Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wind's Twelve Quarters is Le Guin's first collection of short fiction and was published in 1975. Quite unusual for a single author short science fiction collection, it is still in print decades after it has been first published. It is generally regarded as the strongest of her collections of short fiction. Not having read the others, I don't have an opinion on that but I did think The Wind's Twelve Quarters is a bit of a mixed bag. It contains a total of seventeen stories, presented more or less in the order they were published in and cover the period between her first publication in 1962 and 1974, by which time she had published some of her best know and most critically acclaimed novels. Le Guin chose this order so the reader could experience her growth as an author. In that respect the collection certainly succeeds. The later stories are much stronger than the earlier ones. Most of the stories have a short introduction by Le Guin about the inspiration for the story and the editorial changes compared to the original magazine publications. A fair number of stories in the collection are what Le Guin calls psychomyths.These stories are hard to pin down but they are independent of setting and often have a surreal quality to them. Le Guin herself puts it like this:
...more or less surrealistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which - without invoking any consideration of immortality - seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.
Le Guin on psychomyths - Foreword
Most of the stories that are not tied to her novels seem to fall into this category. Quite a few of the stories are linked to her novels though. There are Earthsea stories in this collection as well as stories set in the Hainish universe and even a story tied to her novel The Dispossessed (1974). The opening story, Selmy's Necklace (1964), is essentially the prologue of Le Guin's first novel, Roccanon's World (1966). It is set in her Hainish future history and in some ways, reminded me a lot of some of Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization stories. It is seen mostly form the point of view of a member of a less technically advanced race trying to retrieve an heirloom that that was lost decades ago. She doesn't properly comprehend the consequences of her request to be allowed to visit the aliens but to the reader the tragedy that is unfolding is quite clear. A science fiction story written in language that is more often found in fantasy. This story clearly shows why Le Guin usually doesn't make too rigorous a distinction between the two.

The second story is April in Paris (1962) is the earliest story in the collection and Le Guin's first sale. I can't say I liked it much. I guess you could say it is a time travel story. I thought it was pretty predictable with more than a bit wish fulfilment in it. Le Guin then moves on to a story that is also a bit predictable but conceptually more interesting. The Masters (1963) deals with a man who is brought up in a very strict guild like environment where things have always been done a certain way and where deviating from this way, or trying to improve upon it, is heresy. He can't resist the lure of progress though. There is another story that is thematically related to this one in the collection. The Masters is very dark, full of despair. Stylistically probably not the strongest piece but certainly an interesting one. The Darkness Box (1963), like The Masters is a piece that can be considered a fantasy or perhaps an early psychomyth. It's a story with a sense of inevitably about it, of pointless repetition. Not a story that makes one feel happy although one of the characters sees things differently.

The Word of Unbinding and The Rule of Names (both 1964) are Le Guin's first Earthsea stories. I haven't read any of the Earthsea novels so putting them into the perspective of the whole series is going to be a bit difficult. I think they lay the groundwork for the system of magic found in the Earthsea novels. A system that appears to be quite sophisticated judging from these few pages. The stories are uncut fantasy, the only ones in this collection. I will have to read one of the Earthsea novels to be sure but I think I prefer Le Guin's science fiction. Still, Earthsea is on the to read list.  

Winter's King (1969) is another story tied to one of Le Guin's novels. It is set on the same planet as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a novel in the Hainish cycle that is also on my to read list. The version in this collection has been changed to fit the novel more closely and features the wintry world of Gethen. Le Guin plays with titles and particular pronouns to underline the androgyny or the inhabitants. The story itself is one of mind control and a King struggling to do what is best for the kingdom. It certainly makes me curious about the novel. Gethen seems like an intriguing place and the way gender appears to play no role in society opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. Something that struck me about this story is how, like in Selmy's Necklace, Le Guin presents a technologically less advanced society in a science fiction story. Some readers would say there is a hint of fantasy in this story.

The Good Trip (1970) is a story that is probably contemporary. As the title suggests it is about drug use among other things. The trip makes it quite a strange story full of weird cognitive leaps and odd situations. Le Guin didn't seem to be opposed to people experimenting with LSD at the time, which was no doubt frowned upon. She does mention in the introduction that she feels that "people who expand their consciousness by living instead of taking chemicals usually come back with much more interesting reports of where they've been." Now there is a bit of wisdom for you.

Nine Lives (1969) is one of the longer pieces of the collection and is a classic science fiction story. One that explores the possibilities of a new technology, in this case cloning. Le Guin studies the bond between genetically identical individuals, who shared most of their formative years and education and have been brought up to function as a team. The idea is disturbing on many levels. These people are a product, designed to outperform ordinary humans but also to be so self sufficient that without each other, they'd be lost. In a way, it is a barrier to get ideas of their own, which of course Le Guin can't help but challenge. As with the best science fiction stories, this one contains plenty of food for thought.

The next story, Things (1970) is another psychomyth. I guess you could say it is about a man who has to take the last leap. It is beautifully written but personally I think it doesn't quite take that many words to convey the message. Le Guin creates quite an elaborate setting. One which would have been exploring in more detail, but Le Guin takes the story in another direction and much of the setting ends up being only marginally relevant to the story. This one was a miss for me. The collection continues with A Trip to the Head (also 1970). All I have to say about this, is that it went right over my head. I guess Le Guin's writing is too intelligent for me sometimes.

What follows is the story with the most beautiful title in the collection. Vaster Than Empires and More Slow (1970) is a story in the Hainish Cycle, covering the lonely journey of a ship of explorers. Given the nature space travel at relativistic speeds, they give up everything they've known to go on this journey. Something not everybody is willing to do. The crew consists of misfits, people who have nothing to loose and the occasional completely dysfunctional character. A recipe for trouble and indeed, the first planet they survey, puts them to the test. This again is pretty straight forward science fiction, with perhaps a touch of horror. Or suspense if you will. I liked it a lot but it is not outstanding.

The Stars Below (1973) explores in a bit more depth, one of the themes we also encountered in The Masters. Scientific curiosity clashes with custom or religion and ends in violence. Where The Masters deals with the event itself, this story shows us the aftermath. An astronomer who's instruments were destroyed hiding in an abandoned mine from his tormentors. It is a tragedy, even when he finds something to replace his interest in the stars. A moving story. I thought it was one of the better ones in the collection.

The collection continues with another science fiction story that is unrelated to a novel. The Fields of Vision (1973) about a group of astronauts who discover a strange city, for lack of a better word, on Mars that messes with their perceptions. One of them does not survive the trip back, the other two have lasting problems with their sense of hearing and sight. Their adjustment to this situation takes very different routes. I liked how Le Guin linked our perceptions with religious experiences in this story, and how much our brain relies on what our senses tell us. Most people trust what their senses tell them without question. In this story the characters know the input they are receiving is somehow changed. The author depicts this as quite a scary experience.

The next story is a very short, to the point science fiction story in which the main character is a tree. Direction of the Road (1974) is a highlight in the collection for me, a brilliant little story about relativity. It would spoil the story to say anything about the plot but is such a strange reversal of how we think of the world works, that I just had to read this story again right after I finished it. If I had to pick a favourite, this story might well be it.

For The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1974), Le Guin received a Hugo Award as well as a nomination for the Locus Award. It is another psychomyth, perhaps the one closest to the loose definition Le Guin put in the foreword to this collection. The story is very abstract in a way, no details on the setting, the author basically tells us to imagine our own, or characters are given. The story revolves around a scapegoat, one who is necessary to keep the rest of society happy. Once again a disturbing thought. One, as the story points out, not everybody can live with.

The final story of the collection is also one of the strongest ones. The Day Before the Revolution (1974) won a Nebula and a Locus award and was nominated for a Hugo. The story is tied to the novel The Dispossessed, a novel that I still consider to be one of the best in science fiction. It's main character is Odo, who is a historical figure in the novel, the inspiration for the anarchistic society on Anarres. She may be honoured after her death, the life of a revolutionary is not easy. The story shows us an ageing Odo, full of grief and a premonition of death. The subtitle of The Dispossessed is An Ambiguous Utopia and this story is another expression of it. Odo achieved a lot but at a high price. I love the final paragraph of this story. As far as I am concerned, it should have won that Hugo too.  

The Wind's Twelve Quarter ends on a high, that is for sure. Some of the stories in this collection are no doubt among the best Le Guin as produced. All things considered, it isn't one of those very rare collections that manage a consistently high quality though. It is a collection that shows Le Guin's style, themes and development as a writer however. With links to her most important works and some award winning stories, perhaps it is not so strange this collection has been in print for more than three decades. I would not recommend someone with an interest in Le Guin's work to start here, it is probably better to have read a few novels first, but for the real fan it is definitely a must read.

Book Details
Title: The Wind's Twelve Quarters
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 303
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass Market paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-091434-9
First published: 1975

Monday, May 21, 2012

Harpy's Flight - Megan Lindholm

Harpy's Flight (1983) is Megan Lindholm's first novel and the first of a series of four starring the characters Ki and Vandien. I understand that at one time, Lindholm had plans to write more but that never happened. Given the success of Lindholm's other pen name Robin Hobb, I very much doubt it ever will. Although not quite as popular as the Hobb novels, most of the Lindholm books are still available. The only one I haven't been able to get my hands on yet is Cloven Hooves (1991). The Ki and Vandien books have recently been translated into Dutch. Not entirely sure how well they did but I thought it was interesting to see the publisher gamble like that. Lindholm novels are very different in style and tone from Hobb novels. I love both the epic fantasy of Hobb and the more diverse output of Lindholm but that is certainly not true for all readers.

Ki is out for revenge. A pair of Harpies have taken her husband and two young children and despite the fact that they can easily take her as well, she is determined to make them feel her loss. Against all odds, Ki survives the climb to the Hapries' lair and the ensuing fight. She is left to pick up the pieces of her life but with one Harpy dead, three eggs ruined and a second Harpy mutilated, her actions are bound to come back to her. Ki has made enemies. Just how far reaching the consequences are, becomes clear when she visits the family of her late husband Sven to share the horrific news with them.

The opening scene of this novel is an extremely powerful one. Lindholm tosses the reader right into the mids of the whirlwind of emotions that is Ki. Grief, pain and vengefulness just leap off the pages and setting the tone for the rest of the novel. Lindholm's writing my be different from Hobb's but there is one thing they share. They make their characters suffer. This is a reread for me, I read this novel for the first time in 2002, and ten years on, it surprised me how tragic the story really is. Ki is battered and bruised, tired and above all empty. Revenge, after all, will not bring back the ones she loved.

Lindholm tells her story out of chronological order. She opens with the earliest part of the story but after that, it mostly Ki thinking back on events after her encounter with the Harpies while struggling to put her life back together. In these flashbacks, a story that started out as revenge and a hunt, becomes one of a major clash of cultural differences. Ki's origins remain partly unexplored in this novel, but she grew up among the Romni, a Gipsy-like people. Her husband stems from a farming community with much closer ties to the land they work and very different rituals regarding death and the loss of loved ones.

In this first novel the world Ki lives in is not fleshed out yet. Lindholm hints at the many sentient races that inhabit the world but only Humans and Harpies are important to this story. Two other races make a brief appearance. The interactions between all these races is important to the series though. In this first volume the dubious relationship between the predatory Harpies and the Human farmers that worship them takes center stage and adds another dark tone to what is already a quite depressing story. The tensions created by Ki's arrival in the farming community are what really drew me in though. Revenge alone, would not have been enough to carry the story.

I haven't mentioned Vandien thus far and although the series is named after him, Ki is the main character in this story. Vandien has a history of his own, some of which is revealed in this novel, but mostly he is there to make Ki think about things she would rather avoid. More than once he goads her into revealing things about herself she would rather not discuss. He makes her reconsider the course of her life and as far as Ki is concerned, this is a mixed blessing. It is the beginning of a complicated relationship between them. I guess that is another thing that Hobb and Lindholm have in common. The characterization is always impressive.

In some ways you can tell this novel is an early work. Lindholm switched quite abruptly between the present of the story and a flashback or dream (or both). The novel clearly lacks a bit of refinement there. I also thought the way Lindholm presents the individual members of Sven's family is a bit confusing at times. Most of these people have some part to play in the tragedy that unfolds there but some appear pretty much without introduction or just the barest hint of one. It is not bad enough to really distract from the story but there is certainly a bit of room for improvement there. If I remember correctly, Lindholm does just that in the later parts of this series.

Harpy's Flight is not Lindholm's best novel but it is still an impressive read. The emptiness Ki experiences after the loss of her family and the violence she unleashes on their killers is heartbreaking. Whatever the technical flaws of this novel, on an emotional level is works very well. It is very clear that there is a lot more to discover about this world in the later three volumes. I think I saw a few more imperfections in the novel the second time around but I am still glad to have my copy of the second volume, The Windsingers, on hand.

Book Details
Title: Harpy's Flight
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 312
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market paperback
ISBN: 0-00-711252-1
First published: 1983

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Dragon in the Sea - Frank Herbert

Past time to make some more progress on my project to read and review all of Frank Herbert's books not set in the Dune universe. The Dragon in the Sea is Herbert's first novel. It first appeared as Under Pressure in serialized form in Astounding in 1955 and 1956. A slightly reworked novel version appeared in 1956. To make matters confusing, there are also novel editions with the title Under Pressure and in 1961 someone thought it was a bright idea to rename the novel 21st Century Sub. I sincerely hope they fired whoever was responsible for that disaster. My copy is the 2008 Tor reprint with the original title, which I snatched up and read just as soon as it became available. The Dragon in the Sea was quite well received back then and it always remained a bit of a mystery why Herbert struggled for another ten years before his career as a writer really took off with the publication of Dune in 1965. His published work in the years between these two releases consist of a handful of short stories. The Dragon in the Sea is usually considered one of Herbert's better novels, an opinion I share completely.

In the mid 21st century, the world is locked in a never ending war between the West and the East. With oil resources becoming increasingly scarce, the west have developed a technique to steal oil from the Eastern Powers using nuclear powered submarines leeching oil from existing wells and dragging it back to the west in huge bags referred to as slugs. The submarines play a cat and mouse game with the enemy and right now they are loosing. Of the last twenty ships sent out, none returned. It is up to psychologist John Ramsey to find out why. He is to join the crew of one of the subs to monitor events. To put even more pressure on the mission, one of his crew members is suspected of being in infiltrator and the captain's mental stability is questioned. Four men in the confined space of a submarine, cut off from the outside world and surrounded by enemies and the hostile environment of the deep sea. Ramsey is under pressure indeed.

Although the conflict between East and West didn't quite last as long as Herbert imagined (mind, he never once refers to communism in the book), it is a prophetic work in some ways. Scarcity of resources such as oil is not something that turned up too often in science fiction back then. The consequences of a serious lack of oil would not be felt in the west until the oil crisis of 1973 and the theory of Peak Oil, proposed by M. King Hubbert, was published in the same year as the novel. Although the theme of dependence on a single, increasingly scarce resource does occur in other novels, I've never found a link between Peak Oil and Herbert's novels. It would have been interesting to find out what he thought of it.

The concept behind the story may be fascinating, the novel shows it's age in the details. The submarine for instance, which would have been stacked with all kinds of digital technology from one end to the other these days, seems to be filled with 1950s technology. Everything is controlled manually, with old fashioned meters, valves and electronics. It runs at a depth that not many subs could take even these days, but other than that, it didn't strike me as particularly 21st century. There is a fair bit of technobbable in the book about how the submarine works but most of it serves to emphasize the pressure the crew experiences.

Psychological pressure is the main theme of the novel I suppose. Herbert describes a world where tensions run high but no real release can be offered. Being stalked by an enemy you can't see, in a vessel from which there is no escape. Submarines are a claustrophobe's nightmare and more than one novel has made use of that particular fact. The Dragon in the Sea takes that theme into a direction I haven't come across before. It examines the adaptations of the crew that allow them to operate in such an environment. Again a theme that Herbert would use in later books. Adaptations to pressure in The Dragon in the Sea, the adaptations to the highly toxic environment on Dosadi or the presence of spice and the absence of water on Dune, they are all driving human development or sometimes human evolution into realms that we can scarcely imagine. Herbert's belief in what the human mind can accomplish with the right pressures and motivations show in most of his work but The Dragon in the Sea is a particularly fine example.

Herbert had many interests and psychology is one of them. In this novel it is almost as apparent as in The Santaroga Barrier (1968), which deals with the effect of a mind altering substance on an isolated population. I must admit I'm not familiar enough with the field to point out Herbert's influences here. He names Jung, there is probably some Freud as well and I would be very surprised if there were not a few more. There is an obvious link between psychology and religion in this book, again an element that will show up in his later work. The title is a reference to the bible, Isaiah 27:1 to be exact, and religion comes up more than once as the thing that holds the crew together and offers a way of dealing with the unceasing pressure the men are under. It's role in keeping the crew operating is examined from a psychological point of view and Herbert points out the links between the two in various places. The psychology is definitely the most complex part of the story. One may wonder how well the theories that are the inspiration of the novel hold up these days, they do make for a very good story.

Herbert's first novel shows a lot of elements that he would return to in his later work. It is not as complex or conceptually rich as Dune or The Dosadi Experiment but it is certainly a novel that is still well worth reading. It's fairly short but very intense and more action packed than many of his later novels. Quite a few later novels by Herbert don't hold up as well as The Dragon in the Sea does. If anything I like it even better after this reread. There are a few books by Herbert I would rate higher but not many. One warning though, if you do decide to read it try not to think too much of the unfortunate choice of name for the Captain. Herbert really could not have known.

Book Details
Title: The Dragon in the Sea
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 268
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1774-2
First published: 1956

Saturday, May 12, 2012

City of Dragons - Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is one of those Fantasy authors I started reading when I had just started to explore the genre. The Farseer trilogy had just been translated in Dutch back then and Hobb was (and sill is) quite popular over here. I have read everything she has published in the mean time and dug up most of her novels written under the name Megan Lindholm as well. The Realm of the Elderlings remains her best know creation though, and Hobb is returning to it with the second set of two books in the Rain Wild Chronicles. It has happened a number of times that Hobb's work has appeared in Dutch translation before it came out in English. City of Dragons was published in September 2011 and Blood of Dragons, which will not appear in English until early 2013, followed in December. I understand that there are minor textual differences between the English and the Dutch edition because of later changes to the English manuscript. It still makes you wonder why on earth the US and UK publishers are sitting on those books for that long. Despite being sorely tempted to just get the translation, I waited for the English hardcover. I guess we'll have to see if I can hold out another nine months for Blood of Dragons.

City of Dragons picks up our desperate group of dragon keepers a few months after the end of Dragon Haven. They have found their promised land, the Elderling city of Kelsingra, but are cut off from it by the Rain Wilds river, swollen with the winter rains. Poorly equipped and barely able to feed the dragons, their only real chance of survival is for their ship the Tarman to return to Carrick and claim their reward. In the Rain Wild cities and Bingtown in the mean time, things remain unsettled. The aging and heirless Duke of Chalced is still determined to find the dragon parts he thinks he needs to prolong his life. Blackmail, torture, deceit and murder are acceptable means in his opinion. When rumors of the discovery of an unexplored Elderling city reach the civilized world, greed enters into the mix as well. The dragons and their keepers are going to change the world forever.

The previous two books in this (sub) series, Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, where originally one long novel that got so big the publisher decided to split the novel in two. Back then I felt the way they went about that didn't really do those books any favours. The rewriting made it even longer, probably more so than the story justified. With City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons a similar decision has been made. I get the feeling the decision to split the novel in two was made a bit earlier on though. The finale of this first book feels a bit less forced, as if Hobb knew early on what she was writing towards in terms of the overarching conflict the book covers, rather than looking for a good place to split the novel. That being said, the ending does involve a number of cliffhangers and some of the characters that are the focus of much of the book seem to be much less present later on in the novel. With a more than eight months still to go before the second part is available, the more impatient reader may want to put this book away for a bit.

Hobb mostly works with the cast she established in the first two volumes of the Rain Wild Chronicles. She uses multiple points of view to describe scenes in Bingtown, the Rain Wilds, Kelsingra and Chalced. I still marginally favour the first person point of view Hobb used in the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies but I guess that is a matter of taste. For the story Hobb is trying to tell, multiple points of view are certainly necessary. It is becoming as politically complex as the Liveship Traders trilogy. The return of the dragons have destabilized the communities of the Rain Wilds and Bingtown. It is a development that has a human component as well of course. After gaining independence from Jamalia, Bingtown will now have to establish itself as a nation. It is a time of opportunity, a development that brings in lots of new people who do not share the history of hard work and countess setbacks on the Cursed Shore. There are social tensions everywhere in this book. Slavery, sexism and discrimination are major themes in the novel which makes it a fascinating read.

As usual, Hobb pays a lot of attention to her characters. They are detailed, three dimensional, each with a clear motivation, their own hopes, fears and challenges. Not all of them are equally likable of course and I felt that especially in the less sympathetic characters, Hobb tended to overemphasize their negative traits a bit. Hest in particular is set up to be the bad guy, with elaborate plans that will make life difficult for his wife Alise and his former lover Sedric that are very unlikely to go anywhere. I absolutely loved Malta's determination in this novel though, and Leftrin's efforts to keep from being overwhelmed by all the responsibility he feels towards his crew, the expedition, Alise and his ship. Leftrin is almost the embodiment of everything that is going on in the society he is part of. Old customs and certainties being eroded by the force of all these new developments.

The dragons themselves receive their share of attention too of course. They are still a bunch of arrogant creatures. Hobb does well making them at them interesting characters and completely inhuman at the same time. The conflict between their ancestral memories of what they should be and how they once were treated and the bleak reality of their situation. Stunted in their growth by the poor conditions in which they hatched and the minimal care they have received since, life is a struggle for them and it rankles. Sintara in particular feels she ought to be a queen of the sky as well as the muddy land around the river and it makes her decidedly unpleasant. Especially since her keeper Thymara is much more occupied with her own personal problems. The dynamic between these two is another strong feat of characterization in the novel. The way their relationship will develop is something for the next book I suppose. Both the absence of Tintaglia and Thymara's distractions pose challenges to their relationship. Neither seems to fully realize how much they need each other yet. A definite note of tragedy in the novel. But then, Hobb has always been a writer who lets her characters suffer.

As you may have gathered, I enjoyed reading this novel a lot. Despite the fact that it is not a complete story, City of Dragons worked very well for me on several levels. It is Hobb like the fans will probably like to see her. It is not surprising in terms of settings of themes but very well told, with Hobb's characteristic attention to detail and character. Some readers will think Hobb is taking her time putting the pieces in place for the finale of the series. For me, that was one of the aspects I enjoyed most. Hobb explores the tensions in society in detail without compromising on the development of her characters and that is something not all fantasy manages as effortlessly as this novel does.  I think I will ignore the Dutch translation and wait for the English edition of Blood of Dragons but Hobb certainly hasn't made it easy for me.

Book Details
Title: City of Dragons
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 425
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-727380-5
First published: 2012

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Healthy Dead - Steven Erikson

The Healthy Dead is the second in a series of novellas on the necromancers Krobal Broach and Bauchelain. The are set in the same world as Erikson's ten volume fantasy series the Malazan Book of the Fallen. So far, Erikson has published four, with a fifth expected later this year. The Healthy Dead is the second in publication order, but the third chronologically, with the third novella, The Lees of Laughters End, set between Blood Follows and this novella. Once again I've read the edition published by Night Shade Books, which has a cover and several interior illustrations by Mike Dringenberg. The Healthy Dead is my favourite of the three I have read so far (I own a copy of Crack'd Pot Trail and hope to read it later this year). It is the finest example of the satirical element in  Erikson's writing.

After the events that forced their premature departure from Lamentable Moll, Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, accompanied by the unfortunate servant Emancipor Rees are still on the run from their pursuers. They have reached the remote city of Quaint, which at first glance offers little the small company may want and Bauchelain is tempted to circle the city and try to gain some more distance between them and their pursuers. Then, one of the city's inhabitants approaches them with a plea for help. A challenge Bauchelain can't resist. The city is ruled by a king who in his desire to do good, has banned just about everything that can kill. A very dangerous development if it were to spread. You see, a desire for goodness leads to the end of civilization.

In this novella Erikson ask the reader the question why so many people seem to prefer regimes that are not actually out for the wellbeing of their subjects. It has been a well known phenomenon that large groups of people long for a return to dictatorial regimes when a democratic political system doesn't turn out to be as perfect as the brochure promised. In this case the city of Quaint have come to realize that their king's ruthless enforcement of healthy living practices, makes life more complicated than they bargained for. The eloquent Bauchelain explains it in Yoda-like fashion early on in the novella, a gimmick that Erikson will repeat a number of times in the text.
"Ah, Mister Reese, I gather you still do not understand the threat this king poses to such creatures as you and I."
"Well, frankly, no, I don't, Master. As you say."
"I must perforce make the linkage plain, of sufficient simplicity to permit your uneducated mind to grasp all manner of significance. Desire for goodness, Mister Reese, leads to earnestness. Earnestness in turn leads to sanctimonious self-righteousness, which breeds intolerance, upon which harsh judgement quickly follows, yielding dire punishment, inflicting general terror an paranoia,eventually culminating in revolt, leading to chaos, then dissolution and thus, the end of civilization."
Bauchelain explaining to Reese why the situation in Quaint is so dangerous.
Quite simple really. And while he's at it, Erikson lampoons political correctness and diet gurus.

Erikson continues the story with a series of bizarre scenes in which the cities cult of healthy living is  examined. It is portrayed as a society where nothing is left to individual responsibility and where infractions are harshly punished. Those who died clean, healthy deaths - usually from ailments of the bowels after their diet has been reduced to mostly grass, excluding everything that could be considered a vice or in any way unhealthy -  are venerated and proudly displayed. Erikson has never been afraid of describing the grisly details of life and death in detail, and in this story he managed to combine the horrific with the comical. Casual acceptance of some horror and outrage at others contrast in strange ways and completely over the top situation occur with frighting regularity. A situation that echoes the relationship between Reese and his masters.

One of the things I like most about these novellas is that it forces Erikson to be more concise. The restrictions in length force him to focus and in this novella it works very well. Where Blood Follows feels a bit rushed at the end, this novella feels exactly long enough. Quite an achievement for a man who also produces sprawling 300,000 words novels almost like clockwork. The Healthy Dead  just ticks all the boxes for me, I think it is a little gem. And the best thing is that you can read these novellas without having the read the ten huge volumes of the main series. It is a great way to sample Erikson's writing. I can't wait to see where Erikson is taking the story of the two necromancers and their unfortunate manservant.

Book Details
Title: The Healthy Dead
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 128
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-597800-06-6
First published: 2004