Monday, April 30, 2012

Spirits of Glory - Emily Devenport

About a month ago author Emily Devenport approached me with a request to review her Young Adult novel Spirits of Glory. I was not familiar with Devenport but a quick search told me she has published several novels under three different pen names, one of which got her a Philip K. Dick Award nomination. Spirits of Glory (2010) is self-published and I tend to avoid those after a number of negative experiences with such material. Given Devenport's resume I wasn't too worried I'd end up with a poorly written piece of fiction however, so I accepted a review copy. It turned out to be one of my better decisions in regards to self published material. Spirits of Glory turned out to be a good short novel with one of the more intriguing main characters I've come across in Young Adult novels.

Amber "Hawkeye" Rodriguez has been fascinated with the Disappearance since here early teens. In this event, some two centuries past, the people of the North found the people of the South gone. They simply disappeared without a trace, leaving behind empty cities and a ruined highway. Now, at nineteen, she is one of the authorities on the subject and spends her days researching the matter in detail. One day a Dr. Tutuola shows up on her doorstep accompanied by eight Neighbors (just this once I will adopt US spelling), humanoids with whom Amber's people share the planet. Before she knows it, Amber is on her way south, on a journey though an abandoned land where time fractures, ghosts roam and the Southern Gods set the rules.

Spirits of Glory is a novel that uses elements from both fantasy and science fiction. The planet the story is set on, was colonized centuries ago and although there doesn't seem to be any contact with earth, these origins are still remembered. We hear of genetically engineered species, space stations and strange fluctuations in the flow of time on the planet that ordinary physics seem unable to explain. On the other hand, we are shown ghosts and gods that appear to be native to the planet as well. It is a strange place by any standard. A planet where many unexpected things can happen. I think Devenport was a bit too ambitious in her choice of setting here. At 128 pages, Spirits of Glory is a fairly short work. Many aspects of the planet and the community of people that settled it remain underexposed.

Hawkeye is an unusual protagonist for a science fiction novel. Although she is still in her teens, she is wise beyond her years. Something that is common on a planet where time plays tricks on its inhabitants. She suffers from severe pains in her hip and knee joints and once on the road, often needs help to get around. One of the Neighbors uncharitably described her as 'one who looks like a girl and walks like an old woman.' It has made her the aim of ridicule for much of her life and the harassing continues when a group of scavengers, people who take the risk of travelling into the South and extract objects of value, at the behest of the Northern Gods. The way she deals with it is impressive. In a series of flashbacks Devenport reconstructs the gradual realization that such harassments is not something she has to put up with. The journey into the south is the final element in this process that transforms her into a woman confident in her abilities. It's one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

For most of the novel, Hawkeye travels through the deserted south, a landscape that is not so much apocalyptic but more surreal. The place is empty but even though it has been centuries, it looks like the people who lived there have only recently left. Combined with the ghosts that show themselves regularly and the time fractures that can hit unexpectedly at any moment, the setting becomes strange and unsettling. The reader constantly gets the impression something is not quite right on this world. Hawkeye shows great courage moving into this territory that has been off limits for two centuries. She can't run away from danger after all, and is largely dependent on the help from the Neighbors to keep her safe.

These Neighbors are another mystery. They are human in appearance but their behaviour certainly is not. Even their presence on the planet, unnoticed until quite some time after colonization is a riddle that Hawkeye has yet to solve. They intrigue the academic in Hawkeye and she longs to thoroughly study them not that she has the opportunity to be in their presence. Neighbors are notoriously uncooperative though. They will not answer the most important question of al: why? Push them to far and they will not answer at all. Throughout the novel curiosity wars with caution as Hawkeye tries to gather information while avoiding asking the wrong questions. Something that gets even harder when the relationship between Hawkeye and the Neighbors becomes more personal. Devenport carefully stays just short of the line where the lack of information about the Neighbors becomes irritating to the reader. Very well paced indeed.

I enjoyed reading Spirits of Glory. It is an novel packed with interesting concepts, that blends science fiction with more fantastical elements into a unique surreal world. There were a few things in the finale of the novel that might have been handled differently. I suspect not all readers will be thrilled by it. For me, that wasn't enough to spoil the novel though. I thoroughly enjoyed Hawkeye's journey of discovery both on the personal level as well as the exploration of her world. I'm not entirely sure Devenport made the most out of the setting, especially in regards the the gods, I am left with a lot of questions. Then again, good fiction does not necessarily provide all the answers. Spirits of Glory is more than worth your time. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: Spirits of Glory
Author: Emily Devenport
Publisher: Self Published, read the Smashwords edition
Pages: 128
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov

For my fifth Grand Master reading challenge, this project may well be the only one at Random Comments that runs on schedule, I decided to read something by Isaac Asimov. Several of his novels feature prominently on all kinds of recommended reading lists and he is certainly one of the genre's towering figures. I read his Foundation novels (the original trilogy) a while ago and I can't say I was overly impressed. Asimov didn't lack ideas but his prose is barely serviceable and he has the tendency to explain everything in great detail to his readers. Perhaps I should have picked something from later in his career but I, Robot (1950) is such an iconic work in the genre that I felt I should give it a go. Much to my surprise, I liked this book better than the Foundation novels. Not that the flaws in Asimov's writing are absent in this novel, but the quality of the stories is more consistent and on the whole, I though them more entertaining as well.

I, Robot has been described as a fix-up novel or a short fiction collection. I think of it as the former but it is certainly true that most of the text appeared in the shape of various short stories between 1940 and 1950 in a Super Science Fiction Stories and of course John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, to whom the book is dedicated. Asimov has connected the stories with bits of interviews with Dr. Susan Calvin, a robotpsychologist working for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc, as she is looking back on her long career in the field. She is not always the main character, or even a character, but she does provide just enough context to put the stories into a general future history. Asimov does this in his usual efficient way, not wasting a word more on it than absolutely necessary. I understand Asimov changed some of the details in the stories to make them more consistent. He is certainly making the most of repackaging these short stories with minimal effort here.

Being written in the 1940s, most or the novel is pretty badly dated and some of Asimov's depictions of the future will seem decidedly strange to new readers. We have caught up with the start of the series now. I, Robot starts in 1996, with the story Robbie (1940), about a primitive robot and playmate of the eight year old Gloria. The girl treats the robot like she would a human friend and this makes her mother uneasy. Robbie wil have to go. Asimov uses the story to outline the resistance against artificial intelligence, the fear of superior robots replacing human beings. First in the work space and later completely. It is an introduction to his famous three laws of robotics, which he will name in the second story Runaround (1942).
"We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
"Two," continued Powell, "a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law."
"And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."

Powell and Donovan discussing the Three Laws of Robotics - Runaround
Runaround, set in 2015, introduces the field testers Powell and Donovan and is a story in which Asimov examines the conflicts that may arise from these three laws. The laws are the kind of logic that Asimov seemed to have liked, simple, elegantly formulated and its intent easily understood. He was smart enough to see they are by no means flawless though. Most of the stories contain situations in which some conflict between these laws makes the robots behave unexpectedly or cause them to be caught in a loop, often jeopardizing the project they are working on or the lives of the unfortunate humans in their company. In Runaround it happens in the supremely hostile environment on Mercury, which shows just how little we knew about conditions on the planet in 1940. It gives Asimov plenty of room to speculate though.

Some six months after events in Runaround Donovan encounter a different sort of problem. In Reason (1941), which I consider to be one of the strongest stories, Asimov takes a more philosophical tone when our field testers are stuck with a robot who will not accept the (in its opinion) contrived and unnecessarily complicated explanation for its existence. A case of Occam's razor gone blunt I suppose. This story contains the most memorable quote in the book if you appreciate sarcasm.
"I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection", said Cutie, "and the results have been most interesting. I began at the one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself exist, because I think..."
Powell groaned, "Oh Jupiter, a robot Decartes!"

QT-1 discussing its own existence.
Cutie retreats from reality along the same lines as a human being might do in the end by resorting to religion, shutting out the need for an explanation. It is one of several instances where robotpsychology runs parallel to human psychology. Something even Susan Calvin reluctantly admits later on in the book.

In Catch That Rabit (1944) robot behaviour shows some parallels to buggy software as well. It sees our field testers use drastic measures to get the robot back under control. Asimov spends a lot of the later part of the story lecturing (disguised as a conversation between Powell and Donovan). I can't say I particularly liked it. Liar! (1941) is more interesting.Set in 2121, it deals with a robot that can read minds. The conflict arises when it receives one sets of instructions verbally, that don't correspond with the real desires of the person giving the instructions. Calvin's behaviour in this story will no doubt make some readers groan but the concept is a strong one.

By the time Little Lost Robot (1947), robots have become quite advanced and exploration of the solar system is well under way. In 2029, one such space program employs robots with a slightly altered set of robotic laws, enabling them to ignore a human being putting themselves in danger. If the mere existence of such a robot was to become public knowledge on earth, the political consequences would be dire. When one of the robots is lost, the people who run the project are in deep trouble. Calvin is called upon to find it. The three laws of robotics can be quite a restriction I suppose, so the temptation to do away with them is clear. Asimov presents a perfectly reasonable argument for doing so in this story. It might have worked better if there had been more of an element of danger in the story though. The missing robot is still unable to actively do harm. Personally I wouldn't have been particularly worried to have it around.

In Escape! (1945), positronic brains have become so advanced they are capable of calculations comparable of those of a super computer. The Brain, as this robot is called, is set to the task of creating the means for interstellar travel, a problem that has already cracked a competing robot. Calvin is aware that there is a conflict with the three laws but doesn't know where. The company tries to avoid the problem by feeding The Brain the information is small sections. It features a lot of irrational behaviour on the Brain's part. I'm not particularly fond of this story but as usual, Asimov's rationale is perfectly logical.

The book then moves on to 2032, a year that poses a completely different challenge to Susan. A Turing with a twist. In Evidence (1946), Stephen Byerley is a brilliant district attorney running for mayor, when one of his opponents accuses him of being a robot. How do you prove someone is a robot when the subject is not cooperating and very aware of his rights? Written during the aftermath of the second world war, it is easy to see what Asimov (of Russian Jewish descent himself) was aiming at. It is the most politically charged story in the book, with a lot of it focussing on the suspicion and outright hatred of robots despite the fact they are incapable of harming a human being. Where Asimov usually explains the entire plot to the reader in detail, this story is certainly food for thought.

Interestingly enough I, Robot then goes to show us some suspicion of robots might actually be warranted. In The Evitable Conflict (1950), set in 2052, Calvin has realized that robots rule the world. They are responsible for the allocation of goods and services and the division of labour of the entire planet, which by that time is divided into four super states. Calvin is called upon to explain apparent imperfections in the solution the robots provide. These turn out to have a perfectly reasonable explanation in line with the three laws of course. This story has aged very badly, Asimov's future, at this point in time, seems positively silly, although from his perspective it might not have been entirely impossible. It was not my favourite part of the book though. Partly because of Asimov's tendency to explain everything and partly because of the fact that the plot is mostly a guided tour though planetary government in 2052.

With I, Robot Asimov lays the foundation of what would become one of the three main series in his career as science fiction writer. He is not technically a good writer (at this point in his career at least) but back in the days where science fiction was very much seen as the literature of ideas, you probably couldn't do much better than Asimov. He had ideas and was not afraid to explain them at length. For the modern reader a lot of I, Robot is dated but with lasting contributions to the genre such as the three laws of robotics and the positronic brain, it is one of the novels that shaped the genre. One of the thoughts that kept returning while reading this novel is just how many things Asimov discussed that were in the experimental stage at the time, or didn't exist at all. All things considered, I think it deserves at least some of the praise that is heaped on it.

Book Details
Title: I, Robot
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 224
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80370-9
First published: 1950

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Forerunner - Andre Norton

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award clearly shows signs of the imbalance between men and women in science fiction. Of the 28 winners, only 4 are women. The first woman ever to win this award was Andre Norton (1912-2005), who was thus honoured in 1984. Ursula K. Le Guin, Ann McCaffrey and Connie Willis have followed since. Norton had a long career as an author. She started publishing in the 1930s and kept on writing until her death in 2005. I have only read one novel by her, Black Trillium, which she co-wrote with Marion Zimmer Bradley and Julian May.  A book that is in my opinion a disaster. Forerunner (1981) is not one of her best known works, but apparently it is the first novel published by Tor, a publisher that had a great impact on American Science Fiction and Fantasy in the past few decades. Tor has reissued it recently.

Orphan girl Simsa grows up in the ancient city of Kuxortal. A place that has so many layers of buildings on top of each other that the founding of the city is lost in time. It is a place of commerce and antiquity and a place the space traders visit during their endless travels across the universe. For Simsa the universe is a lot smaller however. She ekes out a living among the burrowers. The city's poorest, digging though the layers of ancient civilization for items worth trading for. Under the guidance of a woman Simsa refers to as the Old One, she has learnt to survive but now that her mentor is gone, she has to face the world alone. Simsa is different form the people around her, something of which she is very well aware. To keep her independence and find her origins, she will have to find a way out of the poverty of the burrower's community.

Forerunner is a novel with one leg in Fantasy and the other in Science Fiction, as we would see things today. Kuxortal is a city that doesn't seem to have developed much beyond the renaissance technological level. On the other hand, right outside the city, space ships land regularly. The city is a hub of both planetary and galactic trade. A place with a long history but also one that clearly has origins elsewhere in the universe. The author probably wouldn't have thought much of the distinction but if I had to put it in one genre, I'd say it is definitely more fantastical.

We see the story entirely through the eyes of Simsa, who goes through a lot of personal growth over the course of the story. She is suspicious and rude throughout most of the novel. Trust is dangerous in her world and so she is very reluctant to grant it. It leads to a number of situations where she is very rude and clearly shows her ignorance of the world beyond Kuxortal. What bothered me a bit about this story is a revelation at the end of the book that changes her from ignorant to having at least some idea of how large the universe really is. It not only felt forced, it was also imposed on the character in what was almost a religious blending of spirits, rather than through her (quite harrowing) personal experiences during the story.

That being said, the interplay between Simsa and the start trader named Thom T'seng, to which she sees here fate tied, is comical at times too. Simsa doesn't recognize it, but the star trader is being very patient with her. His plans to do things that she knows are impossible or go to places that she knows mean certain death. She is proven wrong repeatedly of course, but none of it seems to disturb the star trader. He ploughs on, regardless of how stupid and naive Simsa seems to think he is, occasionally producing a small technological miracle to save the day. It would have been nice to see it from the other side as well.

A lot of Norton's works are what would be considered young adult these days. In terms of themes, plot and complexity, this novel would certainly fall in that category these days. The language Norton uses is interesting though. She has a distinct preference for long sentences with lots of commas. Some of it is quite overwritten and I found myself rereading lines a lot early on in the novel. It takes a few pages to get used to it.
Kuxortal was old but it did not die. Its citizens had become an incredible mixture of races - sometimes of species - or mutations and new beginnings of life forms, springing out of old. Kuxortal had been favored ages ago by the fact that it had come to birth at the meeting of the river Kux (which drew upon the trade of a full continent, wafting boats and rafts to the western sea) with that same sea. The harbor was a safe one even during the worst of the wet-season gales, its natural protections added to by the ingenuity of generations of men who knew all the perils of sea and wind, of gale and raider attack.

Description of the city of Kuxortal - Chapter 1

I guess you could say some of this novel is reminiscent of the golden age pulp magazines for which Norton wrote earlier in her career. Not generally a part of the genre I enjoy most.

Despite all the negatives I did enjoy Forerunner. It is not a memorable novel but certainly a lot better than my first encounter with Norton's writing. Simsa is a character you can really root for, even if she is too stubborn for her own good sometimes. If you are willing to overlook Norton's prose and the occasionally illogical plot in favour of a good adventure, this book might be a good read. Norton published a sequel named Forerunner: The Second Venture in 1985. I won't rush to the nearest book store to get it but I won't rule out reading it at some point either.

Book Details
Title: Forerunner
Author: Andre Norton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 272
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3191-5
First published: 1981

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Night Sessions - Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod is one of the science fiction writers whose works has been on my wishlist for quite a while but I've never actually gotten around to reading. Fortunately, Pyr is releasing his 2008 novel The Night Sessions, for which MacLeod received the BSFA Award,  in paperback this month. The publisher was kind enough to provide me with a review copy. Since I haven't read anything else by MacLeod, I have no idea how this novel fits into his entire oeuvre but I thought the level of detail of future society, mixed with the recognizable elements from crime fiction and the humour of some of the conversations a very interesting mix.

After a period of worldwide religiously inspired violence, the world has done away with it's major religions. In the UK, laws are enacted that officially ignore religion, churches are marginalized and their influence (and the number of supporters) diminishes drastically. As far as the government is concerned, religious affiliations, priest and places of worship do not exist. Reality is more complicated of course. Not everybody is about to accept the marginalization of religion in society. When a priest in Edinburgh is killed by what appears to be a package bomb, it is up to Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson to find the killer. The stakes are raised considerably when the possibility of a terrorist campaign becomes ever more likely.

The Night Sessions is an interesting hybrid of crime and science fiction. The author doesn't mention a specific date but the fundamental changes described in the book would suggest a couple of decades in the future at least. Science is not so much the focus of the novel, it is much more concerned with solving the murder and attached conspiracy, which may be a bit disappointing to the more hardcore science fiction fans. Between the lines, MacLeod does mention a lot future history as well as matters such as climate change and a technical response to this threat, advances in robotics information technology and artificial intelligence and of course two spectacular space elevators.

All of that is dealt with in very little detail though, MacLeod doesn't allow it to clutter the novel with technical details. Some interesting tidbits here and there is what will have to satisfy the reader. One of the details that struck me was the link between religious fanaticism and climate change denial. Or perhaps I should say a simple unwillingness to do anything about it. More often, it is thought of as being encouraged by various industries whose business interests may be threatened by action taken to mitigate it's effects. It is one of the many negative aspects of religious fundamentalism that MacLeod, though the eyes of Ferguson, mentions and one I personally hadn't considered. I don't think it's hugely influential but, truth be told, I haven't really looked into it in depth.

One might get the impression that the response to religious violence is pretty extreme itself and that the novel is quite anti-religious. The history MacLeod describes is one where things continue to escalate from 9/11 onwards, spiralling all the way into nuclear war. Despite all of that, the book doesn't portray religion in an entirely negative light. Fegruson is clearly happy with the marginalization of religion, he played a part in suppressing it, and while is is not exactly proud of some of the things he has done, he does feel it was in the best interest of society. There are a number of other characters who are deeply religious and none of them are stupid or particularly violent. I must admit I got lot in the different flavours of protestantism that are discussed in the book. Not being religious myself, some of the distinctions always seemed quite trivial to me. No doubt the devoutly religious will consider MacLeod's future something of a nightmare, even a book they may not want to read, but the views on religion presented, are a bit more nuanced than they appear initially.

Artificial intelligence also plays an important part in the story. The world is struggling with a number of battle robots that have become sentient and have since been transplanted into less dangerous bodies. A number of them have gathered in one spot in New Zealand, where they live in a creationist theme park. Created intelligence and a Creationist stronghold is one of the many examples on MacLeod's humour in the novel. One of the robots working there is named Piltdown, whose name is another great joke, works there as, to use his own words, a fake ape-man laments his existence and mocks creationist science in a way that would make Marvin the paranoid android applaud:
“A few weeks ago,” said the head, “they reclassified my kind from ‘fully human post-Diluvial local variety’ to ‘extinct large-brained ape.’ Some little dipshit at the Institute had done a lit review and decided that the bones of the type specimen weren’t definitively associated with the stone tools found in the same horizon of the same fucking dig. And furthermore, that the fossil’s  cervical vertebrae and pelvis weren’t well enough preserved to justify giving me an upright stance. So suddenly I’ve got to start shambling around like a half-shut knife, swinging my arms and grunting. It’s demeaning, I tell you.
And it’s done my back in. I expect my neck will be next.”

Piltdown to Vermuelen - Chapter 2 - The Uncanny Valley
Where Piltdown is a tourist attraction, Ferguson works with a different kind of robot. His assistant is a Leki (Law enforcement kinetic intelligence), a robot modelled on one of the contraptions from H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Ferugon treats them as useful but also slightly unpredictable. There is always a sense that he doesn't fully trust them and doesn't regard them as fully equal to a human. Some of the interactions between them gave me the feeling the Leki actually encouraged that.
“I’ve checked all the citations of religious texts and legal documents,” it said at last. “They are all genuine. I have constructed a Boolean restatement of the reasoning. If the bizarre premises are accepted, the logic is valid. Someone who accepted these premises would be morally and—in their own view— legally obligated to carry out the conclusion. Taken together, the broadsides are—to use an old term—a fatwa, a legal ruling by a competent religious scholar. Consequently, if we were to find someone who did accept these premises we would have a prima facie suspect.”
“Sometimes,” said Ferguson, “I suspect the expression ‘No shit, Sherlock’ was coined with lekis in mind.”

Ferguson and his leki discussing possible evidence - Chapter 5 - Bishop

Sentient robots and their treatment raise some interesting questions and how they are perceived and what they are capable of proves to be very important to the plot.

The Night Sessions is packed with interesting concepts but it also a very efficiently written book. MacLeod packs more into the 260 odd pages of this novel that some books double that size carry. One of the few negative aspects of the novel, is that some of it is glossed over very quickly. Stuff that would have deserved a closer look. That didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying this book however. From what I read online, The Night Sessions is not generally regarded as MacLeod's strongest books. Obviously I can't say anything sensible about that, but if it gets better than this, his best must be very good indeed. That to read list just keeps getting longer.

Book Details
Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 263
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-61614-613-9
First published: 2008

Saturday, April 14, 2012

We See a Different Frontier Fundraiser

I came across this particular project on one of the many blogs I follow. Unfortunately, it drowned in the dozens of entries from this week I hadn't read yet and I can't seem to find it any more. Whoever you are, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

As you may have noticed I am trying to diversify my reading a bit in recent years. It used to be predominantly epic fantasy but in the last few years it I have developed a taste for other genres as well. One of the developments I have been keeping an eye on is genre fiction from a non-anglophone or non-western perspective. There is preciously little published in that area and it certainly isn't always easy to find. I'm a great fan of projects such as Lavie Tidhar's Apex Book of World SF (the second volume of which will be released later this year) and I would love to see more of such material being published.

We See a Different Frontier takes a slightly different tack. I'll quote from the appeal, since they can explain it much better than I ever could.
We are raising funds to publish a special issue/anthology of colonialism-themed speculative fiction from outside the first-world viewpoint, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes and published by The Future Fire.

Colonialism is still a thorn on the side of humankind. Many of the problems of the Third World, for instance, are due to the social-political-economic matrix imposed on its countries by the First World countries since the 17th century (e.g. the manufacture by European powers of arbitrary borders and tribal conflicts in Africa, and then the creation of Arab countries to defeat the Ottoman Empire in WWI). The balance of power is changing in the 21st Century, but it's still essential to look back if we want to truly understand the forces at play in the political and cultural panoramas of Third World countries—and even in countries that hardly can be labeled as Third World, like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

Much widely distributed science fiction and fantasy is written by American and other Anglophone authors, and treats subjects close to the hearts of straight, white, English-speaking men. There's nothing wrong with this sci-fi itself—we love lots of it—but there's clearly something missing. Having white Anglo cis/hetero/males as (the only) role models is not an option any more. We aim to redress this balance, not only by publishing speculative stories by people with different viewpoints and addressing concerns from outside of the usual area (see World SF), but also by explicitly including fiction that addresses the profound socio-political issues around colonisation and colonialism (see Race in SF). We want to see political stories: not partisan-political, but writing that recognizes the implications for real people and cultures of the events and actions that make up science fictional or fantastic histories, as well as our own history.

For this anthology we will be looking for stories from the perspective of people and places that are colonized under regimes not of their choosing (in the past, present or even future). We are not primarily interested in war stories, although don’t completely rule them out. We are not interested in stories about a White Man learning the error of his ways; nor parables about alien contact in which the Humans are white anglos, and the Aliens are an analogue for other races. We want stories told from the viewpoint of colonized peoples, with characters who do not necessarily speak English, from authors who have experience of the world outside the First World.

We want to raise at least $3000 dollars so that we can make this a professional rate-paying anthology for authors and artists from outside of the mainstream. All editorial and technical work will be carried out for no pay, but we feel strongly we should pay authors fairly for their work. This money will cover the cost of paying around $250 for each of 7-8 stories, plus a cover artist, publicity and advertising, review copies, rewards for donors, etc. All profit from sales of the anthology will be paid to the contributors as royalties. If we raise more than this, we can buy even more stories and/or pay even more professional rates to the authors. If we don’t quite make it, we’ll still publish this great anthology, but it may not be as large, as great, or as professional.
 I think raising $3,000 should be possible and I've made a modest contribution myself. If you would like to see more diversified science fiction being published, consider supporting them. The peerbacker page for this project can be found here.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Kushiel's Avatar - Jacqueline Carey

I reread the first two parts of this trilogy in 2011 so I thought it was past time to wrap it up. Kushiel's Avatar is the third novel featuring the darkly sensual heroine Phèdre and a reimagined renaissances Europe infused with mythological and religious figures and practices from many cultures. It is an irresistible mix and one that definitely launched Carey's career as a fantasy novelist. The first time through, I felt the second and third volumes didn't quite live up to the standard set in Kushiel's Dart. This reread hasn't changed that but I must admit I do appreciate these novels a bit more the second time through. Just a bit mind you, I still think this book has more than a few problems.

Ten years of rest Phèdre is promised after her adventures in Kushiel's Chosen, most of which she dedicates to studying the mystery of the Master of the Straits and the angel Rahab that is keeping her friend Hyacinthe captured. She learns a lot in those ten years but the key to solving the mystery eludes her. Then, a message from Melisande, traitor to the realm and convicted to death in absentia, arrives at Phèdre's estate. Melisande's son, whom she has kept hidden for a decade, has disappeared and since she can't leave the temple in which she has sought refuge, she is asking for Phèdre's help. In return, she will provide information that may lead Phèdre to the name of God, the one missing piece of the puzzle that would give her a chance to free Hyacinth.

Structurally, this book must have been a challenge for Carey. Phèdre is sent on two quests simultaneously basically. One to find Imriel, Melisande's missing son who would go on to star in his own trilogy, and the other to free Hyacinth. Since they force Phèdre to travel to very different parts of the world, they frequently conflict and she spends a great deal of time agonizing over which one to give priority. In the end, she is more or less forced to go after Imriel first. On one level, that was a logical choice but I thought the climax of that particular quest was a lot more powerful than the attempt to free Hyacinth. Some readers might be a lot more invested in Hyacinth's story line, he's been with us from the very start after all, but for me it felt the last couple of hundred pages where just tying up loose ends. It makes for a very long epilogue.

The search for Imriel takes Phèdre to the Middle East and the Caucasus. Interesting enough for a series so full of religious symbols and stories, Islam has not made an appearance in Carey's world. The middle east is dominated by a reflection of the Persian Empire (Khebbel-im-Akkad) and Egypt, where the Ptolimaic dynasty is still ruling. There is an Arab/desert culture (The Umaiyyat) mentioned but that is one of the places Carey doesn't visit in the novel. It would have been interesting to see what Carey would have made of an Islamic culture.

I am not entirely sure what Carey's historical inspiration for the culture in the Caucasus she describes in this novel is, but the area Phèdre visits would be in Georgia today (although for some reason I associate the Land of Fire with Azerbaijan.) In the novel it is referred to as Drujan. It is without a doubt one of the darkest parts of the story, dealing with insanity, crubelty and abuse on a level we haven't seen in the books before. Phèdre's sexual preferences are not everybody's cup of tea. In previous books I have been able to see the appeal of what she is doing, even if I feel Terre D'Ange's attitudes towards sex are a bit romanticized. In this book Carey looses me. What Phèdre is willing to endure voluntarily, or because her gods ask it of her, it defies comprehension really. What I did think was very convincing was the way all that fear and the pent up aggression is finally released. If you like tragic endings this would have made a very good one. I would have been happy if this book had been split.

But Carey didn't do that, she pushes on. Phèdre continues on her way to find the name of God and in this story line we dive deeply into Habiru (Jewish) mythology. People more familiar with the subject will probably see more of Carey's inspirations but the Tribe of Dan definitely shows up in the Torah. Phèdre needs to travel deep into the interior of Africa to find what she is looking for. It is a terribly long journey and as some points it feels a bit rushed. The author also takes a lot of time dealing with the fall out of events in Drujan, which only reinforced my impression that this section of the novel is mostly tying up loose plot lines. Vast stretches of Africa get a cursory glance at most, and with so many places being visited, the cultures Phèdre encounters along the way do not receive as much attention as some of the cultures described earlier in the trilogy.

I guess I still feel Carey was trying to wrap up things a little too neatly, resulting in a book that delivers the real climax of the story too early and drags in later parts, despite rushing though some of the world building later on in the novel. Of the three books with Phèdre as the main character this one is definitely the darkest. Readers who have enjoyed the previous two books will most likely not be bothered by this but Carey pushes it further in Kushiel's Avatar than earlier in the trilogy. Overall I felt it was a mildly disappointing ending of the series. Kushiel's Avatar is a decent read but cannot compete with Kushiel's Dart which is an exceptionally good one. Phèdre will return as a secondary character but Carey is done with her part of the story and that was probably a wise decision. She has taken Phèdre as far as the character could go really. And perhaps the entire series as well.

Book Details
Title: Kushiel's Avatar
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 750
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34753-9
First published: 2003i>

Monday, April 2, 2012

Back in Town

Got back home around 20:00 last night. Very tired now, especially since I had to work today. Don't think I was much use there. Had a great trip, is was more than worth it. Normal service at Random Comments will resume sometime later this week. Haven't had a chance yet to finishe the next book.

Especially for Neth I have taken a picture of the view from my room at the hostel. It is crappy, as was the bed, but it costs next to nothing so I guess I got what I paid for. :P The picture is taken with my phone. Very low quality I'm afraid.