Sunday, July 26, 2015

Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson

After his venture into prehistory in Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson turns around and takes us to the twenty-eighth century. His output has been very varied over the past two decades and in this novel he again explores territory he hasn't covered before. Generational starships have come up once or twice. There is one in Icehenge, and another in Blue Mars, but they are always at the periphery of the story. In this novel, the concept takes centre stage. It makes Aurora an unusual book in some ways and a return to familiar themes in others. It is full of ideas on space exploration and terraforming, but there is also a notable shift in his thinking on these subjects. One that will surprise more than a few of his readers. Nevertheless,  I think Robinson wrote one of the best science fiction novels in 2015 with Aurora. I fully expect him to show up on a couple of awards shortlists next year.

The generational starship Aurora is set to arrive at the Tau Ceti systems, one of our closest neighbours, 170 years after its launch. They have been sent to found a colony and spread the human race across the galaxy. The ship is huge, carrying miniatures of the most important of Earth's ecosystems. The variety of life on board is impressive but the ship can carry only so much. After a more than a century and a half, a strain on the ship's ecosystem is starting to be felt. The restrictions imposed on the population, trying to maintain the precarious ecological balance is starting to wear on the population. As they approach their new home, a kind of cabin fever spreads through the ship. Some people can't wait to be out and about. Others are not so sure.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a can do approach to science fiction. In a field that is inundated with natural disasters, alien invasions, ecological catastrophe and all manner of post-apocalyptic tales, his stories tend to be more upbeat. We can act meaningfully to mitigate the effects of climate change, we can reform the capitalist economic system to create a more even distribution of wealth and a more sustainable economy, we can go out and colonize other planets, we can build spacecraft that can reach the stars. The challenges are formidable but solutions can be found. This novel, in a way, is not quite as optimistic. Yes, we can reach the stars, but what happens when we get there, that is another story.

Robinson has some pretty scary things to say about ecosystems in this novel. He reaches back to island biogeography, a branch of biology founded by Wilson and MacArthur that is very influential among conservationists. What Robinson is describing is a system spiralling into collapse. The ship simply isn't large enough to sustain the variety of life on board it and there is a constant pressure to revert to less complex, but in the long run more stable, systems. The people on board, ironically the factor that contributes most to this pressure, try to prevent that from happening but the realization that no ecosystem is fully closed is starting to sink in. Now take a step back and think about what this means for the situation on Earth, where natural ecosystems are being forced into ever smaller areas to clear land for human uses.

There seems to be a limit to how long a spaceship can sustain a human population and that leads to the next problem the colonists face. They are sent to Tau Ceti because it is conveniently close, not necessarily because it has the most hospitable planets. When the moon they had pinned their hopes on turns out to be a killer, the colonists face a dreadful decision. Try another, less hospitable location, or refuel, turn around and head back to the solar system. Neither of which has a good chance of success. Colonizing the stars is harder than science fiction makes it out to be.

In essence, Robinson is saying the stars are too far away, and life is too well adapted to the solar system to make relocation a viable option. It is an idea that is quite popular in a sense. Where the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the early 20th century supposed that humanity would one day leave its cradle, in recent years it becomes apparent that it may not be that easy to permanently live elsewhere. Even the terraforming process on Mars, mentioned briefly in this novel, has run into problems Robinson did not yet know about when writing his Mars trilogy. When reading it I got the sense that Robinson is telling us we need to take better care of spaceship Earth, because abandoning it, does not appear to be an option.

Robinson chooses an unusual point of view for large stretches of the novel. The ship's main computer is given the task to create a narrative of the expedition by the main engineer of the ship. While a quantum computer can do a great many things (simultaneously), it is not very well equipped for this task. Early on in the novel, the computer digresses, expresses problems in trying to select what to include and what to leave out and is given to long rambles about the details of running the ship and its observations about the humans he is transporting. Gradually it evolves into a somewhat understated drama with the computer as omniscient narrator (which, on the ship at least, is more or less correct). It is so well done that some readers may wonder if the final part of the novel, which is not narrated by the computer, is necessary. That's not really an issue I can discuss here without giving away the end of the novel so you'll have to find that out for yourself.

Some readers will inevitably have issues with Robinson's approach. The ship's issues with the command to tell the story makes for a fairly slow start of the novel. At one point the engineer interferes and tells the ship what it is doing wrong (too much detail, too much backstory). Robinson will have lost more than a few readers at that point. I guess it also depends on the willingness of the reader to accept the computer as a character as well as the narrator. In terms of character development, the computer shows the most growth by far.

This review can't even begin to do justice to all the ideas Robinson puts into this novel. Besides ideas on ecology and human evolution, he also includes thoughts on Alan Turing and artificial intelligence, the ethics of generational space ships and how subsequent generations would see the choice their ancestors made for them, philosophies on consciousness and self-awareness show up in the text, as well as thoughts on language and communication. If science fiction is the literature of ideas for you, I very much doubt you could do much better than this novel.

Aurora is a novel that provides an awful lot of food for thought. It has taken me a few days before I could make myself pick up a new book just to digest it all. Robinson has produced come wonderful books in the past and Aurora definitely ranks with the best of them. The narrative structure is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea. Robinson's choice of narrator influences the characterization and pacing of the novel to a large extent. Personally, I am more than willing to put up with a slow start to see where Robinson takes the story, but it is a novel that requires a bit of patience. I feel it pays off though. It is without a doubt one of the notable releases in science fiction of 2015.

Book Details
Title: Aurora
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 466
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-09810-6
First published: 2015

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Broken Monsters - Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters is Lauren Beukes' fourth novel. The first two were set in her native South Africa but for the third, The Shining Girls,  she moved to the US. She sticks to the US for this novel, moving from the city of Chicago to Detroit. Although Beukes has clearly outgrown small publisher Angry Robot, I must admit that I miss the South African setting of her first two novels a bit. The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters are fine books in their own right, in terms of writing probably a step up, but there is something about the use of language in those books, as well as the wildly inventive concepts that does not seem to have survived the crossing of the Atlantic. Of course, if you are looking for a supernatural mystery novel, you still couldn't do much better than Broken Monsters.

A monster is on the loose in Detroit. When half of a young boy is found, messily attached to half a fawn, one of the most gruesome cases in Detective Gabi Versado's career begins. In a city that is slowly dying, she has to find a killer who is obsessed with transforming the death around him into art. A race against the clock begins to find him. On top of a killer, Versado also has to contend with a teenage daughter facing her own monsters and a failed writer turned reporter who insists on bringing every gory detail of the murders to the public.

The Detroit of Broken Monsters is indeed about broken things. A failed artist trying to make a career out of the broken remains of his life, writer fleeing his own failures in New York, trying to make a name for himself, a broken family trying to make things work and above all a community of people trying to bring a broken city back to life. Detroit as described in this novel is in a sad state indeed. Bankrupt, rapidly loosing its population and even more rapidly decaying into an industrial wasteland full of ruins that were once the heart of a proud Motor City.

Beukes' mystery is not a whodunit. Early on in the novel it is already quite clear who is responsible for the murders. What Beukes is interested in is the motivation for these killings. Where many novels about serial killers would include a motivation grounded in sick ways of obtaining sexual gratification or sexual frustration as a motive for the killings, Broken Monsters takes another approach. That makes it a refreshing read for a mystery reader. There is something ironic in the way the killer tries to get attention for his 'art' but often manages to achieve exactly the opposite.

Throughout the novel Beukes draws parallels between the attempts of artists to create art out of the abandoned factories of the city and the killer's attempts to create art out of dead things. He sees his art as a way to open a door, to transform imperfect beings into something new. Where the factories do indeed turn into places where their old function transforms into something new, where a new Detroit is born from the ruins of the old, for the artist it turns out to be a bit more complicated.

A motif that Beukes takes with her from her previous novel is the presence of doors. Not the ordinary kind, but the ones that take you from one place to another. Where they involved temporal displacement in The Shining Girls, the door the killer tries to open leads to an even more frightening place. The door motif returns quite often in the street art mentioned in the book. There is even a character who makes a living by opening doors of abandoned buildings to see if there is anything worth salvaging left behind.

Information technology is another element that receives a lot of attention in this novel. Layla, detective Versado's daughter is practically stuck to her phone and lives her life as much online as in the real world. Beukes shows how each mistake shared on the web can have dramatic consequences and how, no matter where you are in the world, it will keep pursuing you. She also shows another side of all this new technology. The failed writer reinvents himself as a journalist and uses relatively cheap equipment and software to follow the murders. In the process he gets in the way of the investigation. These two story lines show both the possibilities and dangers of the Internet. Just like looking through the lens of a camera creates a psychological distance from events taking place right in front of you so does the Internet lure the characters into a false sense of anonymity and security.

As usual with Beukes' books, it is hard to categorize. You could see it as a mystery or thriller, but it also contains elements of urban fantasy and horror. Towards the end the novel becomes increasingly strange, with events for which there doesn't seem to be a rational explanation following each other rapidly leading up to the final showdown that is the climax of the novel. It's something that seems to suit Beukes but depending on what expectations the reader has before reading the novel, reactions will be mixed. The author's mix of genres is both the forte and weakness of this book depending on the reader's preference.

I enjoyed reading Broken Monsters more than I thought I would. It is a very smooth read most of the way. Only early on in the novel, when Beukes rapidly introduces a number of main characters, is the reader's patience tried. It is pleasantly different from her previous novels but also contains some elements that firmly links it to  her older work. Although, as I mentioned in the introduction, I would not mind seeing Beukes return to a South African setting, her attention to detail makes Detroit come alive on the pages. It is, in short, a novel well worth reading, even if it didn't manage to unseat Moxyland as my favourite book by this author.

Book Details
Title: Broken Monsters
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 520
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-746459-3
First published: 2014

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I'm In Another Mind Meld

Andrea Johnson, aka the Little Red Reviewer, invited me to participate in SF-Signal's most recent Mind Meld. This time the question was:

With your towering and sometimes toppling To Be Read (and reviewed) list, how do you choose which books to prioritize? Are there certain variables that push your reading decisions one way or another?

 For some of you this may seem like a straightforward question but for bookbloggers it can get quite complicated. I did the sensible thing and blamed Lana for my poor choices. Want to find out how other bookbloggers go about it? Check out the article over at SF-Signal.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of those few authors who have managed to appeal to readers on both sides of the literature/genre divide. Cloud Atlas (2004) was shortlisted for the Man Bookeer Prize but also the Nebula and Clarke Awards. Something that didn't go unnoticed at the time. The novel was made into a movie as well. Given the fact that it contains six separate stories, this can't have been easy. The reception of the movie was apparently mixed. I guess I am going to have to see it myself to make up my mind. It strikes me as almost impossible to pull off but Mitchell himself apparently was pleased with the result. But it is the book I'll be discussing in this review so back to business.

Cloud Atlas is a novel composed of six interwoven novellas. The first one starts in 1850 in the Pacific and through the lives of six different people, embodying the same soul, we end up in a post-apocalyptic future. Each of the individual stories are linked, passing something on to the next generation. Along the way we visit 1931 Zedelghem in Belgium, the fictional Californian city of Buenas Yerbas in 1975, present day Britain, a futuristic Korea and a post apocalyptic Hawaii.

Mitchell does a lot of interesting things in this book with structure and prose. Five of the six novellas stop abruptly in the middle of the narrative. Sometimes with a clear cliffhanger, sometimes mid-sentence. The novella set in the post apocalyptic future, positioned at the centre of the book, is the only one that isn't broken up. Mitchell moves into the future and then turns around and starts working his way back to the first story again.

The author uses a lot of different techniques in the novel. The first story is written in the form of a diary. The second is half of an exchange of letters between two young men and former lovers. The third a multiple point of view, third person narrative. The fourth story is a first person narrative. The fifth takes the shape of an interview and the final novella is essentially a camp fire tale (I suppose you could call it a frame story). It's a way of structuring the novel that not everybody will like. The changes can be quite abrupt and the stories are only tenuously connected. The diary of the main character in the first novella is found by the main character in the second, whose letters end up in the hands of the third, whose life is turned into a novel that ends up in the hands of the fourth main character etcetera.

Not only does Mitchell use a lot of different techniques, he does a lot of interesting things with his prose as well. The diarist for instance, has a fondness for the semicolon and the & symbol. The letters are written in a lazy style, with the writer frequently omitting the first person pronoun or use 1/2 instead of half. in this way each of the novellas has its own peculiarities. The most challenging is probably the final novella, which is written in a vernacular that almost has to be read out loud to be understood. This book has been translated into several languages, I pity the translators of that particular section.

To a hardcore genre reader all these styles, changes and shifts in the prose might seem like showing off. The thought occurred to me once or twice while reading the novel any way. It has to be said that for people who enjoy creative and at times playful prose there is definitely a lot to be had in this novel. One reader might think of it as showing off, the other might feel it is a showcase of what a talented writer can do with language.

As I mentioned earlier, the novellas are linked but only minimally. There is no overarching plot but there are motifs. The most notable one is the birthmark that allows the reader to identify the reincarnated soul of the main character. Another thing they have in common is that each of the characters documents their story in some way, allowing it to be passed on to the next generation. If there is such a thing as a theme in this novel it is probably the predator/prey dynamic that each story incorporates. The main character is usually on the prey side of things and the predator can take very different shapes but it is always there. The one constant in this entire book and apparently something that Mitchell considers a universal property of mankind. Not a very cheering thought.

The science fiction element in the novel is mostly present in the fifth and sixth novella. The fifth in particular presents a very disturbing future. We get to visit a Korea where the North Korean Juche ideology (which in my opinion makes as much sense as Ghadaffi's Green Book, which is to say none) with a kind of hypercorporate economy. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that this economy in effect devouring its natural resources and the very society that supports it, so the sixth (post-apocalyptic) novella should not come as a surprise. The main character is a clone whose intellect rises beyond her usefulness with depressingly predictable consequences. The science fiction elements in the novel are clearly present but not anything that hasn't been done before. Mitchell is not trying to explore the consequences of advanced technology for society, how it will redefine or shape societies, human interactions or moral values, or any of the other things that good science fiction explores. He focusses on showing the fundamental hunter/prey dynamic. As such, I'm not terribly impressed by his future societies.

Cloud Atlas is a very difficult book to review. I'm very impressed by the way Mitchell ignores the usual genre/literature divide and uses elements from both to tell his story. I do not think that he manages to blend the best of both into this book however. It is very preoccupied with structure and technique, something a lot of readers will feel is pretentious. In fact, it hides so many literary tricks and techniques that I am pretty convinced I haven't even caught half of them. It is an ambitious book, fascinating in many ways, but also a book that I feel tries to do too  much and as a result falls short in some aspects. It does show how rich literature could be if it would manage to break down the wall that in the mind of readers, writers and publishers still divides genres. As such Cloud Atlas is a very interesting novel. One of a growing number of books on both sides of the divide that is chipping away at the wall. I don't expect it to come down any time soon but it is starting to crumble in places. Hopefully books like Cloud Atlas will allow more of these genre-defying books to slip through.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre
Pages: 529
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-340-82278-4
First published: 2005

Sunday, July 5, 2015

All About Emily - Connie Willis

All About Emily is one of those gorgeous little books Subterranean Press likes to publish. It is a (shortish) novella length work, published in a small hardback format, with great attention paid to the cover art and interior artwork. The artwork for this novella was done by J.K. Potter.  They are pricey but they are also very pretty. This one was published in December 2011 and also appeared in Asimov's that month.  I did read it back then but never got around to reviewing it. Since I haven't quite managed to finish David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas yet, I reread it on Friday.  Some readers might be expecting one of Willis' trademark comedies. This story is not one of those. All About Emily aims to touch the heart. 

Claire Haviland is an ageing actress on Broadway. She fears her career is coming to an end but then her manager arranges a media appearance with Claire's greatest fan, an innocent looking girl named Emily. She is not a regular fan however. Emily is a very lifelike robot, one who seems quite capable of becoming an actress. One who never forgets her lines, never makes a mistake and never ages. Claire does not like this development one bit.

Willis writes the entire story from the perspective of Claire in the first person. She is an experienced actor, well acquainted with Broadway's darker side. She is quite cynical about her manager, the parts she'll be able to get and the prospect of being replaced by a robot. And yet, despite knowing that Emily is designed to do just that, the girl works her way into Claire's heart.

Plays, musicals and classic movies crop up in Willis' writing quite often. In this story the movie All About Eve (1950, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter), in which a younger, upcoming actress manages to get away with an established actress' career and almost her husband) plays an important role.  Claire fears she has met her own Eve, but Emily turns out to have her heart set on another career. She wants to be a Rockette. With their dependence on perfectly choreographed routines and superficially identical appearance, a robot is even more threatening to them than she is to Claire.

There are lots of details about Broadway and Hollywood in the story. Some of them are references to existing works but Willis also makes a few of them up. The story is set in the future, about a generation after it was written probably, and the world of entertainment clearly has developed in those years. Claire's contempt for some of the younger, and in her opinion only marginally talented stars, is quite clear. Willis frequently uses Claire's manager, who doesn't seem to have seen any play or movie Claire mentions, to make sure the reader doesn't get lost in the references to plays, musicals and movies. Which was nice for a reader like me, I was unfamiliar with almost all of what Willis mentions in the story, but for readers who are more experienced in these matters, it may feel a bit like being spoon-fed.

Besides thinking about her career, Claire also gives a lot of thought to artificial intelligence in the novel. What Emily doing is, according to Claire at least, mimicking emotions she isn't feeling. In fact, she is probably incapable of feeling them. Which makes what she is doing very close to acting. There are some very sharp observations about Emily in the story, but towards the end Claire finds herself examining her own behaviour towards Emily.

Willis has produced a large number of award winning short fiction in her career and that she knows how to write a good story at this length shows in All About Emily. It is well paced, pretty lean and yet manages to create a well developed character. I did think the ending of the story is rather abrupt. Not that when we reach that point there is much more to say but it is not the most graceful way to end a story. That being said, All About Emily is a very decent read. I don't think Willis quite reaches the level of some of the stories in The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories but it is well worth the time it takes to read.

Book Details
Title: All About Emily
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Subterranean
Pages: 96
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-452-2
First published: 2011