Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre was the last review of 2011 so I guess it is time to write the yearly overview. On the personally level, 2011 was a quite turbulent year for me, to be honest I'm glad to see this year go, so the numbers won't be quite as impressive as last year. I think I managed reasonably well considering the circumstances.

I've read 84 works in 2011, which is seven less than last year. They resulted in 82 reviews, all of which can be found on Random Comments. I also moved two older reviews to this blog. I'm pretty sure I'm done moving older stuff now though. There are plenty more but those are of such low quality that a little polish won't suffice to bring them up to Random Comments level. The two books that did not get a review were George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons and Raymond E. Feist's A Kingdom Besieged (read in Dutch translation). For Martin's novel I felt I hadn't read the previous entries in his A Song of Ice and Fire series recently enough to do this book justice. I have started a reread and expect to review the two most recent volumes sometime next year. Feist I only read for nostalgic reasons these days. He hasn't published anything that is worth reading or writing about in years and this year's effort was no exception. All this leaves me still short of he two reviews a week target. I think I am going to be a little less ambitious for 2012 and aim for 80 reviews.

The total of 84 breaks down into 64 novels, 10 collections of short fiction, 9 novellas and short stories and 1 non-fiction book. In total I read 35,376 pages, just short of 100 a day. This number is comparable to 2010, mostly because I read a larger number of books that get close to, or even pass, the thousand page mark than last year. Of the 84 works, 58 were written by men, 25 by women and 1 contained work of both men and women. A slightly better ratio than last year but I think I can do better still.

Best of 2011
So what is the best I have read this year? As usual I won't limit myself to book published in 2011. I read only 30 of those, which is too narrow a selection. The emphasis of this years list is still in the last decade though. I've read a number of classics this year, but not that many that I though absolutely brilliant. Here's the list in the order I read them in.
  1. Act One by Nancy Kress (2009): A novella length piece that was nominated for several awards. I tend to like Kress' short fiction better than her novels.
  2. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002): After discovering Chiang last year, I just had to read this. His stories are so well crafted that you can't help but wish he was more productive. On the other hand, if taking your time results in such excellent work....
  3. The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (2010): A novella set in a fantasy universe shared with Tobias S. Buckell. I tend to like short Science Fiction better but this one is a gem.
  4. Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht (2011): An impressive début. One of the big surprises of the year for me.
  5. Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson (2001): This Malazan novel remains my favourite in a consistently very strong epic fantasy series. Such an emotionally powerful novel.
  6. The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin (1983): His least successful novel commercially, one that almost killed his career. Why this is the case is beyond me, it is one of the finest in his oeuvre.
  7. Harten Sara by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2011): I still read too few Dutch language novels. This is one that might do well internationally. Olde Heuvelt moves away from his horror roots towards a more magical realistic style. Might be translated in the near future.
  8. Troika by Alastair Reynolds (2011): I just loved the concept behind this novella length science fiction.
  9. Among Others by Jo Walton (2011): A fantasy novel for science fiction fans. Probably not a recipe for commercial success in the current market but a absolute must-read book for this year.
  10. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966): At the same time hopelessly outdated and thoroughly impressive. A real classic.
Traffic has more or less doubled in terms of visitors compared to 2010. The increase in pageviews is a bit larger, not really surprising with so much more content for search engines to dig up than last year. The top ten reviews with the most hits are:
  1. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  2. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  3. The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel
  4. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
  5. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  6. Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  7. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
  8. Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson
  9. Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
  10. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
It's not surprising that Martin takes the throne this year. I think that if I had done the review of A Storm of Swords earlier in the year, or written one on A Dance With Dragons they would have ended up in the list as well. What surprised me is how well The Name of the Wind kept up. This novel is four years old now, but it lead the list for most of the year and finished close behind A Game of Thrones. The Land of Painted Caves was also a big release this year (and one of the worst novels I have read I might add) so no surprise there. Three reviews stayed in the top ten compared to last year's list. I guess reviewing a bunch of evergreens is good for your traffic. I would have liked to have seen some more overlap with the list of favourites but I guess my taste is a bit too eccentric for that.

Next year promises to be a year full of uncertainty for me on the personal and professional level. I don't want to make too many predictions or resolutions since there is a good chance I will not achieve any of them. Next year will of course open with a review of one of Alastair Reynold's novels. I also intend to continue my project to read and review all of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels (Blue Mars is up next) and to start again on reviewing Frank Herbert's non-Dune books, which I shamefully neglected last year. Other than that I think the budget for new books will be limited so unless I receive a lot of review copies (which isn't likely) the emphasis will be on older works. Of these, I fortunately have a good supply.

I guess that wraps up 2011. Thank you for visiting Random Comments and I hope to see you all around next year. I wish you all a happy new year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dreamsnake - Vonda N. McIntyre

Dreamsnake (1978) by Vonda N. McIntyre is another novel that won the Nebula and Hugo double, something that happened more often than not in the 1970s. Although slightly less common since the mid-1980s it is still surprising to see how many of these novels are joint winners, especially since the nominees don't overlap that much. Apparently SF-writers are fans of the genre at heart. Dreamsnake is one of the few novels I actually bought as an e-book after reading an article by Ursula K. Le Guin about it. Most of the e-books I own are review copies or stuff I picked up for free. It ended up on the still formidable to read stack but this month I finally managed to read it. Like Le Guin, I'm a bit surprised this work isn't better known. It's a very nice piece of writing and it has aged a lot better than some of its contemporaries. I do think it has some flaws as well though.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Dreamsnake follows the travels of the healer Snake. With the help of three genetically modified snakes, a small group of healers tries to see to the healthcare of as many people as possible. In many places, society has fallen from a high-tech one to very basic patterns of existence. With the re-emergence of these ways of life, a lot of superstitions about things like inoculations have returned and Snake's tools of the trade are viewed with a mixture of fear and distaste. When Snake looses the most precious of her three snakes, the Dreamsnake, the one who can comfort those with no hope of survival, she is severely handicapped. Returning to healer's main settlement is not an option, Dreamsnakes don't breed well, there is simply no replacement. A long hard search for a new source of these valuable animals begins.

What struck me most about Snake is that she is a very compassionate person. Her need to help people goes beyond healing the sick and wounded. She meets a number of characters who face personal problems caused by of cruelty, cultural peculiarities and the fact that a lot of people live in small, isolated communities. She often considers helping these people at her own expense and some of these decisions have drastic consequences. One of the secondary characters thinks she is naive and too trusting and there is more than a bit of truth in that. She is in a perfect position to show us the workings of the various cultures she encounters though. To some of them Snake is a frightening figure, able to control animals most people have an innate fear of. The original story this novel is based on, a short piece that is now the first chapter and was published in Analog in October 1973 under the title Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand, very effectively shows what kind of suspicion and fear she is up against.

Snake may be compassionate, there are some things that anger her greatly and a few characters get a taste of her anger. The abuse of the abilities of the supremely valuable Dreamsnake venom is probably angers her most. I though Snake had a mild personality when we first encounter her, but as the novel progresses she shows the fierce side of it, as well as the determination to achieve the goals she thinks are essential. Snake is not the kick-ass herione in the Urban Fantasy kind of way that is so popular at the moment, but the slightly understated way in which McIntyre chooses to portray her makes her formidable in my eyes.

The setting of this novel is almost Fantasy-like. Although remnants of a more advanced civilization show up, and the alien origin of Dreamsnakes is mentioned, a lot of the story is set in very low-tech environments. Some references are made to genetics but other than that, there isn't a lot of hard science in the novel. I think this is one book that would go down well with people who prefer Fantasy over Science Fiction. What actually caused the downfall of civilization remains unknown, but to the story that doesn't matter all that much. Snake is trying make things better in a small way, not trying to reinvent the ancients civilization.

One thing most of these cultures share is a different view on sexuality and reproduction. People are able to regulate their own fertility and that changes the way they think about sex a lot. Long term relationships are formed of course, something akin to marriage exists. Sexual desires are considered a normal human need and relief of sexual tension in more casual relationships, both homo- and heterosexual, is not frowned upon. The gender of one character is left for the reader to decide on for intance, I thought that was a nice touch.

Control over their fertility is one way in which the advanced biological knowledge that lingers in this destroyed world becomes apparent. For the real hard science fiction fan, the absence of a reason why so much knowledge in this particular field remains may be a bit frustrating. There are some vague references to communities with even more advanced technology and a few to people or at least sentient beings living off planet, but Snakes view of the world and therefore the reader's, is far from complete.

I liked Dreamsnake a lot, the writing, characterization and setting are all very well done. I can't quite shake the feeling that the premise of the novel a bit flawed, that value of the Dreamsnake is way overrated. It neither cures nor kills. In effect, it eases the suffering of those for which no treatment is possible any more. That is important of course, nobody likes to see their loved ones suffering, but curing people is Snake's trade. She feels much more handicapped by the loss of the Dreamsnake than one would expect. In fact, at one point in the novel, she does find a way around the loss, although not as humane as she would have liked. The novel gets a lot of things right but the foundation seems shaky. That being said, less deserving novels have won the Nebula or Hugo. It is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Dreamsnake
Author: Vonda N. McIntyre
Publisher: Book View Cafe
Pages: 244
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1978

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Planesrunner - Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald is one of my more recent discoveries. Ever since reading his collection Cyberabad Days (2009), I've been a fan on his work. I very much enjoyed the kind of near future, technologically and culturally complex stories he creates as well as the beautiful prose he uses to tell this stories. His work as fanned my interest in more recent science fiction and caused a notable shift in the direction of my reading. A new novel by McDonald is pretty much guaranteed a spot on my highly anticipated reads list. Even when it is a change of direction for the author. Planesrunner is McDonnald's first foray into YA fiction so anticipated or not, the novel was a bit of a gamble for me. It was written for a new YA line for American publisher Pyr and American ideas of what constitutes suitable reading for teens (I won't call them young adults, the name of that particular genre label is completely misleading) rarely match my own. Fortunately McDonald managed to come up with a book that I would have loved to find in the library when I was a bit younger than the main character. 

Fourteen year old Everett Singh, Londoner of mixed English/Punjabi decent, is waiting for his father, a quantum physicist, to attend a lecture when he witnesses him being abducted. After reporting the kidnapping, Everett becomes increasingly suspicious. When he catches them at a lie and his father's former boss shows more than a little interest in anything his father might have left behind. In fact, his father did leave something behind. A map, the key to accessing parallel universes. Possession of this map, offers Everett a chance to find his father but also exposes him to the attention of a group of people who feel they are much more suitable to handle such sensitive information. Everett's universe has just become an awful lot more complicated. 

McDonald's novels are usually quite complex tales, often told from many different points of view. In Planesrunner, he sticks to just one; Everett is the focus of the story. It makes Planesrunner a very fast paced novel. Although the author does add some more reflective passages to the narrative, it is a novel that allows itself to be devoured by the reader. One of those books you can read in one or two sittings. I must admit I thought Everret a bit too perfect to be entirely believable though. I doubt it would be a problem for the potential reader but I feel the author could have gotten away with a slightly less brilliant main character too. 

One of the pitfalls of writing for this particular age group is underestimating their intelligence. That is one thing McDonald clearly kept in mind. I don't think many authors would consider quantum mechanics, which is often so counter intuitive that not many people can wrap their heads around it, a suitable subject for a young adult novel. McDonald bases the whole concept of what is written to be a multi-volume series on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This theory implies many alternate versions of the universe, giving the author a gigantic sandbox to play in. The theory was first formulated by Hugh Everett in 1957. The main character is named after him. There is math, physics, gravity and computers in this novel, what more could a young geek desire? Or a science fiction fan for that matter? McDonald packs in enough science to fuel more than one Wikipedia reading session. 

The author makes full use of this huge potential of his creation by dragging his main character to a world where oil is not available and the industrial revolution has taken a different course. A lack of plastics and combustion engines being the most notable one. Air traffic is conducted through that Steampunk favourite, the airship, one of which, naturally, becomes a second home to Everett. Although the lay-out of this alternate London doesn't differ as much as one might expect, McDonald does include a few other exotic experiments. The crews of the Airships for instance, speak a kind of slang known as Polari. It is pretty well known in England, a kind of slang used in the gay community among other things. I've only recently heard of it though the third episode of Fry's Planet Word, Uses and Abuses, which includes a brief item on it (and should be watched by everyone with an interest in language). McDonald is very liberal with Polari words but a lot of the meanings were obvious from the context. I think I'd have more trouble with the spoken variant. For those unfamiliar with Polari vocabulary, the author has included an appendix. 

The language and structure of the story may be a bit simpler than what he uses in his adult novels, there is certainly no shortage of science, technology or cultural oddities. In terms of ideas and the scope of his universe, McDonald challenges the young reader to embrace it in all its diversity. I guess that is what I like most about this novel. It takes the reader seriously, doesn't dumb things down or omits 'unsuitable' topics. I understand there will be at least two more books in the Everness universe. It is quite clear that McDonald could take it far beyond that if he wants to. In a recent interview with SF Signal, McDonald mentioned that he had aimed to write books that could keep boys reading beyond the age of twelve, when most of them drop books in favour of other activities. I guess you need to be a twelve year old to really have a good feel for it he has managed this, science fiction is not a genre that is wildly popular with large groups of readers after all. Personally, I think he is heading in the right direction with this first volume and I certainly hope young readers will agree with me.  

Book Details  
Title: Planesrunner  
Author: Ian McDonald  
Publisher: Pyr  
Pages: 269  
Year: 2011  
Language: English 
Format: Hardcover  
ISBN: 978-1-61614-541-5 
First published: 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name - Edward M. Erdelac

The Mensch With No Name is the second volume of the collected tales of the Jewish gunslinger and mystic known as the Merkabah Rider by Edward M. Erdelac. It contains episodes 5 - 8 and is a continuation of the story of Tales of the High Planes Drifter, which I read earlier this year. Looking at those titles, Erdelac also has an appreciation for the Western genre in cinema as well as in literature. Erdelac's brand of Western doesn't just include the standard ingredients of hard men, dusty towns, hostile natives and bandits,  he also includes a lot of religious and supernatural elements. In the first volume these are mostly drawn from Jewish mysticism but in this volume ranges more widely.

In the final episode of Tales of the High Planes Drifter, Rider uncovers information that makes his quest to find his former master and the man who is responsible for the destruction of the religious order they were once part of, all the more urgent. Adon's plans shake the very foundations of Rider's beliefs and threaten the nature of existence. As Rider's search intensifies, he meets with more and more resistance both in the real word as well as in the Yenne Velt. Slowly his defences are broken down by this relentless assault, but help arrives from unexpected quarters.

The title of the novel prompted another look at the Yiddish language for me. The word 'Mensch' is derived from German (and until we changed the spelling to 'mens' in the 1950s, it existed in Dutch as well). In both German and Dutch is means 'human being' or 'man' (as in the species). English doesn't really have a single word translation for it that is an exact fit.In Yiddish it seems to have acquired an additional meaning. A good person, a person of honour and integrity. It's interesting to see how such meanings drift. This volume again contains quite a lot of words in various languages. I may be a bit odd in that respect but the appendix is definitely an interesting read (although it would be nice if the notes had included what language the phrases were coming from a bit more consistently).

As I mentioned in this introduction, the religious themes in the stories range a bit more widely than just Jewish mysticism. There are references to Aztec and Hindu mythology for instance but also quite a few to H.P. Lovercraft's Chtulu mythos and a depiction of Lucifer who has apparently read John Milton, all hinting at a reality much more complex than the world view Rider has believed in thus far. It forces him to re-examine his beliefs and introduces an interesting bit of tension into the story. On the one hand, a fellow Jewish mystic reminds him of how unorthodox some of his own practices are. On the other, he is forced to acknowledge that his views on creation may not be complete.

Erdelac also includes a number of historical titbits into the novel, so many in fact that I probably missed most of them. It is easy to focus on the adventure side of the story but for the real fan of the western genre there is a lot more to uncover than just that. The most notable historical reference is probably the appearance of gambler, gunman and dentist Doc Holliday when Rider arrives in the town of Las Vegas in episode six: The Damned Dingus. For the linguists among us, dingus is actually derived from the Dutch word 'ding', meaning thing. It appears our influence on the English language extends beyond nautical terms and that dreadful word apartheid. What did make me blink in historical terms was the appearance of a bunch of Apache warriors on horseback in episode seven: The Outlaw Gods.

In the review of the previous volume I said that Rider would probably benefit from a full novel treatment. Although this volume, and I assume this goes for the third one as well, follows the same format as the previous one, each collecting four novella length pieces, I feel that is has become a lot harder to see them as individual novellas. Many references to events in previous adventures pop up in these stories. Erdelac does some repeating on occasion but I very much doubt the reader will get the full picture from that if one of these episodes were to be read as a standalone.

Although I must say that I'm not sure the episodic nature of the narrative does the story any favours in terms of pacing in particular, the second volume of Merkabah Rider adventures is again a very entertaining read. Erdelac combines his knowledge of the Old West in literature and cinema as well as in history with a variety of religious themes that give the work more depth than one would expect of a classic western. The Mensch With No Name is a solid continuation of the first four episodes, expanding Erdelac's vision of the Old West in surprising ways.  I guess there is a reason they invented the label Weird West for such novels. Looking forward to the third volume, Have Glyphs Will Travel.

Book Details
Title: Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name
Author: Edward M. Erdelac
Publisher: Damnation Books
Pages: 294
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61572-189-4
First published: 2010

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Journeys - Ian R. MacLeod

I always have trouble not giving too much of the plot away when reviewing short fiction. This review is no exeption, it may be a bit spoilerish.
Journeys by Ian R. MacLeod is one of the books I received when I bought one of Subterranean's book bags earlier this year. So far I have only read two others of that stack: John Scalzi's The God Engines and Caitlín R. Kiernan's The Ammonite Violin and Others. My copy of Journeys is a signed and numbered edition. Number 708 of a print run or 750. As always with Subterranean editions, it looks stunning. I love the cover art done by Edward Miller. The original painting is for sale on his website, should anyone be interested. It is a tad above my budget though. The collection contains nine stories, ranging from a few pages to novella length, all of them first published between 2006 and 2010. Personally I feel the longer pieces work better.

Journeys is an appropriate title for this collection, MacLeod takes you to unexpected places with his stories. In many of them, the setting is familiar, often historical, but with a few crucial changes. The collection opens with The Master Miller's Tale, one of the longer stories in the collection and a good example of the changes the author weaves into his tales. It is set during the early stages of the industrial revolution. A master miller is trying to keep his wind powered and song magic maintained mill in business against the more powerful steam devices that are starting to appear. It mixes nostalgia and admiration for the skill of a master of the trade with the inevitable demise of such occupations. MacLeod makes it even more tragic by adding a personal dimension to this development. I very much liked this story.

A few of the stories are told as the life and extraordinary times of character such and so. That definitely goes for the third story in the collection The English Mutiny, which is an interesting reversal of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. In this alternative history, the British bit of more than they could chew in colonizing India and were conquered by the Mughal Empire some time in the past. It's told from a first person perspective by someone who plays a small but important part in the rebellion. Although the story pretty much unfolds like one would expect, I absolutely love it for the premise and execution. It is a premise that could easily be the basis of a novel really.

Elementals is another tale where we get an eyewitness account of an extraordinary event. It appears to be set in late Victorian times, and features a man of the mad scientist type doing research into harnessing elementals as a perpetual source of power. In sharp contrast with The English Mutiny, where the outcome is pretty much inevitable, this story takes an interesting turn when it turns out that elementals are a bit more complex than initially thought. The idea of people who's influence is waning, literally become less visible is an interesting one. I thought the ending was a bit cynical. The narrator doesn't seem to have grasped the implications.

The Camping Wainwrights is the odd one out in this collection I guess. It contains no fantastical, science fictional or supernatural elements in the story. In the end, I thought this story was a bit predictable. The author tries to make the reader doubt some of the events in the story but it is never really convincing. It is humorous in a way. Many people will recognize the antics of the Wainwrights on their camping trip. I've been on a few my self where I had to wonder what the fun part of the trip was.

The Hob Carpet is the longest piece in the collection with the most complex premise. The setting is a world that is rapidly moving towards a new ice age, where humans are used to a warmer climate use the labour of another sentient series, the Hobs, to live comfortably. A way of living that no longer seems sustainable. You can choose to interpret the setting as a fantasy one I suppose. Or see it more like an alternate history where humans still coexist with Neanderthals. MacLeod's description of the Hobs reminded me of Jean Auel's description of Neanderthals in her famous novel The Clan of the Cave Bear (which has proven quite inaccurate in recent years). There is often more than a little ambiguity in MacLeod's stories but in this case the ethical problem this civilization faces is more than clear. The treatment of the Hobs is shocking and the story contains a number of disturbing scenes. Interesting about it, is that the realization eventually comes through what the reader will recognize as Darwin's theories on natural selection but even the man who figures that out, is far from innocent. I think this one is my favourite of the collection but opinions on it will probably be divided.

The collection contains a number of shorter pieces as well. Most of these didn't do much for me. I guess the ones I liked least are Taking Good Care of Myself, which is just too short for the author to really develop the premise, and On the Sighting of Other Islands, which is so ambiguous that even after a second reading I still have no idea what the author wanted to do with that story (which, admittedly, may not be the author's fault). I enjoyed the  other two stories, Topping off the Spire and The Second Journey of the Magus, but they didn't really stand out in this collection.

Journeys is my introduction to MacLeod's work and he strikes me as an author who is very comfortable with writing short stories. With the notable exception of Taking Good Care of Myself, the stories feel neither constrained by the word count or padded and especially the first is a problem one frequently encounters in short fiction. Although not all stories in the collection hit the bullseye, this story shows that a lot of the more exiting, experimental and innovative writing in genre fiction is still being don in the short form. MacLeod experiments to his heart's desire and more often than not, it pays off.

Book Details
Title: Journeys
Author: Ian R. MacLeod
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 231
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-297-9
First published: 2010

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke

After his hugely succesful novel Rendezvous with Rama (1973), The Fountains of Paradise (1979) is the second novel of Arthur C. Clarke to win the Hugo and Nebula double. It is also something of a dividing line in Clarke's oeuvre. Most of his output after The Fountains of Paradise are considered lesser novels and a lot of them were co-written by other authors. The majority of novels by Clarke I have read were written after this one and I must admit, in terms of characterization they are poor. The plot of his final novel The Last Theorem, co-written by Frederik Pohl, also left something to be desired. I don't think he ever lost his touch when it comes to describing technical details of space travel or impressive feats of engineering. The Fountains of Paradise may not be the strongest novel ever to win a Hugo or Nebula, but it certainly contains those elements in abundance.

With the invention of new super strong materials, new possibilities in architecture and engineering arise. After completing a bridge across the strait of Gibraltar. Dr. Vannevar Morgan is looking for a new challenge. One that will ensure his place in the history books: the construction of a space elevator. It is basically a long cable tethered to a counterweight beyond the geostationary orbit, that could be used to transport people and material out of the Earth's gravity well without the use of inefficient and polluting rocket propelled launch vehicles. The tensile strength of the material must be enormous and on top of the engineering challenges, the ideal location for the Earth end of the cable is already occupied by a group unlikely to move.

I'm not sure if this is the earliest example of a space elevator in literature but I very much doubt it. The first scientific papers on the concept date from the 1960s, I'd be surprised if some science fiction writer hadn't picked such a dramatic proposal up sooner than 1979. Clarke is definitely the man who brought it to a large audience though. He uses it in several books although usually not in as much detail as in this novel. What did strike me was the influence this novel had on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. The scenario for a space elevator on Mars, with its moon Deimos on one end and the volcano Pavonis Mons on the other, is pretty much exactly as Clarke describes it here, including the problem of Mars' second moon. Robinson does explore what would happen if such a structure were to crash down in detail, a scenario Clarke prefers to leave to the reader's imagination.

As usual with Clarke's novels the consequences of the conditions in space, or in this case the very edge of space are very prominently present in the book. Clarke describes the conditions and challenges of such an environment for engineering and safety of the passengers and people working there. Note the emphasis on human error in some of the scenes. Clarke makes some very astute observations about the potential of the smallest (human) error to cause disasters. In the hostile environment of space, or the upper atmosphere, such problems are very likely to end in the loss of human life. The final pages of the novel are dedicated to such an event and Clarke manages to make it a nerve wracking experience.

Another key element in the novel is the setting. Space elevators need to be located at the equator. For the occasion Clarke chose to move the island of Sri Lanka about 800 kilometres south and make a few other changes to the geography of the place. The historical sites he describes mostly exist as he describes them however and I very much enjoyed these. Clarke's love for this island is no secret but it doesn't always show up in his writing. In The Fountains of Paradise, he certainly made an effort to do some of its cultural heritage justice. Clarke seems to see certain future developments as inevitable.

I don't think there was any doubt in his mind that a space elevator would one day be reality and that colonizing other planets is possible.On social developments he is less outspoken in this novel. Religion is clearly on its way out in this future though. It contains some rather provocative statements on the subject. One that made me smile was attributed to an alien probe passing earth in the twenty-first century:
The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must be of an higher degree of organisation than his product. Thus you have
more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as early as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessary. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.
Chapter 16 - Conversations with the Stargilider
I wonder what the monk William of Ockham would have made of that.  

The Fountains of Paradise is an intellectually stimulating novel. I enjoyed reading it very much, in particular for the detail of the construction process on the space elevator. That being said, I'm not sure it is worthy of the awards is won. It contains a lot of stuff that Clarke had done before. Stylistically, Clarke is not a brilliant author and his characters are mostly fairly flat. By 1979 rigid scientific accuracy and a sense of wonder were no longer enough, or sometimes not even necessary, to make a science fiction novel stand out, which makes the choice for a novel that is supported completely by those who things a bit odd. Still, Clarke does what he does very well. For fans of his novels this is definitely not one you'll want to miss.  

Book Details
Title: The Fountains of Paradise
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 257
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-721-8
First published: 1979

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bron - Rik Raven

In October I reviewed De Achtste Rune, the latest novel by Dutch author Adrian Stone, which turned out to be an enjoyable read. I ended that review with the conclusion that I really should read more Fantasy originally written in Dutch. This is something I tell myself every year but somehow I never manage to do it. After posting a link to the Stone review on the Pure Fantasy forum, a place where a lot of fantasy writers, aspiring writers and fans hang out, I was promptly offered a review copy of Bron (literally: source, but in this case wellspring is a more fitting translation) by Rik Raven. After mailing back and forth with the author for a bit, I decided to put my money where my mouth was an accept the review copy.

Rolf Dorint is in serious trouble. His writing career has ground to a halt and he is struggling with writers block. His last publishable material has been delivered two years ago and his publisher is getting impatient. Trying to find inspiration in the bottle doesn't help either and puts a serious strain on the already stormy relationship with his wife Harriëtte. Rolf is desperately looking for a new story. Discarded manuscripts litter the shelves in this office and the feeling that there is a new story waiting to be written practically tortures him. If only he could get that first line written. When he does, the story he is about to embark on, will change his life forever.

Bron is clearly influenced by the work of Stephen King. From very early on in the novel it is clear that Raven is an admirer of his novels. A writer as the main character is something that shows up in King's novels frequently. The author has made the writing process central to the plot, supporting the plot with two central issues. The first is the question successful authors have been asked ad nauseam: where do you get your inspiration/ideas form? Rolf's source of inspiration has dried up and his attempt to get it flowing again turns from a quest of personal salvation to one that will decide the fate of worlds.

The second is the axiom that all characters in a novel are the writer. As with the wellspring of inspiration, Raven takes this quite literally, intertwining the writing of Dorint, in which he describes the adventures of his alter ego Baxan Kanter in a real metaphysically linked to our own world. As Dorint struggles to get Kanter's story written, it becomes clear that events in Kanter's world influence our own. It gets to the point where other people are dragged into the tale, with portions of the story being written by the neighbour's son Luuk.

Conceptually it is not a bad idea. It leans on King's Dark Tower considerably though. Besides the connection between the two worlds, there is Kanter, who is the Gunslinger on steroids basically. The novel includes a scene reminiscent of the challenge faced by Roland in the town of Tull, and the climax of the novel made me think of Roland's relationship with Jake as well. It's been a while since I read The Dark Tower series. There are probably more connections between the two works that I've missed.

Where Raven runs into trouble is the execution of these ideas really. In her way she is her own worst critic:
"Nee, serieus, Rolf, als je denkt hiermee weg te komen... Het is de natte droom van een meisje van dertien en een bijna volmaakte kopie van die, je weet wel, die van die serie boeken waarvan ik alleen het eerste deel van heb gelezen, die premiejager, scherpschutter of zoiets."

My translation:

"No, seriously Rolf, if you think you can get away with this... It is the wet dream of a thirteen year old girl, and an almost perfect copy of that, you know, that guy from the series I only read the first book of, that bounty hunter, gunslinger, something like that."

Harriëtte's criticism of Dorint's writing - chapter 1
Apart from the rambling prose, Raven struggles with a character that is something of a caricature. The man barely shows emotion, intimidates everyone he meets and if that doesn't work, simply shoots the the person foolish enough to be uncooperative. The temptation to make yourself larger than life must be there for Dorint but Raven has made him portray Kanter in a way that makes him less than human. No emotion is not the same as, say, the iron self control and determination of the Gunslinger.

Besides being unnecessarily heavy on violence, I wasn't too impressed with Raven's prose either. It is uneven I guess. Most of it is fairly direct but once in a while Raven overreaches and uses vocabulary that doesn't fit (when is the last time you used 'inborst' (disposition) in a heated conversation?) or end up writing rambling sentences. She also relies quite heavily on rhetorical questions in some sections. My issues with Raven's style aren't helped by the impressive number of typos and other errors that have slipped through during the final copy edit. A few are to be expected but this many strikes me as sloppy work. It doesn't do the novel any favours.

The structure of the plot also shows a few problems. The connection between Dorint and Kanter is physically demanding on Dorint. Most authors would have built up these symptoms so both the reader and the character get some time to figure out what is going on and build the tension necessary later on in the novel. Dorint ends up in hospital early on in the novel and the revelation that the fates of these two worlds are linked are dumped on the reader rather ungraciously. A little more attention to foreshadowing would have done the novel a world of good. To name one example, climate change on Earth is revealed to be one of the symptoms of impending doom by the evil genius in Kantar's world. None of the characters in Dorint's reality show even the slightest hint that they are even aware of this problem. In fact, Dorint is mostly busy with his own private struggle with his source of inspiration. Raven passes up a good opportunity to raise the stakes in the story there.

Bron is a well intentioned novel, but also an ultimately unsatisfying read. What could have been an interesting story, simply collapses under the combined weight of uneven prose, problems with the plot and editing that leaves a lot to be desired. I would like to say that this novel is an uncut diamond but the truth is that the diamond hasn't even been freed of the matrix yet. This novel was simply not ready for publication.

Book Details
Title: Bron
Author: Rik Raven
Publisher: Books of Fantasy
Pages: 302
Year: 2011
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-608-6023-2
First published: 2011

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Seed - Rob Ziegler

Rob Ziegler is another début novelist being introduced Night Shade Books. The seem to have an eye for new talent there, earlier this year I read Stina Leicht's Of Blood and Honey, which is probably going to make my best of 2011 list. Rob Ziegler's début Seed comes with a bonus recommendation from Paolo Bacigalupi, one of my favourite authors of the past few years. Not a book to pass up on, especially since it deals with subjects of climate change and genetic engineering, always good for drawing me into a story. In their marketing, the publisher leans heavily on the thematic similarities with Bacigalupi's enormously successful novel The Windup Girl. I found Ziegler's style very different from Bacigalupi's but certainly no less interesting.

In the early 22nd century, Earth is suffering from severe and abrupt climate changes. Temperatures reach extremes in both directions, patterns of precipitation shift constantly and stabilization of the planet's climate is a distant dream. On top of that, wars have been fought in the past century over the last oil resources the Earth still hid. Now that these have run out, economic collapse is a reality. In the US, large sections of the populations have been reduced to an existence as nomads. Travelling between the zones where agriculture is still possible, they eke out a living on what little Satori company, the only source of viable seeds of crops that can withstand the extreme climate. Given this monopoly, Satori is the de facto leader of the state. It is keeping tight control over its knowledge of genetic engineering. Until internal disagreement causes one of their top genetic engineers to defect that is.

One of the major environmental issues Ziegler uses in this novel is the use of so-called terminator technology. Crops carrying this particular modification produce sterile second generation seeds, preventing the farmer from saving part of his harvest to sow the following year. A way of farming that is still common in developing nations in particular. It's been criticised for creating a dependence on the company producing the seed that would leave the farmer very few options. The company most closely associated with this discussion is Monsanto (which is actually named in the novel), although other companies have done research in this direction. One of the justifications for its use is that is would help keeping other genetic modifications from spreading to wild populations. Not surprisingly, this does not impress the environmentalist, many of whom are not too keen on genetic engineering to begin with. Some nations have gone so far as to outright ban the use of this technology. There has been so much resistance to the idea that Monsanto, to my knowledge has not marketed this product, which is probably for the best. I think a situation where the production of staple agricultural crops is dependant on one or a mere handful of companies providing seeds is asking for trouble.

Ziegler takes it a step further than scary however. Satori's knowledge of genetics is not limited to just crops. They have created improved versions of humanity, better adapted to their environment than the outmoded wild populations still burdened by their savannah evolutionary heritage, as well as creatures specialized to specific tasks. Organic material can be shaped and manipulated for just about any purpose. It results in a number of chapters, mostly seen through the eyes of the Satori designed Sumedha, that bounce from the comforting warmth experienced in utero, to the disturbing, barely restrained aggression of the predatory advocates, or the grotesque use of living tissue as building material. Satori has created an almost alien community out of the building blocks of life.

The author balances this strangeness with two more conventional points of view. One from a migrant boy, basically an outcast and beggar making a living in a community where theft and murder are facts of life and our hero Brood is certainly not above these things. His chapters show us just how far the once greatest economy in the world has descended. It is a bleak existence, but one that breeds resourceful survivors. The second point of view is that of the ex-ranger Sienna Doss, someone still part of what passes for civilized society. She is one of the most bad-ass women you'll find in science fiction. Very determined but with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. With Satori's predators, Brood's survival instinct and Doss' access to military resources, the finale of the novel can only be called explosive.

Ziegler's style is one that relies on dialogue a lot. He doesn't offer much in the way of explanation for what has happened to the world in other ways, but preferring to let the readers draw their own conclusions. That made it first chapters a bit of a challenge for me. Especially Brood, who uses a lot of Mexican slang in his speech was hard to follow at times. Once I settled into the story it was a blast. Ziegler doesn't offer much in the way of explanations but he also doesn't let details distract him from the story. It is a very tight plot. Some readers might even prefer a bit more world building. How the remnant of the US government works for instance, remains a mystery. As does what is going on in the rest of the world. I didn't think the story needs that additional weight though. It worked fine for me as it is.

Night Shade Books reeled in another talented author with Rob Ziegler. Seed is a convincing début that will no doubt please fans of the post-apocalyptic sub genre. What impressed me most was the way the author combines the Buddhist sense of calm and being part of a greater whole, with the pent up aggression and inevitable, lethal conclusion that follows from their mastery of genetics. Satori is disturbing on many more levels than the environmental issue of producing sterile seed. Seed incorporates a number of themes I like to see in science fiction, for me personally, Ziegler has hit the bullseye. But I think that even for readers who do not share my peculiar preferences, this novel has a lot to offer. It is definitely recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: Seed
Author: Rob Ziegler
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 339
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59780-323-6
First published: 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Hermetica of Elysium - Annmarie Banks

The Hermetica of Elysium is the first novel in  Banks' Elysium Texts series. I haven't been able to find out how many books this series is projected to be, but a second volume, titled The Necromancer's Grimoire, is scheduled for publication in September 2012. The publisher has named it a medieval fantasy. I think it is set a bit too late for that but it is definitely a historical novel with a prominent fantasy element and these kind of stories generally appeal to me. So when Knox Robinson Publishing offered me a review copy I happily accepted. The book left me with mixed feelings. I think I see what Banks is trying to do with the historic and philosophical material incorporated in the novel but the execution leaves something to be desired. It is a bit of a bland read.

Barcelona 1494: Nadira, a young woman serving the household of a former Jew and spice merchant, sees her life turned upside down when a tortured scholar is left in her master's stable. Despite Nadira's care the scholar dies, but not before speaking a few mysterious last words on an equally mysterious book. One that the inquisition would like to get their hands on. When the companions of the dead scholar arrives. Nadira is propelled into a trip that sees her being chased by men who do not shy away from violence to achieve their goals. Her only bargaining chip is her command of no less than six languages. Making her very useful in unlocking the secrets of the book the dead scholar was looking for. He fate is now tied to the Hermetica of Elysium, knowledge so powerful, it cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

In an era where women were rarely educated in even one language, Nadira is something special. She can read and write Moorish (which I take to be an Arabic dialect), Greek, Hebrew, Latin, English and Castilian (this one made me blink, wouldn't they have spoken Catalan in Barcelona?). Six languages, using four different alphabets. Nadira is quite a talented linguist and many people recognize that talent. You'd think that someone with an education would show a bit of independence and perhaps some ambition. Nadira doesn't. She passes in the hands of ever more ever more powerful men and although she does bargain on occasion, her goals are always very modest. Knowledge interests her but not the power that comes with it. Her subservience, despite being treated like an honoured guest more often than the prisoner she really is, wasn't too convincing.

Another element that was less than convincing is the setting. There are quite a lot of historical references in the novel to the inquisition, the Italian campaign of Charles VIII of France, Pope Alexander VI, the conclusion of the Reconquista and the expulsion Jews from Spain in 1492. All these events have some effect on the story but it is all kept at quite a distance for most of the story. I guess the story lacks a sense of place. A lot of it is set in a tower in Andorra for instance. If you take out Andorra and replace it with Scotland, those scenes would be equally convincing. The book never makes me feel I am in Spain, or Andorra, or Italy. I guess a bit more couleure locale would have been appreciated.

What Banks is more interested in than history is the Hermetica. These ancient Greek philosophical and historical texts were unavailable to western scholars for much of the middle ages. With the the increased interest in classical culture of the Renaissance period, they made a come back. They've been pretty influential in he centuries that followed. The impact on alchemy in particular, is something that shows up in this novel, with various strange elixirs being used throughout the the story. Plato is also discussed on several occasions. I must admit the relationship between Plato and the Hermetica isn't quite clear from the text of the novel. I'm guessing Plato's work were an influence. If there is one think Banks clearly dislikes, it is lecturing. There are none to be found in the novel, nothing that even hits at an infodump. The reader needs to read between the lines to see where the direction is going. In a way, this is refreshing in a novel that aims to uncover an ancient mystery.

My appreciation for the way Banks imparts information is not enough to make The Hermetica of Elysium more than mildly entertaining however. I couldn't really connect with the main character and her rather unlikely backstory. add to that the way she is dragged though the story by various other characters and the vague historical context of the novel and you end up with a book that is competently written but not much more than that. Maybe other people will get more out of it but for me it was a slightly disappointing read.

Book Details
Title: The Hermetica of Elysium
Author: Annmarie Banks
Publisher: Knox Robinson Publishing
Pages: 289
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-908483-08-9
First published: 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Storm of Swords - George R.R. Martin

The third volume of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire is a book with quite a reputation. In the previous two novels, Martin had already made it clear that characters are not save and nobody should count on their favourite character making it to the end of the seven projected volumes. In A Storm of Swords, Martin takes it to a whole new level and many have named this book as their favourite of the series so far. Others dislike it for the high mortality rate among the important characters. I can see why, it is a novel that is hard to put down, but personally I still prefer A Clash of Kings, which builds the tension to a clear climax rather than hammer the reader with numerous plot twists. That is more a personal preference than a statement on the quality of the novel though.

The opening moves in the War of the Five Kings have been made and so far the Lannisters appear to have come out on top. Renly Baratheon has been killed, his brother Stannis has lost the bulk of his army and fleet, the Greyjoys are more interested in plundering than conquest and even their strongest enemy, Rob Stark, has managed to get himself in trouble despite winning all his battles. With the north under attack of the Greyjoys and the loyalty of the powerful Lord Frey uncertain, Rob is not in a position to take on the Lannisters just yet. That doesn't mean the Lannisters can rest easy, there is more than enough internal conflict to keep them occupied. In the mean time more trouble is brewing for the men of the Night Watch, as a gathering of Wildlings is spotted heading for the wall. To the south, Daenerys Stormborn is looking to acquire an army capable of winning her the Iron Throne.

Valar Morghulis, all men must die, is certainly the leitmotiv of this novel. And die they do, in large numbers. Where things are still more or less civilized in the first novel of the series, brutal violence erupts in the second, resulting in parts of the Kingdom where law and order are a distant memory at best. Through the point of view of Arya, Martin explores the consequences of war for the common people and what she sees is not pretty. Arya's decent into brutality, which starts in A Clash of Kings,  is probably one of the most disturbing elements in the story. Personally it affected me a lot more than the Red Wedding scene, which is one of the dramatic highlights of the novel.

Nobles are not safe either however. Warfare still takes its toll of course, but the court intrigue in Kings Landing and Riverrun is just as bloody in a way. Tyrion, who once had some grip on events at King's Landing, is not sidelined by his father, opening the old wound of his father's contempt for him. Driven by a need to be recognized as a human being, Tyrion is one of Martin's more interesting characters in the previous books. He's not quite as prominent in A Storm of Swords but his story line still contains an upset or two.

Where A Game of Thrones was mostly a story of House Stark, Martin continues to expand the number of point of views. House Lannister, who more or less take the central stage for events within the borders of the Seven Kingdoms, gain a point of view with Jaime Lannister. Once again, Martin shows us what he can do with a character. Jaime, up to this point, is thoroughly unsympathetic. He has tried to kill a small boy, slew his king and committed incest with his sister to pick the highlights of his notorious life. And yet, once you get inside his head, he doesn't appear to be the monster his enemies hold him to be. There is his love for his brother Tyrion, the respect he develops for Brienne of Tarth and his tense relationship with his father. In a few chapters, Martin turns him from a villain to an imperfect man. Not a nice man for sure, those are in short supply in the Seven Kingdoms, but much more human than one would expect.

The two manifestations of ice and fire in the novel also receive quite a bit of attention. In the north, Martin adds a point of view of Samwell, to depict events at the night's watch. Jon Snow is off running with the Wildlings after all, chasing girls kissed by fire. Martin shows us the full extend of the threat to the Kingdom in this novel, but I must admit, Samwell is not one of my favourite characters. His chapters don't reveal much more than that he is basically a good guy and too scared to be much good to anyone most of the time. Which Jon had shown us already.

Further south, Dany is making big strides. Where in the first novel, she was wife and basically property of Khal Drogo, and the second dealt with surviving his demise, Dany is now coming into power and finding out that ruling is a lot more difficult than conquering. Dany's choice in this novel is an interesting one. Without giving too much of the plot away, I think Martin still believed there'd be a five year gap between events in A Storm of Swords and the fourth book. Without that gap, she seems to loose momentum, which may well have contributed to the problems Martin had writing the next two volumes.

A few other challenges show through as well. For one thing the story keeps expanding as Martin adds Dorne to the over all conflict in the Originally, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons were to be one volume but Martin already has trouble fitting all he wants to add between the covers of A Storm of Swords. It is nearly a thousand pages in hardcover and moves the plot forward a lot in all of Martin's may story lines.A Storm of Swords is a fine bit of juggling, I must admit I am impressed that Martin manages to keep all those balls in the air, but it also raises questions of whether it can be sustained in subsequent novels. Reading this book, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the next book ended up being split into two, rather large, volumes.

I guess not all readers will appreciate Martin's tendency to kill off main characters but it does lend to book a level of tension it would not have achieved otherwise. A Storm of Swords buffets the reader with twists and turns in the plot, showing just how little control even the powerful have over the situation in the Seven Kingdoms. A Song of Ice and Fire is firmly rooted in fantasy tropes but this approach, one that basically puts the Seven Kingdoms up as the main character, rather than individual people, is one that you don't see too often. The first three books in this series shows what epic fantasy can be in the hands of a talented writer but I do think that a few cracks are beginning to appear in the story as well. Finishing this series is going to be a huge challenge but if anyone can do it, it is George R.R. Martin.

Book Details
Title: A Storm of Swords
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 973
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-10663-3
First published: 2000