Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lana Reviews: American Gods - Neil Gaiman

Having worked my way through a few of Neil Gaiman's books already and found that I enjoy his style of writing immensely, I was delighted when I, during a random search of our bookshelves, found Anansi Boys amongst the many books I have yet to read. It was only after I had added it to my Goodreads 'to be read' list that I realized I should read American Gods first. unfortunately, we did not own a copy of that one, but my boyfriend was kind enough to gift me a copy for Christmas. It took me a few weeks to actually pick it up and get started, but as it were, the story was worth the wait.

I could say that this is a book about a man who, fresh out of jail and having lost everything he held dear, chooses to start working for another man; a decision that will change his life, or at least the way he looks at the world. I could say that it is about old and new gods, and the ongoing war between them. I could say it is about the dead haunting the living, or gods preying on humans, or journeys to various parts of the United States. I suppose I could even say that it is a crime story featuring a serial killer, and it wouldn't exactly be wrong. There are a lot of smaller stories in this book that together make up a bigger story. Still, we mostly follow Shadow, the man that we meet in jail at the start of the book.

I found it quite hard to decide what to think of Shadow. He is a criminal - or at least he has made some bad decisions prior to when we first meet him - or he wouldn't be in jail. Yet, he seems to have a certain sense of what is right and wrong, and seems to strive to try and do the former by himself and those he meets. He appears to care about the well-being of the people around him, and he is certainly loyal to a fault once he has given his word. I suppose that his character could have been made more interesting and less... flat, perhaps, but for me Gaiman's way of writing him worked just fine.

The story is a dark one, with elements that clearly suggest it is meant for adults. Sometimes the language is crude, but when it is, it is because it needs to be; it is part of the setting that Gaiman is building. None of the characters come off as perfect; they all have dark sides or dark histories or other flaws. In this story, even the gods have flaws, just like they used to in the old mythologies.

What I remember really enjoying while reading American Gods, were all the little references to various old mythologies of the world, like for example Norse and Egyptian mythology; I imagine that Gaimain must have been doing quite some research to be able to put together all the various characters that are supposed to symbolize old gods or old rituals in this book. While few of them were very well-known to me - he had chosen to leave out the Greek and Roman pantheon which are the ones I know best - I could still recognize several and make good guesses about who they were supposed to be. I also liked his take on who the new gods are, and how he chose to portray them.

As mentioned before, American Gods is in a way one story made up of several stories. But I didn't feel that it was hard to follow at any point, or that anything was left unresolved; I am pretty sure I got answers to most of the riddles I encountered throughout my reading. And that feels nice; when everything falls in place and you feel you have just read a well-composed story. That's how all the Gaiman books I've read so far have made me feel, and why I am always glad to read more of them.

So basically, I would heartily recommend American Gods. I think it is a good story, and a story that has been put together really well. I have always found Gaiman's style of writing entertaining and easy to follow, so too in this book even though it is darker than the other books by him that I have read. In American Gods you get to go on a journey on several levels; not only do you get to travel to various places in the United States, but also to other places in this world and other worlds, and through time itself. And of course, if potential readers are interested in various old mythologies, that is probably just a bonus.

Book Details
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 465
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-380-97365-1
First published: 2001

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Out on Blue Six - Ian McDonald

Out on Blue Six (1989) is one of a number of books by McDonald that have been reissued by Open Road Media recently. Last year I already reviewed his novel The Broken Land (1992), a strange blend of science fiction and magical realism and now the publisher has been kind enough to supply me with a review copy of this book. Out on Blue Six is one of McDonald's early works. It's his second novel after Desolation Road (1988). Like many of his earlier novels there is a distinct flavour of magical realism present in this novel but also many science fiction elements. In fact, in terms of ideas, this may be one of the densest novels he wrote. I get the feeling that this is a love it or hate it book. It's a novel that certainly isn't going to work for everybody.

Imagine a society where pain is illegal and people's lives are arranged according to genetic predisposition and psychological profiles. Choice is not an option, the Compassionate Society watches over your happiness and arranges your life accordingly. Jobs, partners, entertainment, every little detail is looked after and interference is swiftly and thoroughly dealt with. In this designed utopia everybody is forced to be happy and there is no room for dissidents. That doesn't mean there isn't any opposition however. Many people find this life stiffing and the mediocrity of society too much to bear. A group of dissidents is struggling to get society moving again and try to push the Compassionate Society out of stagnation.

My first reaction after finishing the book was 'what the hell was he on when he wrote this?' The book is weird beyond measure really, filled to the brink with all sorts of strange science fictional notions, odd societal models, monstrous medical science and outlandish technology. Walking through Yu, this one vast city humanity is confined to, one wouldn't know where to look. In fact, you need to put your creativity and imagination into overdrive to imagine the city at all.

One thing is clear from the start. McDonald has been inspired by some of the classic dystopian novels. I'd say Orwell's 1984 in particular. The government he describes is oppressive in ways that makes Big Brother look like an amateur. The Ministry of Pain - what a lovely name for such an organisation - insists its tests are flawless and can only be made to admit a mistake every century or so. Its decisions are final and do not appear to be subject to any sort of restraint. Deviants are subjected to intensive reprogramming, essentially destroying entire personalities. All in the name of the greater good, preventing the population form experiencing pain. Sarcasm is counterproductive, satire banned, the ministry's choice of career and partner mandatory. The level of surveillance and censoring is staggering and even more devious than it appears to be in the opening pages of the novel.

The story follows a number of characters that have run afoul of the Ministry. Their acts of resistance have not gone unnoticed and they are forced to go underground. Often quite literally. McDonald takes them to parts of the city rarely seen by ordinary citizens and reveals the origins of the Compassionate Society to them. During their explorations of the dark underside of Yu they also uncover the ultimate threat to the city and humanity itself.

The journeys of the main characters frequently take on a surreal quality when they encounter yet another strange product of Compassionate Society. There are oracles with numerous additional body parts grafted onto them, machine deities, kings ruling over a sentient, genetically engineered raccoon people, and completely vertical societies (in more ways that one.) McDonald rushes through one strange concept after another, rarely taking the time to explore anything in depth. All of this is of course delivered in McDonald's trademark lyrical language. To keep up with him is a challenge in itself.

The main theme of the novel is clear though. Humanity needs to be in control of its own destiny to have a shot at survival. It needs to be free to make its own mistakes and engineer its own triumphs. It needs to be free to choose. Any kind of control over this process, or brake upon it, will result in the extinction of the species. In fact, some of the characters feel that the species is close to the point of no return in this novel. Looking at it from this angle, one interpretation could be that it's novel with a libertarian streak to it. This is not uncommon in science fiction but very atypical for McDonald when you think about it.

If I had to sum up my feelings about this book I guess I'd say that the barrage of ideas and strange cityscapes that McDonald unleashes on the reader goes at the expense of plot and characters. It doesn't help that he divides his attention over several point of view characters either. Sure, each has their motivations to challenge Compassionate Society but McDonald doesn't do that much with them beyond that. I felt that my attention was constantly being redirected to the next technological marvel or biological adaptation, without any of them really getting the attention they deserved. I tend to like books with strong worldbuilding but even for me, McDonald is being too elaborate here.

Out on Blue Six is a marvelous trip though a dystopian future but in the end I think McDonald doesn't manage to put all that creativity in the service of novel as a whole. That being said, there are people who absolutely adore this book. Author Cory Doctorow, who wrote the introduction to this edition, among them. For some readers this novel works, but I suspect it has a quite modest following. Creatively, McDonald pushed the style of his earlier work as far as it would go in this novel. So far in fact, that it feels erratic at times. I would advise people to try some of McDonald's other early work to see if it suits them before tacking this one.

Book Details
Title: Out on Blue Six
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 302
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1989

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Gods Themselves - Isaac Asimov

Given his enormous output, I'm a very inexperienced Asimov reader but from what I understand his career in science fiction can be split into two major periods. The first covered the 1940s and 1950s, in which he wrote a great deal for the magazines that then dominated science fiction. Novels started appearing in 1950, starting with Pebble in the Sky, a novel of the Galactic Empire. So far I've read four of his books. The original Foundation trilogy and I, Robot. All of these have been published in the 1950-1953 period and lean heavily on work Asimov had produced in the 1940s. During the 1960s Asimov mostly wrote non-fiction. The Gods Themselves (1972) can be seen as something of a triumphant return to the genre. In this book he answers the critics of his earlier work, winning a Hugo, Nebula and Locus award in the process.

The story is that of the discovery of the electron pump, a device that promised a clean and inexhaustible source of energy by using the different laws of nature that can be found in parallel universes. The story of its discovery one of coincidence and pettiness but the man being hailed as the inventor soon achieves rock star status. His influence on the scientific world is such that he leaves a trail of broken careers in his wake and suppresses information that threatens his status and the use of 'his' invention. Not everybody is discouraged by his bullying though. Doubts are being raised about the safety of the device. Soon a theory surfaces that suggests continued use might cause the sun to go nova. Bitterness, stupidity and infighting ensue.

The title is taken from Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans, 1801) by Friedrich Schiller, who said "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens", most commonly translated as "against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." The novel essentially consists of three novellas, each with a part of that quote in the title. The novellas had been published in Galaxy and Worlds of If earlier in 1972. I guess you could call the novel a fixup.

One of the main problems I had with Asimov's earlier books is that they read like unedited manuscripts. His prose is atrocious. Most of it is awkward dialogue with hardly any descriptive passages. Although the concepts that he discusses in these works are interesting enough, Asimov, at that point, clearly didn't have the skills to make the most of it. For that reason I decided that if I was going to read anything by him again it would be something from his later years. It must be said  he has improved. His prose still isn't exceptional but it is certainly readable. The Gods Themselves is a much smoother read than the early  Foundation novels.

Asimov also tackles some other problems with his early writing with varying degrees of success. The lack of aliens (personally I find science fiction without aliens perfectly acceptable but some people disagree), the lack of sex and the lack of well drawn female characters.  The solution to the first two is to include alien sex in the novel. Don't worry he doesn't get too explicit. The alien section of the novel, of the second novella if you will, is probably where Asimov challenges himself most as a writer. The creatures he describes are very alien. It took me a while to settle into their mode of thinking. As for the well drawn female characters, I don't think the novel passes the Bechdel test but there is one female character with an important role in the story. I guess we shouldn't expect miracles.

The stupidity Asimov refers to in the title is mostly committed by scientists. Where in most science fiction novels, and certainly in more than a few of Asimov's stories, scientists are the heroes, in this novel they are a petty, self-centered lot. Where the 'inventor' of the electron pump - who mostly got the idea handed to him by the aliens - is doing everything to protect his creation, while the scientists who got sidetracked try to discredit him out of spite. It's a sad lot and a very sharp contrast to quite a lot of other science fiction novels. I'm particularly thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels that radiate a belief in the process of science, even if those practicing it can be very nasty as individuals. In this novel just about every character has purely selfish reasons for their actions, loosing perspective on the larger threat in the process. Stupidity is too mild a word in some cases.

Asimov also exposes a problem that I've come across in environmental science quite a lot. Not wanting to give up a comfort or luxury despite the obvious environmental drawbacks. I've always thought cars are a perfect example of this. There is a long list of problems associated with them. There is acidification, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic related deaths, the noise they produce, particulate matter and smog issues and the huge amounts of raw materials put into making them to name a few. Personally I also feel that they are a less than optimal solution for transporting large numbers of people in a highly urbanized environment but people have been known to disagree with me on that. Fact is we do not want to give them up, or even limit their use, so we keep looking for technological fixes. One that is popular at the moment is the development of electrical cars. It must be said they are quieter but the electricity to make them run is produced elsewhere and still for the most part by using fossil fuels. Part of the emissions is simply being shifted elsewhere, providing, at best, only a partial solution to the emission problem. And of course none to some of the other problems I've mentioned. In fact, the use of various metals in the batteries might be adding a whole new problem. Making cars sustainable is not an easy matter, it may defeat human ingenuity yet.

The novel raises the stakes much further. If we are unwilling to give up, or even limit, something with such obvious problems, how hard would it be getting people to give up what is essentially free energy without any side effects based on dubious and untested theoretical physics very few people are actually capable of understanding? Even Asimov doesn't have an answer to that. He resorts to a technical fix himself. A very elegant one it has to be said. He doesn't seem to believe humanity will be able to give up it's bad habits without something better to replace them though. Which puts the title of the novel in yet another perspective.

Some people see the Hugo win The Gods Themselves as a retroactive reward for Asimov's golden age work but I must admit I enjoyed it a lot more than everything else I've read by him. At this point he has grown as a writer, able to keep up with a younger generation of authors making a name for themselves in the 70s. There might have been books that deserved the win more, I haven't really read enough of the period to pass judgement on that, but it is certainly a strong novel. While I can see the appeal of his older work, if someone asked me for a recommendation of Asimov's work I would be much more likely to suggest this novel.

Book Details
Title: The Gods Themselves
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 269
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-12905-4
First published: 1972

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Waiting Stars - Aliette de Bodard

The Waiting Stars is another short story in Aliette de Bodard's Xuya universe that she has made available online for free. It can be read and downloaded in several e-book formats on the author's website, which also include a number of other free short stories in the same time line. A general description of Xuya history can also be found on the website. Understanding the time line is not necessary to enjoy the story though. The Waiting Stars was first published as part of the anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013), edited by Athena Adreadis and Kay T. Holt, a collection of science fiction stories with female protagonists. It has also been included in Gardner Dozois' 31st The Year's Best Science Fiction.

Dreadfully spoilerish, I recommend you read the story first.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lana Reviews: The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg

Deciding to do Worlds Without End’s 2014 Masterworks Challenge, and not having my own book blog for posting reviews (I do not really do reviews so I have never really needed one,) Val here kindly offered that I could post my reviews on his blog. Hopefully there will be at least six of them during 2014, since else, I will lose the challenge! 

Online I call myself Lana; I was born in 1981, and while I live in the Netherlands now, I am quite Norwegian. I love to read, although all the forced reading I did at the university for many years kind of took the pleasure out of it for a while. I prefer fantasy I guess, authors like Anne Bishop and Robert Jordan have been read and reread over the years, but I have read a few classics too (my bachelor is in English Literature,) and lately, I have added a lot more science fiction to my ‘have read’ list. I especially enjoy Nancy Kress and in particular her short story fiction. 

 As I hinted at above, I do not typically do reviews. I might very well focus on the wrong things and completely miss the big picture, but I’ll do my best to write honest and informative pieces without spoiling too much of whichever book I’m reviewing at the time. My aim is simply to complete the challenge I’ve signed up for. It shall be fun, I’m sure!

Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls (1972) is a story about the journey taken by four young men after one of them finds an old manuscript that promises its reader eternal life. Not only does their search for immortality take us across the United States of America, but also through their minds, their past, and the past of the world itself. When Silverberg wrote this book, he had already produced countless novels and short stories; science fiction as well as other genres. Still, for someone who has read as little science fiction as I have, this is not what I would typically think of when I think of that genre. There are no aliens, no spaceships, and no futuristic tools or machinery; there is only the promise of immortality. This promise, and the criteria for achieving it, however, was what caught my interest and why I chose to pick up this book.

When we meet the four main characters, all in their early twenties, they have already left the college they attend together in New England and started their journey south-west in search of a secretive sect living in Arizona; the sect they believe once wrote the manuscript they have recently found. They also already know that in order for two of them to attain eternal life, the manuscript says that two of them must die. As they make their way from city to city and from state to state, we get many glimpses into their thoughts and feelings, Silverberg using this time to build up their personalities and backgrounds by writing first person chapters from the different characters’ points of view. And when they reach their goal, a different journey begins, revealing that what we have learnt so far might only be a part of the whole, and that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Silverberg has created four different characters with four relatively different backgrounds for his story, however, none of them comes across as very likable and I never felt sad about the prospect that two of them might have to die before the end. This made the story a bit poor to me, as, to truly enjoy a book I need to care a bit more about the characters I read about.

Another thing I noticed as I worked my way through these young men’s heads was all the knowledge they seemed to be in possession of at any given time, and all the big words they knew and always were in complete control of how to use. Granted, they are supposed to be students and students are supposed to be knowledgeable, plus things might have been different back then compared to when I attended university and all knowledge was a Google-search away, but I have never met one person that age carrying that much and diverse knowledge around in his or her head. In fact, the further I read, the more I felt as if the author himself, through his characters, was showing off his own wealth of knowledge, and in that way only managed to make his characters more unrealistic, less real.

I also had an issue with how female characters were written and described in this book. Again, it might have something to do with differences between the time during which this story takes place, and the time I grew up in. Or perhaps it is a difference between the author’s country of birth and my own. Might even be that being a woman, I do not truly know how males that age really think about women – maybe it simply is as crude and contemptuous as Silverberg implies.

While The Book of Skulls might not be my new favorite book, or the best book I have ever read, one can tell that the author has put a lot of thought into his story, and he certainly tells a tale that one wants to know how ends. In spite of big words and longwinded monologues of self-reflection and existentialism, it is not a particularly difficult read either. There were a lot of little things that I didn’t like that much about it, but the main idea; the search for immortality, and four friends choosing to go ahead with that search although knowing from the start that two of them might perish before the search is over, was one that I found quite appealing. So while I might have a lot of issues with how Silverberg chose to tell his story, I still think it is worth the read and would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a thoughtful story surrounding the search for eternal life.  

Book Details
Title: The Book of Skulls
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 222  
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass market paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-914-4  
First published: 1972

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fiddlehead - Cherie Priest

Fiddlehead is the fifth book in Priest's Clockwork Century series, published by Tor, that started with the well received Boneshaker in 2009. There is a sixth volume of novella length that has been published by Subterranean. Priest has written the novels in such a way that they are understandable if you haven't read all of them but with references to just about all of the previous five volumes, you definitely get more out of it if you have. For the moment Fiddlehead is the last book in the series. Priest doesn't rule out returning to the Clockwork Century but the main conflict in the books is resolved in this volume. It's a fitting conclusion to the series, bringing together a number of things set into motion in previous volumes.

Dr. Gideon Bardsley is an escaped slave with a ravenous intellect. After his escapes has made his name in academia and is now working on a primitive computer of his own design nicknamed Fiddlehead. His ultimate goal is the find an answer to the question of how to end the American civil war, which has been exhausting the Union and Confederation for almost two decades. Not everybody wants the war to end however. Bardsley is nearly killed in an attempt to destroy the machine. He manages to get away with a partial print of the solution Fiddlehead has come up with. Much to his surprise, according to the machine neither side will win the war if they keep ignoring the greater treat that looms over the continent. He turns to his patron for help. The crippled Abraham Lincoln calls on his security staff to keep Bardsley safe and hires Pinkerton agent and former southern spy Maria "Belle" Boyd to help them stop a catastrophe from happening.

The series as a whole is not short on historical characters but in this novel, two of them play an important role. I've already mentioned Abraham Lincoln, who, in this time line,  barely survived the 1865 assassination attempt and is now bound to a (properly Steampunked) wheelchair. The other is Ulysses S. Grant, former general and now president of the Union, his term being stretched far beyond any president before him because of the war. Priest mentions what happened to Andrew Johnson somewhere in the book but that detail escapes me at the moment. Lincoln is portrayed as a quiet, intelligent man. Grant is a alcoholic and a man more suited for the battlefield than the White House. I suppose those with a bit more intimate knowledge of American history will recognize more of the details. Priest has deviated so far from history as we know it at this point that I can't really say anything sensible on how much history is in them. I did find it surprising they got as much attention as they have in the novel though.

Boyd is one of the main characters in Clementine and she plays quite an important role in the story. Where Bardsley is mostly pinned down at Lincoln's estate, she travels the war torn nation, trying to undo the plot of Katherine Haymes, owner of the largest arms manufacturer in the south and a woman woman who feels the war should continue as long as possible. Where Boyd is our kick-ass heroine, Haymes is a woman without a conscience and the evil nemesis in this book. I enjoyed Boyd's pragmatism a lot in this novel. She is very aware of how society sees women and how to exploit that to her advantage. Priest manages to get more out of her than in Clementine where she clearly struggled to keep the wordcount down.

Haymes on the other hand didn't work quite as well. Where Boyd is a point of view character, we mostly get to see Haymes through the eyes of Grant, who has, to put it mildly, conservative views on the role of women in politics or business. He dislikes her just because of that. Haymes is also guilty of what can only be described as a war crime, testing a new weapon on Union prisoners of war. The rumors about this atrocity have preceded her and it clashes with Grant's ideas on a fair fight. Grant's wife points out his prejudices to him but despite that, Haymes still comes off as pure evil. A little more ambiguity would have been much more in line with wat characters like Boyd, Mercy Lynch (the main character in Dreadnought)  and Sally Tompkins experience in the way of sexism and how to overcome it. Just a hint of redeeming quality might have done is. In a series that has quite a few rounded female characters Haynes' performance is jarring.

Priest tries to bring all the clues of the epidemic brewing in the west together in this novel. That means there are quite a lot of references to other books. The aforementioned Mercy Lynch pops up quite a lot when the letters she has sent east detailing her research on the effects of the gas that has destroyed Seattle fall into Boyd's hands. One of the other passengers of the ill-fated Dreadnought also shows up in the final of the novel and there is an appearance of Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey, one of the main characters in Clementine. In the end, it is in Boyd that all this information comes together and that she is able to act to prevent disaster. The way Priest handles links to previous books without making them a must read,  something she does throughout the series, is one of the things that make it stand out. Structurally this series is very clever and even in the book that concludes the series, she manages not to burden it with too much back story.

I guess there are quite a few things one could say on the historical accuracy of this series or the way is skirts the issue of slavery that hangs over the Civil War. The Clockwork Century doesn't aim to go into detail about that. In the end it is mostly an adventure, their attraction is the strange setting, the machines that almost seem to have a character of their own, the walking dead that haunt the city of Seattle and the gunfights and airship battles that inevitably ensue. Priest provides plenty of that. I must admit I liked these books more for the strange machines and vivid settings than the alternative history. Priest's extensive tinkering with history in favour of a single point of divergence probably makes it a bit less interesting for the real history buffs. They are great fun to read however and Fiddlehead is a fitting conclusion to the series. I'm glad I've been on board for the entire journey and if Priest does decide to return to this alternative history I'm definitely putting it on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Fiddlehead
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 366
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3407-7
First published: 2013

Thursday, January 9, 2014

So... New Reading Challenge

I've been having a look at the reading challenges being put up at Worlds Without Ends for this year. I'm thinking of joining the In Translation one.
Read one book per month that did not originally appear in English. This should be a "first read," but I have decided that if I read it 30 or more years ago, it is eligible to be read again. Since there is not too much translated material in the WWEnd database, you can read multiple books by a single author. (The "Book Lists" tend to have more translated titles on them than do the Awards lists.)
It sounds like an interesting challenge, one that would expose me to some books I wouldn't ordinarily pick up. Only problem is I currently only own one book that I want to read and meets the criteria. All the others I can think of, I've already read. Sad when you think about it. It's also an expression of science fiction's tendency to limit itself to the English speaking part of the world. From what I can tell Fantasy isn't doing that much better.

Still, there must be plenty of books out there that would be worth reading. Do any of you have any suggestions?

Before you start listing books I have a few comments. I own a copy of Solaris and I've read it but I don't want to do a review. It is translation of a French translation of the Polish original that can't possibly do the original justice. I'm open to reading Jules Verne if I can find a translation that had edited the 'anti-English sentiment' edited out. I've already reviewed two obvious candidates on the blog, namely The Planet of the Apes and Roadside Picnic, so no point in mentioning those.

So fire away and let's see if we can come up with a good list!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Terminal World - Alastair Reynolds

As usual an Alastair Reynolds review to kick off the year. I've progressed to his 2010 novel Terminal Word, which turns out to be an odd one in his oeuvre. It's not part of any series, although the ending is such that a sequel can't be ruled out in the future. Reynolds has stated he doesn't intend to return to this world though. For the moment we'll consider it a standalone. The book is advertised as a Steampunk novel. I'm not entire sure if that is a fitting label but I guess readers of that subgenre will enjoy this novel. For established readers of Reynolds' work it is a bit of a gamble. Personally I liked to but I also think it is a bit rushed.

The city of Spearpoint is a tower rising up from the surface of the planet into space. The city is at the mercy of zones, a set of physical conditions that allows technology to work only to a certain level of sophistication. At the foot of the tower, only the most basic technology works. On the Celestial levels technology has allowed a post-human society to develop. The boundaries are hard to cross, the exact a physical price on the traveller that can prove fatal without medical supervision. One day, Quillion, once a post-human angel but now a pathologist is the moderately advanced Neon Heights, finds one of his former compatriots on his dissecting table. It is the start of an adventure that will take him beyond the boundaries of the city, out into a dangerous and dying world. He learns disturbing things about his world, matters that need to be addressed for its continued survival.

I was surprised at the pace of this novel. Despite it being almost 500 pages long, Terminal World is a very fast read that doesn't really allow the reader to catch their breath along the way. In a number of earlier novels Reynolds occasionally had trouble with the pacing. Terminal World clearly doesn't suffer from that problem. Quillion is only very rarely able to reflect on what is going on, especially since his insistence on adhering to his personal moral code lands him trouble more than once. For readers who like a good adventure, I don't think Reynolds could have done much better. It is a very sharp contrast with his earlier novels that are firmly founded in the hard sciences though. I also think that he doesn't really do justice to the worldbuilding he's done for this novel. There is so much of it in this novel that is rushed past in this story that it seems like a waste not to explore it further.

The zones do receive their share of attention as they are vital to the plot. They divide the city of Spearpoint but also rule the rest of the planet. Crossing boundaries is problematic everywhere but especially outside Spearpoint, especially since the infrastructure to produces drugs known as antizonals is not in place. Quillion soon finds out it is a lawless land, with various groups trying to survive at the cost of others. Quillion ends up with Swarm, an armada of airships -  hence the Steampunk label that is attached to this novel - making their way across the planet, always on the lookout for fuel and resources to keep the fleet running. Swarm is the place were the most interesting things in the book happens. Their exposure to much of the planet gives Quillion a much deeper insight in his world and the mysteries it contains. Reynolds weaves a bit of politics into Quillion's journey too and really ramps up the tension in his story.

Swarm is one of the many levels of technology that show up in Terminal World. Airships carry quite a bit of technology and are therefore limited to the zones that can support them. In some zones almost noting technological works at all and people go at each other with swords (Reynolds has a thing for swords in this novel, note the character names) and crossbows. In others high energy weapons are working just fine. Quillion travels by electric car, steam train, horse and airship for instance. The people of Spearpoint accept these differences as a matter of course and that gives the story a bit of a fantastical atmosphere. This huge variety in available technology will stretch most readers' preconceptions of Steampunk a bit but it is definitely not straight science fiction either.

Reynolds doesn't abandon science altogether but it is an element that is underexposed in a way. The problems of the Spearpoint can be explained at the quantum level and one of the characters has an intuitive understanding of what is happening. He explains it using a checkers board but it is clearly based on quantum mechanics. As near as I can figure out it has something to do with different values for the Planck constant. It isn't much further explored than that though. I think I would have preferred if it had been but I guess that would have gotten in the way of a good adventure story. Essentially, although we do get an explanation of what is going on with the world, the problem it faces is not really solved or even fully understood by the characters.

One of the big mysteries of the book is the origin of the world. It is referred to as Earth but is clearly not our world. Throughout the book there are hints that the world Spearpoint is built on is a smaller planet. Distances are measured in leagues, which Reynolds doesn't define but assuming he is talking about the English one, thee miles, he gives the reader enough information to calculate a circumference. Some people have actually bothered to do this and, form this evidence and other tidbits scattered throughout the book, arrived at the conclusion the author might have used Mars for a model. Personally I think that Reynolds took a few liberties with the vertical scale of the planet is that is the case but it does fit with the slowly escaping atmosphere of the planet among other things. He also describes landscape features that could be linked to the volcanoes on Mars and the Vallis Marinersis. It is an interesting puzzle worked into the story.

It does lead to the question of how the planet was terraformed and what purpose the huge structures that can be found on it served. Here the novel turns a bit unsatisfactory for me. The history is barely explored at all. Apparently the Chinese have something to do with it but their purpose remains shrouded in mystery. There are hints of a purpose, hints of origins, hints that a disaster that befell Spearpoint had consequences felt beyond a single planet. There is so much that points at a set up for a series things that are not resolved in this volume, that if you look beyond the fast paced adventure story, the novel doesn't work that well as a standalone.

In the end I thought Terminal World was a very readable and at one level enjoyable book. If you read it just for the adventure it works just fine. Reynold's readership will probably expect a bit more from it though. It is a departure from the rest of his oeuvre and I very much doubt his established readers have been unanimously supportive of it. He took a chance here and it only partly paid off. It's an interesting experiment, showing that Reynolds is capable of writing stories outside his usual solar system or even galactic settings and personally I wouldn't mind if he returned to it. As it is the novel has a bit too many loose ends to be really satisfying though. It's a fun read but ultimately a mild disappointment.

Book Details
Title: Terminal World
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 490
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08850-4
First published: 2010