Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is another one of those books everybody but me has read. It is one of the few works of science fiction (I'm not going to get into Atwood's reluctance to classify it as such in this review) that has managed to appear on required reading lists for English literature classes. I've never read anything by Atwood before so I decided to pick this one up for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge over at WWend. I think I can see why it has a certain appeal to both readers of genre fiction and those who prefer mainstream fiction. I found it to be a fascinating read but also a book full of very, very unpleasant things.

In the near future plagued by environmental degradation and decreased human fertility, Christian fundamentalists manage to take over the United States. A war ensues and a new theocratic government is established. Soon they start to stripping away rights from women and persecuting other religious groups. Our narrator, a woman renamed Offred, is separated from her husband and child and given to a high ranking member of the new regime. It is her job to provide him with the child his wife has been unable to conceive.

Atwood's description of a theocratic United States, renamed to the republic of Gilead, is pretty extreme. Offred is little more than a broodmare. She has no say whatsoever over her life. She can't own property or money, can't hold a job and even her own body is in effect property of a man. Sex is relegated to a job, devoid of any kind of affection or intimacy. Atwood describes the monthly ceremony in which the Commander she is supposed to provide a child for tries to get her pregnant. It must be one of the most revolting sex scenes in the history of literature. Which is precisely the effect Atwood is aiming for.

One of the critiques this book has gotten over the years is the comment that something like that could not happen in the US. I think what Atwood describes is a bit too extreme to be likely. Too few people would benefit from such drastic change for the new regime to create enough support to survive in the long run. There are places in the world however, where the situation for women in particular, is little better. Perhaps even more scary is the fact that a large portion of the US population would approve of more than a few things mentioned in the novel. Not to mention the surge of distrust for anybody who doesn't identify themselves as Christian. I don't see Atwood's vision of a theocracy in the US become reality tomorrow but to put it completely outside the realm of possibility... that would be dangerous.

The story is told entirely through the eyes of Offred. She is a woman who clearly remembers her freedoms and accomplishments in her life before the republic of Gillead was founded. Through a series of flashbacks we get to see her life before and after the revolution, although Offred admits she is not the most reliable chronicler. Reading and writing has been forbidden for women so her story is only as reliable as her memory. It is one of the many ways in which women are reduced to possessions. The scene in which Offred witnesses a group marriage and realizes that in a few years, the women who are given away will not remember a life before Gillead is painful to read.

The way in which Gillead was created is nebulous and not all that believable but the manner in which is stays in control the population is frighteningly realistic. Atwood describes the brutal indoctrination the women destined to become Handmaids are forced to undergo. Those who cannot be bullied into accepting their new role are sent of the to colonies, a network of work camps with a reputation similar to the Soviet Gulag system. There is a huge purging of everything that is considered sinful or subversive. Book burnings, destruction of anything that empathizes female sexuality, suppression of homosexuality, complete control over the media and of course a security service to rival the Stasi. Atwood has even taken into account the need for release when a man convicted to rape (it is suggested in the book that he is actually a political prisoner) is literally being torn to pieces by a group of women gathered for a compulsory ceremony called Salvaging.

There is little in the way of hope in this book. On the surface her fertility is prized by the regime but she meets jealousy and condemnation at every corner. Perhaps the most painful of these is the way other women treat her. A commodity to men, a slut to women. Whatever the fundamentalists think they may have achieved, hypocrisy and double standards most certainly haven't disappeared. Despite being surrounded by people and checked upon all the time, her position in society makes her lonely. Something the first person perspective reinforces. The text radiates  loneliness and paranoia.

Offred clings to tiny things to make life bearable. A cigarette, a picture of her daughter, the daily walks she is allowed to take to get groceries. Anything that distracts her from her purpose becomes something to look forward too. Even a message in mock Latin  scratched into the wood of a piece of furniture is cause for excitement. What is even more encouraging is the discovery that resistance is still possible despite the insane level of oppression. Offred has no idea what is going on in the world but gradually a picture of corruption within the government and small scale resistance emerges. Her world is kept so small however that bu the end of the novel there is no telling how effective they are or how far their influence stretches.

The Handmaid's Tale is a thoroughly depressing novel. Atwood has taken just about every outrage committed against civil liberties in the US and pressed them into one nightmarish scenario. Not terribly likely perhaps, but given the fact that just about everything she describes has historical precedents, it is still very disturbing. The first person perspective of the story give us a very intimate view of the horrors of this particular regime. Atwood grants us luxury of an open ending so I guess the reader could choose to believe in a happy end. That is about the only ray of light in this tale. I am glad I read it but it is such an intensely disturbing book, that I doubt I'll be up for a reread any time soon.

 Book Details
Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Everyman's Library
Pages: 35
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-84159-301-X
First published: 1985

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The King's Blood - Daniel Abraham

I read The Dragon's Path, the fist novel in Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin quintet in 2011, not too long after it had been published. It was good epic fantasy novel that promised even more interesting things in the second book. Somehow I never got around to reading it though. Abraham is quite a prolific author, publishing under three pseudonyms and the third part of the series, The Tyrant's Law is already available. Past time I caught up with him again. Fortunately, the Dagger and Coin books are fast reads. I read this one in a week, alternating with Robert Silverberg's At Winter's End. The King's Blood proved to be a very enjoyable novel, I may have to get a copy of book three some time soon. After I reduce the too read list a bit further that is.

After uncovering the plot to assassinate the heir-apparent to the throne of Antea, Geder, a son of a minor noble, has been appointed protector of the crown prince. His star is to rise even faster when the King, rapidly approaching the end of his life, asks him to deal with the neighboring state of Asterlihold. They have been involved in the plot and must be dealt with. With his new religious adviser at his side, the inexperienced Geder soon finds out that war is inevitable.

Cithrin in the mean time, discovers that being accepted by the Medean bank is not everything she thought it would be. Too young to sign legally binding contracts, her every move is overseen by an employee of the bank; a thoroughly unpleasant woman named Pyk. It is not that much longer until she reaches her majority but the lack of responsibility is beginning to chafe. Cithrin decides to travel to the city of Carse, where the holding company of the bank is located. She intends to find a way to regain her control over the bank but soon finds herself in involved in another of the bank's projects.

Like the previous volume, The King's Blood is a highly readable and in most ways fairly traditional epic fantasy. Abraham refines and expands the cultures, races and characters he introduced in the first volume. There is more detail on the thirteen races that inhabit the world for instance, and even an appendix I mentioned missing in my review of the first volume. In between the action there is also quite a bit of attention for the history of the world. The disappeared dragons are mentioned on a number of occasions although their role in the story remains unclear for the moment. Where in the first book the world the author created was still a bit sketchy, it is beginning to feel properly fleshed out in the this second volume.

Geder again is one of the more interesting characters in the book. He is utterly unpredictability. At times he behaves like a hurt little boy, but he can also be ruthless, understanding and caring. He makes enemies without realizing it, rationalizes the most brutal decisions and yet remains completely naive when it comes to the political realities of the realm he is trying to govern or the perception other powerful players have of him. All things considered, he is a pretty scary man, but at the same time he is sympathetic at some level. What I especially like about him is the difference in public perception and the reality of his relationship with his religious adviser.

The focus of Cithrin's story line has shifted a bit from financial manipulations to a more adventure oriented plot. With her hands tied when it comes to banking, she is exploring other avenues to regain control over her life. Her uncanny ability to see how money flows is not quite as noticeable in this book, although she does tend to think in terms of trade and investment, even when looking at political mattes. It is a limitation she doesn't seem to be aware of. One she will no doubt have to overcome in later books.

The activities of Cithrin and Geder drive the story but Abraham include a number of more mature characters as well. The conservative nobleman Dawson is forced into a difficult position when his views of society and religion clash with Geder's new order of things. He is not a man who bends easily as his family will find out at their expense. Dawson doesn't change much over the course of the book, his actions are highly predictable,  but his wife Clara,  also a point of view character, promises to be more interesting in the next volumes.

The other mature point of view character is the mercenary captain Marcus Wester. I must admit I didn't like him very much. Marcus is a man haunted by his past, he feels responsible for the death of his family and is now trying to make up for it by protecting Cithrin. Which is not working very well as he has left the city to go to Carse. Marcus wallows in his guilt and does a number of stupid things when he hears rumors that might mean Cithrin is in trouble. I think I can see what Abraham has in store for this character but in this novel, I thought he was annoying. Fortunately he seems to have found a purpose again that the end of it.

Abraham does not intend something hugely original with this series. His Long Price quartet is much more challenging in that respect. That being said, Abraham has a control over the plot that is rare in epic fantasy. He seems to know exactly where he's going and how to get there. No meandering side plots, dozens of point of view characters or long rambles on the customs, culture or history of particular places. All of it is worked in to the story to the extent it is needed and not beyond. It's an ability many a fantasy author should be jealous of.

Book Details
Title: The King's Blood
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 501
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-889-8
First published: 2012

Saturday, June 22, 2013

At Winter's End - Robert Silverberg

Since I have been reasonably productive over the past few weeks I decided to sign of for NetGalley the other day and look around for a few interesting new releases. Open Road Media was kind enough to provide me with this electronic version of Robert Silverberg's novel At Winter's End. It is the first part in a duology and is written after  his 1975-1980 retirement from writing science fiction. May people feel Silverberg produced his best work in the early 1970s but this later phase in his career has yielded a number of interesting novels. I don't think this one will be ranked as one of his best but it is a very interesting read nonetheless, especially for readers with a taste for post-apocalyptic fiction.

Hidden away in a cocoon a small group of 60 or so creatures is waiting for the end of an asteroid bombardment that has rocked to planet for hundreds of thousands of years. Their way of life has been shaped by the need to survive on few resources and keep sheltered form the falling debris and subsequent drop in temperature. But, as predicted by the ancients, the bombardment won't last forever. The signs of impending spring are felt by the community. When they discover their hideout is being threatened by huge Ice-eaters, it is the last push the need to leave what has been their home for countless generations and venture out into the empty world and reclaim it.

Silverberg takes an interesting approach to post-apocalyptic fiction in this novel. Such a huge expanse of time gapes between the civilized world that has been destroyed and the cold and desolate place our heroes discover on their departure that everything that was known about it, has turned into myth. One of the main characters, a boy named Hresh, is the keeper of a stack of ancient written records that have been handed down for generations, copied and then copied again, until the language appears archaic even to the trained mind of Hresh. In effect, they are facing the world like it is a new planet. There are things of things left behind but the truth hidden in the ancient text has to be rediscovered. Time and again Hresh and his tribe run into things that would be obvious to the reader but hard to accept for anyone not used to it. Silverberg obviously kept that in mind while writing the novel. He pays a lot of attention to the recapturing of concepts from a more complex society.

One of the first riddles Silverberg presents to the reader is the nature of out main characters. They think of themselves as humans, their chronicles tell them they are, but from the description it is obvious to the reader from the very first pages of the book, that they are not. Silverberg builds on this throughout the novel. He casts doubt on what has been written in the chronicles for one thing. This is something Hresh in particular, will be struggling with. He also provides the tribe with the quest of finding out about their origin. As the tribe comes across more and more hints that they are not what the ancients thought of as human, they are forced to redefine their position in the world, just as the reader is forced to question what it is that makes us human.

Another challenge that runs through the entire novels is the huge shift in focus, from a society that is forced to strictly regulate their numbers to one that has the space to expand rapidly. During their time in the cocoon, Silverberg's tribe have imposed an age limit on themselves. Voluntary death at the age of thirty-five to make space for the next generation. It's unclear what the natural lifespan for the species is, but it is quite a bit more than that. The age limit is one of the first taboos that is broken during the trip as the tribe needs everybody in order to replace their losses and build a new society. It one of many such taboos. There are others regarding mating and sex as well as restrictions of knowledge and very well defined social roles for each member of the tribe. When exposed to the outside world, all of these structures crumble and the tension this cause in the community inevitably results in conflicts.

At Winter's End is not an action-packed story but rather a tale that exposes the fault lines in the tribe's culture and stresses them to the maximum. We get to see a culture stressed to the breaking point, on the edge of violence and exposed to circumstances the ancient ones didn't prepared them for. Things get even more interesting when they find other survivors of the long winter. A group whose culture has drifted in quite a different direction. I thought is was interesting to see that in a world so empty, people can still find reasons to fight over possessions of territory.

Technically I suppose you could call this novel science fiction but with the treatment of the distant past as a time of myth and great wonders, it has a clear fantasy atmosphere to it. Maybe Silverberg felt the times were changing, anticipating the rise of fantasy at the expense of science fiction. This novel is a blend that will appeal to readers of both genres. There is a lot of things hidden in the text for the reader that points back to our world and more advanced civilizations but to the tribe, all the ancient stuff is mostly magic and work of the gods. Only a few characters try to understand what they see beyond placing it in their religious framework, introducing yet another source of conflict in the story.

There is more than meets they eye to this book. To a superficial reader it might seem a tad slow and in need of a good dose of action but it provides what a science fiction novel is supposed to provide, food for thought. And plenty of it. The position the characters find themselves in invariably mirrors some shift in the culture and societal structure of the people, and finding out what is going on on that level is perhaps even more fascinating that following the lives of the tribe's individual members. It is perhaps not the most interesting novel for those who like very character driven stories but if you like looking at the big picture, At Winter's End is a novel you'll enjoy.

Book Details
Title: At Winter's End
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 404
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1988

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

In September 2011, prompted by the many references to science fiction novels in Jo Walton's Among Others, I ran a poll on the blog asking with classic of the genre I should read first. The list featured books by Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke. I've read all of these by now and reviewed some. The only one I hadn't read yet is Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It is one of Vonnegut's better known books, although perhaps not quite as popular as Slaughterhouse-Five. It's also the first book by Vonnegut I've ever read. I think I'm going to have to find some more, I really appreciate Vonnegut's gallows's humor.

Several years after the death of scientist Felix Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the nuclear bomb, narrator John - whose full name we'll never get to know - decides to write a book about him. He never seems to get anywhere with the actual book but in the process of researching it, he does meet many of the people who knew Felix. As it turns out, the atomic bomb is not the only horrible device Hoenikker created. A seed crystal of a substance called Ice-nine, has been distributed among his children. If set loose on the world, all water on the planet would freeze at a temperature of  114.4 °F (or  45.8 °C in a less archaic and more practical scale). As it turns out, Hoenikker's children haven't been as responsible in keeping the stuff save as they might. The end of the world is upon us.

From what I understand of Vonnegut, his writing was severely impacted by his personal experiences during the second world war. Events that also shaped his opinion on events later in the twentieth century. He was not religious, a pacifist, a humanist perhaps. Cat's Cradle is a book that shows many of the follies Vonnegut was seeing in the world around him. He uses a very dark sense of humor and often absurd scenes to write about them. Nobody with a superficial knowledge of twentieth century history can escape the bitter irony in the text. I think it is a kind of humor not all readers will appreciate, but if you do, I don't think you could find many novels that handle it better.

Vonnegut is a writer who worked in the area of the literary spectrum where science fiction and mainstream fiction meet. Cat's Cradle has a clear science fictional element in Ice-nine. Vonnegut gives a technical explanation for it but other than that, it is not that important to the plot. Ice-nine is but one of the many absurd things people come up with in this book. It is as much a satire as a science fiction novel really.

A satire or not, Ice-nine is actually a pretty scary idea. Water can take several different forms when it turns to ice. Vonnegut describes a form of ice that until this point was unknown on earth but could easily be introduced with a seed crystal; a tin bit of crystal from which a larger one can be grown. The concept is a scientific only although no crystalline form of water exists that conforms to Vonnegut's description. Ice-nine does exist but only under extremely low temperatures and extremely high pressures. What is even more scary about the book is the almost whimsical way in which Hoenikker creates the stuff. He is well aware of the possible dangers but once the idea seizes him, he makes the stuff anyway in pursuit of knowledge. Clearly Vonnegut's commentary on the creation of the nuclear bomb.

Religion is another area where Vonnegut's confidence in humanity's intellect has reached absolute zero. In the novel he introduces a belief system called Bokononism, the first rule of which is: "All of the true things that I am about to tell you are  shameless lies." One could certainly wish more religions would practice this kind of honesty. Bokononism is a satire of organized religion really. Many of the seemingly humorous quotes from the religion's holy book hide a lot of anger and disappointment at the state of human affairs. Interesting enough Bokononon's world views does allow narrator John to face the end of the world in a very upbeat mood.

Bokononism also has a very special relationship with the nation it hails from. The tiny (fiction) republic of San Loranzo is ruled by a brutal dictator, a man who puts all opposition 'on the hook', an invariably fatal punishment, and has outlawed Bokononism. Later, the narrator finds out the dictator both persecutes and privately adheres to the religion.So much insanity is too much to grasp for our poor narrator but later in the novel he comes around to this kind of thinking. One of the many absurdist twists in the tale. Bokononism helps the local people deal with a type of government that is somehow seen as the only way that an island lacking any kind of resources can be ruled. It's twisted and thoroughly depressing to think about.

Cat's Cradle was published in 1963 and it is a book of it's time. Cold War thinking is pervasive, the threat of a nuclear war almost tangible and the fall out from the second world war very present. In that respect the novel is a bit dated but in others, it still feels very relevant. Let's face it, humanity isn't any less foolish than it was fifty years ago. The novel is at the same time intensely sad and hilarious. Perhaps not the most flattering portrayal of humanity but the novel is written with an irresistible kind of dark humor. Vonnegut has written a pretty concise novel by today's standards. Maybe his bleak outlook on the world would start to grate in a longer work but at barely 200 pages, he doesn't overdo it. Cat's Cradle is a little gem of a novel. I'm not surprised it ended up on so many recommended reading lists.

Book Details
Title: Cat's Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 203
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08195-6
First published: 1963

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes

South Afircan writer Lauren Beukes created quite a stir with her first two novels. They were published by Angry Robot, a publisher who likes to take on books that are a little different and don't easily fit into a category. Especially Beukes' second novel Zoo City (2011) attracted quite a bit of attention and won the Clarke Award in 2011. For her third book a bit of a bidding war between publishers ensued. The UK rights ended up going to HarperCollins, which is the edition I've read. Moxyland (2009)  and Zoo City were two very different books so I didn't quite know what to expect of her third novel. The Shining Girls turned out to be quite different from her previous novels.

In the early 1930s Chicago is something of a poverty stricken mess. Unemployment is high, crime even higher and Roosevelt's New Deal is still a few years off. Like so many, Great War veteran Harper Curtis has fallen unto hard times. On the run after pissing of some people you'd rather not meet in a dark ally, he stumbles into a house whose owner lies dead in the hallway. The man was obviously doing well for himself, money, good food and booze are all over the place. How he need up being murdered is a mystery to Harper. Soon, the house ensnares him in a web of murder and time travel. Compelling Harper to find his Shining Girls at several points in time and murder them. Harper finds this immensely satisfying, until one of the girls refuses to die.

Somehow I seem to have managed to pick up another time travel story. The Shining Girls is set in Chicago at various times between 1929 and 1993 and include a lot of social and historical developments in the city. She touches upon women's entry into the workforce during the second world war, the problematic position of gay transgender people in the 1950s, the Red Scare, the introduction of contraception and the abortion debate and a number of other interesting historical events. They are usually only briefly mentioned as the characters that experience them tend to be killed rather quickly. Only the life of Kriby, the one surviving victim of Harper, is chronicled in more detail.

Beukes did a lot of research for those brief sketches of certain time periods. The Radium dancers were a particularly interesting detail and one of the things not many readers will have heard about before. She could easily have been tempted to invest more in the shining girls' characters but the author keeps the novel moving. Chapters are brief and switch between Kriby and Harper, whit a number of secondary, most notably Kirby's mother and her journalist mentor/friend Dan. It must have taken something to keep the novel as concise as it is but I do think it was a wise choice. The tangle of time loops, as Harper thinks of them, would probably turn into one big Gordian knot if he spent too much time in the various time periods.

Kirby's side of the story is if anything even more interesting. She is faced with the challenge of finding a murderer who can travel time in a city where a lot of young women get murdered. The number of clues she has to work with are few indeed but her search becomes something of an obsession for her. Kriby is described as a scarred and in some ways vulnerable girl but also one who is determined to keep the search going when the rest of her world feels she should let go. Her character is developed way beyond what we get to see of Harper. Although I enjoyed reading Kriby, I wouldn't have minded understanding a bit more of Harper's motivation as well. He feels compelled to leave a trail of breadcrumbs through time, not unusual for serial killers, but why he does so remains a mystery.The true nature of the house and its influence on Harper is left up to the reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing but I did feel it left Harper a bit too much of a stereotypical psychopath.

Beukes previous novels were set in South Africa, which enabled her to work local influences and language into those stories. For me, that added to the reading experience as it is not a setting I'm usually exposed to. It was something I did miss in this novel. Chicago makes for an interesting backdrop, but with a lot of its history at leas superficially familiar to me, it wasn't quite as captivating as Kendra's exploits in near future Cape Town. That is a very personal preference of course and Beukes did succeed very well in portraying the city of Chicago throughout the 20th century. When picking this up don't expect another South African flavored novel though. It simply isn't.

With this science fiction/mystery hybrid, Beukes shows how versatile a writer she as. The three novels she has published so far have each been both difficult to fit into a particular genre as well as very different from each other. There is no telling if a novel like Zoo City or Moxyland will appeal to a reader who likes The Shining Girls but for the reader who likes to be surprised, Beukes' novels are simply a treat. I think I still like Moxyland best but truth be told, there is not much in it. Mostly Beukes choice of subject that makes the difference really. In short, The Shining Girls is another well-crafted and inventive novel by Beukes. There is even talk of making it into a television series. You may want to read it.

Book Details
Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 391
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-746456-2
First published: 2013

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm

I picked Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang as my third read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. It's another one that I've head lying around fro quite a while. I originally intended to review it late last year but got caught up in moving. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is one of Wilhelm's most well know works. It won the Locus and Hugo awards and was nominated for a bunch of others, including the Nebula which eventually went to Man Plus by Frederik Pohl. Later on, Wilhelm moved to other genres but in the 1960s and 1970s she produced quite a few science fiction novels. Wilhelm and her second husband Damon Knight, another iconic figure in science fiction, are the founders of the Clarion Workshop, which has become something of an institute in the past decades. The list of participants who went on to become successful authors is impressive.

Human abuse of the Earth's ecosystem is finally catching up on mankind. Pollution, radiation and environmental degradation are becoming such huge problems that if affects fertility of just about every plant and animal important to the human food chain.Humanity itself doesn't escape this tragedy either. Governments pretend it is business as usual, despite the mounting international conflicts over food and other resources. A few people see the end coming however, and set up an isolated community, equipped to survive the end of the world somewhere in a fertile valley in the Eastern USA. Even they are sorely tested when a pandemic breaks out but for the moment the group survives. With sexual reproduction all but impossible, they are doomed to die out however. To ensure humanity's survival, they resort to cloning themselves in order to create a new generation.

Clones never have it easy in science fiction. They are inevitably depicted as less than human, expendable replacements or somehow morally inferior creatures. At some level is would seem, the belief that we can actually make a perfect copy of a human being is somehow to frightening to consider. There has to be something wrong with a creature that did not grow out of an egg and a sperm cell. As if being a clone takes away some special part of our identity. Since human cloning is in its infancy and the subject of intense debate on the ethics of such research I guess we won't know for a while yet if there is any truth to it. Wilhelm joins the science fiction authors who depict clones as psychologically fundamentally different though. Her clones develop in frighting ways and threaten that pillar of American society: individualism.

I mentioned a perfect copy earlier in the text but achieving such a level of perfection is not easy. There are lots of studies on cloned animals that show abnormalities later in life. In Wilhelm's story this plays an important part. One of the first challenges the survivors face is the reduced fertility rates in clones. I'm not entirely sure if this part of the story is based on real research. Some of the biology (and psychology) in the novel seems a bit dodgy to me. A problem that has to solved if a return to the natural order of things, i.e. sexual reproduction, is to be achieved. It is another sign of the clones abnormality that later on in the book they try to remove a reliance on sexual reproduction entirely. Add to that the air of incest that is all over the clone society and there is no way the reader would not be disturbed by their way of life.

In effect, Wilhelm depicts cloning as the way to survive a serious population bottleneck in human history but in the end it limits human expansion and prevents them from recolonizing the mostly empty world. The clones, all grown in groups of up to ten individuals, develop a sense of togetherness that borders on the telepathic. Separating them, even for short periods of time, is a psychological trauma to them, that in some cases becomes irreversible. The colony is a safe place, where constant contact an reassurance of brothers or sisters is present to make life bearable. Without this, the successive generations of clones become increasingly unable to function. The doctors of the clone society, who in effect run the show, realize this threat, notice the increasing tendency to think only of the task at hand and not beyond what they are thought, and yet never consider raising single clones. The thought of being alone is just too much to bear.

The book is divided in three sections. The first dealing with the end of the world itself, and the establishment of the survivor's colony. The second deals with one of the later generation of clones, where the valley the colony is located in becomes to small to sustain them and critical scientific supplies and chemicals run low. The third describes a clash between the clone's way of life and the reemerging individualism of one of the main characters. Each section has their own set of main characters, although they overlap to an extend in the second and third part. It is an interesting approach to storytelling, enabling Wilhelm to depict developments in society that take decades to come about.

I've been giving a lot of thought about whether or not this book is worth the praise that is heaped upon it. On the one hand it is a very well written novel. Wilhelm captures the struggles of the characters very well and manages to draw the reader into the, in our mind, strange way of thinking of the clones. The whole novel creates an atmosphere of crisis, one step short of desperation. One false move could lead to the extinction of the human race and whatever else may be said of the clones, they do have a sense of self preservation. Being one step away from disaster casts a large shadow over the book. It penetrates every scene, Wilhelm makes very sure the reader doesn't for a moment forget the stakes.

On the other hand the tendency to see any form of communal society as inferior, ultimately a dead end in development of humanity annoys me. There are whole libraries of novels where the self reliant individual triumphs and thus shows his or her fellow men the way to a brighter future. This worshiping of individuality, and the inevitable decent into moral deficiency and stagnation of any other approach to forming a society, is grating. I will grant you, there are worse novels in this respect but the way Wilhelm handles it are far from subtle. In the end, the clones' efforts are means to an end, a return to normality, a way back to the way things were before. As if the end of the world doesn't clearly highlight the risks of a society where the individual's needs and desires are accepted as the only possible way in which humanity can advance. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not a happy novel but perhaps the most depressing element in the story is seeing humanity fall back into the basic pattern that caused disaster in the first place.

Does that make it a bad book? I guess not. The libertarian streak that is prevalent in a lot science fiction is not really in line with my own convictions but this book certainly has a way of making one think. It is a compelling story in a way. Personally I think the way she depicts the clone society is too stark a contrast to the world we are living in to be entirely believable. I couldn't shake the feeling that the author was trying to make her point about the evils of suppression the individual a bit too bluntly. If you can deal with that however, the book is a good read. I can see why it was so popular at the time. Maybe the fall of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s  has made the book slightly less relevant to today's reader but there are certainly novels of that period that have aged less gracefully. In the end, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is not entirely my kind of book but I am glad I read it anyway.

Book Details
Title: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Author: Kate Wilhelm
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 242
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07914-4
First published: 1976

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - Ted Chiang

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is one of the three stories by Ted Chiang I hadn't read yet. The other two are What's Expected of Us, a flash piece published in Nature in 2006, and  his most recent story Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011), which can be found in the anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Missing out on this story was not for lack of trying, but the only paper edition I'm aware of, was published by Subterranean in 2007 and is pretty much unavailable unless you are willing to sacrifice your child's college fund. So a while ago I caved, figured out a way to avoid the region restrictions and got myself the kindle edition. Chiang has published only thirteen stories in since 1990, he likes to take his time and polish them to perfection. This novelette is no exception. I can see why it got him both the Hugo and Nebula.

The story is set in Baghdad and Cairo. Chiang doesn't mention a date but it has the feel of the Abbasid Caliphate at the height of it's power, some time before the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. It is the story of the fabrics merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas who finds himself at the court of the Caliph to tell his unlikely story. A tale that involves alchemy and time travel.

I must admit I don't particularly like time travels stories. Mainly because they always manage to twist themselves into some kind of strange paradox. Chiang realizes this too and his story is basically built around the premise that it is impossible to change the past. Or as he puts it, we can only get to know it better. According to Wikipedia this story is an example of the Novikov self-consistency principle, a theory proposed in the 1980s by Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov that solves some time travel paradoxes in general relativity. Not sure if that was Chiang's inspiration but given the scientific themes in may of his other stories it would not surprise me at all.

The story doesn't concern itself with science though, but makes its point through three short tales, all told by Abbas. In fact, one could easily read it as a reflection on matters like fate, destiny, and determinism. Compared to many other works by Chiang it is a surprisingly light but sophisticated bit of writing, with some complicated questions hidden in the simple structure of the merchant's storytelling. As usual, the story is very polished. The prose is beautiful and Chiang carefully avoids overdoing the courtly rhetoric. The merchant speaks eloquently but not beyond what one would expect of him.

I don't think this story packs the punch of some of Chiang's other stories but it is very well written. Every time I read one of his stories I wish he was a bit more productive but maybe this kind of storytelling takes a while to be properly transferred to paper. It is amazing how someone can have such a huge influence on the genre. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is a gem and after reading it, I am even more annoyed it to me so long to get hold of a copy. Maybe I should have considered listening to the free online audio version that can be found here.

Book Details
Title: The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: e-book
ISBN: 978-1-596-06446-1
First published: 2007

Saturday, June 1, 2013

2312 - Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm terribly late reading this book. Usually when Robinson has a new novel out I read it as soon as I can get my hands on it. For some reason I didn't get around to it until now. 2312 has been doing fine on its own though. It has been nominated for a truckload of awards and recently won the Nebula. It has also been nominated for a Hugo but I'm not sure it if has quite the appeal to take that one home too. I haven't read any of the other nominated novels though, maybe it does stand out in that crowd. Whether or not it will win more awards, the novel does take a special place in Robinson's oeuvre. I think that to fully appreciate this work, having read some of Robinson's other books is required.

Three centuries in the future, humanity has spread across the solar system. They are increasingly long lived, dual gendered and come in all shapes and sized. Out in space they enjoy a historically unprecedented prosperity but for all that progress, humanity's destiny is still tied to old Earth. The planet is an overpopulated, exhausted, polluted, ecological wasteland, struggling to support the vast masses of people still living there. Earth's instability is a threat to the entire solar system as sculptor and ecologist Swan Er Hong finds out after the death of her grandmother Alex. It seems Alex was the center of a group of people spread across the solar system who are working on the problem. Now it is up to her to keep the project going. A project that experiences resistance from an unlikely source as it turns out.

Robinson is often accused of using infodumps in his novels. Some of his most interesting scenes are in those supposed infodumps in my opinion but people who disagree will be glad to know he has changed his approach to conveying information ot the reader a bit. In 2312 he  alternates chapters, mostly form the point of view of three main characters, with list of related concepts and extracts of various sources giving the reader an overview of the time line. They partly serve as epigraphs, although strictly speaking they are separate from the chapters. Many of the most interesting tidbits in this novel can be found in the extracts and they give the reader enough background to understand the actions and motivations of the main characters. It's an interesting way of structuring the novel. Some of the more plot oriented readers may feel is slows things down but the lists and extracts do contain vital information. Personally I feel Robinson wouldn't be such an interesting author without that density of information, real scientific concepts and theories and the tremendous sense of place that radiates from his writing. Putting some of that in the extracts changes the dynamics of the chapters some. Whether you will like it is a matter of taste but it does make 2312  a faster read than some of his other novels.

It is not uncommon for Robinson to add lengthy descriptions of places and large sections of interior monologue to his novels but 2312 does have a plot of sorts. I guess you could say it is a mix of a love story and a mystery. The author has stated that he set out to write about a romance between a mercurial and a saturnine character. Swan is from mercury and certainly fits the description. She is quite unpredictable and prone to mood swings, as the saturnine character, Fitz Wahram experiences form up close. I'm not entirely sure that I would describe Wahram, who hails from the Saturn league, a collection of inhabited moons and asteroids around the gas giant, as saturnine though. He is very even tempered, to the point of being boring even, but I wouldn't really use any of the more negative traits associated with that particular term to him. Maybe Wahram grew on Robinson while writing. He didn't grow on me though, Swan is by far the more interesting of the pair.

Opinions are divided over this work and I can see why. It reaches back to some of Robinson's most popular works, the Mars trilogy in particular. It's not a sequel in the traditional sense of the word however. There are thematic links and even one passage where Robinson appears to refer to Peter Clayborne's adventure in orbit in Red Mars, but history obviously unfolded quite differently in the 2312 time line. Martian terraforming in 2312 was influenced by Lowell's depictions of the supposed Martian canals for instance. The situation on Mars is not discussed in detail in this work though, the main characters don't spend much time there.

Mercury and Venus feature much more prominently in the novel. Robinson revives Terminator, a city on rails forever being pushed forward by the tracks expanding in Mercury's sunrise. It showed up in The Memory of Whiteness as well as Blue Mars, although the details are a bit different if I remember correctly. Mercury is too close to the sun ever to be fully terraformed but there is a twilight zone on the planet where the light and heat are such people will not be cooked instantly but merely perish from the lack of an atmosphere without proper suits. The city as seen though the eyes of Swan is a piece of art as well as a shelter from the unforgiving conditions outside. Its a marvelous concept and a sharp contrast with the situation on Earth Robinson describes later on in the novel.

Venus is more of a political battleground and one of the places where events relating to the mystery part of the novel are taking place. There is a deep running disagreement on how to terraform the planet, which with it soaring temperatures, thick carbon dioxide atmosphere and sulphuric acid rains, is just as inhospitable as Mercury. Humanity's inability to think in solutions that will take more than a lifetime to achieve has lead to the installation of a sunshield which makes the planet vulnerable. Robinson turns Venus into a dark place, full of muddy politics and shady deals. I think in the end, the story of the character who spends most time there, a man by the name of Kiran, is a bit underexposed. I can't shake the feeling that his story has been inserted into the novel at a later stage.

What did strike me about the novel  is the radically different approach to terraforming the novel takes compared to the Mars trilogy. Where in those books a great philosophical debate raged about whether or not to terraform and to what extent, in 2312 no holds barred attempts at rapid terraforming are described. Moons are dismantled, or have their surface changed into graffiti art, meteors are crashed into the surface to speed up rotation, countless asteroids are hollowed out and turned into terraria, sunshieds and mirrors are installed to deflect or transfer light and atmospheres are stripped or created. It brutal and seemingly unguided. In fact one of the characters mentions that they might have been in too much of a hurry to terraform the various planets and moons of the solar system. Very small groups of people feel entitled to take decisions on a planetary scale that are very had to undo. It is a somewhat unsettling way of thinking really. Robinson uses it to great effect when the main characters find out that you can't tear down a garden shed on Earth without pissing at least a dozen people off.

Another thing I noticed about the descriptions of the various places the main characters visit - and where Robinson departs from most of his other big science fiction stories -  is that the solar system looks huge and small at the same time. Robinson firmly declares the stars out of reach in any meaningful span of time (not that that stops them from trying anyway) and that puts a limit on human development. With the many terraforming projects in full swing or more or less completed, humanity appears to be once again out of places to expand. Maybe in that light it is not surprising that by 2312 attention is drawn back to the cradle of humanity.

Earth and the rest of the solar system seem to be at odds over many things. Parts of the still not fully unified planet are firmly in the clutches of capitalist economies, while others are moving to different systems. Is space, the Mondragon system is more popular. It's a large scale version of the cooperatives in the Mondragon region of Spain, a system that has been mention in earlier novels by Robinson. Environmentally, things are little better. A huge number of species are only surviving because of the asteroid terraria that house them. Complete collapse of Earth's ecosystem appears to be a matter of time. The interesting thing about these passages is that despite the disasters that struck the planet, Robinson still describes it as a beautiful place as seen through the eyes of the space dwelling characters.

There is a great deal of awareness in this novel of the effect humanity has on the environment. It's one thing that make Robinson's novels so fascinating to me. In space the effect is obvious. Humanity has to make the environment there to survive. On Earth, many people take it for granted but just about everywhere on the planet you can see the effect we're having if you know where to look. Robinson knows and it shows in his writing. His characters know it too, which makes the almost casual decision to take on large and very invasive terraforming projects even more interesting. Ann Clayborne would probably faint. One of the most interesting questions the novel raises in this regard is whether terraforming Earth can be done. Think about it for a while, the concept is daunting.

The novel contains lots of familiar concepts and ideas but there is one element that I don't think Robinson has covered in any kind of detail in his previous work, it is the matter of artificial intelligence. By the end of the novel it is still not quite clear if the quantum computers such as Swan's Pauline (a reference to the device owned by John Boone in Red Mars) have reached self awareness or consciousness but the story line is certainly food for thought. I wouldn't have minded if Robinson had dug into this a bit further, something that might have improved the mystery part of the novel too.

In the end I enjoyed reading 2312 a lot but I do feel that Robinson uses a lot of ideas in this novel that he has covered in detail in other books. It's not that he does it poorly, it is just that for someone who has read most of his other work, the novel offers relatively few unexpected elements. On the other hand, it was written in such a way that I feel you can't possibly get the most out of the novel without having read at least some of his previous books. That, in my mind, is not a good combination. Structurally and conceptually 2312 is an interesting novel but as a tale of a major turning point in human history is fails to pull together like some of his other novels do. I guess I feel the novel doesn't achieve all it might have. That being said, it is ambitious, packed with fascinating ideas and concepts and contains some jaw-dropping descriptions of various places in the solar system might look like. Which is a lot more than many other science fiction novels achieve these days. Maybe Robinson does have a shot at that Hugo after all.

Book Details
Title: 2312
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 561
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-09812-0
First published: 2012