Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sheepfarmer's Daughter - Elizabeth Moon

I ran out of books to read on my recent trip to Norway so I borrowed one of the books that my girlfriend had left behind. Sheepfarmer's Daughter is the first book in Moon's Paksinarrion series, the later books of which my girlfriend is very impressed with. This novel also had the added benefit of meeting the criteria for the WWend Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge as I have never read anything by Moon before. The series currently has eight books published, with a ninth coming next month and a tenth expected. Sheepfarmer's Daughter is also part of The Deeds of Paksenarrion, an omnibus collecting the first three books in the series.

When eighteen-year-old Paksenarrion "Paks" Dorthansdottir is forced to marry a neighboring pig farmer, she decides that life is not for her. Although her father expressly forbids it and has already paid her dowry, she decides to run off to join a mercenary corps and find wealth and glory as a soldier. This novel follows Paksenarrion during the first two campaign years with her company. Years that show that she is no ordinary soldier but that fighting is in her blood. So much so, that the deities of her world appear to take an interest.

 I can't say I liked this book very much. At first glance it was probably refreshing to have a female protagonist of a fantasy series, which were in very short supply at the time. Almost the entire story is seen though the eyes of Paks, who does a great many soldiery things without showing any interest in finding a husband or raising a family. She is not a the only female soldier but they are a minority and she has to prove herself equal to a man at several points in the novel. Which she proves to be as far as the physical aspects of soldiering go.

A strong female main character she may be, she is also intensely annoying. She is loyal to a fault for instance, ending up with one of the noble mercenary companies in the realm. The reputation mercenaries have for turning to the winning side as soon as the odds appear to be against them may be a bit exaggerated in Fantasy but the fierce loyalty commanded by the Duke that leads them strikes me as very unlikely. They fight for money (during their first year that is) and that alone, generally doesn't inspire heroics. It is not until one of the competing mercenary companies acts against the conventions of the trade that their motivation becomes a shade more likely.

Paks is surrounded by, with a few exceptions, very well behaved and disciplined soldiers. They are career soldiers, not press ganged, no convicted criminals, no desperate men and women running away from enemies, debts or poverty. In fact, in many cases one wonders what prompted these men and women to take up a profession with a very high risk of premature death. Paks has a motivation, which is dealt with in about three pages at the very beginning of the novel; the secondary characters are mostly decoration.

Another problem with the novel is that it contains very little plot for a five-hundred page text. Most of it is taken up by very detailed, and rather dry, descriptions of Paks' training an daily activities as a soldier. Most of which is not very exciting. Soldiering is mostly make work, routine and waiting after all, battles are infrequent. Moon has the unfortunate tendency to explain what is going on to the reader by having Paks ask lots and lots of obvious questions. It makes her seem very dull witted to say the least, especially because she almost never seriously questions what she is told. Paks is a good soldier in the sense that she follows orders and feels supremely guilty when some unforeseen circumstance prevents her from doing so or necessitates she does something else instead. Add to this the tendency to repeat certain information over and over in dialogue and you get a novel that is very slow in actually pushing the plot forward.

Because we see most of the story form Paks' point of view, we generally have no idea what is going on in the rest of the world. The Duke directs them to go certain places and fight certain enemies for reasons that are very unclear most of the time. Paks has no idea what their long term goal is. She also doesn't display much in the way of ambition other than the rather childish dream of being a great warrior on a big warhorse. The politics of the world are largely uninteresting for Paks, she shows little interesting in the non-human sentients of her world (your regulars elves and dwarves mostly) and she doesn't seem to be very religious either. Even after it becomes clear that one of the gods worshiped in this world has taken an interest in events, Paks shows no initiative in finding out what is going on. Same goes for the magic she encounters during her travels. It is mention but never explored in any depth.

What remains is an account of two campaign years. Moon obviously has a good idea of how an army works, what it takes to move one and supply it and what the human toll of the fighting is. The military detail overwhelms the plot and bogs down the novel in several places however. As much as I appreciate the care Moon took to paint a realistic picture of what campaigning is about (if we overlook the fact that her soldiers are a bit too well behaved to be completely believable), it simply gets in the way of telling a good story.

So what does that leave us with. Sheepfarmer's Daughter is essentially five hundred pages of Paks going through the motions of becoming a mercenary and finding out how to be a good soldier, a lot of which is no more interesting that my average day at the office. She does what she is told, never seriously questions what she is doing and turns out to be good at pretty much everything she is required to do. In short, neither Paks, or the events described in the novel really managed captivate me. It is readable but I wouldn't go as far as calling it good.  I understand that Sheepfarmer's Daughter was Moon's first published novel. One can only hope she has improved plotting and characterization since.

Book Details
Title: Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 506
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-671-31964-7
First published: 1988

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Luck of the Wheels - Megan Lindholm

Luck of the Wheels (1989) is the final part in Robin Hobb’s Ki and Vandien quartet. I’ve reread the previous three volumes last year and had hoped to read and review the fourth book too. As usual that turned out to be too optimistic. A week’s holiday in Norway offered the opportunity to catch up with some loose ends on the blog though. It’s been a while since I wrote three reviews in a week. I guess you could say this book is the odd one out in the series, having been published several years after the first three, which appeared in quick succession in 1983 and 1984. Lindholm had written a number of other books in the mean time, the incomparably Wizard of the Pigeons among them. These additional years of experience show in the novel. It is the best paced book in the series.

After Ki and Vandien’s adventures in with the Limbreth Gate they feel forced to move south, beyond the roads either of them are familiar with. Ki and replaced her lost wagon with a new one, but this one is not suitable for hauling cargo as she was used to. Without any contacts, unfamiliar with the terrain and a wagon that doesn’t suit her needs, work is hard to come by. Ki finally decides to break one of her principles and accept a passenger. The fourteen-year-old boy Gotheris is to be apprenticed to his uncle in a town some two weeks travel away. The boy is decidedly odd but against het better judgment, Ki accepts the generous payment for this job. Something she will live to regret.

Once again Ki manages to saddle herself with a thoroughly unpleasant traveling companion. Unlike Dresh in The Windsingers, Gotheris, or Goat as he prefers to be called, is not stuck in a box. His actions display such a horrible lack of social grace and understanding the consequences of his actions that it is a miracle he has survived this long. Although he constantly claims to have Ki and Vandien’s best interest in mind, he gets them in trouble more than once, doing a number of inexcusable things. For most of the novel, Goat is very unlikable. The reasons for this, and the ending of the novel, are meant to redeem him somewhat but I very much doubt Lindholm succeeded there.

What Lindholm does better in my opinion is work out the political situation in the land Ki and Vandien travel though. The many annoying officials demanding they buy permits for just about every step they take are the first sign not all is well. The local Duke has also hired large numbers of brutal Brujans to patrol the roads and harass, rob or simply kill everybody who in their opinion is not supposed to be there. His tactics to hold on to power are clearly not appreciated by the locals and rumors of a rebellion soon reach Ki and Vandien. The way we see these events unfold through the eyes of Ki and Vandien is very well worked out. Their ignorance of local politics and the way it influences their decisions drive the story more than Goat’s interference in the end.

Ki and Vandien’s relationship is once again put under serious stress in Luck of the Wheels. Ever since meeting him in Harpy’s Flight Ki has had trouble fully committing to the relationship with Vandien. He doesn’t push but throughout the series the feeling that it is incomplete prevails. In this novel they seem secure in the way their relationship works but it doesn’t turn out to be quite the truth. Old scars are ruthlessly reopened and both main characters have to find a new equilibrium. Again something in them has changed fundamentally. In this part of the story I get the feeling Lindholm at one point considered expanding the series further. Ki has never dared to fully depend on Vandien. It would have been interesting to see what would happen to her when she does.

While Ki has to come to terms with her fear of commitment, Vandien battles his own demons. We find out a bit more about his past in this novel; a part that involves his talent in fencing. The last part of the novel includes detailed descriptions of a number of contests. Not all readers will appreciate that much swordplay in their fantasy but it seemed particularly well researched to me. Lindholm has written a page long dedication to the man who helped her with that aspect of the novel among other things. Personally I think it turned out very well. During the tournament Vandien is in a particularly unstable state of mind giving the whole sequence a very dark and threatening atmosphere. His inner turmoil is reflected in the bloody trail he leaves. I think it is not something a new reader could see Vandien doing based on what we’ve seen before. Maybe Vandien’s development in this novel is even more profound than Ki’s.

I would like to say that Luck of the Wheels is a fitting conclusion for the series but that would probably not be correct. In some ways it still feels like an incomplete series. Lindholm wrote as self contained stories however. The ending of this novel is satisfying enough but I can’t help but wonder what else Lindholm had in mind for the two companions. This novel is probably the most well-written of the quartet. The pacing in particular has much improved since the first novel in the series.  Overseeing the whole series I think The Limbreth Gate remains my favorite though. That being said, Luck of the Wheel, just like the previous novels in the series, is well worth reading. They may not be the epic, sprawling fantasy novels Lindholm has produced under her other pen name Robin Hobb but these leaner novels should still appeal to the fantasy fans. This reread has reinforced my opinion work published under the Lindholm pseudonym is a bit under appreciated.

Book Details
Title: Luck of the Wheels
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 408
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-711255-6
First published: 1989

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Grass - Sheri S. Tepper

I was hoping to find the time to take part in the WWend Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge this year. Until now that has been a dismal failure. I haven’t had time to research and acquire the book I need for it and have mostly been reading stuff that was already on the to read stack this year. I would be surprised if I could still manage to read the twelve required but I can at least read some of them. After the reading challenge for 2013 was announced I picked Sheri S. Tepper’s novel Grass to be my first read. Tepper is a prolific writer in various genres and this novel is one of the few written by a woman that made the Gollancz science fiction Masterworks series when they were still being numbered. I have absolutely no experience with Tepper’s writing but the premise looked interesting so this novel was a logical place to start. The novel didn’t quite turn out to be what I was expecting but it is a very good read nonetheless.

In a far future, overpopulation and environmental degradation have forced humanity into space. Many planets have been colonized but under the influence of humanity’s main religion the expansion has stopped for the moment. One of the colonized planets is named Grass. Most of its surface is covered with numerous species of a genus that resembles the grasses of old Earth. Despite its position at a galactic crossroad, the planet has remained something of a backwater, governed by a small group of families descended from various noble families in Europe. The ‘bons’ as these families are known would rather be left alone but when a plague strikes humanity for which no cure can be found, eyes turn to Grass anyway. For some reason, the population on Grass appears to be immune. Reluctantly, the bons allow an embassy on the planet to look into the matter.

Grass is a pretty hard novel to get into. There are plenty of science fiction novels that explore the mysteries of an unknown planet and manage to do so in 200 pages. Tepper needs will over 500 and there is a reason for that. The social structure of Grass and how it clashes with that of the rest of the galaxy is an important part of the story and not something than can be unraveled in a few pages. Tepper takes her time to set all of it up properly. That does mean that the first part of the novel I rather slow and the relevance of a lot of that material is not directly clear to the reader. I suspect more than a few readers would be tempted to put the book down in that stage. It requires patience. I think it pays off in the end.

The bons of Grass (I assume the name is taken from the ‘von’ found in many names of German nobility) have developed a culture bases on hunting.  They ride the native Hippae and hunt another native creature named Foxen but apart from the name, the resemblance to foxhunting is superficial at best. De bons are a very closed society and not much is known about their planet and way of life in the rest of the galaxy, except their obsession with hunting. Based on this information, the ambassadors sent to Grass are two Olympic medalists in the Equestrian disciplines in hopes of gaining acceptance with the Grassian elite. They are hopelessly ill prepared for what they find on Grass but, aware of the stakes, very driven to succeed anyway. The clash between the desperate ambassadors and the bons, wanting to protect their isolated and privileged lifestyle, is fascinating to read.

The novel has a very strong religious theme as well. Most of humanity is firmly under the influence of a religion referred to as Sanctity. Their motto is Sanctity/Unity/Immortality and immortality is what they promise their followers in the ‘second creation’. This, as the name implies, comes after the first creation is undone. Sanctity influence stretches far and the church jealously guard their influence over human occupied space to the point where they restrict further expansion and strictly limit procreation. Combine this with even more strict taboos on contraception and you get the picture of a very scary organization indeed. They are not the only religion however. The ambassadors sent to Grass adhere to ‘old-Catholicism, which appears to be a religion mostly in line with the stance of the (more conservative parts of) catholic church at the moment.  Here again, Tepper introduces conflict into the story. Ambassador Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier, the woman who could be considered the main character of the novel, is forced to examine her beliefs when they clash with Sanctity, the duty to her family and humanity as a whole, and the sense of superiority displayed by the bons. There is more than a bit of feminism worked in this part of the story. Personally I found both religions equally disturbing for various reasons. Grass is often described as a dark tale and in this respect it certainly is.

Tepper isn’t done weaving strands into the story though. Grass was once colonized by the Arbai, a mysterious alien race that went extinct for unknown reasons. Their ruins can be found on Grass and are being excavated by Sanctity. The reason for their extinction is suspected to have something to do with the plague that is currently affecting humanity but so far, the ruins have not yielded the answers that are needed. Indeed, one might wonder at the motivations of Sanctity, eager as they are to reign in the ever expanding numbers of humanity. This strand in the story is perhaps the most mysterious of all. Grass is the first book in a trilogy in which, as far as I can tell, the Arbai are involved in all three. Grass resolves most of its plotlines and works fine as a standalone but if anything is left dangling it is probably the history of the Arbai. Tepper explores it for as far as it suits her story and not much beyond. Given all the other material already stuffed into the novel that is probably a good thing.

Personally I liked Grass just fine but I can see a few problems other reasons might have with it. The novel is intricately plotted, that is absolutely true, but at some points it lacks subtlety. Especially the depictions of religious madness are taken a bit too far. Marjorie’s family is dominated by a man who feels everything should revolve around him and resents Marjory for having her own interests. On top of that he is hypocritical enough to openly have a mistress and yet accuse her of being unfaithful. The sheer stupidity of his approach to religion is a bit hard to swallow. Sanctity on the other hand is not only hypocritical but plain megalomaniac. I’m not a religious man myself and the disasters, pain and suffering people will put up with in the name of religion never cease to amaze me. I think Tepper’s approach is a tad too stereotypical to be really believable though. In that respect the madness that afflicts the bons is much more believable and disturbing.

Another issue I have with this novel is that the ending, especially compared to the long buildup, feels rather rushed. The novel ends with the reader overseeing the battlefield just after the battle has concluded so to speak. There is no sense yet of the implications of what has just happened. The author needs an epilogue to clean up after herself. The ending fits I suppose but I do think it could be handled better. I can’t shake the feeling that it throws the pacing of the novel off balance.

I do see a few problems with Grass but on the whole it is a fascinating read. There is so much in the way of social, religious and scientific ideas stuffed into this novel that the scope of it is comparable with some of the most ambitious works in science fiction. I felt the execution is not quite good enough to name it a great work of science fiction but it is not far off. The novel is essentially one big puzzle and examining the pieces is enough to keep a science fiction fan reading. It’s not often that one finds a science fiction novel that has taking in so many aspects of human life and manages to weave them into a satisfying plot. The novel may have its imperfections but for me it included so many things I like to see in a good science fiction novel that is was an irresistible read anyway. Opinions will likely be divided on this novel but I would recommend it.

Book Details
Title: Grass
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 535
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-8579879-8-0
First published: 1989

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Feast for Crows - George R.R. Martin

After publishing the third novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin ran into some serious trouble. His tale grew in the telling and he struggled with the fourth volume for five years before publishing the part of it that is A Feast for Crows. Working though the rest of the problem and releasing A Dance with Dragons cost him an additional six years. Had it been one book as Martin once intended it would have weighed in at some 1700 pages. Unworkable for the publisher so the book was cut. I first read A Feast for Crows in 2005, shortly after it had been released. I wasn't too pleased with the way the book had been cut but back then Martin predicted he'd have the second half of the novel out within a year, so it didn't bother me too much. In hindsight and after having read A Dance with Dragons I think he did well enough with this part of the story but it definitely goes at the expense of the fifth book.

After the large scale hostilities in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords things have become messy in the Seven Kingdoms. With King Robb removed from the field and Stannis soundly defeated, the Lannisters appear to be in control of the Iron Throne, but the death of both King Joffey and the formidable Tywin Lannister has dealt them a blow but the twins Cersei and Jaime are still in a position to plant Joffrey's younger brother Tommen on the throne and bring the rest of the kingdoms to heel. Chaos still rules in many parts of the Kingdom though. The Lannisters should be in control but the ambitious Cersei finds ruling Seven Kingdoms much harder than anticipated. There are challenges from the Iron Islands, Dorne, until now uncommitted, is stirring and he Riverlands are not secure yet. At court there is more than a bit of resistance too. The Lannisters have to depend on the strength of house Tyrel to support their rule and they have their own ideas on how the realm should be ruled. The war for the Iron Throne is far from over.

The way Martin decided to cut the book was by location, rather than keep the story more or less chronological. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons overlap for the most part. Not until the last quarter of A Dance with Dragons does to story move beyond what we get to see in A Feast for Crows. The fourth novel focuses on events in Dorne, King’s Landing, the Iron Islands, the Riverlands the Eyrie and the city of Braavos. That means that characters like Daenerys, Tyrion and, for the most part, Jon Snow do not appear in the novel. With de demise of Robb Stark and his band and those three characters missing, the book has lost a lot of characters that were named as favorites by many readers. It turned out to be an unpopular choice but, again in hindsight, I do think it resulted in a book that works structurally. At some points rumors of events in other parts of the world show up in the book but the idea of isolation and the fog of war is very believable.

You could say that most of the novel revolves around what goes on in King’s Landing. Cersei’s attempt to show that she is as good a ruler as any son Tywin Lannister might have produced are what holds the book together. It is a bit like watching a train wreck. Cersei is prone to shortsighted ad-hoc decision-making and appointing people who are firmly under her influence but otherwise useless to important positions on the council. Tywin is no doubt turning in his grave. Jaime’s role in this turn of events is interesting too. The trauma of losing his sword hand, the part of him he feels defines his life, has changed him to such an extent it drives a wedge between him and his sweet sister. Jaime might have been the most clear cut villain in A Game of Thrones but by now he is starting to show distinct shades of grey. Development of the characters is one of the strong points of this series. It has a lot of unlikable ones but once you get into their heads, it is very hard to sympathize with them a little.

One of the reasons why the story expanded beyond what was possible to cover in one volume is Martin’s insistence on expanding the Iron Islands and Dorne story lines. Personally I wasn’t too interested in what is going on in Dorne. We get to see what happens to Cersei’s third child Mycella, sent to Dorne by Tyrion in the previous book. She becomes the focal point for a plot of one of Prince Doran Martell daughters to get him moving. Martell is seen as passive throughout the series, which suits him fine as we’ll see. Personally I don’t think this part of the story was worth the number of pages Martin spends on it. I more or less had the same feeling for the Iron Island chapters. Asha Greyjoy and two of her uncles clash with each other over the succession of Balon Greyjoy. Martin creates new points of view for the two Greyjoy men which don’t seem to add much other than show the backwardness of the Iron Islands. Asha’s attempt to seize the throne is interesting but not enough to really make me enjoy this part of the story. The Iron Islanders long for a way of life that is lost to them forever and they all know it. I have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to these people in the long run.

Brienne is mostly responsible for showing us the ravages of war. After leaving Jaime in King’s Landing she sets off on a quest to find the missing Sansa Stark, whom we know to be pretending to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter in the Eyrie. This fact is unknown to Brienne and the Lannisters however, another clever use by Martin on the multiple points of view and taking into account what each character in each location can know about events elsewhere. That being said, the road trip doesn’t seem to progress the story much. The same goes for Samwell’s chapters which are also mostly spent travelling. Samwelll has the benefit of mostly being on the high seas or in Braavos so we are spared the genealogies, coats of arms and other heraldic details Brienne suffers through though. I must admit as several points in the book I felt Martin was being a bit too detailed.

I guess the most interesting of these outlying stories is that of Arya who has arrived in the city of Braavos using the coin she received from Jaquen H’ghar. Under the tutelage of the priests of the faceless god her thirst for revenge becomes a bit structured. Arya is one of the most interesting characters in the series. She is something of a chameleon, adapting seamlessly to each new situation she is exposed to. Martin makes sure Arya doesn’t forget her true motivations though. It is hard to see where Martin is taking this story line but it is definitely my favorite in this novel. I’ve always liked her better than the hopelessly naïve Sansa, although I must say Sansa is starting to grow on me in this book too.

Cersei, Brienne, Asha and Arianne Martel share one interesting trait and that is that they all try to overcome the limitations their sex imposes on them in their male dominated societies. Martin mixes in a lot of sexism and sexual violence into the novels, something all female characters are exposed to some extent, but that doesn’t stop them from trying in their own way. Brienne is still convinced she can be just as good a knight as any of her male counterparts, Asha is aiming to succeed her father and Arianne and her conspirators feel the Dornish law regarding the status of women as heirs should extend to the other Kingdoms. Something Cersei would no doubt approve of. Martin’s treatment of women can be very harsh at times but he does manage to balance it with a number of strong and determined women trying to overcome the obstacles put in their path. In true A Song of Ice and Fire style, not all of them succeed.

A Feast of Crows is probably not a fan favorite but after this reread I must admit I have developed a new appreciation for it. Martin managed to craft a novel out of the huge stack of chapters that made up the manuscript of a partly completed fourth novel. Structurally it is a decent book. It doesn’t drive the story forward as the relentless pace of the first three novels and lacks a number of interesting characters though. Fans had been waiting for it for five years by the time it was published, half a novel, even a 750 page one, was a disappointment. That being said, Martin produced a novel that was still manageable, with the well-developed characters we’ve come to expect. His choice to split the book according to location might have worked if he’d managed to deliver a decent fifth book as well. The real disappointment in my opinion is how A Dance with Dragons turned out. A Feast of Crows may not please all fans or have quite the impact of A Storm of Swords but I think it is a fine book as it is. It might even be a bit underappreciated. I didn’t think that would end up being my opinion when I started this reread. Let’s hope a reread of A Dance with Dragons will make that one grow on me too.

Book Details
Title: A Feast for Crows
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 753
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-00-224743-7
First published: 2005

Friday, May 10, 2013

On a Red Station, Drifting - Aliette de Bodard

On a Red Station, Drifting is a novella and the longest piece de Bodard has published in her Xuya alternative history (or future history, not quite sure what to call it). It has been published in a nice hardcover edition by Immersion Press, which may be a little hard to get at the moment since the story has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula BSFA and Locus awards. The author tells me a digital edition is in the works though. Like some of the other pieces I've read, most notably Immersion and Scattered Along the River of Heaven it is set in the 22nd century on a space station. Although the stories are set in the same universe they can all be read independently but I do like the whole idea behind the Xuya time line. Personally I think it is past time the stories in this universe got collected.

War has come upon the Dai Viet empire. From its fringes rebels continue to take planets while at the center of the empire, a young emperor is sitting tight, refusing to commit his forces to open warfare. In the midst of this upheaval magistrate Lê Thi Linh arrives at Prosper station, after having fled the planet she was serving the empire on. Linh has family on Prosper Station and she has come to ask for their hospitality. Family ties are strong but Linh carries a secret that might endanger the family. Her cousin Quyen, in the absence of her husband head of Prosper station, doesn't like or trust her. A battle of wills ensues.

Vietnamese culture is woven all though the story. Much of the governmental and family structures described in the story are adapted form ancient Vietnamese culture. Like the Mexica empire setting in other Xuya stories it is essentially a future civilization not as badly influenced by western colonization as in our own world. De Bodard mixes ancient customs with futuristic technology in a way that feels natural. I don't really know enough of Vietnamese culture to be able to judge how realistic someone from Vietnam might think it is but the alternate history does give her some space if play with. I think she uses that very well. Take special note of the food porn which creeps up in the Vietnamese Xuya stories. If the author keeps this up I think there is a cookbook in there somewhere.

Don't expect space battles or military scenes form this novella. The rebellion is a backdrop against which the story is set. It profoundly impacts the life of the main characters but the actual fighting stays at a distance. One of the things I liked a lot about this story is how the war is felt on Prosper station. A lot of family members are away on military duties, trade is not quite as brisk as it used to be and Quyen has serious problems keeping things together as head of the station. It is a task for which she feels unsuited, a task for which her education and life haven't prepared her. Linh on the other hand, has risen high in the service of the empire and this causes a lot of friction between the two.

I've been thinking about whether I like the two main characters of this novella at all and I think the conclusion must be that they are both rather unlikeable. There is something to the accusation that Quyen flings at Linh about feeling superior. Her having to beg her family for aid rankles and Linh can't hide that completely. On the other hand Quyen is a stubborn character, insisting on her position as head of the station and trying to make all the decisions on her own when she could, and should, pull on what resources remain to the family. Authority is important to the characters and respect for authority even more so. They use it is hurt each other quite badly.

The way authority is handled in this novel is one of the things that set Dai Viet culture apart from what the reader normally encounters in far future science fiction. De Bodard draws from Vietnamese history, which itself is heavily influenced by its big neighbor China. In her future rising service to the empire is can only be achieved though a process rigorous education and exams. Literature and poetry are very important in this education, the characters are constantly aware of others quoting from or alluding to classic works of poetry or literature. The way one prepares for a career in civil service and difference in status between such a career in this book and what one is used to in western society is striking. It reminded me a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Under Heaven.

One of the elements that returns in other stories is the presence of a Mind that monitors the station. In the story The Shipmaker for instance, we see how one of those minds is integrated into the systems of a new spaceship. They are of organic origin but practically immortal. At the same time they are fragile and delicate creatures, requiring things to be in balance to operate optimally. In The Shipmaker the principles of Feng Shui are used to achieve this balance, it is a discipline that is also known in places like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam under different names. Prosper's Mind of course, is failing at the worst possible moment, adding even more stress to the already strained situation on the station. The story mostly focuses on the consequences of this deterioration of the Mind rather than it's causes though. I thought this aspect of the story was perhaps a bit underdeveloped.

On a Red Station, Drifting is an interesting piece of writing. It is a novella full of tension between the characters. An environment under so much pressure that traditionally expected politeness and family bonds are forgotten and outright hostility emerges. The novella shows us a side of interstellar war and puts the women who keep things running in the spotlight. It is perhaps not the most sympathetic portrayal but definitely a rewarding read. De Bodard once again manages to put together a complex tale, with a good mix of tradition and future technology and a couple of well developed characters. I wouldn't be surprised if it carries of one of the awards it's been nominated for. In fact, I'd think it's past time de Bodard won a Hugo or Nebula. In short, this one is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: On a Red Station, Drifting
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Immersion Press
Pages: 106
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9563924-5-9
First published: 2012

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Eye - Frank Herbert

I haven't finished any of the books I am currently reading so I find myself out of material for the blog again. I have dragged up an old review that I originally wrote in June 2008. It has undergone some mild editing to weed out the worst of my errors. I hope to be back sometime next week with a review of Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting. No promises for the week after that though, since I'll be taking a short trip to Norway to visit my girlfriend's family.

Eye is a short story collection but Frank Herbert and one of his last works. Published in 1985, the same year his sixth Dune novel Chapterhouse: Dune was published, it covers most of his career. I guess you could consider this a best of volume. Herbert was not a prolific short fiction writer, especially in his later years, but quite a few are still missing from this collection. Like many SF authors he began his career publishing in the genre's big magazines, quite a few of these stories ended up in this collection. I thought Eye was something of a mixed bag, some of the stories don't achieve the depth many of his novels have and more or less lean on an interesting technological concepts to carry the story. On the other hand there is some very interesting stuff here as well. The two stories that kicked of the ConSentiency universe for instance. For the real fan this collection is worth reading but I wouldn't suggest it as an introduction to Herbert's work.

I own a lovely UK hardcover published in 1986 that I found in a secondhand bookstore in London in 2003. It contains thirteen pieces of fiction and an introduction. Unlike most introductions to collections such as these the introduction to Eye is noteworthy. It focuses mostly on David Lynch' motion picture Dune, which was released the previous year. Herbert seems to correctly predict it will gain something of a cult following. Personally I enjoyed that movie a lot but plot-wise there is an awful lot wrong with it. If someone does make a new movie I hope they'll repeat that particular mistake.

The opening story in the collection is Rat Race. The story about a detective who stumbles upon irregularities in a morgue on a routine job. On nothing but a hunch he investigates and finds out a truth beyond his wildest suspicions. I liked the theme of this story. Superior alien beings using humans as lab rats is hardly original but he handled well, especially the bit on the morality of animal testing and what it would mean if your subjects turn out to be self aware. Good opening to this collection, makes you wonder what Herbert made of animal testing.

The second story is The Dragon in the Sea. It's the short version of the novel I reviewed here a while ago. It originally appeared in three parts in Astounding Science Fiction in 1955 and 1956. This version is far more limited, it ends when Ramsey weathers the first crisis and gains a measure of respect among the crew. Shorter but still quite interesting. I noticed a few changes Herbert made in the long version. If you are going to read The Dragon in the Sea though, go for the novel.

Story number three is Cease Fire, published for the first time in 1958. It's a bit dated. The story is set in a near future so we're probably way past it by now. It's about a soldier who in a flash of inspiration invents a new technology that he thinks will put an end to all wars. His superiors know better of course, it will just change the nature of warfare. It would have been in interesting concept if Herbert had written about the effects this technology has on war. I thought the story ended just when it was getting interesting. The story looked promising but in the end I feel it fails to deliver.

A Matter of Traces is an important story to Herbert's career. This story introduces Jorj X. McKie, the main character in his later novels Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment. The ConSentiency universe, as this creation is known, is one where government has become so efficient that it rolls right over the individual citizens and has to be slowed down by Saboteurs such as McKie. I found the acceptance of the acts of sabotage committed by McKie as a matter of procedure very humorous. Not sure if this story works for people who don't know a bit about this particular universe though. Which is a bad thing as this is the first story written in that environment.

In Try to Remeber an alien race descends on the earth and demand that humans try to communicate with them. If they succeed the rewards will be great, if they fail the annihilation of the human race is imminent. As a warning they show their considerable power and clear a Pacific atoll off the map. The world panics and sends their best linguists to solve the alien riddle. Language, both written and spoken, the emotions it carries and the influence it has on the human psyche are frequent subjects in Herbert's novels. This story focuses on it entirely on the subject. I liked this one a lot, the conclusion was interesting. It's one of his early works, he obviously built on this idea later on. One of the Highlights of this collection.

The Tactful Saboteur is the second story in the ConSentiency universe. It has McKie as a main character this time and describes how he manipulates the change of power in BuSab, the agency that sabotages government to keep the speed at which is operates manageable. The story cumulates in a high tension scene in court were McKie succeeds in brining about the change of leadership in BuSab. It's not as interesting as the court scenes in The Dosadi Experiment but definitely an interesting story. ConSentiency works are not light reading though, you have to pay attention to what Herbert is saying or you'll get hopelessly lost in the story.

Herbert also includes a short story on his Dune universe. The Road to Dune is written in the form of a guide for visitors to Dune during the years of Paul's reign. The text itself is not remarkable, it takes us along a number of scenes the Dune reader knows from the books. It is marvelously illustrated by Jim Burns though. This story is not to be confused with the book posthumously published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

By the Book is a story about a troubleshooter. In the far future humanity is trying to expand to other worlds by sending forth containers holding whatever is necessarily to seed a planet. Including human embryos. Now, nine centuries after beginning the program the containers are reaching their destination. Perfect timing for the "Beam", the device that propels them to their target, to fail. Time to bring in troubleshooter Ivar Norris Gump, the best in the history of the project. He soon realizes he can fix the problem but the price will be high. Again the concept of this story is interesting but the story didn't really satisfy me.

Seed Stock may well be related to By the Book in some way. It is set on a planet recently settled by humans. They are putting all their effort in transforming the ecosystem into something inhabitable but for some reason all their efforts are failing. The colony is struggling to survive. While the scientists and leaders of the colony struggle in vain, the solution appears to be coming from an unlikely source. I liked the way Herbert deals with intuition a lot. The colony has to overcome what is has accepted as the way of the world to survive in this hostile environment.

In Murder Will In we meet a alien species that inhabits the body of sentient races and completely takes over the mind of it's host. The host has no control but it does live considerably longer. When the host body is approaching the end of it's lifespan the alien entity jumps to a new host, discarding the dying body. New hosts are only susceptible when experiencing strong emotions. A favoured method is having the new host kill the old one. Unfortunately for our alien society has progressed a lot since his lost move and appears able to predict violence before it actually takes place (interesting concept, Herbert uses something like it in his novel The Godmakers). The alien's manipulation of his old and new host was not predicted and thus brings unwanted attention. To keep himself hidden he is forced to make an unprecedented compromise. Very good story but you do have to pay close attention to what you are reading. Herbert packs a lot of ideas in 20 or so pages here.

How do you smuggle a Steinway grand piano aboard a spaceship where every ounce of weight is carefully rationed? This is the central question in Passage for Piano. Again this is a story dealing with the colonization of other planets. A group of colonists is in the final stages of preparing for an interstellar trip to their new home. In the family of the colony's ecologist a problem arises though. His son is very attached to the Steinway his grandfather played. The boy has a gift for music and is depressed about having to leave the instrument behind. So depressed in fact he may not survive. His mother is not about to let that happen and thinks of a way to get the Steinway on board. A very moving story, not at all what you'd expect of Herbert really.

Death of a City leans on another concept Herbert developed aimed at keeping a society healthy. A City Doctor is a person responsible for keeping the development of the human species on the right track. The powers of a Doctor include forced relocation and obliteration of cities if they deem that to be in the interest of the species. The city Bjska is looking at is not doing well. He is about to make a decision that will influence the lives of countless people. I didn't really like this story. The concept seemed a bit far-fetched and how Bjska reaches his decision remains nebulous.

Frogs and Scientists is a very short story about two frogs observing a human female bath. One tries to explain her behaviour in a scientific way to the other and he reaches some interesting conclusions. Very funny story, required reading for all scientists.

All in all quite a few ups and downs in this collection. I suppose The Tactical Saboteur was the highlight for me but Try to Remember, Seed Stock and Passage for Piano are also strong stories. On the other hand there are quite a few stories that are not all that great. If you are familiar with Herbert's work you will enjoy this collection for the way he tries out various concepts and themes he uses in his novels. In general though, I think he needs a little more space than a short story offers to really do his writing justice. I enjoyed reading this but I don't think it'll be up for a reread in the near future. It has reminded me I really need to get my hands on a copy of the first ConSentiency novel Whipping Star though. Eye is for the real fan only. Which is probably just as well, I don't think it is currently in print.

Book Details
Title: Eye
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 328
Year: 1986
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-575-03906-X
First published: 1985