Sunday, January 24, 2016

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Planetfall by Emma Newman is a book I have read a lot of good things about. Newman has published four other novels in the past few years, none of which I have read. The positive reviews I've read about her most recent novel made me want to read it a bit closer to the publication date. That didn't happen unfortunately but I am very glad I got around to reading this book now. It is one of those novels that would not look out of place on the short list of this year's science fiction awards. It is however, a very strongly character driven story. As such, it is probably not everybody's cup of tea.

Twenty years ago a group of colonists arrives at a strange planet in search of the City of God. Their landing doesn't quite go as planned. Part of the crew is lost after their landing pods malfunction. The survivors set up a colony that aims to have as little impact on the planet as possible. Ren is in charge of the colony's 3D-printers. She knows more of what happened during planetfall than the other members of the colony have been told. With the arrival of a young man, claiming to be a child of the lost colonists and the last survivor of their group, all the carefully hidden secrets come bubbling to the surface. The pressure on Ren is rising but telling what she knows might sweep away the foundations of their community.

The story is told in a first person perspective from Ren's point of view. It quickly becomes apparent that she carries a huge burden of guilt. One member of the community shares her knowledge and between them they keep the lid on what has happened twenty years ago. All this secrecy has taken its toll on Ren however. She is a loner, never letting anyone into her house. From the very start of the book she is busy pushing people away from her and minimizing her social interactions. Ren is taking this very far, to the point where she is clearly hiding things from herself as well as from the community. It's these repressed memories that form the core of the mystery the novel presents.

Newman uses Ren's mental issues to gradually reveal what went on twenty years ago. It makes Ren a classic example of the unreliable narrator. What she reveals to us is a selective truth, often only sharing what she is forced to admit to herself by the rapidly changing dynamic in the colony, rather than volunteering any information. The young outsider acts as a catalyst, forcing Ren to review her life constructed of secrets and lies. She soon feels that events are slipping away from her and becomes even more desperate to protect her secrets.

Planetfall is in effect a detailed portrayal of mental illness. Newman uses the circumstances to pile up the pressure on Ren. What happened twenty years ago is much less interesting than what caused Ren to behave the way she does. Her gradual slide towards confronting her fears and facing up to her guilt is described in detail and takes up the bulk of the novel. It is, in other words, not a novel about exploring the mysteries of an alien word. A little bit of light is shed on the reason for making the journey in the first place but it is not the focus of the novel.  It  may disappoint readers looking for a story of planetary exploration.

Personally, I found Ren a fascinating character. There is so much tension in her that you know from very early on in the novel something must give soon, but what it is exactly, takes a bit of time to figure out. The pacing of the novel is directly linked to the personal crisis Ren is facing and it works very well. Her problems make her thoroughly unpleasant at several points in the novel. Her behaviour is erratic, unreasonable and supported by increasingly unlikely rationalizations. Admiration, sympathy, frustration and pity war with each other when reading her tale. She is a well rounded character. With the science fictional and religious elements pushed so far into the background, whether the characterization works for you will make or break the novel.

There is more than a bit of science fiction in the story though. The way the colonists go about minimizing their ecological footprint was of particular interest to me. With the resources of a whole planet available to them, they nevertheless stick to a strict system of recycling, reusing every scrap of material for the printers. Recycling as a religion, maybe Newman is on to something here. Other science fiction elements include advances in information technology, biotechnology and of course space travel. Most of it is pretty low key, although information technology used in the novel allows the characters to pass on events almost instantaneously. It's another element Newman uses to put pressure on Ren.

As a character study, this novel is one of the most interesting ones I have read in quite a while. Mental illness isn't a topic that science fiction usually successfully deals with. Many a character brushes off life changing events that would almost certainly result in a sever case of post traumatic stress syndrome in the real world. I am not really qualified to judge how realistic Newman's portrayal of Ren's mental issues is. In fact, I would be very interested in hearing the opinion of a professional in that field about this book. It feels quire realistic to me though, and the way Newman uses it to shape and pace her story shows she is a very capable writer. Planetfall is another 2015 novel you really ought to read.

Title: Planetfall
Author: Emma Newman
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 320
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-425-28239-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Only the Stones Survive - Morgan Llywelyn

Only the Stones Survive is the latest  historical fantasy by Irish-American author Morgan Llywelyn. I received a review copy from the people at Tor. This book is the first I have read by Llywelyn. She's had a long backlist of historical, mythological and fantastical novels, most dealing on some level with Celtic Ireland. This novel is no exception. It is a pretty straightforward retelling of a set myths dealing with the arrival of the Gaels in Ireland. Unless I am very much mistaken, it is mostly inspired by The Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn in Irish), which collects a number of pseudo-historical poems and stories about the early history of Ireland. The first written records of these stories date from the eleventh century but one can safely assume the tales themselves are older. A lot of what you will find in this book has in some shape or form been included in numerous fantasy novels as well as historical works. It makes Llywelyn's rendition instantly recognizable for a lot of readers.

Driven by hardship in their native Galicia, the sons of Milesios take their tribe to sea in search of a new homeland. They invade Ireland and meet the Tuatha Dé Danann, themselves invaders of an earlier age. The Tuatha Dé Danann are long-lived and careful to live in harmony with the island. Their magic is strong but they are reluctant to use it. They see the Gael as loud and barbaric but their magic and bronze arms are no match for the cold iron of the Gaels. A new era in the history of the island is dawning.

The story is told in two main strands. The first is narrated in the first person by Joss, a young boy of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He is on the verge of adulthood when the Gael arrive and makes the transition in a time of war and hardship. While he watches his people being slaughtered, he is looking for a way to save a remnant of what they were. The second strand is a multiple point of view third person narrative. We see this part of the story through the eyes of the invaders. Besides being terrified of the magic of the island, the invaders are also being torn by internal conflicts. Theirs is a race of warriors, and they turn on themselves just as easily as on the natives.

The author draws a sharp contrast between the two parties. One a people living in such close harmony with the island, that their disappearance causes environmental changes. The other a people looking to exploit its resources to gain wealth. It's interesting to consider that the Celtic Druidic culture that would rise on the island is usually thought to be tied to the land in ways similar to what Llywelyn uses for the Tuatha Dé Danann in this novel. It must be said that she gives a hint of how this comes to be in the final chapters of the novel though.

Like its source material, most of the novel is mythical, a number of existing locations are used. Most of them are located in the Boyne valley. Llywelyn mentions the origins of the hill of Tara as the seat of the Irish High Kings. The megalithic monuments of  Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth, already ancient by the time the Tuatha Dé Danann arrive on the island, play an important part in the story. These locations are quite real and described in vivid detail. I also suspect the cave system mentioned in the book is an existing one but I haven't been able to identify it. Suffice to say Llywelyn knows a thing or two about the island and uses it to ground the story in the real world.

The story itself will not surprise many readers. Once I became aware of the mythological sources of the novel I more or less approached the novel as I would an Arthurian tale. The conclusion is inevitable, it's how you get there that counts. Llywelyn more or less forces the reader to take this approach to the novel by opening with a scene of the battle in which the Tuatha Dé Danann are thoroughly destroyed. It is clear from the outset, even for the reader not familiar with the source material, that this book is going to be a tragedy.

I must admit I didn't think Only the Stones Survive was the most inspired bit of writing I've ever come across. Llywelyn dutifully follows the myths and delivers a tragic tale of the rise of one culture and the fading away of another. The characters never evolved beyond archetypes though. For this book to be a truly enjoyable read for me, the author should have succeeded in making me forget the various roles the characters play in this tragedy and make me care for them as individuals rather than a representation of their respective peoples. In that aspect the novel fails. In a few places it is a dry read.

I enjoyed reading Only the Stones Survive at some level. Llywelyn delivers a clear story of a bit of pseudo-history that is the foundation of a lot of modern fantasy. She also manages to firmly anchor it in the real world, with the many references to existing locations. That being said, the author's firm grasp of the source material doesn't really make up for the lack of characterization. With the shape of the story largely known and the outcome inevitable, the novel would have been a lot better if Llywelyn had managed to evolve her characters beyond the archetype. As it is, the novel is interesting for fans of the author and people with an interest in Celtic mythology. It is not the book Llywelyn will be remembered for though.

Book Details
Title: Only the Stones Survive
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 232
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3654-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Het Rad van Fortuin - Steph Swainston

I don't often read works translated from English to Dutch anymore. Generally I prefer to read the original. In this case however, I had to make an exception. Het Rad van Fortuin is an expansion of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, that appeared in the anthology The Best British Fantasy 2013. As far as I can tell, the expanded version has not been published in English (yet). The translation was done by Eisso Post. The text reads smoothly, I didn't find any obvious lines in the text where he struggled with the translation. Without having read the original, the translation strikes me as a job well done.

Jant works for an apothecary in the city of Hacilith. As a little business on the side, he produces a highly addictive substance made out of a species of fern. It brings him in contact with the leader of a local gang, who besides being hopelessly addicted to Jant's product, also fancies him. When he inevitably gets into serious trouble with the gang he decides to give the wheel of fortune a spin. Together with the down on her luck actress Serin, he tries to leave the city.

Het Rad van Fortuin is a prequel to Swainston's Castle novels, in which Jant is the main character. I haven't read these novels so this story was my introduction to this world. Swainston is often associated with the new weird genre. The reason for this gradually becomes clear over the course of the story. The setting is an early industrial one, with references to many of the environmental and social problems of the era. Magical elements and non-human races are mentioned in the story as well though. It is a mix of elements that is pretty much impossible to classify and that is one of the things that makes this story intriguing.

Swainston is not afraid to show the dark side of society. Her depiction of drug use, crime, poverty and violence are graphic. Jant's world is raw, dirty and dangerous. It is the type of secondary world narrative that borrows a page from the grimdark authors that have gained popularity in the past decade. The main character is a reflection of his environment in a way. He is a deeply flawed man. The story hints at a difficult past. He is not above dealing drugs to improve his situation, without the knowledge of his employer. On the other hand he does take in Serin and helps her back on her feet. He has ambitions beyond his current job and is ruthless when it comes to getting where he wants to be. A dark character for sure, possibly a conflicted one,  but not an entirely unlikeable man. You can already tell that this combination of traits will get him in even more trouble in the novels.

Dutch publisher Quasis has released Het Rad van Fortuin as a paperback booklet as part of their Splinters series. Quasis is a small, young publisher. According to a statement on their website they are looking for speculative fiction that crosses boundaries in form, theme or genre. It looks to me like a reaction to the somewhat conservative larger publishers of fantasy (sf is virtually non-existent in translation) in the Netherlands. They play it safe and as a result a lot of not very challenging and fairly standard fantasy is being published. The reader who wants more challenging or experimental material is almost required to read in English.

As an introduction to her Castle setting, this story works very well. There is enough plot and worldbuilding to make it a story that can stand on its own. Between the lines it is obvious that the story is part of a larger whole. There are references to events that, if I'm not mistaken, drive the plot of the novel. It's a story that made me very curious about the larger world and how Jant is going to realize his goals. It also succeeds in a goal the publisher sets itself. Swainston's story is a unique mix of subgenres. The story hints at a larger and very imaginative setting that shows you can push the fantastic in different directions than the post-Tolkien material that dominates the Dutch market. Het Rad van Fortuin is a success on two levels. It has convinced me to try one of Swainston's novels and to keep an eye out for what  Quasis decides to publish next.

Book Details
Title: Het Rad van Fortuin
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Quasis
Pages: 48
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Translation: Eisso Post
Format: E-arc
ISBN: 978-94-92099-05-1
First published: 2013, 2015

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Zima Blue and Other Stories - Alastair Reynolds

A new year on Random Comments traditionally opens with a review of one of Allastair Reynolds' books. This year I picked his short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories. The first edition of this collection was published in 2006 by Night Shade Books. In 2009 an expanded British edition appeared from Gollancz. I have read the Gollancz version of the collection which includes four additional stories. The stories in this collection are all set outside his Revelation Space universe. Most of the short fiction in that universe can be found in the collections Galactic North (2006) and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (2003). Several of the stories are linked though. The collection contains the three Merlin stories for instance, as well as two stories featuring the character Carrie Clay and two stories set in a many worlds interpretation of Cardiff.

The collection opens strong with The Real Story (2002), the first Carrie Clay story. She is a journalist chasing the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. One that went horribly wrong but turned into a heroic tale of survival. The crew disappeared shortly after but is rumoured to still be alive. It's a story about survival mechanisms, about the creation of legends and about the burden they put on the people that are the source of legends. It's heroic and tragic at the same time. Emotionally very powerful.

Beyond the Aquila Rift (2005) features an abandoned alien transport system that enables travel faster than the speed of light. Nobody really understands how the system works. It is highly reliable but every once in a while something goes wrong and a ship ends up in an unexpected place. The Blue Goose is such a ship and its captain has a hard time dealing with it. This story reminds me of Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977). Beyond the Aquila Rift is a bit of a mindfuck, constantly pulling the rug from under the main character. He deals with issues of guilt but also has problems accepting his situation. It makes clever use of a first person perspective to keep the reader guessing.

The next story is the oldest in the collection and one of the very first stories Reynolds managed to sell. Enola (1991) deals with artificial intelligence. It features a warmachine that manages to evolve beyond its original programming and function after it becomes apparent there is no reason to fight on. Going beyond design and/or physical capabilities using extensive modifications is an idea that Reynolds would use later on. In the afterword he professes to be fond of this story but compared to the other material in this collection it is not a particularly strong piece.

Signal to Noise (2006) and Cardiff Afterlife (2008) are two linked stories, bases on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an idea that Reynolds uses in other stories as well. In these stories it is possible to briefly make contact with alternate realities that have just branched off from the timeline of the observer. The further these futures drift apart, the harder it gets to maintain contact.  In Signal to Noise the main character's wife is killed in an accident. He gets to spend a week with her in a different reality before that door closes forever. It's a very sad tale, with a bitter sweet ending. Cardiff Afterlife is a much shorter piece. It gives us a brief look at a Cardiff destroyed by a terrorist attack. A very relevant theme these days. It is so brief it doesn't achieve the depth of the first story in this setting however. Reynolds' short fiction tends to work better if it's long.

The next three stories, Hideaway (2000), Minla's Flowers (2007) and Merlin's Gun (2000) are linked as well. They are the kind of signature space opera that most readers associate Reynolds with. Stories set on the vast canvas of space, in far futures, usually featuring technology that Arthur C. Clarke would think of as magic. They are presented by internal chronology in the collection. Of the three, Minla's Flowers is by far the strongest. It's a tragedy in which the main character Merlin arrives on a planet that has just reached the stage where aircraft have begun to appear. He knows that in a few decades the planet will be destroyed. To save the people on the planet, technology will have to develop to the space ages fast.

Early in the story Merlin meets the young girl Minla, whom he presents with an exotic flower every time they meet. As the story progresses and Minla ages, she develops into a leader who will sacrifice millions to help a handful of people escape the approaching catastrophe. Characterisation is usually the weaker element in Reynolds' novels but in this collection he manages to hit the bull's eye a few times. The relationship between Minla and Merlin is very well done. This story may well be the strongest in the collection.

At this point I felt the collection was running out of steam a bit. The next two stories didn't do much for me. Angels of Ashes (1999) is a story that mixes religion and quantum mechanics. The religious part turns out to not quite be what one of its priests expects. A cynical view on prophets I guess. Not really my cup of tea. Spirey and the Queen (1996) is the only story in this collection I had read before. It was included in John Joseph Adams' anthology Federations (2009). It's full blown space opera in which we encounter artificial intelligence based on social insects. It's a fairly fast-paced pieces, with plenty of interesting ideas on space exploration, war in space and robotics. An entertaining read but not the strongest in the collection.

Understanding Space and Time (2005) is one of the longer pieces in the collection and in my opinion one of the highlights. It a story about a man stranded on Mars. He is forced the watch as the population on earth is wiped out. When his last companion on the station dies, he realizes he may well be the last human left alive.Just when it looks he has gotten himself killed in a pointless trip outside the station, aliens arrive to rescue him. It's a story about madness, loneliness and isolation but also one about seeking understanding. Structurally, I liked this story best. Reynolds end the story where he started, albeit millions of years later. The process of expanding his mind to probe the mysteries of space-time ever deeper and then going back to his origins runs parallel to a theory in cosmology that predicts than the universe will fall back in on itself again. I wonder if Reynolds had than in mind when he wrote it.

The final three stories in the collection didn't really grab me. Digital to Analogue (1992) is one of his earlier pieces. It mixes music with a new disease that spreads though certain sounds. Seen though the drugged and increasingly desperate main character, I found it to be a confusing read. Everlasting (2004) is the only story in the collection that isn't strictly speaking science fiction. It uses the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but only to illustrate the unstable state of mind of one of the main characters. It leaves the reader with the question what if he was right? In Zima Blue (2005) we end where we started the collection, with journalist Carrie Clay. This time she meets with one of the galaxy's most famous artists who is not quite what he appears to be. It's a story about art and artificial intelligence and the question of they will be able to learn to be creative. I didn't time the artist was as interesting a character as the astronaut in The Real Story.

Zima Blue and Other Stories offers a good overview of what Reynolds has produced in the 1990s and 2000s outside the Revelation Space universe. There is some of his signature big canvas space opera but also a few pieces that show he can write more varied material than that. As with most collections, I didn't like all stories it contained equally. On the whole it is a solid collection though. One that fans of Reynolds' novels will appreciate. Most of his short fiction from after 2009 remains uncollected. Maybe it is time for a new collection. I would certainly be interested in reading it.

Book Details
Title: Zima Blue and Other Stories
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 455
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08455-1
First published: 2006, 2009