Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke

I've been reading Clarke for a couple of years now and I must admit I am beginning to develop a real appreciation for his work. Not all of them are equally strong of course, but he as written works that clearly are masterpieces of the genre. Apparently the publishers of the SF Masterworks series agree with me. He has no less than five titles in the list, of which A Fall of Moondust (1961) is the fourth I have read. It is one of the novels he wrote before the publication of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a novel that is something of a watershed in his career. It is a hard science fiction novel, and more than fifty years after it's publication, it a bit dated. Still, the basic story holds up very well. What sets this novel apart from other works by this author is the building of tension. I haven't come across Clarke managing quite this level of suspense yet in the novels I've read.

Sometime in the twenty-first century humanity has colonized the Moon and is rapidly on its was to building a life off planet. The Moon even has become something of a tourist attraction. One sight that is quite popular is a cruise across the Sea of Thirst, a basin filled with very fine dust grains, weathered away from the Moon's rocky surface by the merciless temperature changes on the surface. In the absence of air, it haves like a powder in some ways and a liquid in others. When the Selene, the vehicle travelling this unique sea, disappears beneath the surface during a Moon quake, a race against the clock starts to get the passengers and crew out in time. A formidable technical challenge, given the hostile environment and the peculiar medium that swallowed the Selene.

In a way, this novel is not much different than a number of others Clarke has written. Finding a technical solution for the challenges posed by space is far more interesting than the characters to him. And it must be said, Clarke has set himself a serious challenge. As he explains in the 1987 foreword to the novel, it was written before mankind has set foot on the Moon, and one of the worries back then, was that seas of fine powder might indeed exist and even be capable of swallowing spacecraft. I must admit the explanation on the forces that make this stuff flow and collect in low places is a bit beyond me but apparently it was considered plausible back then and it is not ruled out that the static electricity described in the novel might indeed work elsewhere in the solar system. If these seas really exist, they haven't been found on the surface of the Moon but they certainly make good material for a science fiction novel.

In the early stages of the novel, the sense of wonder dominates the story. Clarke describes the Moon in detail, in a style that reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's descriptions of Mars, although it must be said that Clarke is much more concise. Once the Selene goes down we switch to technical mode though. The author has clearly thought about all the things that can go wrong in a pressurized ship buried under a thick layer of dust. One system after another is put to uses they were never designed for and Clarke clearly gave a lot of thought about what could go wrong under such circumstances. He is clearly not unfamiliar with Murphy's law.

Another big part of the novel, and one that is much more interesting given the rest of Clarke's oeuvre, is the way he goes about describing the attempts to maintain morale. It is vitally important not to have anyone crack if you are buried under tonnes of dust, in a pressurized cabin that is not meant to house people indefinitely of course. I thought the way Clarke went about it was more fitting for a 1940 air raid shelter somewhere in London than a spacecraft though. A somewhat old fashioned British mentality seems to have taken over the company despite its members being from all corners of the world. Nevertheless, the cracks that begin to appear are dangerous enough and the psychological pressure on the people caught on board the Selene is real enough. It induces the kind of claustrophobia that space shares with submarines.

Clarke doesn't ramp up the psychological pressure all the way in the end. The climax of the novel is again technological. The stresses on the poor Selene cannot be held at bay indefinitely after all. It is a shame really, Clarke could probably have done a bit more with the company inside the Selene. That would have required a finer characterization than I have seen Clarke employ though. I guess the omniscient narration would have clashed with an attempt to increase the psychological pressure as well. I think this narrative mode isn't doing the story any favours as it is, especially early on in the novel. Clarke uses it at the end of chapters to end with a cliffhanger. It is unnecessary to the point of being annoying really. Even the least observant reader will understand things are not going according to plan without being told repeatedly.

Those minor quibbles don't take anything away from the fact that A Fall of Moondust is a very entertaining read. I guess you need a bit of a taste for hard science fiction to really enjoy this novel, but it is not a technical or on such a grand scale as some of Clarke's other works. Some readers may even feel it lacks the scope of some his other novels, Rendezvous with Rama (1973) comes to mind, or the sheer scale of some of the other engineering projects he describes, for instance in The Fountains of Paradise (1979). A Fall of Moondust is not as ambitious, nor perhaps as original, as some of his other books, but is a well written story that will keep the reader turning pages. Clarke manages to create a feeling of urgency that is hard to ignore. It is not among the very best of what Clarke has written but certainly not far behind. If you liked his other novels, this one won't disappoint.

Book Details
Title: A Fall of Moondust
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 224
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07317-3
First published: 1961

Saturday, September 22, 2012


I've had a good spell reviewing wise recently but I need a little break again. In a few hours I will be on the plane to Norway to go see my girlfriend. I haven't seen her in three months so it should be obvious that reviewing books will not be on my mind in the next week. I may sneak one in anyway but no promises.

In other news, I've been asked to be on the jury of Fantastels 2012, a Dutch language short fiction competition. The contest is open for submissions for the entire month of October. So if you want to run the risk of having your story random commented by all means submit. Do keep in mind it is a Dutch language competition.

The poll I put up to pick my final Grand Master Reading Challenge book is still up and will be open until I get back. If you haven't done so yet, cast your vote. I will be back on the 30th, probably with couple of fresh reviews for October. In the mean time I might be a bit slow responding Behave yourselves while I am gone ;)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Limbreth Gate - Megan Lindholm

I've reached the third volume in my rereads of Megan Lindholm's Ki and Vandien Quartet. Lindholm's work under this pseudonym is very diverse but the Ki and Vandien novels are more or less straightforward fantasy. A secondary world with a long, largely unknown history, lots of different sentient races, magic and divine creatures. All the ingredients are present. They are pretty focussed on the characters that give the series its name however. No huge cast of secondary characters and countless side plots. They are very efficiently written in a way. Each book is a complete story, there are no major cliffhangers or unresolved questions; it is the relationship between Ki and Vandien is what ties these books together. In short, a very different style of fantasy than the books written under the Robin Hobb pseudonym. One of the great mysteries for the reader is how a person can adopt two completely different styles and stay sane I suppose. It is something that has always intrigued me about Lindholm/Hobb.

In her pursuit of cargo to haul, Ki has left the areas she is familiar with and ended up in the town of Jojorum. Vandien is with her on this occasion and after their business is conducted they enjoy the markets of the town. They split up do each do some shopping of their own and agree to meet in a tavern in town. It becomes clear that the place is not very welcoming to Romni teamsters however and Ki feels forced to leave before nightfall. What Ki doesn't know is that Vandien is being deliberately delayed by a group of Windsingers, a weather controling magical order they have clashed with in the previous book. Ki is forced to leave without him and by the time Vandien realizes she is gone, Ki has been tricked into leaving the city thought the Limbreth Gate. A gate that not only leads out of town, but into another realm. Ki is in mortal danger. It is up to Vandien to find a way to reach her and draw her back to her own world.

This novel sheds a bit of light on Ki's own past. In Harpy's Flight (1983) she is depicted as being accepted in the Romni community but not quite a part of it. A number reasons are given in the first book. She married an outsider for instance and her refusal to give herself over to the mourning rituals of her people are another. Those are clearly not story and  in The Limbreth Gate more reasons are revealed. It also explains the interest of the Windsingers and the wizard Dresh in Ki, both of whom play a part in the story. The political intrigue inside the Windsingers' council is another element central to the plot. Ki's actions in The Windsingers (1984) has put her on the bad side of a faction within the council. For a group with considerable power they can be extremely petty (as well as arrogant) but it must be said that some them are not entirely without mercy.

What this novel does more than the previous two volumes, is expose feelings and doubts in the main character. The creature that uses the Limbreth Gate to create a connection between the two worlds is starving for new experiences, having long since tired of being god in a realm that contains only its own presence. In the process it consumes the unfortunate person being drawn through the gate. It is an idea that Robin Hob would later use in the Farseer trilogy, where Veritas' dragon empties him of all experiences and emotions. The Limbreth is a hungry creature, deceptively reasonable and tempting as a Siren. Ki cannot help open up to it and it exposes things about her relationship with Vandien that until now remained unspoken.

The way the relationship between Ki and Vandien develops is one of the things I like most about these novels. They hurt each other badly sometimes, in this case they can't help but doing so, but they always manage to turn it into a step forward.
        He could not smile at her. The relationship so carefully built seemed crumbled; he dared no longer trust the weight of his heart to it. "it is more than that," he said heavily. "It is not going to be the same between us."
     Ki looked deep into his eyes, troubled by what she saw there. "The same as what? When was it ever the same between us, from day to day? When did we ever want it to be?"

Ki and Vandien discussing how to move on - Chapter Twenty-One.
Lindholm has never been easy on her characters and Ki and Vandien certainly get their share of misfortune and heartbreak. Their experiences in the Limbreth realm are traumatic but not enough to shake them loose from each other. I've read a lot of comments by people who don't like this book as much as the others because Ki is not herself for most of the story. Personally, I think she shows herself even stronger than we could have suspected from the previous two volumes.

Vandien's struggles are depicted in a very different way. He has been trying not to ask more of Ki than she is willing to give and in this novel, he runs up against the limitations of that approach. Under the influence of the Limbreth's visions she wants to put their relationship behind her and Vandien has to overcome his impulse to leave her be. Lindholm uses a hird character to embody Vandien's more ruthless thoughts. The half Brujan Hollyika is a woman of action. Blunt, forceful and living for the moment, she seizes what she desires without debating feelings or morality. Hollyika does what Vandien can't make himself do, exposing some severe doubts about his relationship with Ki. I've been thinking about whether or not this makes Ki the stronger of the two but when you get right down to it, they both need someone to pull out of the mess they find themselves in. Vandien might consider that the next time he feels inadequate. I guess it just makes them human.

Maybe this third book in the quartet is the most difficult to appreciate. In terms of structure and emotional charge it is the best of the quartet so far I think but definitely a more challenging read than the previous two. Lindholm is clearly progressing as a writer over the course of this series. Something that can be seen in the final volume, Luck of the Wheels (1989), as well. Ki and Vandien remain two of Lindhom's most intriguing creations and I am very much enjoying to way in which she develops these characters. The Limbreth Gate made me want to reach for the next one immediately after finishing it. Unfortunately there is a to read stack to consider though, it will have to wait its turn. I will try to read and review that book before the year is out and wrap up this series.

Book Details
Title: The Limbreth Gate
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 360
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-711254-8
First published: 1984

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Crack'd Pot Trail - Steven Erikson

Crack'd Pot Trail is the fourth in Steven Erikson's series on the necromancers Korbal Broach and Bauchelain. These novellas are an offshoot of his huge Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where the pair shows up in Memories of Ice. Recently they have also been part of Ian C. Esslemont's fourth Malazan novel Orb Sceptre Throne. The events in these novels are set much later in the Malazan time line however. I read the Night Shade Books edition for the previous three volumes but it appears this publisher has lost interest in these novellas. For the fourth, and the recently published fifth novella titled The Wurms of Blearmouth, I got the PS Publishing editions. PS Publishing spent a lot of time and effort making this novella look pretty. It has very good cover art and three beautiful full colour interior illustrations by Dirk Berger. It makes this edition expensive though. For people with a small budget the Tor edition might be the better option.

In Crack'd Pot Trail we follow a group of travellers on a notorious desert trail. Part of the group is in pursuit of a pair of necromancers who have left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Other members tag along for other reasons. There is a group of pilgrims hoping to find the Indifferent God, as well as a group of poet, on their way to an annual festival. The trail is long and dangerous and when the group is not making as much progress as expected, their supplies fall low. Survival becomes priority number one. There is no way they can all make it across the desert, hard choices will have to be made.

This novella is a love it or hate it book I think. I've seen reviews on either extreme of the scale but very little in between and I can see why this would be so. I must admit I am torn as to whether is novella is brilliant or a failed experiment. One thing is clear, it is a break with the previous three entries. At 181 pages it is a lot longer than the previous three entries for instance. The focus of the novella has also shifted away from the necromancers that give the series its name. Korbal Boach, Bauchelain and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese are present only at the very end of the novella and play not part in the story other than being a distant target. This fact alone will put some readers off.

Where the previous novellas were pretty straightforward reads, this is a complex tale. Erikson creates a great number of characters in the limited space available in a novella, making the reader work hard in keeping the various groups and motivations apart. Something that isn't made any easier by the narrator of the story, a poet by the name of Avas Didion Flicker. The man is cursed with a verbosity that would make even the Eel of Darujhistan blink. The first twenty or so pages are particularly dense. Flicker describes each of his fellow travelers in detail. From that point on the story gains a little more speed but it never becomes easy reading.

Erikson made this novella almost impossible to review. The main attraction of the novel is the way he describes the relationship between the artist and the critic. As the journey becomes more desperate and food runs out, the only option left to the travellers is to start eating each other. Who should go first? Why the least useful person on the journey of course: the poets. To determine the order in which the poets will be eaten, each night a contest is held between them. The one with the most dismal performance, and it must be said, this particular group of artists is not blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent, will be eaten. Well now, how is for a portrayal of the critic. Erikson is challenging us to show ourselves the cannibalistic Philistines he describes? Some reviewers obviously found it tempting. The irony is overwhelming.
    "I still want details," said Tiny Chanter, glaring at me in canid challenge.
    "As a sweet maiden, she was of course unversed in the stanza of amorous endeavour-"
    "What?" asked Midge.
    "She didn't know anything about sex", I re-phrased.
    "Why do you do that anyway?" Apto inquired.
    I took a moment to observe the miserable, vulpine excuse for humanity, and then said, "Do what?"
    "Complicate things."
    "Perhaps because I am a complicated sort of man."
    "But if it makes people frown or blink or otherwise stumble in confusion, what is the point?"
    "Dear me", I said, "here you are, elected as Judge, yet you seem entirely unaware of the magical properties of language. Simplicity, I do assert, is woefully overestimated in value. Of course there are times when bluntness suits, but the value of these instances is found in the surprise they deliver, and such surprise cannot occur if they are surrounded by similitude-"
    "For Hood's sake," rumbled Tiny, "get back to the other similitudes. The maiden knew nothing so it fell to the Fenn warrior to tech her, and that's what I want to hear about. The world in its proper course through the havens and whatnot." And he shot Apto a wordless but entirely unambiguous look of warning, that in its mute bluntness succeeded in reaching the critic's murky awareness, sufficient to spark self-preservation. In other words, the look scared him witless.
    I resumed. "We shall backtrack, then, to the moment when they stood, now facing another. He was well-versed-"
    "Now it's back to the verses again," whined Midge.
    "And though with heated desire," I continued, "he displayed consummate skill - "
    "Consummate, yeah!" and Tiny grinned his tiny grin. 

Flicker facing his critics - p. 126-127
The verbosity, the opening with what could uncharitably be describes as an infodump, the absence of the fan favorites, these are all deliberate choices on the part of the author. Choices he would have known would get him negative reviews. Of all the satire Erikson has written, and there is quite a bit worked into his novels as well as this series of novellas, this one obviously targets the reader most directly. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series that got a big boost from the blogsphere but it has run into the unwillingness of some fans to see the genre's stereotypes challenged as well. Erikson is a writer who likes the challenge expectations. He makes pretty bold choices in his writing and that is what sets his fantasy apart from your average series. Erikson is not afraid to show us the convoluted relationship between artist, audience and critic and none of the parties are portrayed in a particularly flattering light.

How many authors must have been longing to address their critics like this, or expose the ignorance of their audience? How many could actually do so without hurting their career? The more I think about it, the more I am beginning to appreciate the genius of this novella. It may not add much to the story of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain but under the surface lots of interesting commentary is going on. Crack'd Pot Trail is a daring piece. Erikson once again plays with the reader's expectations and casts a new light on his own body of work. This broader view of this novella will probably not sit well with all readers, but I think it is sheer brilliance. Even if I have to suffer Erikson's most verbose character yet.

Book Details
Title: Crack'd Pot Trail
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 181
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-848630-57-4
First published: 2009

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Number 300 Poll

I'm approaching 300 reviewed works on the blog, Pechance to Dream by Peter Lukes being number 293. Like I did with number 100 and 200 I am going to let you decide which book it should be. Since I am taking part in the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award reading challenge over at Worlds Without End, I will limit your choice to one of those authors.

The rules state I can only read one book per author for the challenge. I have already read books by Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Brian W. Aldiss and Anne McCaffrey. For next month I picked The Listeners by James E. Gunn. I've also decided I am going to read one of Connie Willis' novels although I haven't decided which one yet. That leaves one spot and 17 authors.
  1. Robert A. Heinlein
  2. Jack Williamson
  3. Clifford D. Simak
  4. L. Sprague de Camp
  5. Fritz Leiber
  6. Alfred Bester
  7. Ray Bradbury
  8. Lester del Rey
  9. Damon Knight
  10. A. E. van Vogt
  11. Jack Vance
  12. Hal Clement
  13. Philip José Farmer
  14. Harlan Ellison
  15. Michael Moorcock
  16. Harry Harrison
  17. Joe Haldeman
Just to show how well read I am in the genre, I have read just three books by these fellows. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, and Vance's The Dying Earth (which I didn't like very much).So take your pick in the poll on the right hand side of the screen. Specific titles can be suggested in the comments. I make no promises in regards to titles though. I need to be able to get my hands on it quickly so availability is essential. The poll closes on the 30th of September.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Perchance to Dream - Peter Lukes

This book is one of the last review copies I accepted before I closed the shop for a bit. Life is keeping me pretty well occupied at the moment but I made a promise and so I have read Perchance to Dream last week. The review is even more or less on time. I've never read anything by this author before and the publisher, Urania, which is an imprint of Musa Publishing, was unknown to me as well. It looks like a small publisher, they cater to all kinds of genres and niche markets and haven't been in business that long. Judging by the e-book I received for review, they know what they are doing. It was mostly free of the annoying formatting errors that plague so many digital publications and a decent amount of attention had obviously been paid to editing the novel. I'm less thrilled with the cover art, but let's focus on the content; that is what counts most after all.

Perchance to Dream is a science fiction novel, but one that explores the inner universe of our subconscious mind. Manuel Corr is an officer with a highly specialized unit within the police force. Where his colleagues serve and protect in the every day world, he invades criminals' subconscious minds through their dreams and gathers information that can help investigations in the real world. His exploration of this dream world is supported by an array of computers and various drugs, giving him superior control over his environment. Corr is the best of these specialized officers. His control of the Sub-Net is almost intuitive. Corr was under the impression his department was the only group active in this largely unexplored territory. When one of his expeditions into the mind of an influential corporate criminal goes awry, he is forced to reconsider this belief. What is worse, the competition seems to be several steps ahead of him. Corr is dragged into a deadly game of hide and seek in a world where the rules are not fixed and control is often an illusion.

The premise of this novel is a disturbing one. To look into someone's subconsciousness; a place where things lurk that we don't even want to admit to ourselves - let alone share with the world - sounds like the ultimate invasion of privacy to me. It goes way beyond wiretapping or hacking someone's mailbox, and that is not even getting into the question of whether dreaming of a crime is permissible evidence or punishable in itself. In fact, the idea sparks associations with Orwell's concept of thoughtcrime, one of the many disturbing things in his brilliant novel 1984. It would have been nice if the author had gone into the ethical and legal implications of what this unit is doing, or how reliable the information gathered this way is. I understand Lukes is an attorney when he's not writing. I'm somewhat surprised to not have these issues come up in the novel at all.

Instead, Lukes plunges into the action right away, showing us Corr getting into trouble from the start of the novel. Perchance to Dream is a fairly short work, at 54,000 words it is barely novel length. I think the story could have used a few more words to flesh some aspects of it out a little. Corr is in trouble from the very first pages for instance. The reader never gets to experience the way Sub-Net usually feels for him. In the very first meeting with this strange world, the reader sees Corr's certainties collapse but never actually experiences the wrongness of the situation. The reader's introduction to Sub-Net is chaos right from the start. There is no sense of what a regular day at the job looks like for Corr and because of that, all contrast with the situation in the book is lost. The same is true for the rest of his unit, the interpersonal relationships, Corr's past romance with one of his colleagues and a number of other things. None of these things are developed beyond the basic outline, causing most of the characters to lack depth. The story hits the ground running but at times I felt Lukes is galloping ahead when a little reflection might have done the story good.

The novel is marketed as science fiction, which makes sense in a way. The application of science mentioned in the novel is not currently possible and may very well never be. The author doesn't go into much detail on how the system that supports Corr actually works. A generous measure of handwavium is applied to the more technical aspects of the novel. It works and that is what we need to know for the story to progress. As the story progresses, more and more possibilities of the the inner world are revealed until the whole takes on proportions of Robert Jordan's Tel'aran'rhiod. Just about anything appears to be possible as long as the character can figure out how to do it. Lukes' world of dreams becomes reality in the closing stages of the novel. The true extend of the Sub-Net's possibilities as well as Corr's talents remain unclear though.

To say I have issues with this novel is stating it mildly. I feel the idea has great potential but translating the concept into a story that is both entertaining and does a complex idea justice proves to be a challenge. Invading someone's dreams raises all manner of interesting questions on which a novel could be based but Lukes rushes right past them, in favour of a more action packed story. This approach may appeal to some readers, I think fans of a good thriller might enjoy it. With me, the novel mostly left the impression that, while it wasn't a bad read, it could have been much more. Ultimately the lack of development of the concepts and characters that are the basis of this novel left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied after finishing the book.

Book Details
Title: Perchance to Dream
Author: Peter Lukes
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Pages: 163
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61937-171-2
First published: 2012

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dragonsdawn - Anne McCaffrey

As I noted before, the Damon Knight memorial Grand Master Award is seriously short on female authors. Only four out of the twenty-eight winner are women. Since one of the objectives for this year is to read more work written by women I am going to try to read all four for this challenge. I read Forerunner by Andre Norton and The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin earlier this year. Next up is Anne McCaffrey, who was honoured with this award in 2005. Picking a book was a bit of a problem. McCaffrey is best known for her Pern novels, of which I have read exactly one: Dragonflight, published in 1968. I didn't like it very much. I'm sure it was sensational at the time but forty years on, it seemed like a pretty mediocre novel to me. An Australian friend of mine is a bit better acquainted with McCaffrey's oeuvre and she suggested I try Dragonsdawn (1988). Chronologically it is the first of the Pern novels (there are a few shorter pieces in the same era or even set before the novel) but McCaffrey wrote it some twenty years after Dragonflight. I must say, the fact that she had a bunch of novels under her belt by this time shows in the writing.

After a long journey though interstellar space, three ships full of colonists arrive in the Rukbat system where they intend to colonize the third planet. When they bought into the expedition, they knew it would be a one way trip. The ships are nearly out of fuel, they will be cannibalized to provide the colony with materials. Pern, as the third planet is referred to, is a remote place, far away from the busy shipping lanes of the galaxy and has only been surveyed briefly. The planet has developed its own ecology but is without sentient life. There is every possibility to create an utopian society, away from the wars and conflicts of the more densely populated regions of space. The colony is developing rapidly with only minor squabbles along the way when the colonists become aware of a major threat to their existence. Threadfall. Their rapidly declining technological resources will not be enough to save them. Other, more radical options will have to be considered.

McCaffrey made Pern and the colony the central characters really. She uses the third person point of view throughout the novel and she uses a lot of different characters to tell the tale. None of them are central to the narrative. She uses them to show a particular development in the colony, although some characters seem only marginally important to the story. I suppose you could see Sorka and Sean as central as they represent the future of Pern but they don't really get enough screen time to be called the main characters. All this jumping around makes it hard to get really emotionally invested in any of the characters. It really is a chronicle of the first years of human settlement on Pern and should be read as such. Some readers might prefer a more character oriented narrative.

Pern has always been a curious mix of science fictional and fantastic elements. It has been clear form the start that humans are not native to the planet, but society on Pern is mostly low tech and the presence of dragons makes it lean towards fantasy. This novel is primarily science fiction, perhaps even space opera. McCaffrey describes the arrival of the fleet and disembarkation in detail. The logistics of putting thousands of people as well as supplies to establish a colony on the surface are complicated and contain the origins of one of the conflicts that will arise in the new colony. I thought this section slowed the beginning of the book down a bit more than necessary. On the other hand, there is something compelling about beginnings. We are seeing the birth of a world in this novel, the planet is a blank canvas for the colonists to work with.

Throughout the novel we watch the colonists struggle with declining supplies and problems keeping their technological base at an adequate level. The planet has plenty of natural resources but turning these into high tech machinery or even fuel for the remaining shuttles is not an easy matter. It also doesn't appear to be the goal. The colonists long for a simpler rural style of living and the large stretches of unoccupied land provide ample opportunity. From a highly organized group lead among military lines, they quickly evolve into pioneers used to fending for themselves and taking care of their own business. The novel shows us an interesting reversal when the colony is threatened. One that obviously doesn't go without a lot of friction.

Interesting enough, McCaffrey addresses one of my pet peeves when it comes to books including dragons: their ecology. Putting aside quibbles over how to get something as large as a dragon into the air, there is a limit to how large a predator a given ecosystem can support, and dragons, especially in large numbers seem to defy that limit. It i s a problem more fantasy novels struggle with, not only with dragons. You frequently encounter regions with an unlikely number of very dangerous large predators. It shouldn't come as a surprise them that dragons are a species created by a very clever geneticist with a specific purpose in mind. Apart from dragons, the colonists are introducing new species on the planet at a tremendous pace. I don't think any ecologist would even dare to predict what such a injection of invasive species would do to native life but McCaffrey at least makes an attempt to make it sound plausible. Interesting enough the settlers aren't particularly careful in dealing with the ecosystem, sustainable hunting practices for instance, have yet to be developed. McCaffrey gave it a try, clearly thought about the origins of her world, but our understanding of ecosystems would have to improve an awful lot before such confidence in changing a world so dramatically would be justified. I can think of novels that handle ecological themes more successfully.

Dragonsdawn is a prequel of sorts and I guess to an extend is suffers from the problems many of these books almost inevitably run in to. The outcome is known, the solution to the threat the colony faces is obvious, the colonists' loss of their technological base a certainty. I guess that problem is what really tips the scale for me. Compared to Dragonsflight, McCaffrey's writing has matured a lot but with a more or less predictable story and the book's tendency to jump from one character to the next in rapid succession, it is not really a satisfactory read. None of the characters really develop enough depth to draw me into their story or make me feel more that a touch concerned for their wellbeing. I do get the feeling that if you have read more of the Pern novels than I have, some of the names and events mentioned will have more meaning than they have to me. Dragonsdawn can be read on its own just fine but in the end I think it much more enjoyable for the real fan of the series.

Book Details
Title: Dragonsdawn
Author: Anne McCaffrey
Publisher: Corgi Books
Pages: 473
Year: 1988
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-552-13098-1
First published: 1989

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Apex Book of World SF 2 - Lavie Tidhar

Science Fiction is a very Anglo-Saxon affair. Just about all big names in the genre are either from the UK or the US (and most are white men but that is another discussion), with only once in a while an author from another cultural or linguistic background. On top of that, the English speaking world is not overly fond of translations so chances of stumbling across a science fiction novel originally published in, say, Urdu or Swahili is fairly minimal. There is a great deal of Science Fiction being written outside the English speaking world however. I generally try to keep an eye out for these publications but I must admit I only occasionally read one. In 2009 I spotted The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. A collection that promised a look beyond the English speaking world and introduce it to the finest science fiction from across the globe. The collection used a very wide definition of science fiction, including stories that could be considered horror of fantasy and the geographical distribution left something to be desired. Still, it was a clear impulse to the discussion on the topic of diversity in Science Fiction that is still ongoing.

Given the discussion it provoked a second anthology seemed logical and indeed last month The Apex Book of World SF 2, again edited by Tidhar, was released. It contains 26 stories, or 27 if, like me, you acquired the pre-order edition, as well as an introduction by the editor and an essay by Charles Tan, one of the indefatigable advocates for a more diverse genre. The approach is more or less the same as the previous editions. The stories are a mix of original or first time in English publications and reprints. Some have been written in English, some translated by the author, some by translators. One of the criticisms the first volume received was that is was mostly focussed on Europe and Asia. In this volume, the Americas and Africa are well represented too. There are a number of big names in this anthology. Hannu Rajaniemi, Ekaterina Sedia, Nnedi Okorafor, and Andrzej Sapkowski for instance, have made an impact on the genre already, but the majority of names will be less familiar to even the more experienced Science Fiction reader. Diversity is what the anthology aims for and that is certainly what it delivers.

In terms of styles, sub genres and themes the anthology is is just as diverse as the last one. Some stories are fairly traditional science fiction, others veer of into Fantasy, Horror or Surrealism. There is a risk to this approach of course. For the reader looking for a specific brand of story, the anthology has little to offer. It requires the reader to be inquisitive, the want to experience literature from other traditions than the Anglo-Saxon one and to be open to a wide range of interpretations of the genre and cultural peculiarities. This is a lot harder than it seems. Some stories really clicked with me, for others I only got that whooshing sound you hear when something goes right over your head. There is different and too different? It certainly made me reconsider how much I thought I knew about the world. Interpreting these stories can be very tricky indeed.

One of the ones that clicked for me was the opening story. Alternate Girl's Expatriate Life by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. The author is from the Philippines but currently based in the Netherlands and, if I were to venture a guess, married to one of the locals. The story has a little bit of a Dutch flavour to it, if one knows where to look, but it mostly deals with the stereotype of submissive Asian women. I can't help but wonder how much grief this stereotype has caused her personally. The Philippines do have the reputation as one of the places where middle aged single men can find a young bride easily. Combine that with the racist undertone of Dutch politics at the moment I'm not sure the country is very welcoming to foreigners at the moment.

Malawian author Daliso Chaponda contributed the story Tree of Bones to this collection. It is a dramatic tale set in (probably) 22nd century Burundi, where ethnic tensions once again run high. The courage of one man who has witnessed such atrocities before and his unique talent to allow people to share what he has seen are central to this story. It is an interesting mix of dark elements and optimism in a way. I thought it was a very moving story.

The two stories I mentioned above can be comfortably fitted in Science Fiction. Joyce Chgn's The Sound of Breaking Glass is more fantastic though. It features and eccentric old man making wind chimes out of broken glass bottles. His neighbours obviously see him as crazy but harmless. It is a heartbreaking story, one of those pieces that is all about the mood of the story. She captures the old man's loneliness, indifference to his neighbours' opinion of him and the almost inevitable conclusion very well.

Chng's story is followed by one that only has one speculative element in it. A Single Year by Vietnamese-Hungarian author Csilla Kleinheincz could pass for mainstream fiction if the author chose to market it that way. The story is about the main character struggling with her father's unfailingly correct predictions of the future. What do you do if he tells you the man you intend to share your life with, only has a year to live? The descriptions of the main character's struggle with this knowledge and the unwillingness to accept the future as unchangeable war with each other in this story. The sheer emotional distress of the main character is almost overwhelming. Not a happy story but very well written.

Nira and I by Shweta Narayan, an author who grew up in India and Malaysia, has the air of a folk tale. If it is indeed based on some traditional story I don't know which but that particular bit of knowledge is not necessary to enjoy it. The characters in the story live in a place where perpetual mist is keeping out the sun. The mist is dangerous if you don't know how to live with it. The community is with one foot in the tangible world and another in a land of ghosts. The story is almost minimalistic. There is so much going on between the lines that is never outright mentioned or covered in a very understated way in the text. There are issues of caste and sexuality involved for instance but never very explicit. It is a story that stays with the reader for a while after reading it but I do wonder if it would have been better with a little more flesh on its bones.

The last story I want to mention is A Life Made Possible Behind the Barricades by Brazilian author Jaques Barcia. It is one of those stories that is hard to put in a genre but I guess Steampunk comes closest. It describes the struggles of a couple of which one half is biological and one half mechanical. Their love is not accepted and they have made a run for it to a place where they might be able to be together. Their destination is a battleground though. Behind the barricades they try to build a new life but whether the barricades will hold is questionable. It is a familiar story in a way but Barcia gives it a twist. The revolutionary atmosphere in the story mixes well with the Steampunk elements of the story. It evokes images of early industrial era worker's quarters during a general strike. It's violent, intense and quite strange. One of my favourites in the collection.

The Apex Book of Word SF 2 is bigger, more geographically balanced and, if possible, more diverse than its predecessor. I'm impressed with Lavie's selection and the work it must have taken to collect these stories from all over the planet. In his afterword Charles Tan points out the numerous problems with the term world SF. I guess that if a review wants to, they could have a field day picking this anthology apart based on the difficult to define concept. Personally I don't see the point of doing that. The Apex Book of Word SF 2 aims to show the genre in all its diversity and tries to show that it is much more widespread than the English language world. In that respect it succeeds admirably. Not all stories in this collection work equally well for me but collectively they make a statement. Even in the days of instant communication, the world is larger and stranger than any one of us can possibly imagine. This anthology gives us a taste of it and invites us to explore the world of science fiction in the widest possible sense of the word. Working with such a fuzzy concept as world SF can't have been easy but Lavie has managed to create an anthology that no fan of the genre should ignore. I suggest you go do some exploring of your own.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF 2
Author: Lavie Tidhar (ed.)
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 375
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937009-04-5
First published: 2012