Sunday, October 26, 2014

No Review This Weekend

And probably not for the next few weeks either. I was hoping to be able to do one more this weekend but it isn't happening. I will be getting the keys to my new house on Friday and I have one month to make it inhabitable and clear out my apartment. In other words, I will be busy. I may be able to slip in a review in November but don't be surprised if it doesn't happen. I expect to resume reviewing some time before the new year. See you all then!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Requires Only That You Hate

I wrote quite a glowing review on Benjanun Sriduangkaew's novella Scale-Bright last week. Maybe if I had paid a bit closer attention to my twitter feed I would have noticed something was up but the whole controversy surrounding Sriduangkaew at the moment didn't actually hit me until last night. Not that I don't like Scale-Bright all of a sudden, my opinion of it is unchanged, but it does seem a bit less likely her career as a writer is going to take off now.

I've been aware of the Requires Only That You Hate blog for years. I read a few posts years ago and then abandoned the blog because the sheer anger on display there drowned out the message, which was frequently to point out sexism and racisim in speculative fiction and the blogsphere. Some of it is nothing short of foaming-at-the-mouth ranting and I'm not really interested in reading that kind of stuff. She has stepped on quite a few  toes over the years. It would appear Sriduangkaew had a few online activities apart form the blog that were even more hurtful to people. I can't be bothered to sort through how much of it is actually true but she has admitted to quite a lot of it.

It saddens me to see this happen. I must admit I have a hard time reconciling these two parts of her online persona. Sriduangkaew must have known her online activities were something of a bomb under her career. She probably also understood that she had crossed a few boundaries where one should stay well clear of. She is paying the price for it professionally and personally now. Sriduangkaew has offered an apology. I very much doubt that will be enough for those she harmed but it is where you start I suppose. Not that everybody whose books I review here in this blog are perfect little angels but this stuff makes me feel a lot more hesitant to recommend her work. It's a very sad affair indeed, for everybody involved.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Dosadi Experiment - Frank Herbert

The Dosadi Experiment is part of a series on Saboteur Extraordinary Jorj X. McKie consisting of two pieces of short fiction, A Matter of Traces (1958) and The Tactful Saboteur (1964) and two novels. The first novel is Whipping Star, which appeared in 1970. It was followed seven years later by this book. The books and stories can be read independently - in fact, that is what I did first time around - but, I after reading the novels in the proper order I have to say you get a bit more out of them that way. The Dosadi Experiment is a very dense piece of writing, revelations and insights follow each other in rapid succession. With the background on the species and the universe provided in Whipping Star it is a bit easier to read. Personally I think it is one of the best Herbert has written. It features many of the themes that are common in his work. The quality of the writing however, and this too is common in Herbert's oeuvre, leaves something to be desired at some points. For some readers, it can make this work impenetrable.

Many generations ago a number of powerful individuals among the Gowachin, one of the species that makes up the ConSentiency, started a  secret experiment. On the planet Dosadi they imprisoned a group of  humans and Gowachin and thus exposing them to highly toxic and hostile conditions on the planet. To prevent their escape a veil across the sky was put in  place, known by the Dosadi as the God Wall. While the Gowachin looked on a society developed, packed into the one city on the planet where a  relatively toxic free environment could be created. Even with the staggering population density this city maintains, there is only a place for so many. A great many more humans and Gowachin eke out a short  living outside the city, a place referred  to as the Rim. Now, the bureau of sabotage has caught wind of this experiment that goes against many of the laws of the ConSentiency. It will cause acute embarrassment to the Gowachin, a species that value the law above all else. BuSab's top agent Jorj X. McKie is sent in to find out why this experiment had to remain secret and what the Gowachin hoped to gain with it.

As I mentioned before, Herbert uses a number of themes in this novel that readers of his other works will recognize. In the early stages of the novel in particular, human survival and our evolution as a species is being discussed. Dosadi is like Salusa Secundus or Dune, a place to harden the human species, a place where the environment demands both physical and psychological adaptations in order to survive. We see a number of these survival tactics in The Dosadi Experiment too. It is one of those adaptations that make the Dosadi an acute danger to the ConSentiency. Their struggle for survival is so intense that they see everything in terms of how it will impact their position, their chances of survival. In fact, when asked what drives the Dosadi: McKie answers: "the power to change your condition." When everything is treated as a threat to, or an opportunity to improve upon, your condition, people become very transparent indeed. Dosadi has peeled away all the games, all the veils that hide such motivations in societies where survival is not an issue. Where others are constantly confused by such misdirection, the Dosadi see what lies underneath.

Unfortunately this way of thinking has a drawback. Most of the characters from Dosadi are pretty much interchangeable. They all think alike and while their station in society may differ, their driving forces are the same. That sameness takes something away from sheer Machiavellian power struggle that unfolds on the planet. The key players are not really that interesting as characters, in fact, they are bordering on being sociopaths most of the time. Herbert is playing this game on a higher level and does not invest in them too much.

One of these levels Herbert is interested in is the intersection between power, politics, economics and religion. Like the Bene Gesserit in Dune, the Gowachin that designed the experiment put in place certain religious restrictions to keep the experiment moving in the direction they desired. This use of religion is more of a sidenote in the story though. Herbert has more to say on leadership, power and justice in this book. One quote that remains frightfully relevant in these times of economic stagnation states:
Does a population have informed consent when a population is not taught the inner workings of its monetary system, and then is drawn, all  unknowing, into economic adventures?
I guess many business moguls, bankers and politicians wouldn't like to consider this question in detail at the moment. While this question seems to challenge the current western economic system, Herbert doesn't assume the alternative to be much better. Keep in mind this novel was published in 1977, cold war thinking was still very relevant at the time. The fall of the communist economic block was still some years in the future.
Communal/managed economics have always been more destructive of their societies than those driven by greed. This is what the Dosadi says: Greed sets its own limits, is self-regulating.
Herbert constantly challenges and questions the use of power in politics and economics. He poses uncomfortable questions about what drives our own society and how the way it functions impact the individual. With all these thoughts in the back of his head, Herbert then moves on to another central concept in this novel: justice.

This is where the novel gets really alien. McKie is not only and agent of BuSab, he is also an expert in Gowachin law. In fact, his is one of the few non-Gowachin ever to be raised to the bar. Gowachin law is a very different beast from law that is being practiced in our society. Herbert of course draws contrasts with the American (and by extension Anglo-Saxon) system, but it will work for places where current law is based on other legal traditions too. Gowachin court cases are potentially lethal to all participants. Keeping this in mind, it is not surprising that one of the tenets of practicing law on their home planet is that litigation is to be avoided at all cost. One of the snippets of text Herbert uses as an introduction to a new chapter puts it like this:
No legal system can maintain justice unless every participant -  magisters, prosecutors, Legums, defendants, witnesses, all - risks life itself in whatever dispute comes before the bar. Everything must be risked in the Courtarena. If any element remains outside the contest and without personal risk, justice inevitably fails.
One may question if this is true of course, but it certainly cuts back on frivolous lawsuits. It also puts tremendous pressure on the few cases that do end up in the courtarena. Litigation among the Gowachin can easily turn into a bloody spectacle.

Herbert uses all these ideas he puts in the novel to create an extreme and very dramatic scenario of course. He does do so in a way that can be seen as commentary on many things that go on in our society. The questions Herbert asks about the use of power, economic systems and justice are, and as far as I can tell will be for some time to come, dreadfully relevant. Thematically Herbert condensed many of the ideas that he had been writing about in the previous two decades into one novel. In a way that is quite an achievement but the result will feel too dense for comfortable reading to many people. I've read this novel twice before the read I did for this review, and I still found quite a lot of links to his other works I had missed. So many in fact that I fear that if I read it again in a few years time, I'll see even more.

My opinion that The Dosadi Experiment is Herbert's best non-Dune book has remained unchanged. It is a novel that summarizes many of the themes that can be found in his works but also highlights some of the problems with his writing. The lack of character development, the constantly changing viewpoints and the cognitive leaps that characterize the novel keep it from being a great work. Herbert's grasp of the ideas he wants to discuss is unrivaled in science fiction but the way he translates them to the plot is less so. Personally, I can live with Herbert's shortcomings as a writer though. I wouldn't recommend anybody new to Herbert to start here, but if you like his style this is certainly a novel you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: The Dosadi Experiment
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 310
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34253-7
First published: 1977

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Scale-Bright - Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Benjanun Sriduangkaew has attracted more than a bit of attention with her short fiction in the past couple of years. Her stories have been published in different anthologies and magazines but so far no novel or collection has appeared. In August, Immersion Press published a novella by Sriduangkaew, the first publication in book form that I know of. My copy is a very nice hardcover. Thankfully they've paid a bit more attention to the cover art this time around. The only other book I own by this publisher is Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting. The cover of that novella doesn't do it any favours. Scale-Bright is related to three other pieces of short fiction by Sriduangkaew. She collected these in the sampler The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, which is available in electronic format only. I haven't read them myself but it may be a good idea to do so before attempting this novella. There is obviously a bit of backstory here.

Scale-Bright is set in contemporary Hong Kong were Julienne is trying to make a living. She has had an interesting childhood to say the least. Descended from an immortal being, she is currently watched over by two aunts who are anything but ordinary. It is not surprising that extraordinary things happen to Julienne. For those who can see, Hong Kong is crawling with supernatural beings, some of which have old scores to settle. Julienne is quickly caught up in one such conflict. She would be wise to stay out of it but her heart tells her otherwise.

I must admit some of this novella went right over my head, complete with that whooshing sound you hear when it is blatantly obvious you've missed something. Scale-Bright is obviously rooted in Chinese mythology of which I know hardly anything. That is not to say I didn't get any of it. Zhu Bajie for instance is so well known even I have heard of him. His encounter with the Goddess of the moon, another important character in the story, is probably one of the more well known references in Scale-Bright. Sriduangkaew puts in a bit of humour when she draws the parallel with the Greek myth of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor Zhu Bajie still doesn't have a way with women it would seem.  I got a little bit of the mythological roots of the story but still can't escape the impression that you can get a lot more out of it than I did if you're a bit better versed in Chinese mythology.

That is not to say that there is nothing to enjoy for an ignorant westerner such as myself. Sriduangkaew repackages these myths in a modern urban fantasy. It is partly a love story, with a bit of coming of age mixed in. I guess the most important lesson Julienne learns in the novella is that it is fine to want things for yourself. She has the tendency to not want to be a bother to her aunts or other people in general. Julienne's background remains a bit vague but it is clear she has some pretty serious mental health issues and she struggles with this throughout the book. She is attracted to women but can't seem to find one to form a stable relationship with. To make matters even more complicated there is a supernatural attraction to a demon. In short. Julienne is a bit of a mess and that makes her an interesting character. She is decidedly unpredictable, sometimes rash or emotional and oh so brave. An unlikely heroine perhaps but a joy to read nevertheless.

As with the other stories by Sriduangkaew I've read, stylistically it is amazing. I frequently came across sentences that I just had to read twice, not because I didn't understand them, but simply because they were so beautifully written. It was perhaps a bit more accessible than Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods, which is very demanding on the reader, but definitely a work that can be enjoyed for more than plot and characters. A little sample from the very beginning of the novel, where Sriduangkaew poses the question that is central to the plot:
Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.

He wears white paper creased into sleeves and robe, and on his head black paper folded into a cap. His faceted eyes are amber glass on an ivory face. But it is when the rush hour parts around him that his inhumanity becomes beyond dispute.

Smiling he bares blunt shoeshine teeth and again asks, “What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”

Chapter 1.1
I loved this novella, even if it left me with the feeling I missed a lot of what Sriduangkaew put into it. I don't consider that a problem besides the obvious blind spot in my knowledge of Chinese mythology. Books can be read again and Scale-Bright is one of those pieces that probably should be read several times to fully appreciate it. I'm not entirely sure that I would recommend this novella as an entry point but I will say that if you haven't already read some of her stories, you are missing out. Benjanun Sriduangkaew once again shows that she is a major talent in speculative fiction. I for one, can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

Book Details
Title: Scale-Bright
Author: Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Publisher: Immersion Press
Pages: 98
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-9563924-9-7
First published: 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Slow River - Nicola Griffith

Slow River is Nicola Griffith's second novel and the third one by her I've read. Like her debut Ammonite it attracted quite a bit of attention. The novel won a Nebula award in 1996 and has made it into the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. I enjoyed both Hild and Ammonite an awful lot so this book ended up on the to read stack right after finishing Ammonite. I didn't know it when I got it, but Slow River has quite a bit of environmental science in it. If I had known earlier this might have been the more obvious starting point in Griffith's oeuvre for me. I'm still not sure which of the three I like best, they are all very different novels, but I was very impressed by Slow River. It's definitely a book I'd recommend.

Lore, daughter of the rich Van de Oest family, finds herself naked and seriously hurt on the streets of the city after being abducted. Besides the trauma of the abduction, there is something else bothering Lore. She doesn't want to return to her family. In desperation she turns to the first person who happens to come by, a woman named Spanner. She takes Lore in and teaches her to live 'on her wits' as Spanner thinks of it. Lore recovers from her wounds and reinvents herself. Eventually she has to face the trauma of her troubled childhood however, and Spanner is not the person who can help her with that.

The story is told out of chronological order. Griffith weaves three main strands, and three versions of Lore, into the story. The first tells of her childhood, from the time she was a little girl until the point of her escape. The second tells us of her life with Spanner. The third deals with her attempts to rebuild her own life independent of both Spanner and her family. Griffith gives each of these strands a distinct voice. The fragments of Lore's childhood are told by a narrator in the present tense, her life with Spanner is a third person, past tense point of view and the passages dealing with Lore's independent life are written in the first person, past tense. Lore's childhood is dealt with in separate chapters but the other two story lines are interwoven into chapters. The way the novel is structured really underlines the various phases in Lore's life and her outlook on the world.

Griffith leaves quite a few details about Lore vague on purpose. It is suggested that she is Dutch, but the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the ultra rich makes it hard to tell. For most of the novel she stays in an unnamed city, which apparently is based on Hull. It is suggested that she speaks several languages but in the story she never uses any but English. In short, Griffith is sparse with details about Lore. We see the entire story though her eyes and what Lore accepts as a given, the reader is not told about. The novel is very introspective. It is Lore's development that is central to everything we read about in the book. In several places Griffith uses Lore's ignorance or lack of understanding to turn the plot. Throughout the novel Griffith obviously is very aware of the limitations and possibilities of this way of storytelling.

The novel is set in a near future. No year is mentioned but sometime in the 21st century for certain. Lore's family has made a fortune by genetically altering bacteria to make them suitable for a range of bioremediation projects and waste disposal management tasks. They have patented both the genetic alterations and the unique mixture of nutrients the bacteria need to thrive. Not using both the nutrients and bacteria supplied by Van de Oest can have disastrous consequences both in the legal and environmental sense. By controlling the entire chain of products needed in remediation projects Van de Oest has made itself unavoidable. I think of this as the Monsanto way of doing business. It is both highly profitable, very dangerous and profoundly unethical. Although Lore questions some of the business practices of her family, the full range of problems with it remains a bit of a blind spot to her throughout the novel.

Lore has had the benefit of an extensive education and she knows a lot about the technical side of her family's business. Griffith must have put in quite a bit of research to make it convincing. Especially the storyline of independent Lore is filled with details of nasty chemicals, reactions and details on the metabolism of bacteria. There was quite a bit I remembered from my own studies in environmental science. In the book knowledge of genetic engineering, monitoring effluent and systems design have advanced of course but the science behind it seems sound. Where we do seem to have made progress in the mean time is preventing these chemicals from actually getting into our water supply. What Lore sees as routine is, in our part of the world at least, more likely to be an incident at the moment. I'm nevertheless very impressed with the environmental science part of the novel. It's science fiction with plenty of real science and technology.

The environmental science is not what the novel will be remembered for however. At the core, it is a very feminist work. Almost all of the important characters are female. They range from nasty to decent but all of them are competent women in their way. The Van de Oest company is largely run by them, and Spanner's Lore and independent Lore's circle of friends and acquaintances is almost entirely made up of women. When I commented on it when my girlfriend asked if I liked the novel she replied: 'Well, somebody has to make up for The Hobbit.' That seems to be the attitude the novel takes. Griffith doesn't really stress the point but doesn't leave any doubt about the competence of the female characters. It is simply a given. Tricia Sullivan observes in her introduction to the SF Masterworks edition that Griffith's casual acceptance of women as competent, self-directed people remains relevant. It is indeed telling that almost 20 years after it was first published, this is still something that readers will almost instantly notice about the novel.

Slow River is one of those novels that left me unable to pick up another book for several days after I finished it. It is a very impressive work of science fiction. Lore's trials are not easy on the reader. For most of the novel she is searching for herself, grasping to understand the relationships within her family and the complexity of their company. It would seem that she is more at ease with systems design than with the infinitely complex structures of human relationships. She learns though. At the end of the novel a much more mature Lore emerges. Slow River is both technically and emotionally a very strong novel. I consider it a must read.

Book Details
Title: Slow River
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 321
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11825-6
First published: 1995