Monday, November 29, 2010

The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin

My experience with the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin is limited to one short novel and a short story. I enjoyed both and since neither the novel, The Eye of the Heron, nor the short story, The Season of the Ansarac, are considered Le Guin's greatest work so looking a bit further was tempting. Le Guin is one of the very few women to have made it to Gollancz' SF Masterworks lists. Two of her books are included main list, with a third limited to the hardcover series. Her 1974 novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is the first of these, number 16 in the series. Although I will no doubt read The Lathe of Heaven, some time next year,The Dispossessed was higher on the list because of the link with Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain. Reading that novel earlier this year made me curious about Le Guin's book. I can definitely see why it made Kress think.

Some 170 years ago a group of rebel anarchists from the planet Urras made a deal with the government they were rebelling against. In return for an end to the rebellion the movement got a one way trip to the moon, help establishing a colony and a promise to be left alone to implement their vision of what society should look like. At the opening of the story, a society without government, law, authority or personal property has formed on the moon Anarres. The moon is arid, low in resources and life on land has not evolved as far as on Urras. Survival on Anarres is a struggle and luxury of any kind is unknown. Still, people are mostly content to live by the philosophy of the leader of the rebel movement, a woman named Odo.

Despite the freedom and generally peaceful life on Anarres, human nature still has its dark side. Envy, guilt and greed are not so easily left behind. Something the physicist Shevek finds out when he tries to publish a ground-breaking theory on the nature of time. The only people who truly understand and appreciate what he is trying to do live on Urras. He will have to venture into the world of monetary economy, strange forms of government and personal possessions. A move not everybody on Anarres approves of.

I'm pretty sure that whatever I write on this book will not do it justice. I finished it on Sunday night and after sleeping on it, my mind is still reeling with the implications of what Le Guin wrote. I'm simply amazed at what she managed to put into this fairy compact novel in the way of ideas and ideologies and still manage to flesh them out enough to show both their strengths and weaknesses. Society on Anarres and Urras are radically different but Le Guin doesn't present either as right, or even better than the other. The capitalist system Shevek is exposed to, clearly has it's problems, while the anarchy on Anarres only seems workable in a place of extreme isolation.

This novel is full of different modes of governments and political theory but the very first thing that struck me about the novel is the use of language. On Anarres the people speak a constructed language designed by a computer. Their language frowns on the use of possessive pronouns (there is no such thing as personal possessions after all), so it isn't "my book" but "the book I am reading". When there is no longer a reason why the book should be in your possession you are supposed to return it or pass it on to someone who does need it. Le Guin refers to a scientific theory known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis here. This theory, oversimplified, states that language shapes thinking. By removing the possessive entirely, the programmers of this new language hoped to remove an in their eyes perverse impulse from society. I understand the theory is not as popular as it once was, but it does show up in older science fiction novels quite a lot. If I remember correctly, Frank Herbert refers to it in some of his novels and it also shows up in works of people like Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delany to name a few. Whether or not you support this theory, Le Guin does some interesting things with it in this novel.

Besides language, time is also an important element in The Dispossessed. Shevek's researches a new mathematical understanding of time, one that he hopes will lead to a technique that will make it possible to instantly communicate across the vast distances of space. He means to make the current reliance on electromagnetic means of transmitting, which are limited to the speed of light, obsolete. Shevek views time as linear and as a circle, with Le Guin including an analogy of a book. It's all there between the covers but it only makes sense if you look at it in the right order. In line with Shevek's ideas on time, the novel is written out of chronological order, with Shevek's departure being the first chapter followed by chapters set on Urras mixed with chapters describing events that lead up to his decision to leave. In effect the final pages are both the halfway point and end of the novel.

Some say science fiction is a way of looking at the present. This book certainly supports that statement. There is no parallel for the anarchistic society Le Guin describes on Anarres but events on Urras are certainly recognizable enough. The state that hosts Shevek appears to be a laissez faire capitalist state, with a number of neighbours who prefer other political and economic systems. A lot of the politics go right over Shevek's head, he's hopelessly unprepared and very naive about the political minefield he has willing walked into. For the reader, even if these events play in the background to an extend, an outline of the cold war and the smaller conflicts played out on the territory of less powerful states are clear.

I liked both the form and themes of this novel a lot but they do not make for the easiest book to read. A lot of the novel is devoted to Shevek's observations of an alien world and its economic system or his developing theory on time. The long, fairly densely written chapters do no lend themselves to reading in a few stolen moments on your lunch break or right before going to sleep. It is a pretty challenging book some may even say it is dry at certain points in the novel. For me, it was not beyond what I could handle. Many of Shevek's insights were very interesting because they provide a convincing outside view on a capitalist system. His opinions are so convincingly different that I loved every moment of this novel. As far as I am concerned The Dispossessed is an absolute must read for fans of the genre and more than worthy of the shelf full of awards it has collected.

Book Details
Title: The Dispossessed
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 318
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-882-6
First published: 1974

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Magic of Recluce - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

In May 1991 the first novel in the Recluce series appeared. Almost twenty years later, the series is still going strong. A sixteenth novel, Arms-Commander, appeared in January of this year. I don't think even the author himself suspected that the series would grow to such epic proportions. Although the series totals sixteen books at the moment, there are never more than two on any one main character and the entire series spans more than eighteen centuries. The Magic of Recluce may be the first book published, it is the second to last in chronological order. I've reread this novel a number of times now and every time I do, I wonder how on earth I missed so much on the previous reading. For first time readers it is probably not an easy book. Well worth the effort though.

The main character in the novel is Lerris, a young man from the island nation of Recluce. The nation is bases on the principles of order magic and has mostly sealed itself off from the outside world. Very few outsiders ever get to see the interior of the island, nor do many people from Recluce venture abroad. Life is ordered, moderately prosperous and generally peaceful in Recluce. According to Lerris, it is also dreadfully boring. His parents try to convince Lerris of the need for this, to Lerris, stifling level of order but despite their best efforts and a valiant attempt by his uncle Sardit, who tries to teach Lerris the basics of woodcraft, he can't make himself apply to anything with the expected level of dedication. He is simply not interested. To the people running Recluce, the bored and magically talented Lerris represents a threat to their ordered society.

Recluce has a tidy solution for such people. They are exiled from the island. After minimal training in the ways of the wider world, instruction in handling weapons and learning the basics of foreign languages, Lerris and a number of other men and women are sent to the continent of Candar, the most chaotic continent on the world of Recluce. There, Lerris starts the search for the reasons for his exile and the answers that he feels have been withheld from him. Time is pressing however, a strong White wizard is plotting the gain influence in Candar and an inexperienced but order/chaos talented youngster could be a useful tool or a formidable threat.

As epic fantasy goes, The Magic of Recluce is an unusual book. It does not posses some of the elements that draw large numbers of readers to fantasy. It's not a very fast paced novel, Modesitt takes his time to build his world and the character of Lerris before he is set loose on Candar to find his own way. It doesn't include too many action scenes, grand acts of heroism, fantastic sentient creatures or military action either. It does feature a complex system of magic, but one where the consequences of using magic have to be carefully considered to avoid catastrophe later on and where the magic used by the 'bad guy' is not inherently wicked. It's mostly a bildungsroman, I guess we don't escape fantasy tropes altogether, with Lerris gaining a deeper understanding of the world, himself en the consequences of his actions. Despite being bored, Lerris is not given to rash actions. He's a rather thoughtful man, taking his time to consider a problem unless forced into action.

For me, the system of magic, relying on a balance between order and chaos, is one of the major attractions of this novel. Modesitt explores it in more detail in later books but the basics of his order/chaos based system are laid down in this book. There are plenty hints in this book of what happens when the effect on the balance is not considered by wielders of order or chaos magic. Many of such failure to heed the balance have shaped the past of Recluce will show up in other novels in the series. The second book featuring Lerris, the Death of Chaos (the fifth book in publication order and the last chronologically) is perhaps the ultimate example of what irresponsible use of order/chaos magic can lead to. The author is clearly showing the reader that we see things to the order-oriented characters and that they present only part of the story.

The Magic of Recluce contains a lot of details that Modesitt would explore in later books. The character Justen, whom Lerris meets in Candar, will be the main character in The Order War. Cassius, one of Lerris' teachers will star in one of the three short stories in the Recluce setting Modesitt wrote to date. The author of the book The Basis of Order, which guides Lerris for part of his journey, will appear in The Magic Engineer and Rahl, the hero in Natural Ordermage and Mage-Guard of Hamor is mentioned briefly (if not by name). It makes this novel a great book to reread when you have a few more novels in this series under your belt. Worldbuilding is definitely another strength of the book and the series as a whole.

The book does require an unusual amount of patience form the reader. As I mentioned before the story takes of slowly and a lot of the time, Lerris is involved in fairly mundane activities such as woodworking, having a meal, travelling etc. Modesitt uses these activities to outline what is going on in the world around Lerris but the relevance of much of what he sees is not always apparent right away. Some readers will consider these scenes repetitive or unnecessary. As a result the moments when Lerris is forced into action can seem sudden and out of the blue, even if they make sense upon reflection. Personally the supposed repetitiveness of certain scenes in these books never bothered me in any individual book in the series. Do remember that there is sixteen of them however, reading them all back to back is probably not a good idea.

The Magic of Recluce is not the most accessible of novels, especially considering the fact that it is the start of a large fantasy series. Modesitt probably didn't expect to write this many books in the series, but in this first novel he is clearly building something larger than this first novel. The magic system and geopolitical situation in the world of Recluce is still a bit underdeveloped in this novel and a lot of hints the author drops make more sense when the reader has read a few more books in the series. I liked it better the second time I read it. Patience is the word. Give it a go, consider your initial response to what you are reading carefully and in the end The Magic of Recluce will prove a rewarding read.

Book Details
Title: The Magic of Recluce
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 501
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85723-201-1
First published: 1991

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Mirrored Heavens - David J. Williams

In the summer of 2008 I won a contest over at the site that is now The prize was a singed copy of The Mirrored Heavens by David J. Williams. The book arrived a couple of weeks later and ended up on the to read stack, where it has been residing ever since. Not a very nice thing to do, I suspect the author mailed these himself. I humbly apologize for neglecting the book for so long. If it hadn't been my latest Amazon order being a bit late, it probably would have spent even more time on the stack. I found a book that is probably a love it or hate it story. Personally, I have decided this book is not really my cup of tea.

The Mirrored Heavens is the first novel in the Autumn Rain trilogy. In this book Williams paints a break picture of the next century. On the overcrowded and environmentally degraded world a new cold war has started and the world is again divided in two major camps. Most of the Americas are united in one camp, while the Eurasian coalition makes up the other party. Some nations have managed to stay neutral but their role on the international political stage is limited. In recent years an understanding between these two great powers has been reached and things appear fairly stable. They have even undertaken a joint project in space project. All hell breaks loose when a mysterious group of rebels known as Autumn Rain brings this project to an abrupt end. We follow several characters through the violence that erupts, both in the real world as well as in cyberspace.

Williams has created an interesting time line for his 22nd century. Unfortunately almost none of it can be found in the story itself. There is a very helpful appendix on the history of the world between 2035 and 2110 in the book and I suggest you read it before reading the novel itself. Some of the novel makes a lot more sense with that time line in the back of your head. The story itself does not give the reader any time to get accustomed to this alien future. It launches into a frantic action scene early on in the book and it takes a while for the story to slow down. Slow being a relative term here. Williams never really lets up the relentless pace he sets early on in the book. Williams obviously likes action scenes and I am impressed with his ability to convey the urgency of battle in them.

These action scenes, as well written as they may be, can't carry the entire novel however and I am less impressed with his characters. Most of them are very well trained professionals. Especially early on in the novel they do their job with a clinical, coldness that makes it hard for the reader to really get into their head. Most of the characters seem to fit this mould, making them hard to keep apart at first. They are also low enough in the various organisations they serve that they get information on a need to know bases. To shoot a rebel base to tiny bits you evidently don't need to know a lot. There is a major power struggle going on over their heads, one that the characters have very little knowledge of. And what's worse, no way of knowing if what they are being told is actually true. In effect, what their superiors tell them acts almost as a deus ex machina, with the direction of the plot changing a number of times when some more information trickles down the chain of command.

Because of all the pulse pounding action the novel provides, the overall story suffered a bit and that is a shame given the effort Williams put into creating a realistic scenario for the next century or so. There are very interesting hints of major changes in society. The US seems to have gone through a political collapse and is now something that could be called a military run state. Voting in limited to veterans (a nod to Heinlein's Starship Troopers perhaps?). There's evidence of oil shortages and severe climate change. The Indian subcontinent seems to have been wiped of the map economically in a past war, etc, etc, etc. Most of this is from the appendix, very little of it makes it to the actual story.

The Mirrored Heavens is something of a mix of techno-thriller and cyberpunk. For fans of either sub-genre there is quite a lot to like about this book. It definitely has some of the best realized future battle scenes I've come across. For someone with my obsession for environmental matters, political considerations and societal change this novel is not a really satisfying read. A lot is hinted at but even more has to make way, to keep the pace of the story as high as it is. The Mirrored Heavens was not a bad read but it doesn't really offer what I am looking for in a science fiction novel either.

Book Details
Title: The Mirrored Heavens
Author: David J. Williams
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 409
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-38541-0
First published: 2008

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Profeet van de Duivel - Adrian Stone

I picked up a copy of Profeet van de Duivel (literally: The Devil's Prophet) in early 2007. The first version of this book appeared under the author's real name, Ad van Tiggelen, and was published by a publishing on demand company Gopher. The book did well enough to catch the attention of Luitingh Fantasy, one of the two major publishers of Fantasy in the Netherlands. The reissued it after a solid round op professional editing under the pseudonym Adrian Stone. Dutch publishers seem to have the strange notion that an English sounding name will help sell the book abroad. For the English language market, sales definitely do not inspire confidence in this theory. Profeet van de Duivel was followed by two sequels, Zoon van de Duivel en Ziel van de Duivel. I've reviewed those books already on this blog. I didn't want to base a review of Profeet van de Duivel on the Gopher edition however, so the review of book one had to wait for me to get my hands on the Luitingh edition. I think this is the first time I paid twice for the same book.

The story of main character Marak begins when the Catarist religious order he's been forced into, is violently suppressed. Their leader Zabatha, also known as the Prophet, has been taken captive. In recent years his followers have made a bloody attempt at gaining worldly power and the religious war that followed shook the kingdom of Carolia on its foundations. With the Prophet safely put away, rebuilding can now begin. For Marak the future looks bleak. During introduction into the Catarist order he has been forced to sacrifice one of his fingers to their dark god and he is now forever branded as a follower of a religion that brought death and destruction. His talent for channelling divine power is so impressive that he is granted a chance to test for one of the other religious orders in Carolia. After a nerve wrecking test, Marak is taking in by the followers of Ava, the god providing balance.

Year pass and although Marak is seen as an outsider by most of the order, he is without a doubt one of the more promising students. Cataris is not about to leave such a talented diciple alone however and when Marak makes the mistake of channelling his power in a place where Ava cannot be reached, he is expelled from the order. Outside the walls of the abbey he finds that the influence of Cataris is on the rise again. Carolia is heading for a new conflict with his tenacious followers and Marak finds himself right in the middle of it. Choosing sides proves difficult when the link to Marak's past and old religion appears impossible to sever.

I expected quite a bit of editing and perhaps a bit of rewriting for this new edition. I've reread some passages in the original publication and I can clearly see evidence of some serious editing but the rewriting seems to have been kept to a minimum. One part of the story that seems to have been rewritten is Marak's first visit to the island of Furka, a place that will also play an important part in later books. I also got the impression that the climax of the novel received a lot of attention from the editors. Some of it has definitely done the book a world of good, it reads faster than the original and has a more polished feel to it. On the other hand I did get the impression it was edited towards the kind of fantasy which Luitingh likes to publish. Novels not to complicated in terms of plot and language, with the real thematic complexities hidden in nooks and crannies where the reader can safely ignore them in favour of a thrilling story and of course conforming to generally accepted tropes of the genre. With the emphasis on religion and spirituality in the book is properly used, this novel could have distinguished itself a bit more from the mass of epic fantasy which is currently being translated into Dutch.

A bit of a missed opportunity as religion is without a doubt the most complex aspect of this novel. Stone describes four gods and their religious orders as well as the relations between them and the inevitable politics this involves. They do not get in the way of a very fast paced story however. Stone reveals more in the sequels but never quite enough to satisfy a fan of epic fantasy worldbuilding. I suspect the ascension of Cataris, who once walked the earth as a human being, would make a very nice prequel to this existing series. From the hits Stone drops in his story it must have been quite a dramatic event. Whether the other deities have human origins as well remains a mystery.

Another aspect that stands out in this book is the development of Marak's character. He doesn't have a particularly easy childhood. Moving form the clutches of a cult condoning human sacrifice to an order that does not really want him in their midst, Marak is an outsider for most of his life. Stone portrays him as a man who keeps his distance from people (usually with good reason). His past as part of the Catarists' cult hangs above him like a dark cloud. Part of the climax of this novel is facing this dark past but his connection to Cataris carries over to the next novels as well.

With Profeet van de Duivel Stone performed a feat not many authors ever manage, to rise above the mass of self published material and become a professional author. Or at least as professional as possible in a market that is too small to support full time authors. This fact alone makes it a noteworthy release in Dutch speculative fiction. I must admit that upon rereading it, I thought the next two books are better. Marak matures a bit in those books and Stone experiments with multiple story lines to an extend that Profeet van de Duivel can't match. There's clearly progression in the quality of the writing. As such, Profeet van de Duivel is a very enjoyable read but not a brilliant book in itself. It's a promise, a sign that, yes, it is possible to write fantasy in Dutch and get published and that the genre may aspire to more than the current, somewhat amateurish state most active writers find themselves in. But above all, let's not forget that, it is the start of what could be a very interesting writing career. Stone is an author I will keep an eye on in years to come.

Book Details
Title: Profeet van de Duivel
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 335
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-2946-9
First published: 2009

Friday, November 12, 2010

Towers of Midnight - Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The first barrage of Towers of Midnight reviews burst over us on November 2nd, when Tor's embargo on reviews was lifted. I had to wait for the book like everybody else however, it took me a bit longer to come up with one. So for those of you who haven't had their fill of Tower of Midnight reviews, here we go. The thirteenth and second to last book in the series is one that is gathers the scattered plot lines and ties off a number of loose ends. As a result it is a lot less focussed than The Gathering Storm but it does make some great strides towards the climax of the series.

A plot summary is almost impossible for this book. Pretty much all the main characters make an appearance in this novel. If there is a focus I suppose it is on Mat and Perrin. Mat finally manages to introduce gunpowder into war and gears up for a final confrontation with the snakes and foxes, while Perrin tackles the last obstacles in his way to Tarmon Gai'don: the Whitecloaks and his status as Lord of the Two Rivers. Egwene and Elayne are mostly busy solidifying their position as Amyrlin Seat and Queen of Andor. Aviendha makes a brief appearance in her quest to make the remnant of a remnant of her people that will survive the breaking as large as possible. Rand himself in the mean time, implements his new insights gained in the crisis that was the finale of The Gathering Storm.

The world is not waiting for the Dragon Reborn to put all the pieces just right before the last battle. The world is more clearly affected by the shadow with each passing day. Crops rot in the fields, food supplies mysteriously spoil overnight and starvation is rearing it's ugly head. The Dark One takes more direct approach as well. Trollocs overrun Bordeland outposts and Saldea is invaded by a massive army of shadowspawn. Elsewhere in the lands various plots by the shadow's minions are also nearing completion. In short, the forces of the Light are running out of time.

With Sanderson tackling the full breadth of Wheel of Time characters in this book, it is noticeably different from The Gathering Storm. Sanderson keeps a good pace in this novel. It is a large book but as I mentioned above, he had a lot of loose ends to tie up. It reads a lot faster then for instance Crossroads of Twilight, where Jordan's tendency to get bogged down in vivid descriptions of things irrelevant to the story he was trying to tell reached a peak. Cutting back on the descriptions of dresses helps, but a large part in the pacing of this novel is also in the way in which Sanderson switches from point of view in a chapter. Jordan didn't do this a lot. In the early books most chapters were seen through the eyes of one character. Later on he switches a bit more. In Towers of Midnight the point of view changes a lot. A good example is chapter 7, in which the point of view bounces back and froth between Perrin and Galad. It also tends to have slightly shorter chapters than the last books Jordan wrote solo. I can't really tell for sure of course, but I suspect Towers of Midnight has a bit less of Jordan's writing in it than The Gathering Storm.

The pace Sanderson sets has its disadvantages too. A great many story lines left hanging are tied up in this novel. In some part of the book it felt like the Sanderson was checking items to be resolved from a to do list. Only Perrin escapes this to an extent. He seems to receive more than his share of attention in this book. Many of the issues dealt with in this novel have been theorized to death by the Wheel of Time fanatics and as a result there wasn't all that much going on in this book that really surprised me. What I did think an interesting development is the way the responsibilities the young people we started out with have taken on and how it affects their relationship. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Elayne are all in a position of considerable political and military power, their perspectives, motivations and agenda have begun to drift apart. The rift between Rand and Egwene is most prominent in this novel. The days when they seemed destined to be married in The Eye of the World are long gone.

The high stakes the main characters are playing for these days does seem to have made them a touch more reasonable. Rand in particular is on a quest of reconciliation with as many of those whom he once treated badly as he can find. Rand's mild behaviour is a stark contrast from the increasingly erratic behaviour he's shown throughout the later books. It is not limited to him however, with the Last Battle looming a lot of characters seem to be more willing to compromise. It has taken the edge of Faile's behaviour as well (do I hear a sigh of relief here?) and even Egwene seems to have given up her policy of tricking the Aes Sedai into having her way. All this being reasonable takes the edge of the rather strained relationship between the genres a bit. A good thing as they had reached ridiculous proportions in earlier books.

There are a number of major issues left for the final volume besides the Last Battle. Besides the looming conflict between Egwene and her supporters and Rand's (the division still appears to run along gender lines for this one) the Seanchan prophecy that the Dragon will kneel before the Crystal Throne is the most important. That took me by surprise, the title of this book refers to the Seanchan but their part in it is minimal. Rand also has to deal with the mess he created in establishing and then neglecting the Black Tower. With Aviendha very concerned about what it going to happen after the Last Battle there will probably need to be some sort of epilogue as well. Plenty of material left for the final book, A Memory of Light. Sanderson cleared a lot of things of his plate but I still think the final novel is going to be a big one.

While Jordan and Sanderson get a lot done in this book, I didn't think it was a truly inspired piece of writing. A lot of this book is about how things will happen rather than what will happen, Sanderson is executing a story lines that were set in motion half a dozen or more books earlier. With fans and a publisher demanding an end to the seemingly everlasting series this puts some severe restrictions on how many words Sanderson can spend on properly developing the story. I must admit I wasn't sure a split in three books would be necessary but seeing how things play out, three begins to look like an absolute minimum. If I didn't know this book to be part of a huge series, I'd say it suffered from the middle book syndrome. Will fans like this book? Absolutely. It is Wheel of Time, it is competently written by a man who's insight into the world is close to that of The Creator and especially in the large scale battle scenes where very well done. As for me, I'm not quite as excited about it as The Gathering Storm.

Book Details
Title: Towers of Midnight
Author: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 861
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2594-5
First published: 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WWW: Wake - Robert J. Sawyer

After finishing Connie Willis' rather big book All Clear I decided to dive into Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. It will perhaps not come as a surprise to you but I won't be able to finish it in time for a midweek review. To keep you entertained until I finish it an older piece. I wrote this review in April 2009. I rewrote part of the introduction because the original doesn't make sense for this blog. Other than just some polishing. I hope to read the second part in the WWW trilogy sometime in December.

WWW: Wake is the first part in Sawyer’s new WWW trilogy. It was released in April 2009, followed by WWW: Watch two in 2010. The final part, WWW: Wonder, is expected in 2011. This book is my first exposure to Sawyer’s work. One of his novels, Hominids, has been gathering dust on my to read pile for quite a while now. It’s one of those books I intend to read whenever I can fit them into my review schedule. So far I haven’t found an opening but after reading this book I think I may have to make an opening for it soon, WWW: Wake was a very entertaining read.

Fifteen year old Caitlin has been blind from birth. She has a very rare medical condition that affects the link between her eyes and the part of her brain interpreting visual signals. So far no treatment has helped but now a Japanese doctor contacts her with a proposal for an experimental treatment. It involves an implant that will restore the connection between her brain and eyes digitally and hopefully allow her to see. The procedure itself seems to be a failure but soon Caitlin notices some interesting side effects. She can visualize the world wide web.

In the mean time some seemingly unrelated events take place elsewhere on the planet. In China an outbreak of the bird flu is handled by the Chinese government by shutting the country off from the outside word completely and taking some very rigorous containment measures. In a research facility in southern California a Bonobo/Chimpanzee hybrid Hobo, taught to communicate with it’s caretakers by using American Sign Language, shows it is capable of producing representational art. Soon a fierce battle over it’s custody erupts. All of these events are witnessed at some level, by a rising intelligence on the world wide web. It’s struggle to gain awareness is hard, without a physical environment it is a very abstract way of evolving. It is learning fast however and it seems to have found a teacher in Caitlin.

Sawyer has written a pretty fast paced novel with WWW: Wake. Deceptively so in fact. Although it does not slow the story down, he has packed the text with references to developments in information technology, mathematics, physics, linguistics and a number of other fields. He does so without the reader having to understand every detail of the science he describes, the general idea is usually enough, but all this scientific and technical detail does create a second layer into this novel. Parts of the novel read like Oliver Sacks writing science fiction. There is a wealth of references to all manner of technological and scientific ideas and a number of books (including some science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey for one). I’m pretty sure that after this first reading in I missed quite a few too.

By using all of these different ideas Sawyer creates an interesting view on the main theme of the novel, the development of self-awareness. The debate on how intelligent Chimpanzees are for instance, and to which extend they are capable of using language is one that has been going on for quite a while. The researchers in this book are constantly battling disbelief and prejudice, but are also faced by the question of whether what they are seeing is truly intelligent behaviour or just copying an example. What is happening on the web is something of a different nature, a being without a physical component, or at least not aware of the fact is has one, struggling to master concepts that are more mathematical in nature. While Hobo already exhibits complex behaviour the web entity starts from scratch. The contrast between those two is one of the most interesting parts of the novel.

The main part of the novel is devoted to Caitlin. Sawyer obviously put in a lot of effort to try and understand how a person who has never been able to see, experiences the world. Not being blind, I have no idea how accurate it is but it certainly feels convincing. Sawyer doesn’t overdo it though, despite her handicap Caitlin is pretty much what you’d expect of a teenage girl. Apart from a perverse enjoyment of mathematics that is. Seriously, that can’t be healthy. There was one thing that did bother me however, Caitlin’s discovery of her father’s autism. Even without the visual clues that seems to be hard to miss if you live with someone on a day to day basis.

There are plenty of interesting ideas in this book but it is the first in a trilogy. I guess it is not surprising but while the end of the novel is satisfying in a way, it does leave an awful lot of open questions. The main story lines are beginning to converge but the relevance to the story of Caitlin of both Hobo’s story and that of the bird flue outbreak in China is far from clear. WWW: Wake is a very good read but with so many open ends it does feel like the introduction to a much larger story. I guess the wait for the second part in the trilogy, WWW: Watch, begins. Sawyer still has a long way to go on this project but he is certainly off to a good start.

Book Details
Title: WWW: Wake
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 356
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-441-01679-2
First published: 2009

Saturday, November 6, 2010

All Clear - Connie Willis

All Clear is the sequel to Willis' novel Blackout, a new work on the Oxford time-travelling historians, which appeared earlier this year. Blackout and All Clear were written as one novel, but the book was split because the story grew beyond what a single hardcover could handle. I enjoyed Blackout a lot but it ended with a huge cliffhanger so a nine months wait to find out how the story ends was a bit on the long side. In my review of Blackout I said I would read another book by Willis in the mean time. I got so far as to buy a copy but I am afraid it is still on the to read stack. Looks like it is going to be a project for next year. I couldn't resist finding out what happened to the characters in Blackout however, so I started All Clear almost as soon as it arrived. All Clear proved to be a satisfying read although the two books combined left me with the feeling that they were a bit longer than the story needed.

All Clear picks up the story where Blackout ended. Our historians come to realize that their drops are not working and that they are trapped in the past. Despite frantic attempts to find one that works, the space-time continuum seems to conspire against them. The characters find themselves in London during the Blitz or in the south-west of England during the preparations for D-day, with V-1 and V-2 rockets descending around them. Not the most comfortable position to be in, even with knowledge of future events. To make matters worse, some of them have a deadline. It is not possible to visit is time you've already been to. If the historian does not make it back to the 2060s before the time of an earlier visit to the past arrives, the continuum will correct itself by killing the historian.

In twenty-first century Oxford, the historians have realized something is seriously wrong and start pulling their people out. When this proves to be impossible for the historians stuck in WWII England other means of rescuing will have to considered. A search for working drop points and the exact location of the missing historians is started. All across the space-time continuum historians are realizing that their understanding of time travel and the impossibility of altering history may not be complete. Perhaps the answer lies in a new way of looking at the historian's role in making history.

All Clear starts pretty much the same way Blackout ended. The characters trapped in the 1940s are running around trying to find a working drop. Where Willis used this to great comical effect in Blackout, in this book their activity slowly turn nightmarish. The first part of this book read likes one of those recurring dreams where you desperately need to be somewhere on time and you just might make it if not one obstacle after another is thrown in your path. Just when the historians conquer one problem and there still seems to be time to get to where they need to go, something else pops up. A development in the book that reaches a climax with Willis' vivid description of the particularly heavy raids on December 29th 1940. An event I consider to be something of a turning point in the novel.

This pair of books was conceived as one novel and at times I did wonder if it should perhaps have fitted in one volume. The crux of the matter is the way the characters view time travel and that their theory might be flawed. Willis takes a long time to have the characters arrive at this conclusion. By the end of Blackout the reader could have the feeling that the problem lies in this imperfect understanding. The characters take about half of All Clear to catch up with the reader in that respect. By the time we reach the breaking point formed by the raids of the 29th, I did feel Willis was taking too much time. I'm not sure if tightening this section would have made it fit into one volume, the two hardcovers have a combined page count that exceeds 1100, but there does seem to be some room to shed a few pages. On the other hand, and this is going to sound like a contradiction, I loved the way the story turns from comical via desperate to a downright nightmare over the course of the first three hundred pages of All Clear. The author handed her editor a pretty problem here. Perhaps they picked the best solution after all.

Like the first volume, this book is absolutely packed with historical facts from the Blitz and the preparation for the invasion of Normandy. The author points out lots of little things that made a difference in the war and that while none of them individually can be said to have won the war, each contributed to tipping the balance. Again the level of details is overwhelming at times, but in this book it is also more important. The characters are mortally afraid of having fatally altered history, examining each little fact that doesn't match with their knowledge of history for discrepancies and possibly the much dreaded proof that history has indeed been changed. The period Willis covers is the subject of libraries full of books but I still believe that there is a lot in these novels for the WWII history fanatics. The book depicts how all-encompassing the British war effort was and what it took the keep the nation on its feet after the evacuation of Dunkirk a very vivid way. It brings the every day life of those days very close, even for someone who is two generations removed from the actual events.

Blackout and All Clear are quite an investment on the part of the reader but despite the nine month wait and perhaps a few pages more than strictly necessary, I thought All Clear was a very rewarding read. The way in which Willis untangles the mess time travel has created and handles the looming paradoxes the historians are always on the verge of creating very well. Whether you will like this book or not really rests on two things. You need to be able to handle a lot of historical detail and cliffhangers shouldn't bother you. Like the previous book, All Clear is full of them. Willis' most ambitious work to date is not a book that will be universally loved. Despite my quibbles with some aspects of this work, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Book Details
Title: All Clear
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 641
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80767-7
First published: 2010

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch

In the spring of 2007 my girlfriend won a contest organized by the Elf Fantasy Fair, one of the larger Fantasy oriented events in the Netherlands. The price included a meet and greet with one of guests of honour of our choice. We went over the list and quickly figured out we didn't have a clue who most of these people were. The only name that was vaguely familiar was that of Scott Lynch, who's début was a big hit in the English language world. The Lies of Locke Lamora was doing quite well in Dutch translation too. To make sure I didn't come across as a complete idiot, I quickly ordered the book and it arrived with a week to spare more me to read it. It took me just tree days. The Lies of Locke Lamora proved to be one of the best books I've read in 2007. In think my verdict at the time was that it suffered from a slight overuse of the word 'piss' but that it was otherwise excellent. After this reread my opinion hasn't changed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is set in the city of Camorr. The city-state of Camorr thrives on trade and is a centre of ruthless mercantilism on the Iron Sea. The city is ruled by an ageing Duke who's ideas on justice are quite hard. Hanging of thieves is a common occurrence and more colourful punishments are frequently meted out as well. To keep crime in his city at an acceptable level, the Duke has made a pact with the leader of Camorr's thieve guild, Capa Barvasi. An agreement that prevents the city's thieves from preying on the nobility in exchange for certain privileges. This tactic has worked very well for the past two decades. There are always some who are not happy with those restrictions however. In recent years the Thorn of Camorr, a mysterious thief thought to be a rumour, has conned several members of the city's nobility out of huge sums of money, relying on sense of honour of the nobility to prevent them from talking. And now he is getting ready for a new confidence game, once again threatening the balance of power in the city.

A second strand of the story is set years earlier. It deals with Locke, a young boy fallen in the hands of a man called the Thiefmaker. This man runs a gang of boys and girls too young to be of use to the other gangs in the city and learns them the tricks of the trade in a rather brutal fashion. Locke proves to be a great actor and thief but he does not usually think beyond the immediate consequences of his acts. This gets him in trouble more than once. When the Thiefmaker finds out Locke is responsible for the deaths of several members of his own gang, there is only one option. The boy has to die. Unless the Thiefmaker can sell him to Father Chains, the man who runs the most peculiar gang of thieves in the city of Camorr.

Scott Lynch has the doubtful honour of being on the list of most anticipated releases of the year in the fantasy genre for several years running now. After the release of Red Seas under Red Skies (2007), the second book in what is planned as a seven book series, it grew very quiet and book three, The Republic of Thieves was postponed again and again. Earlier this year, what I assume to be part of reason for this became apparent when Lynch posted on his Livejournal that he was seeking therapy to deal with the bouts of depression and panic attacks he's been suffering. The contrast with the man I met couldn't be greater. He was in a very good mood that day. Obviously enjoying his time at the Fair, probably slightly bewildered by all the fruitcakes pretending to be elves around him. I certainly hope he'll be able to find that cheerful guy I met in April 2007 again. It looks like The Republic of Thieves will see publication next year, so I am going to try and reread the second book before that time a well.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the strongest débuts I've ever read. Lynch wrote a thoroughly entertaining tale, combining a very interesting fantasy setting with what is essentially a heist story. There is some good action, smart dialogue, a dash of caper and a sympathetic but flawed main character, all worked into an irresistible mix. I suppose it is not the most complex or deep work of fiction I have come across, the book doesn't aspire to that. It is a terribly fun read however, in terms of sheer entertainment value it succeeds gloriously.

What I mostly admire about this book, and what I think raises it above other strong débuts, is the techniques Lynch uses to tell the story. A large part of the novel is written completely out of chronological order. The author weaves two story lines into his tale that are set years apart, the present story line is contained in the regular chapters and the past story line in interludes. Within the chapters he also writes out of chronological order, show us a scene and then going back to how this event came about. It sounds a bit confusing but Lynch manages in such a way that the story is perfectly clear even on a first reading. For an inexperienced author this is quite an achievement. The downside is that Lynch seems to like cliffhangers and awful lot. As a reader, I think it's very easy to overuse this technique and Lynch is constantly in danger of doing so. I must admit it didn't bother me in this novel, I guess the author recognized this danger as well.

The setting Lynch uses is a port city reminiscent of medieval Venice. As with a lot of fantasy, this novel contains quite a few made up words. In this novel, most of them seem to be derived from Spanish and Italian, reinforcing the Mediterranean atmosphere of the city. The author has clearly invested in developing his world. He describes a city with a turbulent history, founded by an ancient race that disappeared long ago but left remnants that cannot be reproduced by the humans that took their place. Lynch leaves all manner of historical and geographical hints that could be used in later books. He doesn't burden the reader with things they don't need to know (yet) but it is clear that he is planning ahead. Something that can also be seen in what is revealed about Locke's past. Lynch is very selective in what he shows the reader in the interludes, hinting at things to come in future books. There is one member of Father Chains' gang that has yet to make an appearance in the series. Someone who clearly has a lot of influence on Locke.

It is clear that Lynch is not done with this setting and these characters but despite this, The Lies of Locke Lamora stands very well on its own. The book is an absolute joy to read. It remains to be seen if Lynch can manage to keep meeting the high standard he set in future books, I have my doubt if this approach will work for seven books, but even if that does not turn out to be the case, this book should absolutely be present in the collection of any fan of the fantasy genre. You'll rarely find an author so in control of the story, with such a feeling of what to tell the reader and when to do it. If you haven't read it already, go find a copy.

Book Details
Title: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Author: Scott Lynch
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 499
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80467-7
First published: 2006