the innocents of his people that died at the hands of the whites. Together they travel into a remote part of the Pacific Northwest, living of the land while evading the search parties sent out after them. As Katsuk prepares for the ritual, a bond between the boy and the man develops. Will this be enough to make Katsuk decide to forgo the ritual?

One of the things that struck me about this particular copy is the text on the back flap. The biography bit starts: "This is Frank Herbert's first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune...". Apparently someone at Putnam didn't want to mix their mainstream and science fiction. At that point Dune has already sold more copies than most mainstream novelist would dream of but somehow Soul Catcher is his first major novel and Dune a science fiction book (and a minor work at that). How it can be good business to piss of such a large part off your potential readers and insult your author in one careless line is beyond me. They must have seen things differently forty years ago.

Potential readers definitely include the people who enjoyed Herbert's science fiction. Both thematically and stylistically there are clear links with his other books. The book does not have chapters but sections are separated by quotes from letters, news stories and the writings of Charles Hobuhet, a technique he uses in a number of his other novels as well. The story also features the in conversations switches of point of view, although with fewer characters around, it is not so prominent is in, for example, the later Dune novels. Herbert clearly didn't think it was necessary to change his approach to writing to produce a more literary result. Makes me wonder what the critics of the time thought about this book. The mighty Google search engine hasn't been able to answer that question for me.

There is one striking difference with though. Without science fiction plot elements and with most of the novel set in the wilderness, this story is much more character driven than his other works. Katsuk is mostly busy with his ritual, the message he wants to send to the world, his connection with the spirit world. His actions may have far reaching consequences for David and himself, the ritual will not have any major effects on the universe. He intends to send a message but if anybody will listen is doubtful. David on the other hand is mostly thinking of escape. To an extend Katsuk makes him see the world through different eyes (perhaps a touch of Stockholm syndrome there) but he is an remains the innocent Katsuk kidnapped. In fact, his innocence is a critical point in the novel. The way Herbert expresses why David is innocent, how Katsuk views the concept is one of the most interesting parts of Soul Catcher.

The story is mostly set on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington. A region Herbert was intimately familiar with. In a way this novel is very personal. Although he never mentions the name of the people Katsuk belongs to, I suspect he is Quileute, the people who once lived in the entire area. Herbert did extensive research for this book and delved deeply into the mythology and language of these people. It introduces the reader to a lot of concepts and a world view that, to western eyes at least, is completely foreign. The way Charles, a man quite capable of seeing the world through western eyes suddenly switches to the world view of his people is hard to follow for a lot of people. The sheriff tasked with finding puts it like this:
Sheriff Mike Pallat:
Look, the Indian lost his kid sister a couple months ago. He adored that kid. He was her family, understand? After their parents died he raised her almost by himself. She was raped by a gang of drunken bastards and went out and killed herself. She was a good kid. I'm not surprised Charles went off his nut. This is what comes of sending and Indian to college. He studies how we've been giving his people the shitty end of the stick. Something happens... he returns to savage.
Although the sheriff seems to have a superficial knowledge of the Quileute in the area, there is so much prejudice in this statement and it is so horribly simplified reading it made me wince. Which is probably the response Herbert tried to trigger. Compare this to the highly developed mythological framework Herbert introduces and the intimate knowledge of his environment the world savage is just laughable. There's another word that is bound to set Katsuk off. Indian. He feels he should not be named for a five hundred year old mistake. If I remember correctly this book was written in a time when people were trying to retire word Indian. Although nobody seemed to agree how we should refer to Indians in the future. Maybe it is not such a bright idea to try to catch so diverse a group of people in one word.

The real controversy about Soul Catcher is probably the ending. In Dreamer of Dune (which mentions the end of the novel explicitly so if you don't want it spoiled, read the novel first) Brian Herbert mentions Frank got a lot of responses either confirming the ending as something Katsuk would do or that he got it all wrong. Even the Native American community seems to disagree on it. From a literary point of view I'd say it works very well. It's one of those endings that will stick with you, although I already knew how the story would end it still hit me as emotionally very powerful. Soul Catcher is a very sophisticated piece of writing. It shows Herbert's fabulous capacity to research the topic of his novel but also to write a very intense, character driven story. Herbert shows us a side of his talent the reader doesn't get to see that often. I always considered The Dosadi Experiment to be his best novel but I may have to reconsider. Somebody do us all a favour and bring this back into print!

Book Details
Title: Soul Catcher
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Putnam
Pages: 250
Year: 1972
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1972

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One year old today

I'd been tinkering with the blog for a couple of weeks and writing some content to get things started but the official opening of Random Comments was done on August 17th 2009. I guess that makes it one year old today. Didn't think I'd last that long when I started. Let's see if I can make it two ;)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Clementine - Cherie Priest

Last year, Priest's novel Boneshaker (Tor, October 2009) took the Steampunk sub genre by storm. Her novel about an alternate history Seattle, poisoned by a mysterious gas and plagued by zombies was very well received and is one of the novels still in the race for the Hugo Award. With that kind of success more stories in this Clockwork Century setting were to be expected. Earlier this year Subterranean already published to story Tanglefoot online (it can be read here) and this month they added the novella Clementine to it. I understand that Priest has also sold a number of other Clockwork Century novels to Tor. Her second full length novel in this setting, Dreadnought, is expected in September.

Clementine is probably set shortly after the events in Boneshaker. It features a number of minor character form the novel but you do not need to read it to enjoy this book. Set in an alternate version of the US where the civil war has dragged on for two decades, both sides are looking for something that can break the stalemate and enable them to strike a decisive blow. Somehow the dirigible Free Crow of smuggler, pirate and sometimes bank robber Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey is central to the plans of one of the parties. His honestly stolen ship is taken by a party colleagues, hastily renamed Clementine and taken east with unknown cargo. Hainey is about to let this theft go unpunished.

In the mean time southern spy Maria Isabelle Boyd, finds that the worst that could possibly happen to a spy has occurred. Her actions on behalf of the Confederacy has gained her a level of fame that makes further covert operations almost impossible. To make matters worse her loyalties are questioned. Cut loose from her employer, Boyd tries her luck in the north where the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency has offered her a job. Her first assignment is to make sure a certain dirigible arrives on schedule and delivers goods to a Sanatorium. It looks innocent but reading between the lines Boyd get the impression the cargo is deemed vital to the Union war effort. Will old loyalties prevail over pragmatism?

It's quite unusual to have works in the same setting published by two different publishers without getting into an argument with one of them. Tor seems to prefer books of novel length though, I don't think they've published anything recent that is under a hundred thousand words in quite a while. At 201 generously spaced pages Clementine is well below that although I would not be surprised if it pushes the word limit for novellas. That being said, it is quite a different creature than the novel Boneshaker. It has a higher density of action scenes, including some very interesting areal combat and a number of gunfights.

Priest picked a couple of very unlikely heroes for this tale. Hainey is an escaped slave and criminal who doesn't have any moral objections to blowing whoever happens to be in the way of him regaining his beloved dirigible away with an absurdly large gun named Rattler. He's wanted in both the Union and the Confederacy and he's very much aware of how that limits his manoeuvrability. Boyd on the other hand has been fiercely defending the cause of the Confederacy, a state that allows slavery, and seriously considers capturing Hainey and deliver him to her old employer to get back in their good graces. She is also not above shooting people if it means getting the job done. Neither of the main characters are suitable as role models to say the least. Personally I can appreciate a bit of moral ambiguity in a novel but some readers will no doubt be more comfortable with Brair and quest to get her son back.

Characters willing to do a little damage achieve their goals do make for an action-packed novel. Where in Boneshaker the dirigibles were mostly part of the scenery, we get to see quite a lot of them here. I must admit I fail to see the wisdom of a combination of steam engines and hydrogen filled balloons, or mounting them with guns for that matter. Predictably, large explosions are the result. On the whole I liked this more condensed version of the Clockwork Century better than Boneshaker though. The novel is a fine piece of writing but it does contain a fairly straightforward story. Perhaps not enough to justify the length of Boneshaker. Clementine is more tightly written. The pace is relentless but Priest does manage to flesh out the two main characters well enough to make them interesting.

Do not expect a very complex story when reading this. Clementine is a fast and exciting read. Something the whet the appetite before Dreadnought hits the shelves. Personally, I don't understand why Tor let this one pass. It is bound to appeal to readers who liked Boneshaker. Thankfully there are still publishers interested in work that doesn't conform to the big fat fantasy novel standards. Subterranean did a wonderful job on the cover art (by Jon Foster) and design as well. For those of you who have not been able to get your hands on a hardcover, I hear they are almost sold out, there will be a paperback edition sometime next year. Now or next year, if you do see it in a book store don't hesitate, Clementine is a very good read.

Book Details
Title: Clementine
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Suterranean Press
Pages: 201
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-308-2
First published: 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gardens of the Moon - Steven Erikson

The tenth and final book in Steven Erikson's Malazan series, The Crippled God is expected in early 2011. I have no hopes of rereading this massive series but there is some time left before the last volume, concluding an enormous tale begun in Dust of Dreams, is published, so I thought I'd make a beginning at least. I read Gardens of the Moon for the first time four years ago and it left me thoroughly confused. In fact, things didn't begin to make sense until the third book in the series, Memories of Ice. Four years, with eight other Malazan books and three novellas under my belt (not counting the ones by Ian C. Esslemont), the book makes a lot more sense. I might not make it though the whole series but I think some more rereading is in order before The Crippled God hits the shelves.

As many other reviewers have observed, Erikson likes to throw the reader right in the middle of the story. The book opens with the confrontation that ends the siege of Pale, the latest target of the expansion of the powerful and ever growing Malazan empire. The empire faces formidable forces arrayed against it but mere victory is not enough. The empress means to achieve more in this final assault of the city. In an explosion of magic an entire Malazan army is retired, several members of the old emperor's elite are removed and the sorcerous, floating fortress of Moon Spawn is sent packing. But all of this is achieved at a price.

Those who pay most are the Bridgeburners. An elite military formation under the old emperor, they've received every dangerous job available under the new empress in hopes of culling their numbers. The siege of Pale does just that, when the dust clears only thirty or forty are left alive. To correct this slight miscalculation, a squad of Bridgeburners is sent ahead to the next target of the Malazan expansion. Once twelve free cities could be found on the continent of Genebackis, now Darujhistan is the only one left. And not for long if the empress has anything to say about it. The Bridgeburners have their own ideas about what should be accomplished in Darujhistan. The politics, intrigue, assassination and betrayal that rule the Malazan Empire do not stop just because one happens to be outside its borders.

Writing a synopsis for this book is a pain. There are an awful lot of story lines that start in the first hundred or so pages of the book. I finally decided to skip the prologue and first chapter entirely. These hint at the events that resulted in the take-over by empress Laseen and the resentment caused by this action. Although Kellanved is referred to as dead, death is not always final in the world of Malaz. You have to be pretty sharp to catch the relationship between the events that took place some ten years prior to the main part of this novel and the conflict between Laseen and the god Shadowthorn. Over the course of the books the general history of the empire will become clear but mostly the rise to power and rule of Kellanved is the stuff of legends. Only Ian C. Esslemont's Night of Knives is set during the last days of the reign of Kellanved.

Erikson hints at a much larger history than the brief era of the Malazan Empire. We meet creatures who's lifespans are measured in tens of thousands of years. Laseen's undead army of T'lan Imass for instance, have a history that stretches back three hundred thousand years. Their technological development is frozen in the Palaeolithic, I guess this is where Erikson's background as an archaeologist shows. I wonder if Erikson used Neanderthal culture as an inspiration for this elder race. Despite their primitive technology they have a surprisingly complex magical and spiritual life. In later books it is hinted that (some of) the Imass chose not the develop their technology beyond the hunter-gatherer level. The Imass have an interesting history, something to keep en eye out for in later books. The only Imass character in this book, Onos T'oolan gives us some tantalizing hints but leaves even more unsaid.

Gardens of the Moon has a different feel than the rest of Erikson's Malazan novel. It has quite a complex history. The world of Malaz started out as a role-playing environment which then developed into a movie script. When that didn't sell, Erikson wrote the novel. Most of it was written in 1991 and 1992 but it wasn't actually published until 1999. After the publication of Gardens of the Moon, Erikson wrote nine novels and four novellas in the Malazan environment in eleven years time. The world of Malaz was obviously further developed in the mean time. There are also some inconsistencies between this book and the rest of the series. In Toll of the Hounds we will return to Darujhistan but not all characters seems to have aged the appropriate amount of time. One other detail I noticed is the question of exactly how many warrens Quick Ben can access. There are probably a few more minor thing that I missed in this reread.

The biggest difference is in some of the characters though. What struck me most is how Anomander Rake was portrayed as something of a villain early on in the book. Erikson adds a touch of grey to his character later on but when we first meet him he comes across as cold, brutal and violent. A far cry from the character we see carrying an immense burden on behalf of his people in Toll of the Hounds. The role of the Malazan High Mage Tayschrenn seems to reverse as well. From the evil, scheming wizard, attempting to do the dirty work of the empress and suspected of aiming for the throne himself, he transforms into a misunderstood servant of the empire we see in Memories of Ice.They were not things that really bothered me but it does show that even Steven Erikson has limits when it comes to keeping all the details of his creation straight.

The tone of the later books will also change a bit. Although Erikson is no afraid to make fun of the genre in general, mostly though the characters of Kruppe and Crokus, Gardens of the Moon does not have as much satire in it as later books (I'm thinking about the story of Karsa Olong in House of Chains and the rabidly capitalist culture of Lether in Midnight Tides here). Given the differences with later books and the highly complex and far from complete story offerd in the fist book, Erikson doesn't make it easy on the reader to decide whether or not pursuing this series is worth their time. To make matters even more complicated the next book in the series, Deadhouse Gates, is set on a different continent with an almost entirely new set of characters. Not until the third book do we pick up the story line of Gardens of the Moon again and are some of the questions we're left with after Gardens of the Moon answered.

Gardens of the Moon is the first book in a series that took epic fantasy to a new level. It's a story painted on a canvas so large it defies belief. It is also a story that requires a patient reader who does not expect to be spoon-fed the facts the Malazan world. Gardens of the Moon is a pretty challenging read and as the series progresses it will be come only more challenging. Some of the story lines are more or less completed in this book but Erikson throws in heaps of names, places and references to events that can't possibly make sense to a reader who hasn't read at least some of the subsequent novels. Even the poetry at the beginning of the chapters is full of them. Given the fact that Erikson couldn't have known if there would be a sequel when writing it, or even if he would sell it in the first place, he set out on a very ambitious project. Gardens of the Moon is by no means a perfect book, Erikson has grown considerably as a writer throughout the series, but the outlines of what he would achieve in later volumes are already there. It's the beginning of a series that is a landmark in epic fantasy, a book that leaves the reader with so much more questions than answers, but also a book that covers the first steps of a fascinating journey. I liked it the first time around but this second read was a lot more rewarding. So if you're a new reader, hang in there, it's worth it.

Book Details
Title: Gardens of the Moon
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 729
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-81217-3
First published: 1999

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Radio Magician and Other Stories - James Van Pelt

Reading short fiction is something I have to be in the mood for. For me, it is a very different kind of reading than novels. Potentially just as powerful and rewarding but more like running a sprint than a marathon. With expectation, immersion and surprise/relief/disappointment or whatever your reaction to the story is, packed into a much shorter time frame, short fiction takes more out of me than a novel. I can read about four short stories in one evening before I have to go do something else and process what I've just read. It frequently happens that I have several collections of short fiction waiting for the mood to seize me. The current to read stack contains a copy of Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham for instance. I also expect a copy of The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson to arrive sometime next week. Both of these collections may have to wait for quite a while.

The Radio Magician and Other Stories had to wait for a bit as well. After reading Van Pelt's novel Summer of the Apocalypse in December, I've been meaning to read one of the three collections of short fiction Van Pelt has published to date. The Radio Magician and Other Stories (2009) is the most recent, but the older collections Strangers and Beggars (2002) and The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories (2005) are also still available from Fairwood Press (did my to read list just grow again?). The Radio Magician and Other Stories contains nineteen pieces of short fiction ranging from far future science fiction to horror and a very nice introduction by Carrie Vaughn. Nineteen stories is a bit much to discuss in one review so I am going to make a selection. It should be noted that the quality of the collection as a whole is very good. This selection reflects my taste it's not meant to single out the best stories.

The Radio Magician is the first story in the collection. It's an interesting choice to open the collection with. Van Pelt is generally considered to be a science fiction writer. This story reminds the reader that his oeuvre is broader than that. Set in (probably) late 1939, the story tells us about the Clarence, a ten year old boy struck by Polio. With his legs in braces, unable to move around much, the radio is the only thing that makes his days bearable. A show by the Radio Magician Professor Gilded is his favourite. Especially when the magician remarks magic is an illusion, fooling perception is the trick. If you perceive the coin has disappeared, it is gone. If you perceive you are ill, illness becomes you, the magician tells his audience. Now that is an interesting thought for Clarence.

Whether The Radio Magician is genre fiction is debatable, something that is the case with a number of stories in this collection. Seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy the magic may very well be real, for the adult reader it is most likely an illusion. Although the stories are not that similar, reading about Clarence reminded me of a classic in the Dutch literary canon, Kees de jongen. It's a very convincing look into the world of a ten year-old and a very touching story. One of isolation, conviction and ultimately compassion.

The Light of a Thousand Suns is the third story in the collection. The rather cryptic title refers to a verse of the Hindu holy text Bhagavad Gita, that was linked to Trinity, one of the early nuclear tests the US carried out in the 1940s. Robert J. Oppenheimer later mentioned that he thought of the verse while watching this first nuclear explosion. All this is ancient history to the main character in the story however. Trellis is a security guard at the Lynwood Mall. One day he notices a trailer that has been parked in the mall parking lot for over a day. When he goes out to confront the owners they tell him they're suicide bombers. Just not quite the type we've come to associate with that term.

Van Pelt asks some uncomfortable questions in this story. What drives a suicide bomber? Trellis doesn't have a clue, the idea of giving up your life for a cause that doesn't seem to be helped by that sacrifice at all seems strange to him. And yet, what he witnesses in the trailer is not so very different. These people are convinced their sacrifice has meaning without a shred of evidence to support it. Maybe their goal is more sympathetic but isn't it the same sort of fanaticism? And then there is the assurance that when he is ready, Trellis' sacrifice will be accepted. Creepy.

Echoing is a story that takes an unusual shape. The story is built around three people being lost, three lives intersecting without the characters ever meeting. Laird is driving a truck down a snow-clogged highway, trying to get home to his family for Christmas morning. As the weather deteriorates he becomes increasingly unsure of where he is. Commander Tremaine wakes from long sleep finding his space ship off course. The stars seem to offer no clue as to where he ended up. Brianna is quite sure where she is but somehow she seems to be lost in her own home. With a Christmas party going on in the room next to her, she is feeling so estranged from her family that is time for drastic measures. Somehow these stories touch each other, feelings from one character bleeding into the consciousness of the next. Their thoughts echo in each others brain. They may be lost but they are not entirely alone. What if they can somehow help each other overcome this crisis? Perhaps it is not so much an echo but more resonance.

The Ice Cream Man is a post apocalyptic tale. It is not the only one is in this collection, Van Pelt seems to have developed a taste for them. One thing I noticed about this post apocalyptic tales is that he doesn't seem very interested in the mechanism of the apocalypse. Some story mention which of our follies caused our downfall but in the ones I've read, he never goes into detail. And so it is with this story. Whatever it was that caused the end of the world as we know it, it severely affected the human capacity to procreate. No healthy children have been born in years. Large parts of the world have been taken over by mutants, who may have humans among their ancestors. Scavenging has become a way of life for those still living in urban areas and a complex barter economy has been established. From his ice cream van the main character Keegan runs a brisk trade. One day he finds out about plans to push the horrific mutants out of the area. Keegan is not convinced that is a good idea. Unlike most of the other survivors he does not see them as animals and competition. Something needs to be done about this plan, it time for Keegan to come to a decision.

I guess The Ice Cream Man is one of those stories where mere survival is not enough. Keegan sees a step further ahead than his fellows. Possibilities that others can't seem to imagine. Thematically this story may not stand out, there is a lot of post apocalyptic fiction out there that explores this particular problem. I guess this is one of those stories where Van Pelt's craftsmanship is most clearly recognizable. Although I have seen variations on this theme a number of times, the story never feels cliché. Even though it was not entirely unexpected, the ending of this story moved me. Causes of the apocalypse is not what interests Van Pelt but the effect on the human mind is. An interest that resulted in a number of good stories of which The Ice Cream Man is certainly not the least.

The last story I'll mention in this review is The Boy Behind the Gate. This story has two main characters. Both fathers and both desperate but facing quite different problems. In today's Central City, Colorado Ron is looking for his son among the abandoned gold mines in the region. A serial killer took his boy and was found dead days later, taking the secret of the boy's whereabouts with him in his grave. The police may have given up on finding him in the maze of old tunnels, Ron is determined to find his son. In 1890, at the height of the mining activity in the area, Charles is having a different problem. People seem to die around his son, starting with the boy's mother right after he was born. Slowly but surely Charles becomes convinced his son is evil and that raises a terrible question. Should he not protect the people of the town from his son?

I guess this is the most uncut horror story in the collection. It's not so much the monsters and gore kind of horror but a story permeated by fear. A mixture of fear and hope of Ron finding his son, the dreadful decision Charles is faced with, they both give The Boy Behind the Gate a dark and desperate atmosphere. Van Pelt ties these stories together in a way that adds a new dimension to the story. The decision of one father will have consequences for the other. No need to show, the implication is terrifying enough.

There are a number of other stories after The Boy Behind the Gate, two of which will probably be considered highlights by many other reviewers. The final part of the collection is very strong indeed. I think I don't need to elaborate on it any more, the messages should be clear. The Radio Magician and Other Stories is a very strong and varied collection of short fiction. After finishing Summer of the Apocalypse I said I regretted not reading it sooner, a feeling that is even stronger about this collection. No need to repeat my mistakes. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: The Radio Magician and Other Stories
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Pages: 290
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9820730-2-5
First published: 2009

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Voor de poorten van het duister - Raymond E. Feist

Voor de poorten van het duister is the Dutch title of Feist's latest novel. It's a pretty literal translation of the English title At the Gates of Darkness. Feist is some of the first fantasy I've read, there is an entire shelf in my bookcase dedicated to his books. Pretty much from the moment translations of his work started appearing in Dutch bookshops in the late 1990s I've been picking up copies of his work. When I started reading his books I hadn't read much speculative fiction. I think my experience was limited to Dune and The Lord of the Rings prior to reading Magician, which then lead me to the book of people like Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan. Over the years my appreciation of his work has waned somewhat. Partly because I have discovered books that are qualitatively much better and partly because I have developed my taste as a reader of fantasy. I do have fond memories of the first dozen book however, so every time a new one hits the shelves I find myself reading it against my better judgement.

At the Gates of Darkness continues the story that began in Rides a Dread Legion and chronicles the efforts of Pug and his Conclave of Shadows to deal with the threat of an invasion by an army of Demons. The story has three main story lines. One that follows Pug and the Conclave, one that follows the Knight-Adamant Sandreena and one that follows the elven brothers Laromendis and Gulamendis. Each of then unveils useful information about the nature of the threat posed by the invading demons and the role of the Conclave's nemesis Belasco plays in all this. After pooling their resources a plan is conceived to deal with Belasco once and for all.

Feist's work covers a total of five riftwars. The Riftwar, the Serpentwar, the Darkwar, the Demonwar and the yet to be published Chaoswar. At the Gate of Darkness is the conclusion of the Demonwar and Feist's 26th novel in the Midkemia/Kelewan setting. The Dutch translations switched publisher a couple of books ago and Lia Belt, who has translated this book, is the fourth translator to take on Feist's work. The translators decided to change the names of some characters (although not consistently throughout the series), which makes reviewing these book in English a bit of a pain. I constantly have to check if the names are the same in English. Pug for example, is Puc in the Dutch version. A wise decision on the translator's part. With the Dutch pronunciation of the letter g, his name would sound like you have something stuck in your throat.

With such a long running series a certain fatigue of this particular creation is always a risk. Feist's books seem to suffer from this a lot. Personally I think the last good book he wrote was the third book in the Serpentwar Saga, Rage of a Demon King. I consider the fourth part in that sub-series, Shards of a Broken Crown to be mostly superfluous. After that Feist seems to loose interest in his own creation. The books start to feel rushed. Less attention is paid to the setting and the development of societies of Midkemia or to the secondary characters. The plot follows the course of a fairly simple Dungeons and Dragons game. After reading the Darkwar books I was optimistic that Feist was trying to raise the level again. Although these books suffer form many of the problems I just mentioned, they feel more inspired than the books that preceded them. I'm afraid the Demonwar books are not cause for further optimism.

Feist's books have always had a high D&D content. This is not surprising given the fact that Midkemia was originally a D&D world. In earlier books, Feist takes a lot more time to flesh out his world however. With characters such as Arutha and Eric von Darkmoor, these books have a connection to the world of ordinary Midkemian citizens. No matter how privileged these men were, they did not possess magic or extraordinary long lifespans. How they dealt with the presence of magical threats to their country was one of the interesting aspects of the story. A combination of worldly concerns and supernatural influence on the world made these books a lot more readable than the later ones. At the Gate of Darkness is almost completely focussed on the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. There is barely a glance at how the arrival of yet another elven tribe will impact Midkemia, very little on how Puc deals with the loss of much of his second family, next to nothing on the politics of the Kingdom of the Isles look like these days etc. Midkemia has been relegated to a battlefield and a useful pool of magical talent, with much of the struggle completely detached from whatever world it is taking place on.

The Demonwar itself is also a rather confusing affair. Over the course of the series Feist has added layer upon layer of knowledge about the structure of the Midkemian universe. It has become quite a complex structure but as usual, we find out that our view of it is still not complete. The Demons stem from another plain of existence referred to as the fifth circle. They've shown up on previous occasions (in the Serpentwar in particular they play an important part) but their nature and the forces that are driving them to enter the Midkemian plane of existence are still largely unknown. In a duology that aims to explore the conflict between the Conclave of Shadows and the Demons one would expect a little more detail to be introduced. Know thy enemy and all that. Feist does add some more detail, he hints that the fifth circle is not the chaotic environment Puc and his companions always assumed. That's all it is though. A hint. Before we've even begun to unravel what the door is actually about Puc rushes off to some remote location an slams the door (or rift if you prefer) before it is good and well opened. Game over.

Although the books of Feist have never been at the high end of the scale when it comes to literary quality, his early work was first step into the fantasy genre for me. His novels gave me a taste of fantasy before tackling the heavy-hitters of speculative fiction. At the Gates of Darkness however, is nowhere near Feist's best. The story is more or less what we've come to expect from him but the execution is sloppy and feels rushed. From the Demonwar books I really get the impression Feist can't wait to get to the end of this series. With three more books to go, assuming Feist will not write the two additional Krondor books, I certainly hope he does better in the Chaoswar trilogy. It would be a shame to let the series fizzle out in a number of uninspired novels.

Book Details
Title: Voor de poorten van het duister
Author: Raymond E. Feist
Publisher: Luithingh Fantasy
Pages: 336
Year: 2010
Language: Dutch
Translation: Lia Belt
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-245-2889-9
First published: 2010

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Eye of the Heron - Ursula K. Le Guin

I'm running another older review tonight. I may actually get around to writing a second review this week, but then again, I may not. With one more full week until my vacation I've found I really, really need some time off. So instead of staring at a half-hearted attempt of a review I've dug up one of the older ones. This one was originally written in December 2008 and as usual, did need some editing.

I picked up this very cheap copy of the Starscape edition (Tom Doherty’s YA imprint) of The Eye of the Heron a while ago, when I was actually looking for something else. Books have a way of ambushing you like that. Le Guin is of course one of the greats of speculative fiction but this is actually the first of her novels I have read. Starscape presents this as a book for ages 10 and above but while the story is straightforward enough, the philosophical ideas that underpin the story are quite complex. It is quite an interesting read for the more mature reader as well. Le Guin does not waste any words in telling the story, she delivers a to the point but surprisingly complex novel. If you do read it at age 10, I suggest returning to it a few years later, you’ll probably see it in a different light then.

The Eye of the Heron is set on a planet that was fairly recently colonized. Le Guin doesn’t mention a year but sometime in the 22nd century seems reasonable. Two waves of colonists have settled a small area of the planet. One group consisted of criminals from a nation that covers South-America, sent on a one way trip to dispose of them. Several decades later a new group of undesirables arrives. It consists of political activists is sent to the planet when one of earth’s governments feel threatened by their movement.

The planet they are stranded on does not appear to have any large land animals on it and the creatures that do inhabit the world are mostly harmless. A fact that saves the early colonists from dying out completely. Hunger takes quite a few nonetheless. After the second group of colonists arrives an interesting society forms. Or rather, two interesting societies. The main settlement of the planet is ruled by an aristocracy descendent from the first group of colonists and provides most of the goods for the community. The second group of colonists have taken over agriculture and live according to the principles that got them sent to the planet, blend pacifistic and anarchistic ideas. The city dwellers generally look down on the farmers and seem to think they rule the entire community. The farmers pretty much ignore that idea and work for what they consider is best for society. In general everybody seems to be getting along well enough but under the surface the situation is far from.

The main character in the book is Luz, the daughter of one of the most influential men in the city. The city aristocrats are quite protective of their daughters. Their role in society is mostly seen as mothers and housekeepers. Women are supposed to be weak, obedient and above all uninterested in running the community. Luz is none of these things. She is beyond the age where a proper girl would be married and does not intend to conform to society's standards in that respect. Under the influence of Lev, one of the most promising young men in the rural community, her ideas become even more radical. Lev is one of the driving forces behind the plan to set up a new colony. An initiative very much discouraged by the city. They have their own ideas on expansion and are ready to do violence to see them become reality. Conflict is inevitable as each party tries to further it’s cause in terms the other doesn’t recognize as such.

The conflict in this novel is a very strange one. At first glance one wonders how such a small group of people with an entire planet at their disposal can get embroiled in a conflict that has overpopulation at it’s core. They may have a planet at their disposal, it offers them little in the way of resources however. To survive people need other people. It puts a brake on the level of violence a society can tolerate. After all, if nobody is producing anything, there is nobody to steal from either. The level of dependency on others is such that exile from the community means death. When the re-emerging violent tactics of the city’s rules fail to provoke the expected response the city doesn’t quite know how to handle the situation. On the other hand it is quite clear the pacifist approach of the farmers isn’t offering all the answers either. At least not to Luz.

The choice of themes is as far as I can tell not surprising for Le Guin. She does manage to cover these complex philosophical and political ideas in a relatively short novel in such a way that the interactions between the characters we witness and the way this society works give the reader plenty of food for thought. The structure of the novel is a bit odd though. You could be forgiven for thinking both Luz and Lev are the main characters in this book. After Lev, without giving too much away, follows the example of the men that inspired his ideology, it turns out the feminist theme in the book is more important than it appeared to be. Somehow I don’t think Le Guin had that in mind when she started writing this novel.

Despite one of the characters getting away from the author this book was an interesting introduction to Le Guin’s writing for me. The Eye of the Heron is a well written story that has a lot to offer for reader's of various ages. I would say it is one of those books that you can read several times and discover something new on each reading. It seems I will have to add some more of Le Guin’s books to my ever growing to be read list. Good thing there is a copy of The Dispossessed on the to read stack.

Book Details
Title: The Eye of the Heron
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Starscape
Pages: 179
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0765-34612-5
First published: 1978

Monday, August 2, 2010

Jem - Frederik Pohl

All the cool kids are reading books from the SF Masterworks series at the moment, so I thought I'd have a go at one of the four book in that series that are currently on my to read stack. Jem (1979) is one of four book by Frederik Pohl that have made the list. Some time ago I already read Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977), books which won him a number of awards. Jem is another book from this highly successful period in Pohl's career. It was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards but didn't win. It did win a National Book Award. The fourth book in the SF Masterworks collection is The Space Merchants (1953), which Pohl wrote with his fellow Futurian Cyril M. Kornbluth. I will probably end up reading that one as well. As soon as the discouragingly large to read stack as been reduced to more manageable proportions that is.

Jem is set in the near future (as seen from the late 1970s). The world is divided in three large blocs of nations, the food exporting nations, the oil exporting nations and the people nations. Membership of these blocs is somewhat fluid but they do contribute to a certain balance of power that has kept the world more or less peaceful. With a steadily rising population competition for the world's resources has become fierce though. The nations are looking to the stars to fuel humanity's growth. Although the problem of crossing light years in an acceptable timespan has been solved, hauling materials into orbit to facilitate space exploration still requires vast amounts of scare fossil fuels.

So far all this expense has come to noting. Sure, life has been discovered on other planets but nothing that will help solve earth's problems. Lichen, bacteria, hardly any higher life-forms at all. But then the planet that will become known as Jem is discovered. Jem is a somewhat earth-like planet that does not only support life, there is sentient life on the planet as well. Not one but three species! The nations of earth are quick to see the possibilities of this planet. An agreement is reached to support each other and share knowledge but everybody knows that, despite the billions it will take, the race to colonize Jem is on.

We see this story though multiple points of view. Most of the main characters end up on Jem sooner or later. Pohl also adds a point of view for a number of natives. This way he achieves a wonderfully detailed look at events but it does go at the expense of the depth of his characters. At 300 pages Jem is a relatively short novel. With so many characters demanding attention there isn't that much space for development. There are a few surprises but mostly everybody does more or less what you'd expect them to. If you like a character driven story than this novel is going to disappoint.

Pohl's story the line between dark satire and serious social commentary I suppose. It doesn't make one feel optimistic about the future of the human race. It is already clear that we've messed up our own planet but the powers that be don't seem to draw any lessons from that and pretty much see what happens on Jem as an extension of their earth policies. Which is to say naked power politics, backstabbing, mistrust and deceit. The story pretty much inevitably spirals towards violence and although most of the characters see it coming to some extend, nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. The way Pohl goes about describing the politics of his future earth and the characters that embody these policies seems to be a bit of a caricature at times. It contains a lot of stinging comments about the politics of the time it was written (a lot of which is depressingly relevant today) but at other points he seems to take it a bit to far to be credible.

One of the things I noticed in particular is the way the natives of Jem are treated. Although at some level most of the human characters admit these sentient creatures ought to be treated with a certain amount of respect, in practice their treatment is generally brutal. Humans won't shy away from taking samples (read: killing and dissecting the natives) to find any way to exploit or eradicate them. They are seen as potential consumers, useful cannon fodder or outright enemies. Morality takes a back seat when more pressing concerns, like finishing off your competitor for the planet's resources, have to be dealt with. Common sense does occasionally rise to the surface once in a while but seems to loose out most of the time. Whether or not it wins out at the end? I guess that is the question Pohl leaves the reader with. He certainly doesn't make it easy to make up one's mind about it.

Jem is not a light story, at times Pohl's commentary on human behaviour is almost cynical. Although parts of the novel appear to be a bit over the top, the author gives the reader plenty to think about. Pohl certainly does not spare us the darker side of human nature. Some science fiction likes to portray exploration of the stars as a scientific and humanitarian effort, one that will lead the species to an utopian future. In Jem, base human emotions such as greed, aggression and mistrust are more important driving forces. The way it confronts the reader with these less favourable aspects of human nature make Jem a very interesting read. It is perhaps not quite as strong as Gateway but certainly more than worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Jem
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 300
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-789-8
First published: 1979