Monday, April 27, 2015

The Just City - Jo Walton

I read Jo Walton's love letter to science fiction, Among Others, in 2011. That was my first encounter with Walton's fiction. The book is not autobiographical but it does borrow elements from Walton's life. Most notably her reading habits. Walton read an awful lot of science fiction and Among Others is riddled with references to them. One of the things that stood out in that novel, is a number of references to the works of Plato, to which she was pointed by Mary Renault's historical novel The Last of the Wine. Plato must have impressed the young Morwenna/Jo because in The Just City we return to him. It's another novel that is hard to categorize. It contains philosophy, Greek mythology, robots and time travel. Sounds like a book that is very hard to market to me. Tor thinks they can do it though. The Just City is the first in a trilogy and the second book, The Philosopher Kings, is scheduled for publication in July. Walton is currently writing the third volume, Necessity, which is expected for some time next year.

The Just City is based on Plato's idea of an ideal city-state. He put it forward in his most famous work: The Republic. Athena, the Greek god of wisdom, takes an interest in these ideas and decides to start an experiment. In a time before the Trojan War, she founds a city on the island of Thera and populates it with people who have read The Republic in the original Greek and prayed to her. From all over history, people are taken to the city to lay the foundations of Plato's ideal and become the teachers for the first generation of citizens. Then thousands of 10-year-old enslaved children are taken to the city to grow up in a community unlike any other in history. Their goal is to pursue arete, which Walton translates as excellence but more commonly translated as virtue. Plato's ideals are not without their flaws though. Gradually, cracks begin to appear.

Walton tells the story from three different points of view. The first is Apollo, god of the sun and brother to Athena. After his adventure with Daphne, a nymph who chooses to turn into a tree rather than have sex with him, he decides there are things mortals can teach him. Reborn as a Greek boy he is taken to the city to live among the children of the Just City. Maia, is a 19th century woman and talented scholar who after the death of her father wonders what to do with her life. Society makes it impossible for her to pursue a career in academia and so she prays to Athena to take her to Plato's utopia. The goddess takes her to become one of the masters in the Just City. One of her pupils is Simmea, freed form slavery some time between the 6th and 11th century in Egypt. Scarred by her experiences as a slave, she thrives in the city which stimulates her curiosity and challenges her to excel. She is not blind to the discontent around her though.

These three points of view show us Plato's ideal and its problems, or, to put it in other words, show us Walton's reaction to Plato. The author has done a very good job of keeping the book accessible. I have read a bit of Greek mythology but as far as philosophy goes, I've never progressed beyond Sophie's World which does contain quite a large section on Socrates, another important figure in this novel, and Plato himself. I had no trouble following the story although you might get more out of it if you do know a bit more about the source material. What the novel did do was have me look up a number of references to artworks that are scattered throughout the text and read up on the historical figures that populate the city. I probably spent more time on that than reading the actual book. There are quite few historical characters, usually under a name adopted when they joined the Just City, making their identity a bit of a puzzle for the reader. Walton knows how to trigger the reader's curiosity, that is for sure.

The novel is something of a dialogue in the Socratic sense. It is not so much about the characters rather than the position they take in the debate. And that is what the Just City is, a long-running debate. Walton's two major criticisms of Plato's ideal are in essence that a 10-year-old is not a tabula rasa as he supposes and that he severely misunderstands human sexuality. Pile on top of that all the little practical things The Republic does not mention and you can see the whole thing start to slide from the very first moment. That is not to say they don't achieve anything, but Plato's ideal seems a long way off by the end of the book.

Sexism is the most obvious obstacle in achieving Plato's ideals the book tackles. The situation is a bit curious to put it mildly. For most of history across many societies women were not seen fit to pursue careers in art, science or the military and that attitude is shared by many of the teachers Alhena brings to the city. Plato (and Socrates) argue that in utopia such discrimination would not exist and so the city teaches both genders the same things. That doesn't change the attitude of many of the men present in the city however, something the female main characters run into time and again. It is not always out in the open but throughout the book examples of how the opinion of women are not taken as seriously can be found and how the women have to find a way around it to get things done. Walton's portrayal of the position of women in the Just City is one of a more subtle kind of sexism than what most of the characters would have encountered in their own time but it is still depressingly obvious.

Where Plato's ideas on equality were revolutionary, his ideas on relationships and sexuality and raising children are plain odd. This is a hugely complicated part of the novel as the ancient Greeks use terms like love, affection and friendship in different ways than we are used to. Walton uses the Greek terms agape, eros and philia in the novel to keep apart the various relationships between the characters. There is a fourth word in ancient Greek to describe love, storge, but that kind of love plays a minimal role in the novel. These four kinds of love, and especially agape are later used by Christian philosophers in a slightly different context than the ancient Greeks did and that muddies the waters a bit.

The idea behind the city is that people do not form pairs but that procreation is arranged in such a way that the strongest possible offspring is produced. The children are then raised communally and not by their parents. This idea is very distasteful to the modern readers in the light of Nazi racial theories but most of the characters are from earlier times in history and they don't see it that way. It does disrupt the desire to form families and, not surprisingly, the restrictions the city imposes on sexual activity and relationships are broken by just about everybody. Being forced to have sex with people selected though a (rigged) lottery results in some positive but also, inevitably, negative experiences for both sexes. It is without a doubt the most problematic element in the Just City. Walton uses it to discuss issues like birth control, upbringing of children, rape (including a scene where Apollo is forced to do something despicable), sexual freedom and relationships. It would seem that the Just City cannot come about until humanity settles these issues, which makes me wonder if it ever will.

The Just City is without a doubt one of the most interesting books I've read in ages. It combines a story that is highly readable with an enormous amount of food for thought. I could probably go on for quite a while on all the influences, history and philosophy that went into it. I haven't even discussed the importance of art for instance. Or the debates on what constitutes intelligence. Or the ever present question of how much of Socrates' teachings is Plato putting words into his mouth. It's quite clear that Walton is not finished with this creation and that there is plenty of material left for the second and third book. While the novel itself ends with a satisfying climax (a debate of course, it could hardly have ended another way) I look forward to delving deeper into Walton's thoughts on Plato's Just City. The Just City is one of the 2015 books you do not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: The Just City
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 368
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3266-0
First published: 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde - Maryse Condé

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde is the second part of the duology Maryse Condé wrote about the city of Ségou in present day Mali. Like the first part, which I reviewed earlier this year, I read it in Dutch translation. The original is in French and appeared under the title Ségou: La Terre en miette. It has been translated in English as well under the title Children of Segu but that edition appears to be long out of print. The second part is generally considered to be the lesser of the two. I tend to agree with that. Although I did enjoy this reread, some repetition works its way into the narrative. That being said, it does a very good job of showing the reader the developments that affect the city.

The second book covers the period from the fall of Ségou to the Toucouleur Empire of El Hadj Omar Tall in 1861 to the arrival of the French in 1890. It again follows the lives of the sons of the Traoré family, who spend lot of time outside the city. The book is essentially divided in four sections. The first deals with the life of Mohammed, who lost a leg in the war against the Toucouleur and desperately tries to reconcile his religious convictions and the goals of El Hadj Omar with his Bamambara heritage. The second section covers the story of Olubunmi, who worked for the French and knows what is in store for the city. The third section deals with the journey of Samuel. Raised by his devoutly Christian father and educated by the English, he decides to seek out his Trelawny ancestors on his mother's side of the family and gets caught up in the Morant Bay Rebellion on Jamaica. The final part of the novel is seen from the point of view of Omar, son of Mohammed, who is trying to understand the father he never knew and end up trying to start a jihad against the French. More than enough material for drama in other words.

There is an element of repetition in these novels. The Traoré men are often idealistic, with grand plans to change the direction of the city of Ségou, the Bambara people or even the continent. They inevitably clash hard with the realities of the world around them and end up disillusioned or dead. Sometimes both. Where in the first novel, fate carried the Traorés all over the world, the characters in this one are more likely to make their own choices. The outcome of these choices are usually not much better than the lives forced upon the four sons of Dousika in the first novel.

The main characters spend relatively little time in the city of Ségou. In fact, most of the main characters are somewhat estranged from their Bambara roots. Mohammed for instance, feels he should be a good Muslim first, and despises his people for the mixture of Islam and traditional beliefs that is practiced in the family. Where the family as a whole, seems to manage a balance, he cannot and it gets him in a lot of trouble. It is a conflict his son Omar will relive to an extent a generation later.

Samuel is even more cut of from Ségou. He has a very poor relationship with his father and that influences his decision to leave for Jamaica. His grandmother was part of the Maroons. Escaped slaves who resisted the British and managed to establish a free community in the 1700s. While the British did not defeat them, they did manage to get them to agree to hunt other escaped slaves for them. Samuel is severely disillusioned when he sees what has become of the people who he considered heroes. It is one of the many examples in the novels of how dealing with white people, one way or another, always ends in disaster for the black characters.

The relationship between Africa and its diaspora is a theme that shows up in many of Condé's novels and it is very prominent in this particular storyline. In the previous novel it was the descendants of Naba who show the problematic relationship between the slaves and their descendants and the Africans who remained on the continent. Samuel shows us another side of this. Because of his education and upbringing, the blacks on Jamaica tease him by wondering how he can be a white man even if he is from Africa. Condé drives how the dramatic consequences of their displacement and the loss of their cultural roots home thoroughly in this book.

Another tragedy that is well represented in this novel is the way in which the colonizing powers manage to control vast stretches of the continent with minimal resources and manpower by exploiting the internal divisions among the local population. Omar's slogan, 'we are one' (against the French) mostly falls on deaf ears or is considered a somewhat controversial interpretation of a sura in the koran. The Bambara try to get rid of Toucouleur rule by enlisting the help of the French, the result of which is the establishment of French rule. While the white men seem to be unable to tell one black person from another, they know how to exploit the differences. The sheer racism and disregard of local culture, traditions and economies and even human life is staggering even to a people who have experienced a jihad a generation before. Condé may well have spared us the worst by ending her tale in 1890.

Once again the women in this book suffer even more than the men. Their men, caught up in wars, religious conflicts and political games do not precisely make life easy for them and neither the Bambara traditions nor Islam treats them kindly. Under the French things would not improve either. Whichever way they turn, they are at the mercy of men who, while not always uncaring, see them as little more than possessions or in some cases distractions from their attempts at living a devoutly religious life. Condé chooses to tell her story almost entirely from male points of view. I can't help but wonder how this novel would have turned out with a bit more sections form a female perspective.

Where we started the tale with a proud, independent nation, over the course of two books we see the city of Ségou decline ever further. Their absorptions into French Sudan seems inescapable. What little hope remains in this book can be found in the roots of the extended Traoré family. It is a family who have weathered all storms for almost a century. Despite religious disputes and all manner of conflict, they have managed to keep that in tact at least. Condé leaves us with a profound sense of loss at the end of the novel, where one of the charters muses on the state of the city and how he is going to lead the family though this. Although the continuing downward spiral in both books suggest an answer, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not to go along with that. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Ségou is a remarkable piece of historical fiction.

Book Details 
Title: Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde  
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 550  
Year: 1990
Language: Dutch
Translation: Edith Klapwijk
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 90-6766-086-8
First published: 1985

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tuf Voyaging - George R.R. Martin

Early in his career George R.R. Martin was not particularly good at finishing series. A lot of his 1970s stories leave openings for sequels that never got written. Tuf is a bit of an exception in that respect. Martin wrote enough of them to fill a book. In a way, we have to commercial failure of The Armageddon Rag (1983) to thank for it. Martin couldn't get his fifth novel sold and abandoned it eventually. He had a contract for a Tuf collection though, and he needed money quite badly at the time. The result is this book. Not that it is a complete of course. Martin had ideas for more stories, after the publication of this collection in 1986 there was even talk of a full novel. None of that ever happened. Martin left for Hollywood and got into A Song of Ice and Fire later. It looks unlikely that more Tuf stories will appear. Not any time soon anyway. A shame really, rereading this collection left me with the feeling Martin was not yet done with this character.

Tuf Voyaging is sometimes mentioned to be a novel, sometimes a fixup and sometimes a collection. I think it is the last. In fact, if you approach this work as a novel, you'll be disappointed. Martin wrote them as short stories and although there is a bit of development in Tuf's character, there isn't much of an overarching storyline. The oldest story of the bunch, A Beast for Norn  appeared in 1976 but Martin rewrote it quite a bit for this collection. The original version can be found in the massive collection Dreamsongs and was first published in an Orbit anthology called Andromeda I. All others Tuf stories ended up with Analog between 1978 and 1985. That last year was particularly productive for Tuf, with no less than four stories appearing. Martin also added a brief prologue to the collection to gather everything together.

The collection  presents the stories chronologically and starts with The Plague Star (1985). It tells the tale of Tuf taking a group of adventurer out to a derelict spaceship that the party's leader thinks is a huge, ancient seedship from the a huge war fought more than a thousand years ago. The builders had very advanced knowledge of genetics and ecology, making the ship, if intact, very valuable. In this story we meet a Tuf that is almost comic. He's calm and very much in control of the situation even when it appears he's not. He's also verbose, eccentric and seems a little naive. He seems blissfully unaware of the backstabbing that is about to break out yet somehow seems to come out on top.Tuf has reinvented himself as ecological engineer. He now wields the power to shape or destroy entire planets. He has, in other worlds, become a god.

There is a lot of religious symbolism in these stories. Lots of biblical references are sprinkled throughout the text. Martin uses the miracle of loaves and fishes, the ten plagues brought down on Egypt and the manna that feeds the Jews in the Sinai in Exodus all find their way into the stories. At one point Tuf even pretends to be Yahweh to bring a wayward religious leader to heel.  Absolute power and the use of it is an important theme in these stories. Tuf uses his power as he sees fit and seems to have inhibitions about ending ways of life forever, wiping out whole ecosystems or waging biological wars. Tuf feels entitled to make these decisions without consultation. He goes from unassuming to almost tyrannical over the course of the collection. If Martin does write a sequel, it would be interesting to see what Tuf would do if he screws up.

Having taking control of the Ark, as the spaceship is called, Tuf proceeds to the planet of S'uthlam where he hopes to get the damage to his ship accumulated over a millennium fixed. As the name suggests, the planet is in a permanent state of Malthusian crisis. The majority of the population beliefs it is their holy duty to procreate and does so at an alarming rate. Tuf himself, when he finally finds out the size of the population of the planet, responds with a typical understatement.
"Since you solicit my opinion, Portmaster, I shall venture to say  that while the world above us seems formidably large, I cannot but wonder if it is indeed large enough. Without intending any censure of your mores, culture, and civilization, the thought does occur to me that a population of thirty-nine billion persons might be considered, on the whole, to be a trifle excessive."
Tuf talking to portmaster Tolly Mune in Loaves and Fishes.
Mune, interestingly as much opposed to the enormous growth the the population of the planet, is one of the few characters in the story who seriously tries to make Tuf see the problematic way in which he uses the Ark and makes his decisions. Mune and her troubled planet appear in three stories in this collection, making it the spine of Tuf's adventures. Loaves and Fishes, Second Helpings and Manna from the Heavens were all first published in 1985 and contain most of Tuf's development as a character.

Tuf's adventures on S'uthlam can also be seen as commentary on the overpopulation that is one of the main driving forces in environmental degradation all over the planet. One of the strategies Tuf (himself a vegetarian) proposes is the replace all sorts of inefficient foodstuffs (read meat) by much higher yielding, if not always tasteful, alternatives. Tuf realizes that in the face of exponential population growth, this is just a stopgap measure however and that the real solution much be found in birth control. That is one theme where I think the collection could have used a bit more depth. The ethical dilemma is outlined but never really discussed or shown in much detail.

In between de stories dealing with S'uthlam, Tuf visits several other planet. In Guardians (1981) he brokers a piece between humans and an, until Tuf's intervention unrecognized, sentient species. In A Beast for Norn (1976) he end animal fighting in a roundabout way and in Call Him Moses (1978), he stops a fanatical religious leader with a few biological tricks up his sleeve. It's in these stories that you can tell Martin's knowledge of ecology is basic. In the stories dealing with S'uthlam, he needs to employ the entire ecosystem for food production, basically redesigning it completely. In the other stories, he just meddles and the consequences of this could be dramatic.

Tuf tends to introduces species to fix certain biological problems. If experience on Earth is any guide, this almost always backfires in some way. Think of rabbits overrunning Australia, the unbelievable damage rats can do on islands where they are introduced, the devastation caused by the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, the list of examples in endless an costly in both ecological and economical sense. In A Beast for Norn, in which Martin introduces two dozen alien species to a planet, when confronted with the fact that he ruined the planet's ecosystem and crashed it's economy he remarks:
"Unlikely," said Tuf. "My experience is these matters suggests that Lyronica may indeed suffer a certain interlude of ecological instability and hardship, yet it will be of limited duration and ultimately I have no doubt that a new ecosystem will emerge. It appears unlikely that this successor ecology will offer niches for large predators, alas, but I am optimistic that the quality of Lyronican life will be otherwise unimpaired.
Tuf speaking to one of his customers in A Beast for Norn.
Now that would be a remarkable feat of ecological engineering. Doing away with an entire trophic level of an ecology doesn't strike me as a good way to keep the productivity and complexity of an ecosystem in tact.

Ecology is still a subject a lot of science fiction steers clear of. Martin gives it a try in this collection but on the whole it is closer to a satirical work than a scientifically accurate one. That being said, I did enjoy reading this collection again. The humour is part of it, but I also simply enjoyed the writing. Despite writing them out of chronological order, Martin manages to get a development in the character from a humble and eccentric trader in The Plague Star to a near megomaniac Manna from the Heavens. I've seen many review stating there is no character development in Tuf. I respectfully disagree with that. It is more subtle than in some of his stories, but it is most certainly there. One other thing I appreciate about Tuf Voyaging is that it underlines that Martin is just as comfortably writhing short stories as he is writing huge fantasy novels. Martin is a versatile writer, capable of writing more then fantasy novels alone. As much as I like A Song of Ice and Fire, I still think Martin's best work is in his short fiction and Tuf is one example of that. Don't approach it as a novel and don't expect epic fantasy and you might just end up liking what Martin has done here.

Book Details
Title: Tuf Voyaging
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Meisha Merlin
Pages: 440
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-59222-004-5
First published: 1986

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Elysium Commission - L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Although much of his output is fantasy, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. delivers a science fiction novel every other year or so. The Elysium Commission is the most recent of these I own and it is already eight years old. It's been on the to read stack for over six years now. I came across it while digging for Terry Pratchett's Small Gods that suffered a similar faith. Like many of Modesitt's science fiction novels, The Elysium Commission is a standalone, although it does have many links with his other works. The novel will not surprise readers familiar with Modesitt's work. It is, as always, solidly written, well plotted and fairly fast paced but it does rely on views Modesitt expressed in many other novels as well.

Blaine Donne has settled into a career as private investigator after serving in the military. He does moderately well and manages to get enough clients to pay for the considerable expenses of his job and his more altruistic side activities. One day, he gets a request to look into the connection between a wealthy entertainment mogul and a scientist. It seems straightforward but is soon becomes clear that Donne looking into the matter is not appreciated by the object of his investigation. After the first attempt on his life, he is caught up in a series of events that unveils a conspiracy large enough to threaten the very existence of the planet.

The novel is set in a fairly distant future on a planet colonized by humans. The city most of the action takes place in is modeled after Paris and many of the names of places, institutions and people have a French flavour, often referring to some of the French literary greats. I couldn't help wondering how much of this novel was inspired by Hugo's Les Misérables for instance. The dynamic between Donne and a police officer named Javerr reminded me of Valjean and Javert and the name seems obvious. Names are big thing in this novel. Modesitt refers to a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers in the novel as well. There are references to Robert Jordan, David Harwell (Modesitt's editor at Tor), Gene Wolfe and Paula Volsky, among others.

The planet appears to be unified but there are several factions in human occupied space with different outlooks on society. One of them is a faction based on the Mormons that shows up in a number of other books. Although the balance of power between these factions is only vaguely discussed, it does limit the effectiveness of the  planetary government and it's space to maneuver. Something that has far-reaching consequences for the plot of the novel.

Modesitt's approach to the novel is familiar. Donne's career path is similar to that of Daryn Alwyn in The Octagonal Raven (2001) and Jonat DeVrai in Flash (2004) for instance. He strikes out for himself after a career in the military. He keeps in shape, keeps up his piloting skills and has a more or less similar outlook on society. Much of what Donne thinks of society, and what other characters contribute over the course of the novel can be linked back to the Paradigms of Power, a set of principles that govern society in his novel Adiamante (1996). One of the factions mentioned in the book may also refer to a faction in his novel The Parafaith War (1996). I haven't read that one myself and he changed the spelling a bit bit so I might be wrong there. The Parafaith War and it's 2003 sequel The Ethos Effect (which I have read) do share the same outlook on society, ethics and the use of power though. Although none of these novels appear to be set in the same future, Modesitt's vision of socety is very consistent across these novels and often voiced by Exton Land, the philosopher Modesitt named after himself.

Where Donne does deviate from other characters is his activities as knight of the shadows. He walks the streets of the city exposing criminals after their intent is clear but before they can do physical harm. In a high-tech society is true identity cannot remain hidden of course and in the later stages it becomes a fact used to put pressure on him. So a dark knight looking to foil a plot by a super rich megalomaniac. If you put it that way, the plot sound downright simplistic. Entertaining perhaps, but not something that you'd remember long after finishing it. Modesitt once stated that he thinks a book should first entertain the reader or whatever else you try to do with it will not matter as the reader will abandon it. This plot creates opportunities for entertainment but it is the deeper layer that makes of breaks the novel in my opinion.

What I liked about it, is that the dark night can't just take a gadget out of his pocket and neutralize the villain. He is hemmed in on all sides by the need to comply with laws and regulations, by public appearance and by his own moral standards. These limitations don't just work for him, it is something everyone, from the highest level of government to the lowest level in law enforcement have to deal with. Not everything they do is legal, but is has to appear legal. Not even the villain, who is not above assassination, bribing or mass murder if it suits his purpose, escapes these restrictions. It is one of the examples of the internal logic of Modesitt's worlds that can be found throughput his novels. As a result, no actions without consequence, excellence cannot be achieved without hard work and no victory is without a price. It's this rigorous consistency that allows the plot to attain more depth than my dark knight versus megalomaniac villain comment suggests.

I do think that Modesitt leans on what he has done before a bit too much in this novel. Not so much in terms of characters (an often heard criticism of his work) but thematically. Over the course of many novels he's laid out a structure of ethics, views on society and human nature that is so central to his work that it is almost misleading to consider The Elysium Commission a standalone story. The author builds on the foundations he has laid in earlier books. They are so interlinked in a way that you will get more out of this novel if you have read more of his work. If you like Modesitt's writing you can't really go wrong with this one, but if you are looking for a good entry point into his oeuvre I'd look elsewhere. 

Book Details
Title: The Elysium Commission
Author: L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 356
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5654-3
First published: 2007