Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 2)

Last year I wrote a bit about two short stories by Aliette de Bodard set in her fascinating Xuya universe. In this time line the Chinese discovered the Americas before the Europeans did, which lead to a dramatically different history from the one we know. De Bodard offers the beginnings of a chronology on her website. I recently stumbled across another two stories that are available for free online. The Jaguar House, In Shadow and Shipmaker were both nominated for prestigious awards. These two stories weren't, but in terms of quality I'd say there is very little between them.

Butterfly, Falling at Dawn

The word count for this story is about 9,000 and it was first published in November 2008 in Interzone 219. Recently, it has been reissued by International Speculative Fiction, a site that has started publishing short science fiction from outside the English language world. I definitely need to have a closer look at their other stories some time. A PDF of Butterfly, Falling at Dawn can be found here.

In the time line it is set 2006, about 20 years after The Jaguar House, In Shadow and has some clear references to the conflict described in that story. With a crime at the heart of it, superficially the story has more in common with The Lost Xuyan Bride though. The story about Magistrate Hua Ma, a woman of Mexica descent, working for Xuya (Chinese) law enforcement. She is sent to investigate an apparent murder of a Mexica hologram designer. The lives of the investigator and the victim turn out to have certain similarities. It is a case that brings up all sorts of uncomfortably memories about her own youth in the Mexica empire and the events of the civil war that made her turn away from her nation.

There are two distinct layers to this story. One is of course the finding the murderer, which turns out to be reasonably straightforward. The real attraction of this story is in the more personal side to the case. It is written in the first person and with each discovery about the life of the victim, Hua Ma is reminded of what happened to her family after she moved into Xuya territory. She has buried herself in her new life but finds out it is not so easy to leave a past one behind. Or even wise. I guess some people do learn from other people's mistakes.

I have read several stories by de Bodard where characters struggle with cultural differences or find themselves in a culture that is not they one the grew up in. Perhaps this choice of theme not entirely surprising given her own background. These stories always contain a lot of details about where these cultures differ, clash or overlap. Given that de Bodard has had to extrapolate from limited historical material what a modern Mexica culture would look like, it is quite a feat of both imagination and research. Her attention to detail regarding these different cultures and the way the are seamlessly woven into the story is something that set her stories apart.


The second story is set in the future. De Bodard doesn't mention a year but sometime in the next century seems reasonable. It was first published in Asimov's in February 2011 and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2012 which has recently been awarded to Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie. The word count is about 6,400 and it can be downloaded as epub or mobi, or read online at the author's website .

Shipbirth takes into space, aboard a Mexica spaceship that is about to be completed by the birth of a mind. This crucial part of the ship allows it to travel through space. The minds are carried by volunteers and giving birth to one is a risky and very dangerous to both the mind and the woman carrying it. Aicoimi is a physician overseeing one of these births. Minds always make him uneasy and this particular quickening, as the birth of a mind and its joining with the ship is referred to, turns out to be particularly haunting.

This story is quite a different creature than Butterfly, Falling at Dawn. Much more ambiguous. Where the previous story leads you to the answer, this story raises questions. One of the things that struck me about the story is how the atmosphere is both similar and very different from Shipmaker, which is set on board a similar spaceship, only built for the Chinese fleet. De Bodard somehow manages to give these ships a very different feel. The loneliness of space is present in both but the Mexica ship feels much more like a living (somewhat scary) creature, where the Chinese feels more harmoniously designed.

Aicoimi is a complex character. When we meet him he is male but that was not always the case and throughout the story he moves up and down the spectrum of masculine and feminine thoughts and behaviours, constantly aware of society's conventions and stereotypes and constantly linking it to choices and actions. De Bodard stuffs a lot of his past in this story. Memories of his youth, as a young girl witnessing death, his military career for which he changed his gender and the revulsion that makes him turn to his current profession. The author works in a these aspects (birth and war) in the Aztec deities mentioned in the story as well. It is a detail but it pays to read up on the deities she mentions. It is one of the details that shows how much care and skill went into this story. It's a story that keeps the reader on their toes. Not as straightforward as the first story but certainly the one that stayed with me longer. I wonder if de Bodard is going to do more stories in the space age Xuya setting.

The Xuya universe is still largely unexplored and offers all kinds of interesting possibilities. I have immensely enjoyed the five stories I've read so far and I am looking forward to more. There is at least one story that I am aware of that I haven't read yet. I'll also keep an eye out for that one so perhaps there will be a part 3.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Blue Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

In my attempt to read and review all of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels I  have progressed to the third book in his Mars trilogy. Blue Mars (1996) was nominated for a whole bunch of awards won Robinson a Hugo and the Locus Award in 1997. It is  special to me, partly because it is the first novel by Robinson I've read. The book captivated me so much that I didn't even realize it was  the third book until I was halfway through. I bought it in the late 1990s  when I was studying environmental science in Etten-Leur. The town had one bookstore worthy of the name with only a very small English language section. Nevertheless, it fed my emerging speculative fiction addiction  admirably. Robinson's book just looked at me right across the store. The novel hits on so many aspects of what I was trying to learn at that  time that it is no real surprise I liked it so much. Soon after, I  picked up the other two novels and I have been reading anything by  Robinson I can get my hands on since. This is the fourth time (I think) that I have read Blue Mars and the novel still impresses me. As the  final part in the Mars trilogy it probably won't be considered his  greatest work but it was certainly convincing enough to hook me. I am  already looking forward to reading his latest novel 2321, which was released in May and is said  to have certain thematic links with the Mars trilogy.

The  revolution has succeeded, Mars is now de facto independent of Earth. That certainly doesn't mean their troubles are over. Earth vastness,  resources and enormous population loom over the fragile environment of  the red planet. Internally Martian society faces challenges as well. The  population is fractured into a large number for radically different  groups, all with their own values, philosophies and goals, some of which  clash violently. A new way to govern such a diverse group of people will  have to be devised. The great social and scientific experiment that the  colonization of Mars has become continues and the First Hundred, now  diminished to a much smaller number, are at the centre of these  development. In a solar system here longevity and population growth  threaten to overtake technological development and the carrying capacity  of Earth, Mars aims to be an example of what humanity can do to overcome  these challenges.

I guess Blue Mars is not as spectacular as the early exploration of the planet in Red Mars (1992) or the revolution and  war that take place in Green Mars (1993). The novel opens with the last  skirmishes of the revolution but soon we are drawn into the process of  developing a political structure that can handle both the unique physical environment as well as the varied values and philosophies of the population. Not all readers will appreciate this section but for me it showcases Robinson's view very well. There is a sense of optimism in these negotiations, a frantic energy and a will to succeed, that defies the huge problems humanity is faced with. Climate change, overpopulation and generations of people who live well into their third century all contribute to a picture that could easily overwhelm even the most optimistic individual. As the Martians coble together a new constitution out of radical but tried Earth methods and new Martian ideas. One that is designed to leave people as much freedom as possibly while at the same time strictly regulating societies environmental impact and guarding against economic oppression. No easy task and the result is obviously not flawless, as we'll find out later in the book. Still, Robinson beliefs it can be done and in this sections, his optimism, mostly relayed by Art, just leaps off the pages. Although Nadia would no doubt tell us it is a tyranny of a different sort.

Although the Red-Green debate seems to have come out in favour of the Green side, the planet is being irrevocably changed especially at the lower altitudes, the tension between these two visions is still present. Both Ann and Sax get a point of view section and I remember Ann's in particular hitting me hard the first time I read it. One of the downsides of studying environmental science is that you start seeing signs of humanity's influence of the landscape everywhere. In the Netherlands there is no escape from this anywhere. Even landscapes that are protected for their ecological diversity or rare environmental conditions are usually brought about some kind of carefully managed use of the land. The ideal that environmental policy strives for around here is to return to the state of the land in the 1850s, when ecological diversity was at a peak. It was also a time when just about every scrap of land, no matter how marginal, was being used for something. In other words, there is no natural landscape left around here. Humanity's influence is inescapable. Which is something like how Ann experiences Mars. Change and human influence can be found everywhere on the planet if one knows what to look for. Ann's cause is hopeless but it still hit a chord with me.

It seems Sax is beginning to see this as well. While he is still in favour of terraforming, and sees the beauty of this emerging, liveable environment everywhere, he feels the need for a synthesis of these two views as well as a reconciliation between these two iconic characters personally. There is an awful lot going on in these novels, but when you get right down to it, the Green-Red debate forms the backbone of the story. Not everybody is going to agree with this vision and the utopian society that emerges in Robinson's book. In fact, the novels prompted Brian W. Aldiss in collaboration with physicist Sir Roger Penrose to write White Mars (1999), a novel that takes quite a different approach (and appears to be very much out of print). Robinson's future is believably messy but the compressed time line and extended lives of the main characters take away something of the realism I guess. By the end of this novel the First Hundred are well into their third century.

This advanced age is the topic of one of Sax' most fascinating sections though. Robinson goes back to an idea he used in his 1984 novel Icehenge and explores memory problems in the extremely long lived. Sax of course takes the scientific approach to combating the increasing problem of whole trains of thought just blanking out completely. Robinson goes into quite a bit of detail on the structure and workings of the brain, which in the 23rd century is still a bit of a mystery. These books are saturated with Robinson's love for the scientific process but no section shows it better than Sax researching his memory problems. The fact that he keeps loosing useful thoughts and he can't seem to record them as he goes add a bit of urgency and frustration to his efforts and made me wonder how much of a verbal process thinking really is.

I guess you could say this book is a bit more introvert than the previous novels. There is homesick Michel finally returning the Provence after a century on Mars, Ann dealing with the loss of the pure Martian landscape, Maya slowly loosing her grip on her mental problems, Sax deeply withdrawn in his science and Nirgal trying to figure out what a revolutionary is supposed to do after a successful revolution. They all show us facets of the newly developing Martian culture but each somehow feels like a bit of an outsider. Not a problem Zoya Boone, John's great-granddaughter has to deal with. She is the fresh new face of a part of Martian society and the Accelerando, a time of great expansion and scientific progress, as a whole. Nihilistic and hedonistic are terms often used to describe her. In a way she is naive as well. Though her eyes we explore what goes on elsewhere in the solar system in a kind of tour reminiscent of the one portrayed in The Memory of Whiteness (1985). The Mercurial rolling city named Terminator appears in both books and I understand it shows up in 2312 as well. Blue Mars my well turn out to be the lynch pin of Robinson's output. There are plenty of links between his books despite the fact that they don't fit into one larger universe or time line.

As a novel, I don't think Blue Mars works particularly well. Where Red Mars and Green Mars each had more of an overarching story to keep all the different points of view together. For most of the book, which covers almost a century, Blue Mars does not have this kind of tension. The threat of Earth, while always present, appears to be distant to most Martians, many of whom are much more concerned with their own planet. We get to see bits and pieces of the time line and various other places in the solar system but there doesn't seem to be a unifying factor that welds all this separate stories together. When the eventual showdown with Earth finally comes, it almost feels as an afterthought. The novel is carried by the strength of Robinson's ideas, the breath of the topics discussed and the fascinating descriptions of increasingly green Martian environments. For the reader who expects a bit more plot and action this novel may be a bit of a let down.

For me personally it is a fascinating book though. I loved just about every aspect of it when I first read it and my rereads have not diminished this love. No matter how many more books I'll read on the subject, the Mars trilogy will probably remain the definitive work on the colonization of Mars for me. The scale of the story, the diversity of Robinson's scientific, political and social influences and his fascinating characters make these novels some of the most captivating science fiction I've ever read. Sure, there are plenty of elements to criticize in these novels, and in my reviews I've named a few of those. That doesn't take away anything from the fact that these books are a monumental achievement in science fiction. A superb attempt to combine hard science fiction with social and religious elements, insert some optimism into the genre and expand the ecological themes which, up to this point, had been pretty rare in science fiction. Blue Mars is a fitting end to the project that will no doubt turn out to be the one Robinson will be most remembered for. I can't think of a book that impacted me as deeply as this novel has. In other words, you should read it.

Book Details
Title: Blue Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 787
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-586-21391-0
First published: 1996

Sunday, June 17, 2012

D.N.F. Dragon Touched by E.W. Scott

I'm a bit surprised by this to be honest, the last time I failed to finish a book was more than two years ago when I attempted to read De dagen van het Hert by Liliana Bodoc. After that I finished all books I started until this one. That's probably some 150 books.

I still have a hard time putting my finger on what makes me unable to finish this book. I have read books that were very poor indeed, books that simply bored me, and books I ended up detesting and finished all of them. What makes this awkward is that unlike Bodoc's book, I received Dragon Touched as a review copy. Fortunately the author took it well. She showed some real grace and diplomacy in the e-mail conversation we've had and that is something that ought to be mentioned.

Since I haven't finished I am not going to do a review on the book. As far as I can tell it isn't badly written, I guess it just didn't manage to hold my attention. There are a few people who did write full reviews of this book so I am going to refer you to the opinions of two ladies who's judgement I trust.
Mieneke's review can be found on the A Fantastical Librarian blog, while Fantasy Bytes offers her opinion here. Both these blogs are well worth reading so have a good look around while you are there.

I will be back next week with a review of Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars which I hope to finish tonight.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

If there are any people left on the planet who haven't read The Hunger Games I'm not sure were they are hiding. I must have been the last one to read it (although I did manage before seeing the movie). As with many books that are surrounded by that much hype, it didn't quite live up to its reputation but it was a decent enough read. I've been hearing mixed things about the next two volumes in this trilogy though, so I've put reading the second book off for a bit. My girlfriend brought her copy of Catching Fire from Norway this week so I guess there are no more excuses. Like The Hunger Games, the second volume is a quick read. It was not nearly as engaging as the first book though. I've begun to suspect that this is one of the series one should only read the first part of.

After their dual victory in the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta try to settle in the victor's village in district twelve. With her winnings Katniss tries to help as many people as possible but things have changed. As much as she wants to, there is no slipping back into her old life. Something that is underlined by president Snow himself, when he shows up to tell her what is expected of her in the tour of the districts the winners are supposed to make after their victory. Her defiance of the Capital has seriously undermined his authority. In many of the districts discontent is obvious and rebellion is simmering right under the surface. On a more personal level, Katniss seems unable to fix her relationship with Gale. The constant pressure of having to keep up the star crossed lovers charade with Peeta is weighing heavily on Gale. An explosive situation on all levels.

For a large part of the novel, Katniss is dealing with the fall out of her performance in the Hunger Games. As the effects of her defiance ripple though the districts, Katniss has plenty of time to consider her position. It makes Catching Fire a lot slower than the first book, especially in the opening chapters. I guess Katniss is finding out why winners of the Hunger Games rarely are able to settle back in any kind of normal life. With guilt over there acts or mere survival pursuing them, the knowledge of the truth behind the Games and the Capital's power weighing on them and the estrangement from their friends and families setting them apart, more than one victor has fled into destructive lifestyles or substance abuse. Katniss feels it, she is restless, as discontent as the districts appear to be, and it makes her a bit of a whiny character. In fact, she is so absorbed in her own misery that she misses quite a bit of what goes on around her.

Like the first volume, Catching Fire is written in the first person and the present tense. It took me a couple of chapters to get back into this unusual style. More than in The Hunger Games, I feel Collins is running into the limitations of a first person narrative. She is playing her part, sometimes sees glimpses of the effect her actions have on the population, but mostly she is kept in the dark. Behind the facade of the Capital's unquestionable power a lot is going on. Public opinion sways, resistance is growing and violence erupts all out of sight. Katniss certainly faces her own challenges but I didn't think her part of the story the most interesting development in the book. While the interesting stuff is happening out of sight, the reader works their way though a novel that is part dark reflection on events from the first book and part repetition of the Hunger Games ritual.

Once again, I was struck by the sheer unlikeliness of the way the Capital expresses its power over its subjects. In Catching Fire we gear up to the 75th edition and even with the problems with this show of power obviously exposed in the last Games, they insist on an even more brutal version this time around. President Snow feels his power has been undermined by Katniss' refusal to kill Peeta and his ultimate answer to this problem is putting her in the same position again, which makes very little sense to me. I guess the outcome is more or less predictable.  Where in The Hunger Games you have a pretty good feeling of where the story is heading, there is still the puzzle of how Katniss will manage to get there. In Catching Fire, Katniss lets others find the solutions for her. Collins foreshadows a lot of events in the final chapters adequately and manages to avoid a true deus ex machina ending, but it is far from the strongest finale I have read. It absolutely pales in comparison to how she managed in the first novel.

I guess you could say I wasn't very impressed with this novel. It advances Katniss' struggle with the Capitol a little but not is a way that is very exciting to read about. Katniss herself is far from the admirable and capable young woman she has shown herself to be in the first volume and manages to be in the centre of the action with absolutely no idea what is going on. Fortunately Catching Fire is a quick read or I would have been seriously tempted to put the book down and read something else. No doubt there are readers who will devour this book with equal enthusiasms as the previous one, and dive right into the third book in the series, I'm afraid such devotion is not for me. I think I will borrow my girlfriend's copy of Mockingjay as well. I am mildly curious about the final showdown between Katniss and president Snow, but not enough to actually buy a copy.

Book Details
Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 472
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-407109-36-7
First published: 2009

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Drowned Cities - Paolo Bacigalupi

After the huge success of The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi entered the world of young adult fiction. I read his first effort in that genre, Ship Breaker, a year ago. It was a more straightforward adventure than The Windup Girl but it had all the environmental themes that show up in most of Bacigalupi's fiction rolled into the narrative. Not many writers display the environmental awareness that shows up in Bacigalupi's work and given my education in that field, I always feel drawn to that kind of story. Even without the other elements that makes Bacigalupi's work interesting, I'd read read anything he's write just for that. Fortunately for the readers who don't share my preferences, Bacigalupi is a very good author in other respects as well. The Drowned Cities is a novel that appeals to the adult reader as well. To the point where I wondered if he shouldn't have written this as an adult novel to begin with.

The novel is set in a future Washington D.C. The USA has lost it's spot as most powerful nation in the world and climate change has dramatically altered the coastline. After a failed Chinese attempt at peace keeping, Washington is currently fought over by a number of factions, all hoping to gain control over the former capital as a first step to reunifying the country. To finance their war, they scavenge the city and sell their findings to a number of large corporations always hungry for the world's scarce resources. The communities around the war zone are regularly harvested for fresh recruits, usually children, and slave labour. In this world, Mahlia, a young girl of mixed Chinese American origin grows up. Given the resentment still carried against the Chinese peacekeepers, she is not exactly popular. Even the community she lives in, barely accepts her. The only reason she is allowed to stay is that the only man who could pass for a doctor has taken her on as his assistant. Mahlia runs into deep trouble when patients from opposing factions appear on their doorstep.

The Drowned Cities is connected to Ship Breaker but except for one character who shows up in both novels and a few minor references there is no connection between the stories. It is perfectly possible to read one without having read the other. The details of the world are the same though. Bacigalupi throws in a lot of references to climate change, genetic engineering, biological warfare and scarcity of resources (in particular oil). It is not as obvious as in his work for adults, and not discussed in as much detail, but many of the developments are similar to what happened to the world in the Windup stories (although it they are not set in the same world). Some of the things that have happened to this future Washington have roots in the great, and usually undressed, environmental problems the world faces. You can accept these as a give and ignore this background in favour of a good action story, but for the reader looking for more, there is a whole layer of highly relevant environmental and political issues to sink your teeth in.

I did think the novel was very violent. Apparently the young adult genre leans towards darker tales, with violent acts discussed more explicitly than would have been fitting a few years ago. The war Bacigalupi describes is as barbaric as the reports that have come in from various parts of Africa in recent years. Torture, mutilation and the use for children (often under the influence of some substance of other) are all accepted practices in this war and that doesn't even include the deployment of genetically engineered soldiers. America, it turns out, is not above a bit of brutality when push comes to shove. Ironically, the only pacifist character in the novel is a Muslim. I wonder how many young readers will catch that bit of social commentary. I don't think Bacigalupi gets too graphic, but with Mahlia spending much of the novel one step away from rape, death or mutilation, this book is not suitable for very young readers.  

Bacigalupi's exploration of the fallen capital of a once great nation can seem a bit depressing but the motivation of the characters to put themselves in danger is all too human. The various militias may have the guns but that doesn't mean people will put up with anything. Mahlia is a girl who realizes the word has little to offer her. She doesn't shy away from violence and is not afraid to take rash action and it is her rashness that drives the story. More than once her decisions are questionable but her loyalty to her one remaining friend touches those around her. One thing that Bacigalupi did very well is show the reader how limited her view of the world is. She knows it is a large place but circumstances are such, that places beyond the immediate vicinity are shrouded in rumour and hearsay. Or perhaps we should call it the fog of war. Her world is a strange mix of fading Chinese civilization, remnants of past American glory and sheer survival instinct. Not an easy place to stick to the ideals of her rescuer and teacher in the arts of healing.

The Drowned Cities is a noticeably darker book than Ship Breaker. Although Nailer lives in a hard world and has to put his life on the line more than once, it is not the bullet riddled mess Mahlia finds herself in. I also felt Bacigalupi added much more in the way of deeper layers into this story, making it more challenging than his previous effort. With a few different choices, Bacigalupi could have turned this into an adult novel. I'm not sure it would have been better that way, but it was certainly possible. I'm not sure which one of the two I like better. When I was in the right age group, I probably would have said Ship Breaker. Right now, I appreciate a lot of the things Bacigalupi did in this story more than I would have back then. One thing is for sure, Bacigalupi doesn't underestimate his audience. I think I am going to have to revisit his brilliant collection Pump Six and Other Stories, just to tide me over until the next novel. Be it a YA one of an Adult novel, I'll read anything this man writes.

Book Details
Title: The Drowned Cities
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 437
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-05624-3
First published: 2012