Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Although the most successful period in Pohl's career is probably the late 1970s when he won a number of Nebula and Hugo awards for novels like Gateway and Man Plus, he had already written a lot of other work before then. More than a few of these books were collaborations with other writers and fellow Futurian Cyril M. Kornbluth was one of his regular partners in crime. Kornbluth's career was unfortunately a short one, he died in 1958 at the age of 34. He left behind 10 novels, most of them collaborations with other authors and a bunch of short fiction. For such a short career his output was impressive. Most of it is not that easy to come by though, but The Space Merchants is still available as part of Gollancz' SF Masterwoks series. I've read a number of science fiction novels form the genre's golden age recently and this one is the best by a fair margin.

The Space Merchants is set sometime in the 21st century. An exact date isn't mentioned but an event that took place in 2010 is firmly in the past so I'd place it a few decades from now. The word is vastly overpopulated with unbelievable numbers of people stacked into tiny spaces in the world's big cities. Although resources like oil have practically run out and real meat is a delicacy only availably to the wealthy, science has managed to keep one step ahead of a major food crisis and the world seems to be confident that even in the face of a rapid growth of the population this will remain so. Consuming seems to be the highest possible achievement and large companies throw every trick in the book at their customers to keep them buying their products. Tricky advertising, easy credit, addictive additions to foodstuffs, assassinations of rival company's personal and plain old lying and bribing all seem to be permissible.

But growth has to come from somewhere and it is clear possibilities on earth are limited so one of the leading US companies, Fowler Schocken Associates, as cast its eye to the heavens. Venus is within reach of modern space faring technology and offers a completely unexploited planet ready for the taking. The minor difficulty of the place being a hell hole unable to support a human population without years of terraforming is not going to stop the company from attracting colonists. The man who is going to lead the project, Mitch Courtenay, has got his work cut out for him.

Although some aspects of the book are undeniably dated, knowledge of the true conditions on Venus was scarce in the early 1950s for instance, it is still a highly relevant piece of fiction. I suppose you could say it is a satirical piece, many of Pohl's novels have a slightly satirical tone to them, but it deals with a number of serious environmental problems related to unbridled consumerism and perpetual economic and population growth that still haven't been tackled. In 1950 the world population was about two and half billion people. Right now, and we're not even at the date of the novel yet, we're approaching seven billion. The consequences of this enormous growth are being felt in ways that could very well lead to conditions described in the book. And all this twenty years before the Limits to Growth (1972) report caused a stir with its dire predictions of resource scarcity.

Another shockingly accurate prediction seems to be on the consumption of meat. Already many environmental groups are pointing out that the production of meat is wasteful, taking up food and land that could be used to produce for human consumption as well as being a driving force for large scale deforestation. Soya meat replacements can be found in every supermarket and research into possibilities to "grow" meat more efficiently is being researched. It certainly makes the reader wonder if the scene in which the authors describe Chicken Little (interesting name by the way) is where we are heading with our food production.
It was a great concrete dome, concrete floored. Chicken Little filled most of it. She was a grey-brown, rubbery hemisphere of some fifteen yards in diameter. Dozens of pipes ran into her pulsating flesh. You could see than she was alive.
Herrera said to me: 'All day I walk around her. I see a part growing fast, it looks good and tender, I slice.' His two-handed blade screamed again. This time it shaved off an inch thick Chicken Little steak.

Chapter 9
Sounds appetizing, doesn't it?

Environmental issues are my personal bias however, they are important to the novel but the plot is mostly concerned with Courtney and the ideological change he goes through. The novel opens with a chapter detailing a board meeting of Fowler Schocken Associates, a great introduction of what to expect from the 21st century advertising business. In a slightly over the top scene we are confronted with a group of people seemingly completely oblivious to the consequences of their greed and able to justify just about anything with growing profits. The contrast between how the reader would see this and the absolute faith in the reversal of our values the characters display is comical as well as disturbing. Not everybody agrees with this view though. As Mitch descends on the social ladder and meets the people who are exposed to the products his company tries to sell, his view change drastically. An interesting conversion.

By the standards of its time it was not particularly short but at 186 pages it doesn't waste time making its point. It's quire a fast read.The Space Merchants is one of the few books I have read from the golden age era, where the writing and themes are still relevant and powerful. Although it is clearly over the top at some points, several of the predictions don't seem so unlikely upon closer inspection. A novel that is both entertaining and thought-provoking and one that aged very well. This novel is without a doubt worthy of the term classic. I think I even prefer this book over Pohl's most successful work; Gateway.

Book Details
Title: The Space Mercants
Author: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 186
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07528-3
First published: 1953

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Jesus Incident - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

In 1966 the novel Destination: Void was published. The story was about an experiment to create artificial intelligence, a crew sent out into space with only two alternatives. Succeed or die. In the late 1970s, Herbert would return to the Destination: Void universe, with a new novel co-authored by Bill Ransom. Herbert rewrote parts of the original novel which he felt were dated, and the new version was published in 1978, slightly before The Jesus Incident. According to Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert's biography of his father, the writing of this new novel was not without its challenges though. They based the story on a shorter piece named Songs of a Sentient Flute. When the first draft for the almost completed, copyright issues arose. The planet they set the story on could not be used. With a deadline fast approaching, whole sections of the novel had to be rewritten. As a result the authors were not entirely happy with the final product. It did well enough though. In fact, there would be two sequels.

Ages has past since Voidship Earthling issued his first command after gaining conciousness. You must decide how you will WorShip me. The echoes of this question can still be heard when one of the original creators of Ship is woken again from hybernation. Chaplain/Psychiatrist Raja Lon Flattery finds things quite different from when he went to sleep. The ship has expanded and is supporting a large populations of humans. Or at least, humanoids sufficiently alike Flattery that he could breed with them. They are currently engaged in a desperate attempt to colonize the planet Pandora. Only with employment of a large number of clones, genetically engineered for fast responses, has humanity managed to gain a toe hold on the hostile planet. Nightmarish predators roam what little dry land is available, humanity takes staggering losses to just hold on to what little has been gained. Food shortages, brutal treatment of clones and the high casualty rate ensure that the colony is always on the edge of violence. To make matters worse, Ship has lost patience with the feeble attempts at WorShip that have evolved in the time Flattery was asleep. He is sent out by to rectify the matter. Failure is not an option, Ship will terminate the human race if its demands are not met.

This is a second reading for me. I picked up this copy on a trip to Gothenburg, Sweden in 2005 (a memorable party it was) for 110 Kr. No idea how much that is but thinking back on it, it sounds expensive. I had read a number of his non Dune works at that time and since some of them were pretty hard to come by, bought this copy. It then spend almost a year on the to read stack until I finally read it in the summer of 2006. One of my reactions to this book back then was that I probably should have read Destination: Void first. Having read both now, I guess that reaction was correct. It is possible to read this book without having read Destination: Void, but certainly early on in the story there are a lot of references to to events in the previous book. I also think the reader appreciates the move of Ship to wake up Flattery a bit more. The Jesus Incident has seen publication more recently though, it may not be easy to get your hands on either book.

Herbert did not make a habit of collaborating with other authors. Besides the three books in this trilogy he co-authored only one other novel. Man of Two Worlds (1986), written together with his son Brian. I own a copy of that book but I haven't read it yet. The Jesus Incident reads like a real Frank Herbert novel but in some places the touch of Bill Ransom does appear to shine though. Besides writing novels, Ransom is a poet as well and the poet's view on the world is quite important to this novel. Bits of poetry are scattered throughout the text. There's no telling who wrote what of course, but on the whole the novel seems a bit concerned with images. Not images as a tool to influence others but as a way of better understanding the world. The poet's view is a bit more spiritual than what one would expect in a Frank Herbert novel but definitely worth paying attention to.

Thematically this book is linked to just about everything Herbert has written before. Pandora is just as demanding an environment as Arrakis or Dosadi, driving the inhabitants to extreme adaptations, both psychologically and physiologically. The ecological component of this problem doesn't receive a lot of attention though. Understanding of the environment is minimal and Morgan Oakes, the man currently in charge of the colony, is not about to waste any more resources on researching it. Even the hints that the kelp that inhabits much of the planet's oceans may be sentient does not change that. It is a pest to be eradicated, not an object of study. The repercussions of this decision are hinted at in the final part of the novel, where Pandora or the kelp take on Gaia-like qualities. The fate of this creature and it's control of Pandora's environment is vital to the plot of the second book, The Lazarus Effect, but I felt they didn't really receive the attention this issue warranted. Perhaps one of the elements that suffered from a rushed rewriting.

As the title suggests, religion is another major theme in the book. Or religious violence to be more precise. Hali, one of medical staff on board Ship, is shown the crucifixion of Jesus. The scene itself is pretty much what what one would expect, although from a far future perspective it makes less sense than it would through our eyes. The interpretation is what matters though. Ship is trying to teach Hali something of human behaviour. The kind of cruelty religion can inspire people to. To drive this home the actual scene is, how shall I put it... quite direct, not overly dramatic or tragic. Hali is mostly trying to stop herself from interfering, something Ship tells her, will have dire consequences, and wondering why this act of cruelty is necessary. It's definitely one of the more interesting scenes in the book and another expression of a theme found in his other books, Dune in particular.

The third major thematic link with Herbert's other work is the way he tackles leadership. In this book two very different personalities go up against each other. There is no way Flattery and Oakes are going to be able to coexist. Ship is steering towards a confrontation and expects the fallout of this conflict to carry the seeds of humanity's salvation. The leaders in most of Herbert's works often feel themselves at the mercy of an unruly universe but rarely are they so openly manipulated by another intelligence as in this book. Without giving too much away, the final confrontation between the two doesn't turn out like one would expect.

The Jesus Incident is a curious book. It is clearly a little rough around the edges, not quite as good as it might have been. On the other hand, it is a book that contains a lot of ideas that are key to Herbert's writing. Apart from the works in the Dune universe this book is probably the most ambitious project in his oeuvre. It is clearly recognizable as a novel by Herbert but the collaboration with Ransom does steer a number of familiar themes in a different direction. This new angle makes it a very interesting read. It's a shame the two didn't get the opportunity to do the rewriting in less of a hurry. I think it could have been a marvellous book then. As it is, it's a very interesting piece in Herbert's bibliography and certainly hints at much more. It'll be interesting to see if The Lazarus Effect is a bit more polished.

Book Details
Title: The Jesus Incident
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 405
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-945-7
First published: 1979

Saturday, October 23, 2010

All the Windwracked Stars - Elizabeth Bear

This week has been a very demanding week so I am a little behind schedule on my current reading project. I may finish it this evening but I don't know if I will be able to write the review tomorrow. Even if I do I will probably run into more scheduling problems next week so I decided to throw on an older review. The original was written in October 2008. I meant to move this anyway, in anticipation of the final part in this series, The Sea Thy Mistress, scheduled for spring 2011. A review of the second book in the series, By the Mountain Bound, can be found here. I've had to rewrite the introduction since it didn't make sense in the Random Comments setting. Other than that I only eliminated the most embarrassing typos.

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear is the first of three books in the Edda of Burdens series. Bear has been quite prolific in the past few years. She is perhaps best know for her ambitious Promethean Age novels, the fourth of which appeared in 2008. As far as I know, the fifth instalment has not been scheduled (yet). She’s written a number of other novels as well, ranging across the fantasy and science fiction genres, creating an impressive body of work for someone who's career didn't really take of until five or six years ago. Although I have read the first Promethean Age novel, Blood and Iron, since reading this book in 2008, All the Windwracked Stars, was the first novel by Bear I've read. Until that point my only experience with her writing was one short story in the Wastelands anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams. I didn’t think the story in Wastelands stood out in that particular company but All the Windwracked Stars turned out to be a very interesting book indeed.

The story is set in a world that borrows heavily from Norse mythology. As such, it opens at the end of the world, or Ragnarök. Our main character is Muire, a Waelcyrge (or Valkyrie) and destined to fight for the forces of Light at the end of the world. Muire is not the warrior type however, as her people fall, sworn to fight till the bitter end, her courage breaks and she runs. Wounded, her powers diminished, she walks the battlefield after the end, finally finding the last surviving Valraven Kasimir. His rider was killed in battle and he himself is badly wounded. A Valraven is no simple steed, he chooses to serve his riders. And he chooses Muire. Together they decide to live.

More than two thousand years on a new civilization has risen and is about to meet it’s own apocalypse. Pollution, chemical and biological warfare and all manner of disasters have reduced the world to a wasteland. One city manages to survive, using a mixture of technology and rune lore. In the middle of all that despair Muire is still clinging to life. Then an old acquaintance makes an appearance. Minegan, the Grey Wolf, the Sun-eater. Mingan has seen many things end, he hopes to make this one his last Ragnarök. Despite all she has been through, Muire begs to differ.

All the Windwracked Stars is a very hard book the categorize. It contains elements of high fantasy, steampunk and post apocalyptic fiction, creating a very unusual blend of the three. I guess you could say it takes a while for the reader to get a feel for the world and enough elements of the story to fall into place for the readers to get an idea of where Bear is taking the story. It makes the beginning of the book a bit confusing. Bear’s prose contributes to that to an extent. Although I liked the style of writing it doesn leave a lot of gaps for the reader to fill in. It makes All the Windwracked Stars a book that demands the reader’s full attention.

Paying full attention is rewarding though. Bear manages to create a fascinating character in Muire. One who carries the burden of guilt. A woman possessing the wisdom of a very long life, but also one who lives in a word she isn’t truly part of. Muire is continually fighting the urge to accept the inevitable and give up but somehow manages to find the courage to go on. Muire is far from the only well drawn character too. Although many would express a preference for Mingan, I liked Cathoair in particular. The way Bear manages to make combine in his damaged soul, the young and slightly naive fellow who thinks sex is a fix for many of his problems and a hint of the ancient reincarnated Waelcyrge Muire sees in him.

These characters move in a world that is every bit as desperate as they are. A city in a wasteland using ever more draconian measures to survive. To the point where the question whether survival using these means is actually desirable. It is the key question the characters will have to answer and it certainly isn’t an easy one. Although the setting of the book, and especially the interesting blend between technology and magic, leaves a lot of questions unanswered, the book itself doesn’t leave the reader hanging on a cliffhanger. It’s a satisfying end to an interesting novel.

It took me a while to grow into this book but nearing the end I realized this was one of the best books I’ve read in 2008. With Bear’s choice of themes it is not a happy tale. Desperation, a sense of loss and a good deal of guilt are present throughout the story. The characters don’t wallow in it however. They get on with their lives no matter what, and provide a measure of hope in the bleak word they inhabit. Norse legend, magic, strange technology and strong characters, I have high expectations of the other books in this series. If Bear keeps up the standard she sets in All the Windwracked Stars it could be a remarkable trilogy. Look beyond the slow beginning, read it start to finish and you will be rewarded.

Book Details
Title: All the Windwracked Stars
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 368
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1882-4
First published: 2008

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Foundation - Isaac Asimov

I while ago I asked what would be a good place to start reading Asimov. Normally I can figure out a good place to start but this man's output is enormous, even if you don't take all the non-fiction into account. I ended up with Foundation (1951), probably his best known novel and one of the earlier ones. I'm calling it a novel but that is probably not accurate. Foundation itself is a collection of five shorter pieces, four of which appeared in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1944. A fifth was added when Foundation appeared in book form. Although the Foundation series was originally a trilogy, Asimov wrote several more books in this setting later in his career and at some point tied up his Robot and Empire series as well, creating a series of more than a dozen novels. A whole bunch more have been added by other authors, creating a vast future history in which, chronologically, Foundation is one of the later books. Having only read one, it all seems like an unholy mess to me. So for now I am just going to stick to this novel.

In de distant future one huge galactic empire rules the planets settled by humanity. For over twelve millennia this empire has brought peace and prosperity to the galaxy but now it has grown old and tired. A brilliant mathematician named Hari Seldon, working in the field of psychohistory, develops a technique to predict large scale sociological and economic events. He soon realizes that the empire is doomed. He considers the empire to be in a spiral of decline that cannot be stopped or slowed and so he sets his mind to the time after the empire's collapse. A time when the empire will be fragmented, incapable of maintaining its scientific and technological infrastructure. A time of violence and barbarism is inevitable but Seldon sees ways to radically shorten this new dark age. He creates the Foundation.

I guess it is very much a Golden Age novel. It's short and to the point, there is not a woman in sight, lots of people seem to be addicted to tobacco and the writing is not the main attraction of the novel. That last point in particular struck me when I read the first pages. His prose has been called functional, sparse or unadorned, in some places those are very generous descriptions. To me it feels like he did one round of quick editing and that was it. Especially the relatively rare scenes that do not rely on dialogue are often rambling. On the other hand it is this reliance on dialogue that made the book age more gracefully than some of its contemporaries. There are very few descriptions of what the future actually looks like, and therefore few things that appear dated to us. Given the fact that the first story of this collection is almost seventy years old, that is quite an achievement.

Asimov is known as one of the big three of hard science fiction and this novel shows why. There is no doubt in Seldon's mind that his mathematical descriptions of society are accurate and that the predictions, very scientifically always expressed in percentages, as reliable as the math indicates. The Foundation is run as a scientific experiment, in which the participants are carefully kept ignorant to avoid influencing the outcome. Asimov even mentions a second Foundation on the other end of the galaxy. I wonder if we'll find out what happens if these two meet, later on in the series.

Science dominates the Foundation to the point where it turns into a religion. I was struck by the similarities between Frank Herbert's Dune series, in which an organisation known as the Bene Gesserit designs religions for specific purposes. It doesn't stop there. Paul Artreides and his son Leto II also have detailed knowledge of the future (acquired through a different mechanism but no less reliable) and try to force humanity on a path that will be the least costly in terms of human suffering. Interesting enough Herbert's final conclusion is that we shouldn't keep all our eggs in one basket but in Asimov's book the dream is to once again unite humanity and create a second empire.

Part of the novel is inspired by Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published between 1776 and 1789), one of the first modern historic studies on the subject. In this book Gibbons states that the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians because it's citizens were no longer willing to do the civic duties necessary to maintain the empire. Which I suppose is what happens to the Galactic Empire, even if it does not have to deal with outside stresses such as barbarian invasions. The Empire frays at the edges, its influence every receding towards the centre. At the end of the 175 years covered in the book it is still mentioned as being around, far away from the Foundation and it's home at the fringe of the galaxy.

I finished this novel two days ago and I still haven't quite decided if I actually like it. It was not a boring read by any means but Asimov's style is awfully direct. On top of the general bad habits of Golden Age writers Asimov leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for ambiguity or doubt. He tells you what happens, as long as you follow his reasoning, there is very little room for any input by the reader in the form of interpretation. The most you can do is disagree with him. I guess I wouldn't have minded if Asimov had made the reader work a little harder. The idea is wonderful, I can even see why it stands out among its contemporaries, but to say it is a great novel... no, I wouldn't go that far. Still, I have decided to read the other two books in the original trilogy as well. Let's see if Foundation and Empire requires more effort on my part.

Book Details
Title: Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 244
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80371-6
First published: 1951

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dreadnought - Cherie Priest

Last year Cherie Priest had a big hit with her zombie steampunk novel Boneshaker. It got her award nominations and a deal for several more books in this Clockwork Century setting. Earlier this year the novella, or short novel, Clementine appeared from Subterranean and now Tor has released the second full novel in the series, Dreadnought. Given the success of the previous part, expectations were high. I guess this book is going to get it's share of mixed reviews. Although the setting is the same, Dreadnought is not a direct sequel, some of the characters from Boneshaker make a brief appearance but most of the novel is focussed on a new main character. I guess it can be read independently of the others but you probably get more out of it if you have read Boneshaker at least. It's also quite a different story, with the machine the book is named after, very prominent in the tale. I enjoyed Boneshaker a lot but I still think Dreadnought is the better book.

Vinita 'Mercy' Lynch is a nurse in one of the hospitals where the south tries to patch up its victims from the civil war battlefields. A civil war that has raged for two decades now, with no end in sight. Mercy's husband is a young man from across the border, they'd only been married for a few months when he went north to fight for the Republican side. Now, almost two years later, news arrived that he has died, not at the front line but in one of the prisoner of war camps. That is not the only shock that week that Mercy has to endure. A telegram arrives from the west coast. One sheriff Wilkes sends her a message that her father is seriously hurt and that his life is in danger. He has asked her to come see him in Seattle.

Mercy has not seen her father since she was a little girl and she isn't in the least tempted to undertake the long and dangerous journey to see a man who abandoned her. After talking to one of her patients she changes her mind though. It may be the last chance she'll get after all. Mercy resigns her position and with her savings and severance pay she buys tickets for the first leg of her journey. A trip by dirigible to Chattanooga, far enough from the front lines to be uneventful according to the captain. As it turns out, the war is quite a bit closer than Mercy would like. And her journey is just beginning.

In a way this book is a bit more like Clementine than Boneshaker. In Boneshaker we stayed in and around Seattle, where the war was far away and people mostly worried about their own unusual circumstances. Clementine shows us some more of the US in this alternate 19th century but due to the word limit Priest does not really flesh it out as well as she might have. In Dreadnought she has some more space to show us what is going on in the east. Priest's series is not a traditional alternate history. As far as I know there is no clear point of divergence, the author more or less rearranges some events. Some of the changes include a still independent Texas (informally allied with the Confederacy) and the mentioning of Diesel engines a decade before Rudolf Diesel patented his design. Another interesting detail is the abolition of slavery in most of the southern states during the 1870s. The history as Priest paints it does not strike me as the most realistic scenario, sorting out the differences with our history is still interesting. I suspect that people who know a bit more about the American Civil War era will get even more out of it.

Where Boneshaker had a few sections where the pace of the story dropped a bit, the pace is absolutely unrelenting in this novel. The story unfolds with the speed the Dreadnought itself (it is a nasty piece of war machinery on rails by the way). Once Mercy has boarded, she is in for the ride of her life. Travelling across the continent we get a much better view of the bigger picture, events that are only distant rumour in Boneshaker. The plot is a bit more complex than in the previous novel, with several developments in various parts of North America converging. Boneshaker undeniably has an emotionally powerful plot, with a mother trying to rescue her son, but I have to admit that the story in Dreadnought is more to my taste.

Both earlier tales in the Clockwork Century setting had strong female main characters and Dreadnought follows this example. Mercy is a bit younger than Briar and Maria but like the other two ladies she is definitely the no nonsense type. She does not fear the sight of blood or gunpowder to put it mildly and she has a very interesting bedside manner. One particularly fine example of that is shown in the scene where Mercy helps out at a Salvation Army hospital in exchange for a bed for the night. The contrast with the Salvation Army nurse couldn't be greater. There is one thing about her character that made me wonder though, she hardly takes any time at all to grieve. The late husband is perhaps a bit too much a device to explain why Mercy is out on her own in a time when decent ladies didn't go out unescorted.

One of the few things I didn't like about this book is the way Priest deals with racism. I think Priest is trying a little to hard to keep the racism of the time out of her books. It crops up a number of times but certainly not in the fashion one would expect. Even with slavery abolished, it was so ingrained in society that being black or Chinese or native American, was not a comfortable position to be in. When Priest refers to it, it is always at a distance. Making it a bit more prominent would not have hurt this novel.

Following up on such a successful first book is always challenging. I think Priest delivered an even stronger novel with Dreadnought. It combines the setting, steampunk elements and zombies that made the first novel such a fun read but also manages to expand the reader's view of her alternate history. It's one of those book that will keep you reading just because the excitement of the story never lets up. I liked Boneshaker a lot, I absolutely loved Dreadnought. I can't wait for the next Clockwork Century novel, Ganymede, which unfortunately for me, is not expected until the fall of 2011.

Book Details
Title: Dreadnought
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 400
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2578-5
First published: 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Iron Council - China Miéville

Iron Council is the third book set in Miéville's Bas-Lag world. I read the The first novel, Perdido Street Station some years ago and the second, The Scar, in August during my holiday. Although I thought Perdido Street Station had some problems, I liked The Scar an awful lot so I was very much looking forward to this third book. These books may share a world, Iron Council is not a sequel to either The Scar or Perdido Street Station. Miéville mentions events in Perdido Street Station, this novel can be read without having read the earlier books. Even if you have, Iron Council will not be what you expect, each of these three books take very different directions. Miéville was clearly not aiming for a standard fantasy trilogy when he wrote these novels.

The city of New Crobuzon is shaking on it's very foundations. War, revolution and riots are keeping the authorities more than occupied and political violence, strikes and other subversives activities are a daily occurrence. Although the mayor is trying to suppress the rumours it is clear that the war with Tesh is not going well. Tales by horribly scarred veterans of battles gone wrong reach all who wish to hear. Never before has the government of New Crobuzon needed so much repression to keep things under control. The city is a powder keg about to explode. A desperate company of renegades leaves the city on a mission to find the legendary Iron Council. The perpetual train, a legend that may bring the city hope. To find it our they must cross an entire continent every bit as strange as the city itself. Strange creatures roam the plains they must cross and even the supernatural is never far away. Reality on this continent is not what the city folks are used to but to rescue their city, they will have to face it.

One of the points I didn't like about Perdido Street Station was Miéville's tendency to use every word in the dictionary to describe the city. Vivid though these descriptions were, they made the book feel a bit overwritten. The Scar, which is mostly set outside New Crobuzon showed a rich vocabulary as well but I didn't think it was nearly so distracting in that book. In Iron Council we get flashes of what Miéville did in Perdido Street Station again, which is one of the reasons it took me a week to read, despite it being the shortest of the three. The story is told by three different narrators, one a dissatisfied revolutionary in New Crobuzon itself, the second a man involved in the original breaking free of the Iron Council and the third is a man who join the former councillor in a bit to find the current location of the train. The breaking free of the council is set years before the other two so the novel is not entirely in chronological order and Miéville takes quite a bit of time make the reader see how these three stories intersect.

The novel may be tough going in places, there are certain aspects of it I very much enjoyed. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which Miéville's political ideas surface. In fact it is probably the most politically charged of the three. Miéville's no stranger to Marxist political theory and even ran for the House of Commons once for the Social Alliance in 2001. In Iron Council the revolution Miéville describes, bears similarities to what you'd find in left wings movements all over Europe in the 20th century. The strikes, the spreading of illegal newspapers and pamphlets and brutal way in which this movement is being repressed could have been Berlin shortly after the end of the Great War. Dissatisfaction is almost tangible in New Crobuzon.

While a significant part of the novel is set in the city, a large part of Iron Council deals with the exploits of this legendary company. Originally an ambitious plan to build a transcontinental rail road, the Iron Council has developed into a very peculiar society. Cut loose form its corporate masters in the city, it has evolved into a community without a monetary economy, lead by leaders elected by various groups within the community. What New Crobuzon's rebels are talking about, the labourers of the Council have created. Not a situation that can last, years after their initial except the city is still trying to get to them. And besides, isn't it any good revolutionary's duty to spread the revolution?

This part of the story is very much influenced by the western genre. The train, the badlands they are travelling, hostile natives, unruly labourers and boom towns, it is al clearly reminiscent of that genre but Miéville gives it an entirely different twist. Unfortunately this part of the tale also contain a lot of descriptive passages. Miéville's vivid world is one of his strength but personally I feel he tends to overdo it. The scenes on the open spaces of the continent and the supernatural creatures they encounter were almost too strange at times, providing an imaginary overload to the reader, that for me at least, was hard to process.

I suppose you could say Iron Council, while thematically wildly different, shares certain traits with both of the previous books. I didn't think it was a great match though. There were certain aspects of the story I enjoyed but as a novel I didn't think it works quite as well as The Scar or even Perdido Street Station. A wildly inventive climax of the story is not really enough to overcome the feeling that the surreal, somewhat chaotic scenes in New Crobuzon's hinterland and the revolutionary activity in the city had real problems fitting into one story. Although Iron Council is an interesting work I didn't like it as much as The Scar. That being said, the Bas-Lag novels are a fascinating attempt to send the fantasy genre in new directions and as such, all three are very much worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Iron Council
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: MacMillan
Pages: 471
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-333-98973-2
First published: 2004

Saturday, October 9, 2010

More tinkering

Trying out some new designs today so you may see some changes. I kinda like this template but I think it may need some more tinkering. As always this is a good reminder of how much of a computer illiterate I really am ;)

I finally made some decent pages for the review index and links/blogroll pages (if you want on let me know, I am going to be changing the content of that page this weekend anyway).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Starlady and Fast-Friend - George R.R. Martin

I am making this Subterranean week retrospectively I guess. I wrote a review of this book right after it was published in 2008. Reading it earlier this week I decided it was crap so I reread the two stories and rewrote the entire thing. Enjoy!

In July 2008 Subterranean published this book containing two novelettes by George R.R. Martin, both of which were originally published in 1976. Subterranean has chosen an interesting format to publish these stories. They are presented in a similar fashion to the Ace Double novels of the 1950s and 1960s. In his collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, a publication I have realized that is central to Martin’s work, he mentions them as some of his earliest exposures to (written) science fiction. Stories that took him to “walk beneath the light of distant stars” as he puts it himself. Like the Ace publications this book has two covers and is printed back to back and upside down. I was born too late and on the wrong continent to have been exposed to any of these double novels myself but I thought it an interesting idea anyway. Martin has carefully selected two stories that were not included in Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. They were probably included in some of Martin’s earlier collections (most of which are out of print) but I had not read them before.

Starlady is set in the same universe as Martin’s first novel Dying of the Light and a number of other short stories. Other than a few references to places, events and alien species, the story does not seem connected to any of these. It is set on Thisrock, a place where life is cheap, justice hard to find and anything is available for a price. Janey Small, or Starlady as she will be known, and her companion Golden Boy find this out the hard way. Raped, robbed and stranded on the planet they are taken in by the pimp Hairy Hal. Hal sets Starlady straight on the facts of life. It is either work for him or take their chances outside. Not much of a choice in truth. Life with Hairy Hall is not enough to quell Starlady’s ambition and need for vengeance.

I guess many people would see Starlady as the central character of the story. For me Hairy Hal was more interesting though. Martin has never been afraid of showing the dark side of human nature and he certainly does not shy from it here. Hairy Hal is not a very nice man. He's a pimp, makes a living by exploiting other people's bodies and he's a shameless opportunist. But, and that is probably the brilliance in this story, he is also very afraid. This single fact and the way Martin reveals it manages to create just a little bit of sympathy for the loathsome man he certainly is in the reader. It's what makes this story work for me.

In Fast-Friend, a story that as far as I can tell does not share it’s universe with any of Martin’s other stories, we see a human civilization that is struggling to escape from the solar system. The first expeditions into interstellar space have found life, to their amazement and ruin, and one of these species holds the key to breaking the speed of light. Darks as they are called are creatures that convert matter, any matter, into energy. They travel the vast emptiness of space at incredible speeds. Spaceships are food to them, they are very dangerous, there is simply no outrunning them. By merging human and dark however, Fast-Friends can be created. These creatures are the link between humanity’s far-flung colonies. The only way to communicate effectively. Brand, the main character of our story, and his lover Melissa had the chance to become a Fast-Friend. Melissa took it but fear got the best of Brand. He now infinitely regrets the lost opportunity.

This story is more emotionally charged than Starlady. Martin wrote a number of those in the 1970s and one of them, A Song for Lya (1974) is probably among his best know short fiction. Brand's struggle to be reunited with his love is touching but does not quite have the same impact as some of his other short stories. I very much liked the bitter-sweet ending of the story however. Fast-Friend one of those stories that could very easily have been ruined by giving it a happy end. Fortunately that is not Martin's style.

Martin's success in recent years with his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has eclipsed most of his earlier projects. At the same time it has also created opportunities to reissue some of his older works. I've read quite a few of Martin's short stories and all of his other novels by now and I think some of his best writing is in his short fiction. Whenever I read one Martin’s short stories I am amazed by how much he can put into so few words. Starlady and Fast-Friend is not a particularly cheap book, it is listed for 20 US$ at the Subterranean website, but for that you do get two stories by a master of the craft as well as a good quality hardcover with good artwork by Martina Pilcerova (who did some fine Ice and Fire artwork as well). I don’t think I ever read anything by Martin that disappointed me and these stories are no exception. Good stories, interesting format, good artwork, what more could we ask for?

Book Details
Title: Starlady and Fast-Friend
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 37+34
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-175-0
First published: 2008

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Lifecycle of Software Objects - Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is a remarkable author. He has only twelve published stories to his name, none of them exceeding The Lifecycle of Software Objects in length, in the space of twenty years. What's even more remarkable is that he's won an astonishing number of awards for them. Chaing is the winner of four Nebulas and three Hugos as well as a number of other awards. I would not be surprised if this novella ended up on the nominations lists next year as well. I've only read one story by Chiang, Exhalation, which is available online here in various formats. Exhalation is one of Chiang's award winners and deservedly so. Still, one story is not a solid basis for any kind of expectation so I was not quite sure what to expect.

The novella is inspired by a quote of Alan Turing, the man who invented the Turing test, an idea that frequently surfaces in science fiction. The quote itself is on the front flap, which should be read before starting the actual story. It puts the novella in a very different light. To quote from the front flap:
What's the best way to create artificial intelligence? In 1950, Alan Turing wrote, 'Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.'
The second approach is what interests Chiang. In the novella the development of pieces of intelligent software named Digients, being raised by their human owners. The creators made sure they are docile and built in a lot of fail safes to prevent abuse but the Digients are able to learn and nobody knows exactly how far they'll develop. The Digients sell like hotcakes for a while but soon interest fades and new projects swallow the attention of companies and consumers. A small group of people, including some of the developers keep on taking care of their Digients for various reasons. None of them know how far they can take the development of these creatures.

Last week I reviewed another Subterranean publication and again I am very impressed with the looks of this book. Despite it's 150 pages, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella length work. Part of the page count comes from the beautiful illustrations in the book created by Christian Pierce and Jacob McMurray. Some of them are depictions of robots in various states of (human) development, others are roadmaps linking components of behaviour and intelligence.

The first thing I thought when I finished the novella is why the hell isn't this a full novel? Chiang gives us a taste of a fascinating subject but he could have easily put a bit more flesh on the bones of this story. The Lifecycle of Software Objects covers about ten years in all and we make great jumps though the development of the Digients and their owners. The developments in wider society are covered briefly, there is barely a hint about the characters' pasts. The story is very focussed on the idea of creating artificial intelligence and letting it develop in an almost organic way. As such it reminded me very much of some of the older science fiction I've been reading, although I rarely come across a novel in which the central concept is so sophisticated.

The development of the Digients themselves is marvellously done in this novella. Early on in the story the Digients are toys to most people (Elizabeth Bear refers to the Tamagochi in her review on, with only a small number realizing they can be more than that. Gradually the view changes from pets, to small children, to adolescents and finally... to adults? There are quite a few things in this novel that a parent would recognize. Chiang touches on issues like financial responsibility and even sexuality in a fairly direct way. At the same time, the Digients are not (digital) people. They have their own problems, limitations and challenges to deal with and since they are the first generation, dealing with them is often trail and error. There are many unknowns, including their legal status.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a very interesting little work. It raises a lot of questions for which no simple answers exist, as the ending of the novel clearly shows. Despite the brief descriptions of the various episodes in the development of the Digients I thought this novella a very interesting read. There is no doubt some people will be put off by the fact that it is such a focussed work. Even if it concentrates on the project of teaching software as you would a child, this book leaves the reader with plenty to think about. How much of the Digient's personality is due to the upbringing it receives and how much of it is simply programming? Does it matter that some of the characters form an emotional attachment to a piece of software? How sophisticated an intelligence does it have to be for that be be considered normal? At what point does the Digient become something more than a smart program? What are the consequences of that? The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a thoughtful tale and a peculiar one. I think it might be one of those love it or hate it stories. Personally, I loved it.

Book Details
Title: The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 150
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-317-4
First published: 2010

Friday, October 1, 2010

Leviathan Wept and Other Stories - Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham must be a busy man. He's currently writing under several pseudonyms in several (sub) genres of speculative fiction and his output is impressive. Vicious Grace, an urban fantasy novel is scheduled to be released in November under the name M.L.N. Hanover, with another book in the same series expected in 2011. In June 2011 his first science fiction novel is expected, a collaboration with Ty Franck under yet another pen name: James S. A. Corey. He also has a new epic fantasy series in the works for Orbit under his own name. I haven't been able to find a publication date (unless you wish to trust Amazon) for the first part in this series, The Dragon's Path, but the announcement of the book deal was made last year so I would not be surprised if that book surfaced in 2011 as well. I'm a great fan of Abraham's Long Price Quartet, which unfortunately didn't do as well as publisher Tor hoped. That's a real shame, it is one of the better fantasy series of the first decade of this century. I currently only have a review for the final part in the series, The Price of Spring, available on Random Comments but I intend to change that sometime soon.

Abraham also has quite a few short stories to his name but until now they had not been collected. Subterranean Press has released nine of his short stories in a very handsome hardcover edition. I own a number of their books and I have to hand it to them, they know how to make a book visually stunning. Unfortunately they omitted adding the publication history of the stories so I am not entirely sure if this collection contains any new work. Looks like all of them are reprints except A Hunter in Arin-Quin. Leviathan Wept and Other Stories is a bit of a strange collection. It clearly shows the various styles and sub genres that Abraham writes in but the strongest stories are all in the first part of the collection. Not that there isn't more than enough to enjoy in the later part of the book but I couldn't shake the feeling it would have worked better if they changed a couple of stories around. I'm going to mention a few I particularly enjoyed.

The collection opens with The Cambist and Lord Iron, a story takes the form of a faerie tale in which the Cambist (money-changer) has the face three challenges by the dangerous and notorious Lord Iron. He is to value the unusual commodities in strange currency. Once for his job, twice for his life and finally for his soul. Publilius Syrus' well known maxim "Everything is worth what is purchaser will pay for it" proves useful but certainly not the answer to all of these challenges. Stories like these is why I find myself reading more and more short fiction. It's unusual, has a strong central theme and has the potential to make the reader think about how we value certain aspects of our lives. The form Abraham uses to tell his tale contrasts nicely with some of the questions it raises. This story is available under a creative commons licence here.

Flat Diane is the second story in this collection and probably one of his better known short works. It got Abraham a Nebula Award nomination. I guess this is a horror story about a father and a daughter trying to deal with the departure of the mother from the family. One of the things tries to cheer Diane up is create a paper outline of her and to send it around to friends and family with instructions to have their picture taken with it. Soon signs that Dianne knows things that only Flat Dianne can know begin to show up. This becomes a real problem when Flat Diane falls into the wrong hands. It's a very creepy story. The fear in Diane is very well done but the suspicion the father faces when people start thinking he is doing horrible things to his daughter himself really elevates it about the rest of the collection. If I had to pick one, this story would be my favourite.

Self-help books, a phenomenon that is not quite as big on our side of the Atlantic but not entirely unknown. In The Support Technician Tango random advice from a mysterious book that apparently belongs to no one wreaks havoc on in a lawyer's office. When everyone from the system administrator to the lawyer himself starts to follow these bits of advice misunderstandings, reset priorities, suspicion and unrequited love plunge the office in chaos. At times slightly satirical, sometimes touching and lacking a clear speculative element, this story is not something most readers would expect Abraham to produce. What I thought interesting about it, is the importance a lot of the characters seem to give to superficial things and above all appearance to measure their success in life. What's even more interesting is the way they clean up the mess without anybody getting hurt.

The final story I want to mention is A Hunter in Arin-Quin which gives Flat Diane a run for it's money when it comes to the emotional power of the story. At the beginning of the story we meet a woman in a state of exhaustion and panic. Her trade is slaying monsters but all her hard earned knowledge and experience seems to vanish when one of the monsters she usually hunts turns the tables on her and abducts her daughter. Completely unprepared of a long hunt though winter weather she tries to catch up with the monster. Abraham weaves a second story line into the tale composed of flashbacks of the training she received by her father and how it ultimately lead her to the mess she is in. A Hunter in Arin-Quin set in a secondary world with distinct Asian influences. I very much liked it for the setting but also of the way Abraham uses non-verbal communication in this story. It's different from what he does in the Long Price Quartet but no less effective.

The collection also includes the stories The Best Monkey, Leviathan Wept, Exclusion, As Sweet and The Curandero and the Swede all of which have their moments. I think I need to read that final story again sometime. Not entirely sure what to make of that one yet. All in all Leviathan Wept and Other Stories is a varied collection of excellent short fiction. The breadth of Abraham's writing is showcased here. What each and every one of these stories have in common is the attention to the characters. Abraham uses very different characters in these stories, men or women, old or young, all of them are very well drawn in the limited space a short story offers. Like his novels the characterization is exceptional. So far I have only read Abraham's fantasy. From this collection it is quite clear he is capable of much more. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for that some of his other books. I guess his science fiction début Leviathan Wakes has just placed itself on the to read list for next year.

Book Details
Title: Leviathan Wakes and Other Stories
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 277
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-265-8
First published: 2010